Birch Bark Letters and the Second Slavic Palatalization, part 1

Sep 13, 2011 by

While the second part of this posting’s title may sound scary to some of you, bear with me and you will discover one of the most fascinating puzzles of Slavic historical linguistics.

But let’s concern ourselves with the birch bark letters first, specifically with the birch bark document #247. It is the oldest birch bark document with a text discovered to date, dating from 1030s or 1040s, which makes it at least a decade older than Ostromir Gospels, the second oldest extant Russian book (it was considered the first before the Novgorod Codex was discovered in 2000). The birch bark document #247 was unearthed in 1956 but for a long time its interpretation was subject to fierce debates. In these posts, we will focus on one line only; here it is in an English transliteration (the text continues but we need not concern ourselves with any further text):


As I have mentioned in a previous posting, the writing system used for birth bark letters did not employ spaces between words or punctuation, so figuring out where one word ends and another one begins is always one of the first tasks of those who try to decipher these documents.

In the early years since the discovery of the birch bark document #247, the widely accepted interpretation of this line broke the string down as follows (punctuation added for clarity):


The semi-literal translation of this line that was then proposed is ‘and the lock of the room, the door of the room, the lord…’ — but what does that mean? Interpreted this way, the sentence is very odd indeed. First, two phrases have subjects but no predicates: the lock of the room what? the door of the room what? After all, these were letters, not poetic descriptions.

The second problem concerns the word KѢLEA/KѢLѢA, which early scholars interpreted as a misspelled version of KELЬѢ, the genitive singular form of the word KELЬA ‘room’. Certainly, in the context of words ‘lock’ and ‘door’ this interpretation was not completely unthinkable. But nonetheless it later proved wrong! Note also that if indeed what we have here is a misspelled word KELЬѢ, it is misspelled twice in different ways, but both times the writer made three errors in a five-letter word, getting all vowels wrong! Given that the spelling of the time represented fairly closely how words were pronounced, this is odd indeed. And not only is it strange in and of itself, but the same writer did not make any other spelling errors in the whole document (and recall that it runs more than just this one line). So why did he (or she?) stumble over this particular word?

And a third problem is that phrases in narrative birch bark letters often start with the word A ‘and’ (like this very sentence does, or compare it, for example, to the narrative text of the Bible, and you will see that this is a common pattern well beyond (Old) Russian). If the mystery line is broken down the way shown above, only the first phrase, the one about the lock, starts with A, but not the other two phrases, about the door and about the lord (of the house).

This last problem indicates a way to a solution: what if the line is broken down in a different way, as follows:


Now each of the three phrases starts with the word A ‘and’, and the first two phrases acquire a predicate, the same predicate, in fact: KѢLE/KѢLѢ. But what about the two different spellings of this word, which now concerns the last vowel, E or Ѣ? Not a problem either: these are different case/number endings, in agreement with their subjects. The ending -E is the nominative singular masculine ending (recall examples like ŽIZNOBOUDE, POGOUBLENE, NOVGORODSKE and SMЬRDE), whereas the ending -Ѣ is the nominative plural feminine ending (recall our examples like KOROVѢ ‘cows’). Thus, the ending -E shows agreement with the nominative singular masculine noun ZAMЪKE ‘lock’, while the ending -Ѣ shows agreement with the nominative plural feminine noun DVЬRI ‘door’.

Now that we’ve got the forms down, let’s consider the meaning of KѢLE/KѢLѢ. What sort of predicate is it? As it turns out, it’s an adjective and a person with some knowledge of Modern Russian should be able to recognize it, except for a trick played on him/her by the first consonant. The cognate Modern Russian word is целый (celyj; pronounced [tselyj]). This word has an English cognate too: whole, and that’s exactly what the Russian word means too. And this meaning makes sense: now the letter says ‘and the lock (is) whole (=unbroken), and the door (is) whole, and the lord (of the house)…’ — this is indeed a part of a longer missive that denies previous reports of a break-in/robbery.

But how do we relate the Old Novgorod KѢLЪ (that’s the nominative singular masculine form, or the citation form), the Modern Russian CELYJ and the English whole? This is where Second Slavic Palatalization comes in.

But more on this in the next posting.

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