Birch Bark Letters and the Second Slavic Palatalization, part 2

Sep 13, 2011 by

At the end of the previous posting, I said that the Old Novgorod KѢLЪ, the Modern Russian CELYJ and the English whole are all cognates, but how are they related to each other? This is where the Second Slavic Palatalization comes in.

According to the standard descriptions, the Second Slavic Palatalization is a phonological change that affected velar stops and fricatives and made them palato-alveolar (also making the stops into affricates). Let me explain this.

Velar consonants are pronounced by moving the back portion of the tongue towards the back of the palate (=roof of the mouth); this portion of the palate is known as soft palate or velum, hence “velar” sounds.

Palato-alveolar consonants, in contrast, are pronounced by moving the front portion of the tongue towards the front part of the palate, more precisely, just behind that hard, bony protrusion behind the upper teeth, called the “alveolar ridge”.

Now that we know where the relevant sounds are produced, let’s consider how they are articulated. Stop consonants are pronounced by the relevant portion of the tongue touching the roof of the mouth and then releasing the closure abruptly; thus, the air is first blocked completely and then explodes out of the mouth (stop sounds are also known as “plosives”). Try to pronounced /t/ to feel both the closure and the abrupt release of it.

The crucial difference between stops and affricates is that the closure (created in both cases) is released abruptly for the stops and more slowly for affricates. For fricatives, no closure is created in the first place; instead, a narrow opening is left for the air to push its way through, thus creating friction (hence, “fricative”). Try pronouncing /t/, /ts/ and /s/ to feel the difference. And as this phonetic notation indicates, the affricate /ts/ is a combination of a stop /t/ and a fricative /s/.

Let’s now return to the Second Slavic Palatalization. It turned the original velar sounds /k/, /g/ and /x/ into /ts/, /dz/ (or even /z/) and /s/, respectively. Why did this change happen? It was necessitated by an earlier change that turned the original back diphthongs such as /aj/ into front long vowels like /e:/. Slavic languages seem to have a phonotactic (from “phono” = sound, and “tac” = attach) constraint that does not allow velar consonants to appear next to front vowels. Think about it: velar consonants are pronounced with the back portion of the tongue and front vowels — with the front portion of the tongue. Not that the movement of the tongue needed to go from a back/velar consonant to a front vowel — or vice versa — is impossible to make (in English we manage perfectly well in words like keep or even kick), but Slavic languages just don’t like this tongue “dance” back and forth.

The same constraint — no velar consonant next to a front vowel — was responsible for two other historical changes in Slavic languages, known as the First and the Third Slavic Palatalization (actually, many scholars now think that the Third Slavic Palatalization happened either before or at the same time as the Second Slavic Palatalization, but the old terminology stuck).

Let’s now examine how the Second Slavic Palatalization applied in the case of ‘whole’. The Proto-Slavic (that is, the ancestor of all Slavic languages) is reconstructed to have had the word *kajlu meaning ‘whole, healthy’. (We have no written records to show us what Proto-Slavic was really like, so everything we know about it is based on reconstructions). The monophthongization changed it to *kēlu (the macron over a vowel means it’s pronounced as long). But now the velar /k/ was next to a front vowel /e:/ — not good because of the phonotactic constraint we’ve discussed above. So the next change happens, turning this word into *tsēlu (maybe, through an intermediate stage of *t’ēlu). It is from this form *tsēlu that we get the Modern Russian целый [tselyj] and the Modern Polish cały.

Note that the Second Slavic Palatalization affects all Slavic languages, including East Slavic (e.g., Russian), West Slavic (e.g., Polish) and South Slavic. The only difference between the various Slavic languages with respect to the Second Slavic Palatalization concerns its application if the velar and the front vowel are separated by a glide /w/. In these exceptional circumstances, the Second Slavic Palatalization applied only in South Slavic (including Old Church Slavonic), but not in West or East Slavic languages. Modern Russian, apparently, borrowed the form with the k-to-ts change from Old Church Slavonic; hence, in Standard Modern Russian we have the stem цвет [tsvet] ‘flower’, with the /ts/, whereas in Polish and Czech we have forms with the original /k/ (kwiat and květ, respectively). The same is true of other East Slavic varieties, including Ukrainian (kvitka), Belorussian (kvetka) and even some Russian dialects (kvet).

But leaving aside these special cases, the Second Slavic Palatalization appears to have occurred in all Slavic varieties, except one: the Old Novgorod dialect of Old Russian! This is why the Old Novgorod birch bark documents contain forms like KѢLЪ ‘whole’ and XѢRЬ ‘grey cloth’; cf. Modern Russian серый [seryj] ‘grey’ (the latter Old Novgorod word is found in the birch bark document #130, dated from the 14th century).

This exceptionality of the Old Novgorod dialect with respect to the Second Slavic Palatalization is very puzzling. Until the discovery of the relevant birch bark documents, it was the accepted view that the Second Slavic Palatalization (at least in the straight cases) happened in Proto-Slavic, the ancestor of all Slavic languages. In other words, this change must have happened before this common Slavic tongue (sometimes referred to as Common Slavic) split into daughters, from which the three geographical groupings (East, West and South Slavic) now arise. According to this view, the change happened once and all Slavic languages inherited it. Otherwise, we need to say that all Slavic languages independently made the same change, but what a coincidence that would be!

Enters the Old Novgorod dialect — without the effects of the Second Slavic Palatalization! According to Andrey Zaliznyak, this means that the Old Novgorod dialect must have split off the common Slavic tree earlier than the Second Slavic Palatalization applied. But that’s a problematic theory also: if indeed that’s how it happened, we would expect the Old Novgorod dialect to be far more distinct from its other East Slavic brethren than it really is. It would have to be diagrammed on its own branch of the Slavic family tree, the same way that Sardinian dialects are diagrammed on the Romance family tree below:

But apart from the non-application of the Second Slavic Palatalization, there doesn’t seem to be any evidence for an early split of the Old Novgorod dialect. So we reach a conundrum: the Old Novgorod dialect must have split off the Slavic tree early enough to avoid the application of the Second Slavic Palatalization, yet not too early so that close resemblance to other Old Russian dialects can be still accounted for. How can we resolve this conundrum?

I will present my solution in the next posting (and I didn’t forget about the English whole either!).

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