Published online by Cambridge University Press: 22 September 2009
The socio-historical context
The traditional classification of Slavic into West, East and South results not in three wholly distinct groups, but rather in three overlapping clusters of linguistic, religious, ethnic and cultural features (Birnbaum, 1966).
The South Slavs are less homogeneous. The Slovenes and Croats, as a result of their Catholic faith, use the Roman script, and have had long-standing traditional ties with the Austro-Hungarian empire. The Serbs and Macedonians, together with the Bulgarians, have been allied with the Orthodox Church and use the Cyrillic script. There are also considerable numbers of Muslims in former Yugoslavia, especially in Bosnia and Kosovo. The South Slavs have Albanian and Greek to the south, Turkish to the south-east and Italian to the west, and are separated geographically and linguistically from the West and East Slavs by a belt of Germanic (German), Romance (Romanian) and Finno-Ugrian (Hungarian) languages. This underlying religious–cultural diversity has contributed to the long history of instability in the Balkans.
The East Slavic languages have traditionally been mainly Orthodox in religious orientation, and use the Cyrillic script. Their cultural focus has been within European Russia, first in Kiev, and later in Moscow and St. Petersburg. They coexist with a considerable number of non-Slavic (e.g. Baltic), and also non-Indo-European, languages, both within European Russia and Ukraine, and especially in Asia, as a result of the colonial expansion of Imperial Russia to the east and south, notably in the nineteenth century (Comrie, 1981).