Proto-Slavic accent

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The accentual system of the Proto-Slavic language is reconstructed as being free (i.e. phonologically unpredictable, meaning that it can occur on any syllable in the word) and mobile (i.e. accent position could change place throughout the inflectional paradigm) pitch accent system.[1]

Proto-Slavic accent is closely related to the accentual system of some Baltic languages (Lithuanian and Latvian) with whom it shares many common innovations that occurred in the Proto-Balto-Slavic period. Deeper, it inherits from the Proto-Indo-European accent, which was also free and mobile, though the latter to a much lesser extent.

In modern languages the prototypical accent is reflected in East Slavic languages (Russian, Ukrainian and Belarusian) as stress position, in South Slavic languages as pitch accent (Slovene and Serbo-Croatian) or stress position (Bulgarian), and in West Slavic languages as vowel length.


For Late Proto-Slavic (also known as Common Slavic) the following prosodemes are traditionally reconstructed:[2]

  • ⟨ő⟩ acute or old acute; e.g. *kőrva
  • ⟨ȍ⟩ short circumflex; e.g. *slȍvo
  • ⟨ȏ⟩ long circumflex; e.g. *zȏlto
  • ⟨ò⟩ short neoacute; e.g. *bòbъ
  • ⟨õ⟩ long neoacute; e.g. *kõrljь
  • ⟨o̍⟩ general accent mark, usually on the last syllable where according to the traditional doctrine all of the historically long syllables where shortened

Old acute could occur on any syllable of a word (*ba̋ba, *lopa̋ta, *golva̋), but only on long syllable; i.e. on *a, *i, *u, *y, *ě, *ę, *ǫ which are etymologically always long and diphthongs of the type *VR: *ьr, *ъr, *ьl, *ъl, *er, *or, *el, *ol which are as diphthongs always long. Phonetically it is traditionally reconstructed as a long rising tone, according to the reflex in Slovene which is rising[3] and the pleophonic reflex in Russian which has accent on the second part (i.e. of VRV́ type). Within Balto-Slavic framework this matches with rising intonation of the cognate Latvian ⟨õ⟩ and length marks on the second part of diphthongs in Old Prussian.[4] However, critics of this interpretation claim that one can hardly derive the Serbo-Croatian short falling tone ⟨ȍ⟩, shortness in Slovak, length in Czech and the rising intonation in Russian pleophony from the former long rising tone.[5] Some speculate that Proto-Slavic acute was phonetically in fact something entirely different, e.g. a glottalized syllable comparable to stød in Danish, or something similar.

Short and long circumflex are traditionally marked with two different symbols, even though we're dealing with the same prosodeme on short (*e, *o, *ь, *ъ) and long (*a, *i, *u, *y, *ě, *ę, *ǫ, *VR) syllables, respectively.[6] Circumflex occurred only on the absolute beginning of a phonetic word, and words with initial circumflex were phonologically probably unaccented. That phonological unaccentedness was manifested as a falling tone (which is confirmed by Serbo-Croatian, Slovene and Russian reflexes). On neocircumflex see below.

Short and long neoacute are also are traditionally marked with two different symbols, and we're also dealing with the same prosodeme on short and long vowels. Neoacute is traditionally reconstructed as a rising intonation on the basis of Slovene and Russian, and the description of dialectal Serbo-Croatian (Chakavian) ⟨õ⟩ as a rising tone.[7] Short neoacute has a distinct reflex in Slovak and some Russian dialects.

Proto-Slavic accent paradigms[edit]

Since Stang (1957) three accent paradigms are reconstructed for Proto-Slavic, traditionally marked with letters a, b and c. Their reflexes in individual Slavic languages are usually marked as A, B, C. Stang's original reconstruction was for nominals (nouns and adjectives), and Dybo (1963) subsequently expanded these to Proto-Slavic verbs as well.

Accent paradigm a words have a fixed acute accent on one of the syllables of the stem. Examples: *ba̋ba (feminine noun), acc. *ba̋bǫ; *ga̋dъ (masculine noun), gen. *ga̋da; *kopy̋to (neuter noun), gen. *kopy̋ta; *sъmь̋rtь (i-stem noun), gen. *sъmь̋rti; *sla̋bъ m (adjective), neuter: *sla̋bo; *pa̋titi (verb), second-person plural present *pa̋tīte.

Accent paradigm b words have either a neoacute on the last syllable of the stem (*bòbъ, *võrtīte) or any accent on the first syllable of the ending (*trāva̍, *nosi̋ti). Examples: *žena̍ (feminine noun), acc. *ženǫ̍; *pòpъ (masculine noun), gen. *popa̍; *selo̍ (neuter noun), gen. *sela̍; *ògnь (i-stem noun), gen. *ogni̍; *dòbrъ m (adjective), neuter: *dobro̍; *nosi̋ti (verb), second-person plural present *nòsīte.

Accent paradigm c words have a mobile, free accent - word can have either a circumflex on the first syllable (*rǭka̍: acc. *rǫ̑kǫ), an acute on a medial syllable (instr. *rǫka̋mi, *uči̋ti) or any accent on the last syllable of the word (dat. *golsomъ̍, second-person plural present *učīte̍). Initial circumflex always "jumps" to the preceding syllable (a preposition or a conjunction) in a phonetic word; e.g. *nȃ rǭkǫ (Serbo-Croatian: nȁ rūku). Similarly, if the circumflexed word is followed by a word lacking an accent, the accent is transferred onto it: *rǭkǫ že̍.[8] Examples: *noga̍ (feminine noun), acc. *nȍgǫ; *gȏlsъ (masculine noun), gen. *gȏlsa; *zvȍno (neuter noun), gen. *zvȍna; *gȏldь (i-stem noun), gen. *gȏldi; *dȏrgъ m (adjective), neuter: *dȏrgo; *čini̋ti (verb), second-person plural present *činīte̍).

Developments in Slavic languages[edit]

The suprasegmental vowel features of modern Slavic languages largely reflect the Proto-Slavic system, and are summarized in the table below.[9]

Suprasegmental features of modern Slavic languages
Family Language Suprasegmental features
Proto-Slavic Free, mobile pitch accent, non-distinctive length
South Slavic Bulgarian Free, mobile stress
Macedonian Fixed (antepenultimate) stress
Serbo-Croatian Free, mobile pitch-accent, distinctive length
Slovene Free, mobile pitch-accent or stress, distinctive length
East Slavic Belarusian Free, mobile stress
Russian Free, mobile stress
Ukrainian Free, mobile stress
West Slavic Czech Fixed (initial) stress, length, diphthongs
Slovak Fixed (initial) stress, length, diphthongs
Sorbian Fixed (initial) stress, diphthongs
Polish Fixed (penultimate) stress

Proto-Slavic accent remained free and mobile in East Slavic and South Slavic. The only exception in South Slavic is Macedonian which has a fixed stress on the antepenultimate syllable in the standard language, with southern and south-western Macedonian dialects exhibiting fixed penultimate stress, and eastern dialects exhibiting free stress.[10] In many dialects the original Proto-Slavic accent position has changed its place; e.g. in literary Serbo-Croatian retracting by one syllable which yielded the new rising pitch (the so-called Neoštokavian retraction), with old accent preserved in nonstandard dialects (Old Štokavian, Čakavian, Kajkavian). Beside phonological causes, position of Proto-Slavic accent was often lost due to the leveling out within the mobile paradigm. In Slovene stress shifts occurred in both directions depending on the old pitch and vowel quantity, yielding tonal and stress-based variants of modern literary Slovene. In West Slavic, free accent has been historically attested at the periphery in Slovincian (archaic Kashubian dialect, extinct since 1940s) and Polabian (spoken on Elbe in northern-central Germany, extinct since 18th century).

Vowel length became distinctive (phonemic) in West and partially South Slavic. In West Slavic languages it became so at the expense of free stress, and was accompanied by extensive contraction due to the loss of /j/, typically resulting in a long vowel. This process was centered in the Czech area, and covered Russian and Bulgarian areas at its extremes.[11] This new length in West Slavic was lost during the 16th century in Polish and Sorbian, and is preserved only in Czech and Slovak. Length was phonemicized in Serbo-Croatian and Slovene, depending on the pitch. In standard Serbo-Croatian no pre-tonic lengths are allowed; i.e. with Neoštokavian retraction occurring the length of old long accented syllables was retained as a post-tonic length. In Slovene, length is restricted to the stressed position, with the exception of /ə/ which is always short.

The Proto-Slavic three-way opposition of old acute, circumflex and neoacute was in its original form lost in all Slavic languages. It was reworked into a two-way opposition, in one of two typical ways:[12]

  1. The opposition of the merger of old acute and neoacute to the circumflex. In Czech, Slovene and Upper Sorbian the new opposition become that of quantity (acute merger > long, circumflex > short). In East Slavic, Bulgarian and Macedonian this new quantitative opposition was subsequently lost, and sometimes reinterpreted as stress position (e.g. in the pleophonic reflex in East Slavic, with acute yielding VRV́ and circumflex yielding V́RV)
  2. The opposition of the merger of the old acute and circumflex to the neoaute. In Slovak, Polish and Lower Sorbian the new opposition become that of quantity (neoacute > rising, old acute and circumflex > short). In Serbo-Croatian and Slovene the new opposition become that of pitch (neoacute > rising, old acute and circumflex > falling). Subsequently, Neoštokavian retraction in standard Serbo-Croatian created new tonal oppositions (former pre-tonic > rising, former initially-stressed syllable > falling).
Correspondences of reflexes of Proto-Slavic accent on initial syllable in languages that have retained lengths and/or intonation
Language Number of syllables Old acute Long neoacute Short neoacute Long circumflex Short circumflex
Standard Serbo-Croatian one |ȍ| |ȏ| |ȍ| |ȏ| |ȏ|
two |ȍ|o| |ȏ|o| |ȍ|o| |ȏ|o| |ȍ|o|
three |ȍ|o|o| |ȏ|o|o| |ȍ|o|o| |ȍ|o|o| |ȍ|o|o|
Čakavian Serbo-Croatian one |ȍ| |ó| |ȍ| |ȏ| |ȏ|
two |ȍ|o| |ó|o| |ȍ|o| |ȏ|o| |ȍ|o|
three |ȍ|o|o| |ó|o|o| |ȍ|o|o| |ȍ|o|o| |ȍ|o|o|
Old Štokavian Serbo-Croatian one |ȍ| |ó| |ȍ| |ȏ| |ȏ|
two |ȍ|o| |ó|o| |ȍ|o| |ȏ|o| |ȍ|o|
three |ȍ|o|o| |ó|o|o| |ȍ|o|o| |ȍ|o|o| |ȍ|o|o|
Kajkavian Serbo-Croatian one |ȍ| |ó| |ȍ| |ȏ| |ȏ|
two |ȍ|o| |ó|o| |ȍ|o| |ȏ|o| |ȏ|o|
three |ȍ|o|o| |ó|o|o| |ȍ|o|o| |ȏ|o|o| |o|ȏ|o|
Slovene one |ò| |ó| |ò| |ȏ| |ȏ|
two |ó|o| |ó|o| |ó|o| |o|ȏ| |o|ȏ|
three |ó|o|o| |ó|o|o| |ó|o|o| |o|ȏ|o| |o|ȏ|o|
Czech one |ō| |ō| |ō| |o| |o|
two |ō| | |ō| | |ō| | |o| | |o| |
three |o| | | |ō|ō| | |ō| | | |o| | | |o| | |
Slovak one |o| |ō| | | |o| |o|
two |o| | |ō| | | | | |o| | |o| |
three |o| | | |ō| | | | | | | |o| | | |o| | |

Serbo-Croatian: ȍ = short falling, ȏ = long falling, ò = short rising, ó = long rising, o = short vowel without distinctive tone
Slovene: ȏ = long falling, ó = long rising, ò = short rising, o = short vowel without distinctive tone
Czech and Slovak: ō = long vowel, o = short vowel, | | = either long or short vowel

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Sussex & Cubberley (2011:151) "The late Proto-Slavic situation in regard to suprasegmental features was as follows: stress was free and mobile.."
  2. ^ Kapović (2008:2–3)
  3. ^ The length is secondary.
  4. ^ Kapović (2008:2)
  5. ^ Kapović (2008:3)
  6. ^ Kapović (2008:3)
  7. ^ Kapović (2008:3)
  8. ^ This is known as Vasiľev-Dolobko's law and is attested in Old East Slavic and Middle Bulgarian.
  9. ^ After Sussex & Cubberley (2011:154).
  10. ^ Sussex & Cubberley (2011:151)
  11. ^ Sussex & Cubberley (2011:135)
  12. ^ Sussex & Cubberley (2011:153)