Proto-Slavic is the proto-language from which Slavic languages later emerged. It was spoken before the seventh century AD. As with most other proto-languages, no attested writings have been found; the language has been reconstructed by applying the comparative method to all the attested Slavic languages as well as other Indo-European languages.



Area of Balto-Slavic dialectic continuum (purple) with proposed material cultures correlating to speakers Balto-Slavic in Bronze Age (white). Red dots= archaic Slavic hydronyms

The most favoured model, the Kurgan hypothesis, currently places the Urheimat of the Proto-Indo-European people at the Pontic steppe, represented archaeologically by the 5th millennium BCE Sredny Stog culture.[1] From here, various daughter dialects dispersed radially in several waves between c. 4400 BCE and 3000 BCE.[1] The phonological changes which set Balto-Slavic apart from other Indo-European languages probably lasted from c. 3000 to 1000 BCE, a period known as common Proto-Balto-Slavic.[2] Kortlandt (1990) links the earliest stages of Balto-Slavic development with the Middle Dnieper culture which connects the Corded Ware and Yamna cultures. Kurganists connect the latter two cultures with the so-called "Northwest (IE) group"[3] and the Iranic-speaking steppe nomads, respectively. This fits with the linguistic evidence in that Balto-Slavic appears to have had close contacts with Indo-Iranian and Proto-Germanic.

An association between Balto-Slavic and Germanic has been proposed on the basis of lexical similarities that are unique to these languages.[3] Apart from a proposed genetic relationship (PIE forming a Germano-Balto-Slavic sub-branch),[4] the similarities are likely due to continuous contacts, whereby common loan words spread through the communities in the forest zones at an early time of their linguistic development.[3]

Similarly, Balto-Slavic and Indo-Iranian might have formed some kind of continuum from the north-west to the south-east given that they share both satemization and the Ruki sound law.[3] On the other hand genetic studies have shown that Slavs and North Indians share much larger amounts of the R1a haplogroup associated to the spread of Indo-European languages, than most Germanic populations.[citation needed] The Balto-Slavic - Indo-Iranian link might thus be a result of a large part of common ancestry, between Eastern Europeans and Indo-Iranians. Balto-Slavic then expanded along the forest zone, replacing earlier centum dialects, such as Pre-Proto-Germanic.[5] This might explain the presence of a few prehistoric centum sub-stratic lexicons.[6]

A pre-Slavic period began c. 1500 to 1000 BCE, whereby certain phonological changes and linguistic contacts did not disperse evenly through all Balto-Slavic dialects. The development into Proto-Slavic probably occurred along the southern periphery of the Proto-Balto-Slavic continuum. The most archaic Slavic hydronyms are found here, along the middle Dnieper, Pripet and upper Dniester rivers. This agrees well with the fact that inherited Common Slavic vocabulary does not include detailed terminology for physical surface features peculiar of the mountains or the steppe, nor any relating to the sea, to coastal features, littoral flora or fauna, or salt water fishes. On the other hand, it does include well-developed terminology for inland bodies of water (lakes, river, swamps) and kinds of forest (deciduous and coniferous), for the trees, plants, animals and birds indigenous to the temperate forest zone, and for the fish native to its waters.[7] Indeed, Trubachev argues that this location fostered contacts between speakers of Pre-Proto-Slavic with the cultural innovations which emanated from central Europe and the steppe.[8] Although language groups cannot be straightforwardly equated with archaeological cultures, the emergence of a Pre-Proto-Slavic linguistic community corresponds temporally and geographically with the Kamarov and Chernoles cultures (Novotna, Blazek). Both linguists and archaeologists therefore often locate the Slavic Urheimat specifically within this area.

Historical distribution of the Slavic languages. The larger shaded area is the Prague-Penkov-Kolochin complex of cultures of the sixth to seventh centuries, likely corresponding to the spread of Slavic-speaking tribes of the time. The smaller shaded area indicates the core area of Slavic river names (after Mallory & Adams (1997:524ff).

In proto-historical[further explanation needed] times, the Slavic homeland experienced intrusions of foreign elements. Beginning from c. 500 BCE to 200 CE, the Scythians and then the Sarmatians expanded their control into the forest steppe. A few Eastern Iranian loan words, especially relating to religious and cultural practices, have been seen as evidence of cultural influences.[9] Subsequently, loan words of Germanic origin also appear. This is connected to the movement of east Germanic groups into the Vistula basin, and subsequently to the middle Dnieper basin, associated with the appearance of the Przeworsk and Chernyakhov cultures, respectively.

Despite these developments, Slavic remained conservative and was still typologically very similar to other Balto-Slavic dialects.[10] Even into the Common Era, the various Balto-Slavic dialects formed a dialect continuum stretching from the Vistula to the Don and Oka basins, and from the Baltic and upper Volga to southern Russia and northern Ukraine.[11] Exactly when Slavs began to identify as a distinct ethno-cultural unit remains a subject of debate. For example, Kobylinski (2005) links the phenomenon to the Zarubinets culture 200 BCE to 200 CE,[12] Vlodymyr Baran places Slavic ethnogenesis within the Chernyakov era,[13] while Curta[14] places it in the Danube basin in the sixth century CE. It is likely that linguistic affinity played an important role in defining group identity for the Slavs.[15] The term Slav is proposed to be an autonym referring to "people who speak (the same language)."

Proto-Slavic proper is dated to c. 400 to 600 CE, when it experienced an explosive spread. This corresponds to the earliest evidence of dialectical divergence within Slavic. As it expanded throughout eastern Europe, it obliterated whatever remained of easternmost Celtic, Avar, Venetic, possibly Dacian, as well as many other Balto-Slavic dialects,[16] and the Slav ethnonym spread out considerably. By the eighth century CE, Proto-Slavic is believed to have been spoken uniformly from Thessaloniki to Novgorod. The onomastic evidence and glosses of Slavic words in foreign-language texts show no detectable regional differences of 5th and 6th century Slavic.

What caused the rapid expansion of Slavic remains a topic of discussion. Traditional theories link its spread to a demographic expansion of Slavs migrating radially from their Urheimat,[17] whereas more processual theories attempt to modify the picture by introducing concepts such as "elite dominance" and "language shifts.".[18] Literary and archaeological evidence suggests that eastern European barbaricum in the 6th century was linguistically and culturally diverse,[19][20] somewhat going against the idea of a large demographic expansion of an ethnically homogeneous Slavic people. Instead, Proto-Slavic might have been lingua franca amongst the various barbarian ethnicities that emerged in the Danubian, Carpathian and steppe regions of Europe after the fall of the Hun Empire,[21] such as the Sklaveni, Antes, and Avars. Cultural contacts between emerging societal elites might have led to the "language of one agricultural community spread(ing) to other agricultural societies."[15] This has been substantiated archaeologically, seen by the development of networks which spread of "Slavic fibulae," artifacts representing social status and group identity.[22] Horace Lunt argues that only as a lingua franca could Slavic have remained mutually intelligible over vast areas of Europe, and that its disintegration into different dialects occurred after the collapse of the Avar khanate.[23] However, even proponents of this theory concede that it fails to explain how Slavic spread to the Baltic and western Russia, areas which had no historical connection with the Avar Empire. Whatever the case, Johanna Nichols points out that the expansion of Slavic was not just a linguistic phenomenon, but the expansion of an ethnic identity.[15]

The last shared innovations common to all modern Slavic languages are dated to the ninth century. Afterwards, during the so-called Common Slavic period, innovations followed, some of which have missed certain peripheral dialects (e.g. Old Novgorod dialect didn't exhibit the second palatalization of velars while all the other Slavic dialects did). Linguistic differentiation received impetus from the dispersion of the Slavic peoples over a large territory, but Common Slavic sound changes occurred for at least four or five centuries more. Subsequent migrations of Uralic and Romance speaking peoples created geographic separations between Slavic dialects. The commonly cited last Common Slavic "law" is the loss of weak yers, which occurred somewhere around the tenth or twelfth centuries CE, and even then not completely in some Slavic dialects. Written documents of the ninth, tenth and eleventh centuries demonstrate some local features. For example, the Freising monuments show a dialect which contains some phonetic and lexical elements peculiar to Slovenian dialects (e.g. rhotacism, the word krilatec).

In the second half of the ninth century, the dialect spoken north of Thessaloniki, in the hinterlands of Macedonia, became the basis for the first written Slavic language, created by the brothers Cyril and Methodius who translated portions of the Bible and other church books. The language they recorded is known as Old Church Slavonic. Old Church Slavonic is not identical to Proto-Slavic, having been recorded at least two centuries after the breakup of Proto-Slavic, and it shows features that clearly distinguish it from Proto-Slavic. However, it is still reasonably close, and the mutual intelligibility between Old Church Slavonic and other Slavic dialects of those days was proved by Cyril's and Methodius' mission to Great Moravia and Pannonia. There, their early South Slavic dialect used for the translations was clearly understandable to the local population which spoke an early West Slavic dialect.

Historical development

Split from Indo-European

Proto-Slavic has the satem sound changes wherein palatovelar consonants became affricate or fricative consonants pronounced closer to the front of the mouth. In Proto-Slavic, the former palatovelar stops became coronal fricatives:

  • * → *s
  • *ǵ → *z
  • *ǵʰ → *z

Other satem sound changes are delabialization of labiovelar consonants before rounded vowels[24] and the ruki sound law, which had the effect in Slavic languages of shifting *s to *x (likely with *š as an intermediate stage) after a high vowel (i or u), r or k.[25]

In the Balto-Slavic period, final *t and *d were lost.[26]

Also present were the diphthongs *ei and *oi as well as liquid diphthongs *ŭl, *ĭl, *ŭr, *ĭr, the latter set deriving from syllabic liquids;[27] the vocalic element merged with *ŭ after labiovelar stops and with *ĭ everywhere else, and the remaining labiovelars subsequently lost their labialization.[28]

Around this time, the PIE aspirated consonants merged with voiced ones:[29]

  • * → *b
  • * → *d
  • * → *g

Once it split off, the Proto-Slavic period probably encompassed a period of stability lasting 2000 years with only several centuries of rapid change before the breakup of Slavic linguistic unity that came about due to Slavic migrations in the early sixth century.[30][31] As such, the chronology of changes including the three palatalizations and ending with the change of *ě to *a in certain contexts defines the Common Slavic period.

Early changes after the Baltic-Slavic split still saw some similar developments, including the merging of long and short *o and *a; short *o and *a merged in both, though long *ō and *ā remained distinct in Baltic while merging in Slavic.[32][33] Long *ē and *ō raised before a final sonorant, and sonorants following a long vowel were deleted.[34]

Progressive palatalization

Eastern Europe in the 3rd century CE:
  Wielbark Culture (associated with the Goths)
  a Baltic culture (Aesti/Yotvingian?)

What is likely to be the chronologically oldest palatalization is often called the "third" palatalization (hereafter called the progressive palatalization) due to confusion over the exact phonetic conditions that triggered it as well as forms such as the nominative singular *otĭcĭ (from *otĭk-os) but vocative singular *otĭče (from *otĭk-e) which made it seem that the progressive palatalization happened after this first regressive palatalization (see below).[35] However, incorporating and strategically ordering other diachronic changes (such as the fronting of back vowels after palatal consonants) sufficiently explains most of the discrepancies while placing this "third" palatalization before the other two.[36]

This palatalization goes as follows: Velar consonants become palatalized (*k, *g, *x → *, *ǵ, *) when following a front high vowel (either long or short) and preceding a mid back vowel (either long or short) across a morpheme boundary. An *n or *r between the velar and the high vowel does not prevent this palatalization. Also, the preceding front high vowel must itself follow a consonant.[36]

Slavic contact with Germanic tribes (such as the migrating Goths) around the second or third century is the earliest date from which the progressive palatalization could have occurred since loan words such as *kuning ('king') → kŭnędzĭ ('prince') and *penning ('penny') → *pěnędzĭ ('coin') show the reflex of this palatalization.[37] After the ninth century, this palatalization was likely no longer operating since Varangians (*varying-) were known as варѧгъ (varęgŭ) in Eastern Slavic branch of languages (Ukrainian and eventually Russian - without the palatalization of *g to *z) while the nominative plural: варѧзи (varęzi), and locative singular show that either the second regressive palatalization was still operative or that an analogy with other nouns ending in a velar consonant.

Syllabic synharmony

After the progressive palatalization took place, a tendency arose in the Common Slavic period wherein successive segmental phonemes in a syllable assimilated articulatory features (primarily place of articulation).[38] Another tendency, generally referred to as the "Law of Open Syllables" marks the beginning of the Common Slavic period in which an arrangement of phonemes in a syllable (from lower to higher sonority) led to final consonants being deleted, consonant clusters being simplified (either by deletion or epenthesis), diphthongs being monophthongized, nasal consonants in the syllable coda becoming the nasalization of the preceding vowel (*ę and *ǫ), etc.[39][40] After these changes, a CV syllable structure (that is, one of segments ordered from lower to higher sonority) arose and the syllable became a basic structural unit of the language. Thus syllables (rather than just the consonant or the vowel) were distinguished as either "soft" or "hard;" most consonants having developed palatalized allophones in soft syllables (a situation dubbed "syllable synharmony" or the "syllabeme").[41]

Regressive palatalizations

As an extension of the system of syllable synharmony, velar consonants were palatalized to postalveolar consonants before front vowels (*i, *ĭ, *e, *ę) and *j:[42][43]

  • *k → *č [tʃ]
  • *g → *ž [dʒ][ʒ])
  • *x → *š [ʃ]

This was the first regressive palatalization. Although *g palatalized to an affricate, this soon lenited to a fricative except when following *z.[44] *s and *z palatalized to š and ž, respectively, before palatal consonants (*j, *č, ž).[44] Subsequently, a number of vowel changes took place: *ū lost its labialization[45] (possibly [ɨ], represented hereafter as <y>, as in modern Polish) both *ou and *eu became *u,[46] and back vowels became front vowels after palatal consonants (including *j). This was closely followed by the monophthongization of diphthongs in all environments:[47]

  • *ū → *y
  • *ou → *u
  • *eu → *u
  • *o → *e / J_
  • *ŭ → *ĭ / J_
  • *y → *i / J_
  • *oi → *ei / J_
  • *ei → *i
  • *oi → *ě

By this point, Proto-Slavic had the following vowel system:

Front Central Back
long short long short long short
Close i ь/ĭ y u ъ/ŭ
Mid ě e, ę o, ǫ
Open a

Proto-Slavic was still operating under the system of syllabic synharmony; because it had a new front vowel, yat (possibly an open front vowel [æː][48]), the language underwent the second regressive palatalization, in which velar consonants preceding *ě were palatalized.[42][43] As with the progressive palatalization, these became palatovelar. Soon after, palatovelar consonants from both the progressive palatalization and the second regressive palatalization became sibilants:

  • → *c ([ts])
  • ǵ → *dz → *z
  • → *s/*š

In noun declension, the second regressive palatalization originally figured in two important Slavic stem types: o-stems (masculine and neuter consonant-stems) and a-stems (feminine and masculine vowel-stems). This rule operated in the o-stem masculine paradigm in three places: before nominative plural and both singular and plural locative affixes.[49]

'wolf' 'horn' 'spirit'
Nominative singular vlŭkŭ rogŭ duxŭ
plural vlŭci rozi dusi
Locative singular vlŭcě rozě dusě
plural vlŭcěxŭ rozěxŭ dusěxŭ

Dialectal differentiation

It is at this point that dialectal variation becomes more apparent. Some dialects (such as those ancestral to Old East Slavic), allowed the second regressive palatalization to occur across an intervening *v.[43]

  • Russian: *gwojzda → *gwězda → zvězda → [zʲvʲɪˈzda] ('star')
  • Polish: *gwojzda → *gwězda → gwiazda → [ˈɡvʲazda] ('star')
  • Czech: *gwojzda → *gwězda → hvězda → [hvʲezda] ('star')
  • South Slavic languages: *gwojzda → *gwězda → zvezda → [zvezda] ('star')

The phonetic realization of subsequent sibilants varied from dialect to dialect. According to Aleksandar Belić, the phonetic character of the palatalizations was uniform throughout Common Slavic and West Slavic languages developed *š later on by analogy.[50] In all dialects (except for Lechitic), [dz] was deaffricated to [z]:[43] The following table illustrates the differences between the different dialects as far as phonetic realization of the palatalizations.

Progressive 1st regressive 2nd regressive
k g x k g x k g x
East Slavic c z s č ž š c z s
South Slavic c z s č ž š c z s
West Slavic Central Slovak c z š č ž š c z s
Lechitic c dz š č ž š c dz š
Other c z š č ž š c z š

The Proto-Slavic period ended when syllabic synharmony ended. The first trigger was the change of *ě to *a after palatal consonants and *j, which then created *ča/*ka contrasts.[35] Also, weak yers (*ь/ĭ and *ъ/ŭ) were shortened and then elided (see Havlík's law), creating newly formed closed syllables,[41] and the clusters *tl and *dl were lost in all but West Slavic, being simplified to *l or replaced by *kl and *gl respectively.[51] By this point, Common Slavic had the following consonants.

Consonants of Late Proto-Slavic
Labial Coronal Palatal Velar
Nasal m n
Plosive p b t d k ɡ
Affricate ts dz
Fricative v s z ʃ ʒ x
Trill r
Approximant l j

For many Common Slavic dialects—including most of West Slavic, all but the northernmost portions of East Slavic, and some western parts of South Slavic— *g lenited from a voiced velar plosive to a voiced velar fricative ([ɡ][ɣ]). Because this change was not universal and because it did not occur for a number of East Slavic dialects (such as Belarussian and South Russian) until after the application of Havlík's law, Shevelov (1977) calls into question early projections of this change and postulates three independent instigations of lenition, dating the earliest to before 900 CE and the latest to the early thirteenth century.[52]

Jat' border

The phonetic realization of *ě was also subject to phonetic variation across different dialects. Though a few dialects still retain a distinct reflex of *ě, historical changes across the different languages have, by and large, eliminated *ě from the inventory of sounds, either by merging with another sound, or conditional mergers with multiple sounds.

Currently, the modern reflexes of *ě in Bulgarian and Macedonian dialects forms an important isogloss known as the jat' border, running approximately from Nikopol on the Danube to Solun (Thessaloniki) on the Aegean Sea. Although both sets of dialects have /e/ as a reflex of *ě, in eastern dialects, this changes to /ja/ in stressed syllables immediately followed by palatal and postalveolar consonants (e.g. *běl- produces singular бял and plural бели).

Similarly, dialects of Serbian, Croatian and Bosnian exhibit great diversity, in reflexes of *ě, which may be /e/, /i/, or /ije/ in long syllables and /e/, /i/, or /je/ in short ones. The dialects exhibiting these reflexes are correspondingly known as ekavian, ikavian and ijekavian. Serbian literary language uses both ekavian in Serbia and ijekavian in Bosnia and in Montenegro, while Croatian and Bosnian literary standard is ijekavian only.

A number of other Slavic languages have simply merged *ě with another mid vowel. In Slovene, Slovak, Belarusian, and Russian *ě has become /e/. In Ukrainian, *ě merged with *i.

Accentual developments

The Proto-Slavic accentual system developed out of the Balto-Slavic accentual system primarily through 1) movement of the accent from Balto-Slavic fixed initial circumflex accent to the second syllable and 2) the merger of the two Balto-Slavic intonation-types that resulted from retraction of the PIE accent from final syllables into one new intonation type, the Late Slavic circumflex. As a result, there was a distinction between two different types of intonation: falling (from the new Slavic intonation type) and rising (from a Balto-Slavic acute vowel).[citation needed]


The lexical stock of Proto-Slavic also includes a number of loanwords from the languages of various tribes and peoples that the Proto-Slavic speakers came into contact with. These include mostly Indo-European speakers, chiefly Germanic (Gothic and Old High German), speakers of Vulgar Latin or some early Romance dialects, Middle Greek and, to a much lesser extent, Eastern Iranian (mostly pertaining to religious sphere) and Celtic.

Many terms of Greco-Roman cultural provenience have been diffused into Slavic by Gothic mediation, and analysis has shown that Germanic borrowings into Slavic show at least 4 distinct chronological strata, and must have entered Proto-Slavic in a long period.

Of non-Indo-European languages possible connections have been made to various Turkic and Avar, but their reconstruction is very unreliable due to the scarcity of the evidence and the relatively late attestation of both Slavic and Turkic languages.

Older literature, as well as some older etymological dictionaries, often posit some alleged Eastern Iranian or Celtic source of all Slavic etymons with unclear etymologies, which in reality have very little linguistic support. Dispute on them ranges from all-inclusive to all-denial.

See also


  1. ^ a b Kortlandt (1990:134)
  2. ^ Anderson (2003:46)
  3. ^ a b c d Mallory & Adams (2006:78)
  4. ^ Mallory & Adams (2006:73)
  5. ^ Nichols (1999:245)
  6. ^ Anderson (2003:72)
  7. ^ Anderson (1998:415–416)
  8. ^ Andersen (2003:49, 50)
  9. ^ Anderson (2003:48)
  10. ^ Matasović (2008:114)
  11. ^ Anderson (2003:49)
  12. ^ Kobylinski (2005:529)
  13. ^ cited in Curta (2001:284): "...fourth century sites in that area of the Chernyakhov culture, in which Baran believed the early Slavic culture originated..."
  14. ^ Curta (2001:325-250)
  15. ^ a b c Nichols (1999:240)
  16. ^ Nichols (1999:243)
  17. ^ E.g. Andersen (1998:417): "During the first few centuries of our era, Slavs begin to expand their territory. In the east they move northward, infiltrating the Baltic-speaking areas...founding colonies.. and assimilation of local populations..."
  18. ^ Nichols (1999:241)
  19. ^ Teodor (2005:243): "...the 'Romance population' looks barbarian and the 'barbarians' Roman... Ambiguity takes over the historiography of the problem..."
  20. ^ Curta (2001:344): "...contemporary sources attest the use of more than one language by individuals who their authors viewed as Antes or Sclavenes."
  21. ^ Curta (2004:146): "...a language already used in the 500s for cross-cultural communication in the lower Danube area..."
  22. ^ Curta (2001:342): "Such dress accessories point to long-distance relations with communities in Mazuria and Crimea . . . it is possible that these dress accessories served as markers of social identity, which served as markers of social status for newly emerging elites."
  23. ^ Curta (2004:146)
  24. ^ Kortlandt (1994:93)
  25. ^ Schenkar (2002:65–66)
  26. ^ Kortlandt (1994:94)
  27. ^ Schenker (2002:64)
  28. ^ Kortlandt (1994:95)
  29. ^ Schenkar (2002:65)
  30. ^ Van Wijk (1956:21–27)
  31. ^ Lehr-Spławiński (1957:255–256)
  32. ^ Schenkar (2002:66)
  33. ^ Lightner (1972:130)
  34. ^ Kortlandt (1994:97)
  35. ^ a b Channon (1971:12)
  36. ^ a b Channon (1971:47)
  37. ^ Channon (1971:34)
  38. ^ Channon (1971:11)
  39. ^ Bethin (1997:12)
  40. ^ Schenkar (2002:74). *iN/*īN and *uN/*ūN derived from PIE denasalized while those resulting from later borrowings became *ę and *ǫ respectively
  41. ^ a b Bethin (1997:13)
  42. ^ a b Thomason (1976:372)
  43. ^ a b c d Channon (1971:9)
  44. ^ a b Kortlandt (1994:99)
  45. ^ Schenkar (2002:72)
  46. ^ Padgett (2003:71)
  47. ^ Channon (1971:44)
  48. ^ Schenkar (2002:79)
  49. ^ Thomason (1976:373)
  50. ^ Belić (1921:31)
  51. ^ Schenkar (2002:74)
  52. ^ Shevelov (1977:137)


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