Birch Bark Letters and the Second Slavic Palatalization, part 3

Sep 14, 2011 by

At the end of the previous posting, we’ve reached a conundrum: the Old Novgorod dialect must have diverged from the rest of the Slavic family 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. In other words, the Old Novgorod dialect must be placed, on the one hand, on a distinct branch of Slavic tree (say, we call it “North Slavic”), yet on the other hand, on the same brach as other East Slavic languages (cf. the chart below). But how could this be?

A solution suggests itself if we compare this problem to the one concerning Romance languages and the place of French in the Romance tree, more specifically. In a standard chart of the Romance family (see below), French is placed inside the Gallo-Romance grouping, which is inside the Western Romance grouping, which is inside the Italo-Romance grouping, which is inside the Continental Romance grouping.

Yet despite being so deeply embedded inside the Romance tree, French stands out from the rest of the Romance languages diagrammed here in one significant way: it is the only non-null-subject language (except Northern Italian dialects, but I will leave these aside for now). If some linguists a millenium from now discovered French documents and found out that it is a non-null-subject language, they would be just as perplexed about the place of French on the Romance tree as we are about the place of the Old Novgorod dialect on the Slavic tree. In this one way, French sticks out like a sore thumb, but in many other respects it is closer to Occitan and Catalan, then to Spanish and Portuguese, etc., which justifies its placement on the chart as shown above. How would our imaginary future linguists resolve this conundrum?

Hopefully, they would know the answer that we know now (perhaps by some coincidence they would also discover my blog posting on this topic!): French is a non-null-subject language because of the influence of a number of Germanic languages, which tend to be non-null-subject as well (think about English, for instance: we cannot say *Rains even if it in It rains doesn’t refer to anything).

Could we possibly find a similar solution to our Old Novgorod problem? I think so. If it’s “the neighbor who did it”, who were the immediate neighbors of the Old Novgorod? The answer is the now-lost “middle Finns”, that is groups who spoke some now-extinct Finnic languages, such as Merya, Meschera or Murom, or the surviving Finnic-speaking groups, like Votic and Veps. As you can see from the following map, the “lost middle Finns” lived immediately to the east of Veliky Novgorod, which is located just north of the Lake Ilmen (find the northern tip of the Slavic speaking territory and you will see a small light blue patch, the Lake Ilmen). And, conveniently for us, Finnic languages do not have the same phonotactic constraint that disallows velar consonants next to front vowel.

As I mentioned in an earlier posting, it is very difficult to determine with any degree of certainty what the influence of such Finnic-speaking groups on the Russian language (or Slavic varieties in general) might have been, even though we are quite certain that some such influence must have happened. It is a bit like the problem of finding a black cat in a dark room, except in this case we don’t know what animal we are looking for and we are not even sure which room we should search. In a typical situation, there exists a lag in time between the the coexistence of the two languages in the same area and the penetration of the substrate’s grammatical features into the superstrate language. Given that, we are not quite sure if the influence of Finnic languages should be obverved in East Slavic (vis-a-vis West and South Slavic), in Russian (vis-a-vis other East Slavic languages), or in northern dialects of Russian. To make matters worse, we cannot be sure that any of that influence survived to modern languages/dialects or can be attested in written documents that we have found. And since the languages of the “middle Finns” are themselves extinct, we do not know for sure what they were like either; we can only reconstruct them on the basis of other Finnic languages. Therefore, all our hypotheses about the Finnic influences, including mine (relying on the Finnic substrate to explain the non-application of the Second Slavic Palatalization in the Old Novgorod dialect) must remain just hypotheses, at least for now. But like other scientific hypotheses, it is worth entertaining.

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