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O jeziku slovanskih prebivalcev med Donavo in Jadranom v srednjem veku (pogled jezikoslovcev) / On the Language of the Medieval Slavic Population in the Area between the Danube and the Adriatic (from a Linguistic Perspective)
Zgodovinski časopis / Historical Review (2012)
  • Marko Snoj
  • Marc L Greenberg, University of Kansas

The essay responds to historians and archaeologists using linguistic data to enrich or justify their explanations about populations in the past, focusing on the language of the Slavic population between the Danube and the Adriatic Sea at the turn of the first millennium AD and its differentiation from the languages of other groups of Slavs for the purpose of clarifying both the precepts and practice of historical and comparative linguistics as well as demonstrating the intricate argumentation needed to draw conclusions from the linguistic data. As such, the article attempts to contribute to a better understanding of linguistic reconstruction, relying not just on the comparative method, but on the application of other methods, including the insights of geo- and sociolinguistics. The authors take a post-modernist perspective, meaning that as scholars they are and should be aware of their own historical viewpoint; thus, following Benedict Anderson’s view of the nation as an imagined community, historical linguists (and others) must avoid the pitfall of blithely projecting the imagined communities of the nineteenth, twentieth, or twenty-first centuries onto the past. While this means that a speech community and an ethnicity (the latter being a mental construct) are matters of a different order, it does not mean that they are unrelated. Rather, linguistic innovation, reflected in the rise of isoglosses, is an index of group formation. It remains for linguists, anthropologists, historians, and archaeologists to interpret this complex relationship. Part of the confusion in using the results of historical linguistic interpretation comes from traditional professional jargon, which is used with heterogeneous meanings even inside the linguistic field, leaving open the possibility of (understandable, if regrettable) misapprehension outside of it. Thus, terms like “Proto-Slavic” and “Common Slavic,” which can refer variously to periodization with or without regard to internal dialect differentiation, might lead an external observer to assume that the language was uniform before the appearance of “national” languages. The view from within the linguistic field has become more sophisticated with time. While the use of the comparative method of the nineteenth century is still a valid and central tool for linguistic reconstruction, additional tools add much more subtlety to linguistic reconstruction. In particular, advances in sociolinguistics help us to consider not just language change as a process, but one in which speakers shape language in relation to their group identity. An illustration of this is the example of “rhotacism” in South Slavic languages. The comparative method indicates a uniform conditioned change of ž > r throughout the South Slavic area by the 11th c. AD. By the 14th century, however, in most lexical categories in which the change occurred, it was reversed in South Slavic speech communities associated with the Byzantine confessional style and reinforced in those associated with the Roman rite. Such para-comparative techniques can also help linguists dig further into the past. So, for example, an early phono-semantic innovation *gъlčěti : *mъlčěti ‘make noise’ : ‘be silent’ > ‘speak’ : ‘be silent’ was carried from an emergent dialect of (pre-migration) Proto-Slavic and is now distributed in three disparate regions—central Russia, central Bulgaria, and north-eastern Slovenia. Philology, too, has its contribution to make to understanding speech communities as communities of practice as oral traditions yield to written ones. We note, for example, a promising trend in the literature which investigates the process of written traditions that require the intervention of individuals and groups that over time negotiate the features of emergent literary languages, e.g., Trubars awareness of a coherent reading public for his liturgical translations and“Illyrianism” before the Illyrian movement, which precede the appearance of modern European national languages of the nineteenth century. The second half covers the primarily phonological linguistic innovations in the relevant geographical space up to the end of the first millennium AD. From the Freising Folia and contemporary onomastic data we learn that this language had by then carried through these innovations: (1) liquid metathesis, (2) the change d’ > j (3) the change t’ > k’ (or even ć), (4) contraction, (5) fronting of y > i (except after labials) and that the following processes were underway: (6) assimilation of tv > t, (7) rhotacism, as well as, possibly, (8) the forward shift of the Proto-Slavic circumflex; moreover, we find in this language an important archaism, i.e., (9) the retention of the consonant cluster dl. Though the majority of these processes are common to at least the Kajkavian and Čakavian dialect continuum, innovations (6), (8), as well as the archaism (9) are exclusive to Slovene. The differential features between Slavic idioms around the year 1000, which must be understood as parts of systems, were few in number – as one would expect—yet they were irreversible and thus decisive in that they determine a speech territory from which Slovene dialects, and not others, were to develop, as further philological evidence also affirms. From this evidence the conclusion follows that the Freising Folia and contemporary onomastic evidence belong to the Slovene linguistic continuum, for which reason the term Old Slovene is warranted. The terminology is based on (1) the general practice of naming the oldest evidence of a particular idiom with the name of the present-day language that continues it, adding the qualifier “Old”; (2) the linguistically determined fact that only today’s Slovene dialects could develop from the idiom in question; and (3) the consensus of linguists that crystallized through debates in the second half of the 20th century, the principal ones being adduced in the article. Our knowledge of a past idiom in time and space is founded on a comparative linguistic analysis of extant texts and other linguist material, enriched by the results of geo and sociolinguistics, which permit a more nuanced interpretation of the facts. Since the appearance of linguistic innovations require a community in which such innovations carry prestige value, it follows from our analysis the synthesis that in the relevant time and space there was a community with its own identity that as such had differentiated itself from other, neighboring Slavic communities, i.e., Štokavian and Czech-Moravian-Slovak as well as, to a lesser extent, Kajkavian and Čakavian. At the frontiers of these communities of identity in the following centuries isoglosses continued to bundle, representing ever more palpable disjunctures in the dialect continuum; these may be innovations of a progressive nature, static archaisms, or even regressive phenomena, such as the reversal of rhotacism. At the time of the cultivation of standard languages, the borders of these communities of identity were recognized as the linguistic borders.

  • Slavic medieval history,
  • geolinguistics,
  • sociolinguistics,
  • historical linguistics
Publication Date
Citation Information
Marko Snoj and Marc L Greenberg. "O jeziku slovanskih prebivalcev med Donavo in Jadranom v srednjem veku (pogled jezikoslovcev) / On the Language of the Medieval Slavic Population in the Area between the Danube and the Adriatic (from a Linguistic Perspective)" Zgodovinski časopis / Historical Review Vol. 66 Iss. 3–4 (146) (2012)
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