Skip to main content
Multiple Causation in the Spread and Reversal of a Sound Change: Rhotacism in South Slavic
Slovenski jezik / Slovene Linguistic Studies (1999)
  • Marc L Greenberg, University of Kansas

The paper treats the change ž > r ("rhotacism'') in the South Slavic languages, such as that, e.g., found in the present tense of the verb *mòže(tъ) > Sn mó.re, Cr/Bs dialect mo"re; complementizers, e.g., *kako ž(e) > Sn kakor; in various adverbial formations, e.g., *bože > bore; and, in some Sn and Cr/Bs dialects, the present tense of the verb (*gъnati:) *žene(tъ) > rene. The origin of the change has been treated variously as a phonetic or a morphological (analogical) change, though neither explanation can account for the limited realization of the change (i.e., it is restricted to a small number of lexical items and grammatical categories) and the vastly differing areals of the change for each item in which it occurs. The present paper argues that the origin of the change is phonetic and follows from a tendency to favor vocalic distinctive features (in contrast to N-Sl developments), a notion that goes back to a pre-War paper by Isačenko. Nevertheless, the spread of the change, and its reversal, can be partially explained by morphological factors. One factor is that uniform environments (e.g., the present tense morem, moreš...) favor its spread vs. alternating environments (-žene/-rene) which have reversed or inhibited it. Another factor is support for the spread of -r as a productive complementizer and temporal marker on the models of metanalyzed forms *kъte/o-r'which' and *veče-r 'evening', respectively. Taboo seems to play an additional role in preserving r-forms in the interjection borme 'my God!'. The reversal of the change in Štokavian may have been due to stylistic considerations, where r-forms were felt to be distinctly western, Catholic, in contrast to ž(e) forms. This observations follows from the fact that r-forms disappear in Štokavian in precisely the forms in which they were productive in Čakavian, Kajkavian and Slovene, namely, the complementizers and temporal adverbs. Finally, those forms which represent semantic innovations, such as morati 'must', jer 'for, because' are best preserved, even in Štokavian, where the r-forms are lexicalized as such.

  • South Slavic languages,
  • Croatian language,
  • Serbian language,
  • Bosnian language,
  • rhoticity,
  • sound change,
  • sociolinguistics,
  • medieval period,
  • dialectology,
  • Slovene language,
  • Slovenian language,
  • historical linguistics
Publication Date
Citation Information
Marc L Greenberg. "Multiple Causation in the Spread and Reversal of a Sound Change: Rhotacism in South Slavic" Slovenski jezik / Slovene Linguistic Studies Vol. 2 (1999)
Available at: