Proto-Balto-Slavic language

Proto-Balto-Slavic is a reconstructed proto-language descending from Proto-Indo-European (PIE). From Proto-Balto-Slavic, the later Balto-Slavic languages are thought to have developed, composed of sub-branches Baltic and Slavic, and including modern Latvian, Lithuanian, Polish, Ukrainian, Russian and Serbo-Croatian among others.

Like most other proto-languages, it is not attested by any surviving texts but has been reconstructed using the comparative method. There are several isoglosses that Baltic and Slavic languages share in phonology, morphology and accentology, which represent common innovation from Proto-Indo-European times and can be chronologically arranged.



Proto-Indo-European voiced aspirated stops lost their aspiration in Proto-Balto-Slavic. Stops were no longer distinguished between fortis and aspirated but were voiceless and voiced.[1] However, several new palatal (postalveolar) consonants had developed: *ś and *ź from earlier palatovelar plosives and *š from *s as a result of the Ruki sound law.

Labial Coronal Palatal Velar
Nasal m n
Plosive p b t d k g
Fricative s (z) ś, š ź
Trill r
Lateral l
Approximant w j


Proto-Balto-Slavic preserved much of the late Proto-Indo-European vowel system. One noticeable difference between the two was the merging of earlier short /o/ and /a/ into /a/. Earlier syllabic sonorants in PIE had been converted into liquid diphthongs by inserting *i or *u before the sonorant in Proto-Balto-Slavic.

Short vowels
Front Back
Close i u
Mid e
Open a
Long vowels
Front Back
Close ī ū
Mid ē ō
Open ā


Proto-Balto-Slavic preserved most PIE diphthongs intact except for the short /o/ and /a/ merger. The merger of short /o/ and /a/ carried into the production of Proto-Balto-Slavic diphthongs. The diphthongs that contained the onglide /o/ in PIE consequently became diphthongs with the onglide /a/ in Proto-Balto-Slavic. Former /eu/ had become /jau/, so that no /eu/ diphthong existed anymore.

Proto-Balto-Slavic also possessed sequences of a close vowel, followed by *l, *r, *m or *n: the "sonorant diphthongs". Their accents behaved like the other diphthongs rather than like vowel-consonant sequences.

-i -u -l -r -m -n
a- ai au al ar am an
e- ei el er em en
i- il ir im in
u- ul ur um un

Accent and the acute register

The accent of Balto-Slavic and its descendants is still a topic of active research, and there is still disagreement over the developments in many cases. The following gives only a general overview of the points for which a general consensus has been reached among linguists. Differing opinions are noted when necessary.

Most Proto-Balto-Slavic words could be accented on any syllable, like in Proto-Indo-European. The placement of the accent was changed significantly relative to PIE, with much paradigmatic leveling of the mobile PIE accent, along with leftward and rightward shifs conditioned by the surrounding phonemes.

In the early Balto-Slavic period, an additional articulatory feature, the acute register, had developed on certain syllables, particularly those that ended in a PIE laryngeal consonant (detailed further below). It was a suprasegmental feature whose exact phonetic nature is not quite clear. It likely involved glottalization at some stage, as a similar articulatory feature is found in the Latvian "broken tone", which is a reflex of it. It is denoted variously with a superscript glottalization symbol ˀ, a glottal stop symbol ʔ, or simply as the laryngeal cover symbol H.

Only the presence or absence of the feature, called "acute" and "circumflex" respectively, was phonemic. Furthermore, the distinction applied only to "long" syllables. The following syllable types were "long" and thus could have this distinction:

Thus, any syllable was either long with acute register, long with circumflex (nonacute) register or short (with no register distinction).


Proto-Balto-Slavic retained the system of ablaut from its parent language, but it was far less productive and had been significantly reworked. Vowel alternations were often leveled, but it is not always easy to determine how far this leveling had progressed by the time the Balto-Slavic dialects began to diverge, as the leveling progressed along the same lines in all of them to some degree.

The lengthened grade remained productive in word derivation and was used in many innovative formations that were not present in Proto-Indo-European. After the merger of *o and *a, the resulting phoneme *a could lengthen to both and .

Pre-Proto-Slavic retained many such uses of lengthened grades in morphology. The length distinctions are reflected as vowel quality distinctions in Late Common Slavic (LCS) and the later Slavic languages:

These are similar examples in Lithuanian:

On the basis of the existing length alternations inherited from Proto-Indo-European, new alternations arose between the long , and the short *i, *u. This latter type of apophony was not productive in PIE. Compare:

The new type of apophonic length was especially used in Pre-Proto-Slavic in the formation of durative, iterative and imperfective verbs. Compare:

Certain pairs of words show a change of older initial *a- (from PIE *(H)a-, *(H)o-, *h₂e-, *h₃e-) to *e-, which is sometimes called "Rozwadowski's rule". The exact conditioning of this change is currently not well understood, but led to alternations between *e- and *a- in related words or even as alternative forms of the same word. The alternations often gave rise to different initial vowels in different languages. Several words retained the alternation into Proto-Slavic times as well, which became an alternation between *(j)e- and *o-:


Proto-Balto-Slavic retained many of the grammatical features present in Proto-Indo-European.


Proto-Balto-Slavic made use of seven cases:

The eighth case, the ablative, had merged with the genitive case. Some of the inflectional endings for the genitive were replaced with those of the former ablative.

An innovation within Balto-Slavic was the use of the genitive in place of the accusative for the direct object of a negative verb.[2] That feature is still present in its descendants:

Proto-Balto-Slavic still distinguished three numbers: singular, dual and plural. The dual was retained into the early Slavic languages, but most modern Slavic languages have lost it. Slovene, Chakavian (a dialect of Serbo-Croatian), and Sorbian are the only remaining Slavic languages that still make consistent use of the dual number.

In most other Slavic languages, the dual number is not retained except for historically-paired nouns (eyes, ears, shoulders), certain fixed expressions, and agreement of nouns when used with numbers; it is synchronically often analyzed as genitive singular because of the resemblance in forms. The Baltic languages also used to have a dual number system, but it has become practically obsolete in modern Latvian and Lithuanian.

Proto-Balto-Slavic nouns could also have one of three genders: masculine, feminine or neuter. Many originally neuter nouns in PIE had become masculine in Balto-Slavic so the group was somewhat reduced relative to the others. The modern Slavic languages largely continue the use of three grammatical genders, but modern Baltic languages primarily use only two: masculine and feminine. Latvian distinguishes between only two genders: masculine and feminine. Lithuanian distinguishes between only masculine and feminine in nouns, but in pronouns, participles and numerals, the neuter is retained.

An innovation within Balto-Slavic was the creation of a distinct "definite" inflection of adjectives by affixing forms of the pronoun *ja- to existing adjective forms. The inflection had a function resembling that of the definite article 'the' in English: Lithuanian geràsis, Old Church Slavonic добрꙑи "the good" vs. gẽras, добръ "good". The distinction is no longer productive in most Slavic languages today, and most Slavic languages preserve a mixture of definite forms and indefinite forms in a single paradigm.

Russian, Czech and Polish for example use the original definite nominative singular forms (Russian -ый, -ая, -ое (-yj, -aja, -oje), Polish -y, -a, -e, Czech -ý, -á, -é). Czech and Polish have lost the indefinite forms except in a few limited uses, while Russian preserves the indefinite nominative forms as the so-called "short forms", used in some cases in predicate position. Serbo-Croatian and Slovene still distinguish the two types but only in the masculine nominative singular (definite -i versus indefinite with no ending). Bulgarian and Macedonian have innovated completely new forms, affixing forms of the demonstrative pronoun *t- instead.


The distinction between athematic and thematic verbs was preserved, but athematic verbs were gradually reduced in number. The primary first-person singular endings, athematic *-mi and thematic *-oh₂, were kept distinct, giving Balto-Slavic *-mi and *-ōˀ respectively. The thematic ending was occasionally extended by adding the athematic ending to it, apparently in Balto-Slavic times, resulting in a third ending: *-ōˀmi > *-ōˀm > *-am, replacing the original ending in Slavic, reflected as *-ǫ (Russian (-u), Polish , Bulgarian -a).

In many Slavic languages, particularly South and West Slavic, the athematic ending was analogically extended to other verbs and even replaced the thematic ending completely in some languages (Slovene, Serbo-Croatian). In the Baltic languages, only the thematic ending was retained, as Lithuanian and Latvian -u (< East Baltic *-uo < Balto-Slavic *-ōˀ). In Latvian, the first-person singular form of būt "to be" is esmu, which preserves the original *-m- of the athematic ending, but it was extended with the thematic ending.

Balto-Slavic replaced the PIE second-person singular ending *-si with *-seHi > *-sei for which the origin is not fully understood. According to Kortlandt, the ending is a combination of the ending *-si with *-eHi, which he considers to be the original thematic ending.[3] The new ending, *-sei, carried over into all three branches of Balto-Slavic and came to be used in all athematic root verbs in Baltic. In Old Church Slavonic, it completely ousted the older ending. In the other Slavic languages, the original ending generally survives except in the athematic verbs.

The aspectual distinction between present and aorist was retained and still productive in Proto-Balto-Slavic. It was preserved into early Slavic but was gradually replaced with an innovated aspectual distinction, with a variety of forms. Modern Bulgarian retained the aorist, however, alongside the innovated system, producing a four-way contrast. The Indo-European perfect/stative was falling out of use in Proto-Balto-Slavic and was likely already reduced to relics by Proto-Balto-Slavic times. It survives in Slavic only in the irregular Old Church Slavonic form vědě "I know" (< Balto-Slavic *waidai < PIE *weyd- "to see"), which preserves an irregular first-person singular ending, presumed to originate in the perfect.

Proto-Indo-European did not originally have an infinitive, but it did have several constructions that served as action nouns. Two of these, the -tis and -tus nouns, remained in use into Balto-Slavic and acquired verbal noun and infinitive-like functions. They were not fully integrated into the verb system by Balto-Slavic times, however, and the individual Balto-Slavic languages diverge on the details. In Slavic and the Eastern Baltic languages, the infinitive was formed from a case form of the -tis noun: Lithuanian -ti, Latvian -t, Proto-Slavic *-ti. Old Prussian, however, has -t and -twei as infinitive endings, the latter of which comes from the -tus noun instead. The shorter -t could come from either type.

Development from Proto-Indo-European to Proto-Balto-Slavic

Austrian Balto-Slavist Georg Holzer has reconstructed a relative chronology of 50 Balto-Slavic sound changes, referring only to phonology, not to accentuation, from Proto-Balto-Slavic down to the modern daughter languages.[4] However, only the first 12 are Common Balto-Slavic and so relevant for this article (only Winter's law is a unique common change):

  1. RUKI law: *s > after *r, *u, *k or *i.
  2. Laryngeals are lost between consonants in non-initial syllables.
  3. Winter's law: short vowels are lengthened when followed by a nonaspirated voiced stop (in some accounts, only in a closed syllable).
  4. *o > *a.
  5. Aspirated voiced stops lose their aspiration and merge with the plain voiced stops.
  6. Labiovelar stops lose their labialization and merge with the plain velars.
  7. Satemization: *ḱ, > , .
  8. *ewV > *awV.
  9. *i (sometimes *u) is inserted before syllabic sonorants, creating new liquid diphthongs.
  10. *wl, *wr > *l, *r word-initially.

Winter's law

Winter's law caused lengthening of vowels if a plain voiced stop followed, and the new long vowels received the acute register. According to some analyses, the change occurred only if the stop was in syllable coda (a syllable ending with a vowel). It operated while there was still a phonemic distinction between plain and aspirated voiced stops, which later merged.

Consequently, the distinction between those two series has been indirectly preserved in Proto-Balto-Slavic by long acuted vowels. Furthermore, Winter's law took place before *o and *a merged, as it lengthened earlier *o to *ōˀ and *a to āˀ.

On the basis of relative chronology of sound changes, it has been ascertained that Winter's law acted rather late, after some other less prominent Balto-Slavic changes had occurred such as after the disappearance of laryngeals in prevocalic position.[5] Compare:


Proto-Balto-Slavic generally shows Satem reflexes of the three velar series: labiovelars merge into the plain velars while palatovelars develop into sibilants ( and ).

There are a number of words in Balto-Slavic that show Centum reflexes instead, with palatovelars appearing as plain velars. A number can be explained by regular sound laws, but some laws have been obscured by numerous analogical developments. Others are argued to be borrowings from Centum languages.

For example, Proto-Balto-Slavic *kárˀwāˀ 'cow' (Lithuanian kárvė, OCS krava, Russian koróva) is likely a feminine derivation of a lost masculine noun that was likely borrowed from Proto-Celtic *karwos "deer" (Middle Welsh carw, Middle Breton karo, Middle Cornish carow), which in turn is a regular reflex of PIE *ḱr̥h₂wos.[6]

PIE palatovelars could also depalatalize in Balto-Slavic. Several depalatalization rules for Balto-Slavic have been proposed.[7] According to Matasović,[8] the depalatalization of palatovelars occurred before sonorant followed by a back vowel: K' > K/_RVback. That would explain Centum reflexes such as these ones:

Another view is that satemization occurred in Baltic and Slavic independently after Slavic had split off.

RUKI law

PIE *s was preserved in Balto-Slavic in most positions. According to the RUKI law, it became when it was preceded by *r, *u, *k or *i. It also included diphthongs ending in *u or *i, the long vowels and (whether original or from a following laryngeal), and the voiced velar *g.

Among the Balto-Slavic languages, the evidence of RUKI rule is recognizable only in Lithuanian and Slavic because in the other languages , and *s all merge into plain *s. In Lithuanian, and are merged to instead, remaining distinct from *s. In Slavic, merges with s but remains distinct (and becomes *x before back vowels).

Most handbooks, on the basis of Lithuanian material, state that in Baltic RUKI law has been applied only partially. The most common claim is that the law applied unconditionally in Lithuanian only after *r, while after *u, *k and *i, both *s and occur. Compare:

There is no simple solution to such double reflexes the RUKI law in Lithuanian and thus no simple answer to the question of whether RUKI law is a common Balto-Slavic isogloss or not. The most probable answer seems to be the assumption that PIE *s was changed to after *r, *u, *k, *i completely regularly within Balto-Slavic proper, but the traces of the effect of RUKI law were erased by subsequent changes in Lithuanian such as the change of word-final *-š to *-s.

Generally, it can be ascertained that Lithuanian shows the effect of RUKI law only in old words inherited from Balto-Slavic period so Lithuanian š appears in words that have a complete formational and morphological correspondence in Slavic (ruling out the possibility of accidental, parallel formations).

It appears that palatovelars yielded fricatives in Balto-Slavic before the effect of RUKI law, so that *ḱs appears simply as . Compare:

Syllabic sonorants

The Proto-Indo-European syllabic sonorants *l̥, *r̥, *m̥ and *n̥ (abbreviated *R̥) developed a prothetic vowel in front of them, converting them into "sonorant diphthongs". Both *i and *u appear as prothetic vowels, yielding reflexes *im, *in, *ir, *il (*iR) and *um, *un, *ur, *ul (*uR). It has remained an unsolved problem to this day as to the exact phonological conditions that trigger which reflex. Regardless, analysis of their distribution has shown that *i appears much more often, suggesting that it is the default reflex, with *u appearing only in special cases. In a sample of 215 Balto-Slavic lexical items, 36 (17%) are attested only with *uR reflexes, 22 (10%) with both reflexes in the same language or branch or with one in Slavic and the other in Baltic, and the remaining 157 (73%) are attested only with *iR reflex.[9]

Several theories have been proposed, the most notable being the one by André Vaillant from 1950.[10] According to him, *u arose after PIE labiovelars. If true, it would be the only trace of PIE labiovelars in Balto-Slavic.

After surveying Reinhold Trautmann's 1924 Balto-Slavic dictionary, Jerzy Kuryłowicz in 1956 found no phonologically consistent distribution for the dual reflexes except in a single position: after PIE palatovelars Baltic and Slavic have only *iR reflex.[11]

George Shevelov in 1965 inspected Slavic data in much detail, but in the end, he demonstrated only that the distribution of the dual reflexes in Slavic is not reducible to phonological conditioning.[12]

According to an analysis by Christian Stang in 1966 Kuryłowicz's statistics proved only that *iR reflexes are much more frequent than *uR reflexes.[13] Stang made several important observations:

Stang's analysis indicates that *iR was the regular result of the diphthongization of PIE syllabic sonorants. Doublets with expressive meaning are then explained as expressively motivated *uR replacements of the original *iR reflex, or as borrowings from substratum dialects (such as Germanic) that regularly had the *R̥ > *uR reflex, when (pre-)Balto-Slavic no longer had syllabic sonorants and were then used side by side with the original reflex.

According to Jānis Endzelīns and Reinhold Trautmann *uR reflex resulted in zero-grade of morphemes that had PIE *o (> Balto-Slavic *a) in normal grade.

Matasović, in 2008, [16] proposed the following rules:

  1. At first, syllabic sonorants develop a prothetic schwa: *R̥ > *əR.
  2. > *i in a final syllable.
  3. > *u after velars and before nasals.
  4. > *i otherwise.

Laryngeals and the acute register

Laryngeals generally disappeared as independent phonemes. When they appeared after a vowel, they caused compensatory lengthening of that vowel, as in almost all Indo-European branches. Laryngeals between consonants disappeared as well, but in the first syllable, they are reflected as *a. Compare:

Syllabic sonorants followed by laryngeals do not show any different outcome from syllabic sonorants in other environments. Balto-Slavic shares that characteristic with Germanic but no other Indo-European languages, which show clearly distinct reflexes in this case. Compare:

It appears, however, that laryngeals left traces in Balto-Slavic: they triggered the "acute" register on a preceding vowel or sonorant diphthong, as an articulatory "residue". While laryngeals were the most important source of the acute in Balto-Slavic, they were not the only source. The acute emerges in the following cases:

  1. In all syllables closed by a laryngeal in PIE, whether lengthening of a preceding vowel occurred or not. In particular, it also occurred in syllables with a sonorant diphthong. It probably also occurred when the preceding vowel was already in the lengthened grade.
  2. In all syllables closed by a voiced stop in PIE, and were lengthened according to the Winter's law.
  3. In all cases of vowel lengthening within Balto-Slavic: all vowel lengthening that occurred as part of word formations only within the Balto-Slavic period and did not originate in PIE, which included the new alternations *u ~ and *i ~ that were innovated within Balto-Slavic. It also included *ūn from earlier *un before a stop (more details below).

The rules governing the emergence of the acute in Balto-Slavic seem complicated when they are formulated within the framework of "classical" Proto-Indo-European laryngeal theory, as there is no obvious connection between laryngeals and voiced stops, both of which trigger the acute register. Frederik Kortlandt has proposed an alternative, more elegant and economic rule for the derivation of Balto-Slavic acute by using the glottalic theory framework of Proto-Indo-European. He proposed that the acute is a reflex of a glottal stop, which has two sources, the merger of PIE laryngeals and the dissolution of PIE pre-glottalized stop ("voiced stops" in traditional reconstruction) to glottal stop and voiced stop, according to the Winter's law. Kortlandt's formulation appears very elegant initially and seems to be confirmed independently by a glottal stop in Latvian as a reflex of Balto-Slavic acute in words in which accent was retracted, and it in accordance with the typological universal: most languages with high tone is developed in syllables closed with a glottal stop (however, in Lithuanian, it developed into a falling tone, the opposite of the other languages). Rising tone can then be explained as a result of the development of high tone on the second mora of a long syllable.

Though elegant, Kortlandt's theory also has some problems. The glottalic theory, which was proposed in the 1970s, is not generally accepted among linguists, and today only a small minority of linguists would consider it a reliable and self-supportive framework onto which to base modern Indo-European research. Also, there is a number of Balto-Slavic lexemes which point to acute accent but that are provably not of PIE laryngeal origin, and some of them were a result of apophonical lengthenings occurring only in Balto-Slavic period.

Matasović (2008)[17] lists the following scenario as the most probable origin of Balto-Slavic acute:

  1. The acute initially arose in the syllables closed by a laryngeal, partly from the retraction of word-final accent onto such syllables, which were phonologically long (Hirt's law). Other long syllables, if they bore the accent, were circumflexed, with later falling tone.
  2. Later, new Balto-Slavic long vowels were acuted.
  3. The younger acute has been largely eliminated in Slavic by Meillet's law.


Word-finally, *m became *n in Balto-Slavic. Final nasals are not directly preserved in most Balto-Slavic languages, however, making evidence mostly indirect. Old Prussian uniquely preserves final *-n, and there is indeed a clear attestation of the change in the nominative-accusative of neuters, such as assaran "lake" < PIE *eǵʰerom. In the other Baltic languages, no final nasals are retained. Lithuanian has vowel lengthening that reflects earlier nasal vowels, but they could conceivably come from either final -n or -m and thus do not provide evidence either way. In Slavic, all word-final consonants are lost in one way or another so there is no direct evidence there either.

However, there is indirect evidence in the form of sandhi effects that were preserved in some Slavic pronouns. For example, Old Church Slavonic attests constructions like sъ nimь "with him", which can be traced to the Balto-Slavic *śun eimis where the first word reflects the common Proto-Indo-European preposition *ḱom "with" (compare Latin cum), and the second reflects the PIE pronominal stem *ey- (Latin is, German er). In Slavic, in accordance with the "Law of Open Syllables", the final -n of the preposition was reinterpreted as belonging to the pronoun, which acted to preserve the nasal in its Balto-Slavic form, thus corroborating that it was indeed -n: If the change of *-m to *-n had not taken place at an earlier stage, the phrase would have been *śum eimis, which would have given *sъ mimь in OCS instead.


The following changes to vowels in Proto-Balto-Slavic can be noted:

Accentual system

The Proto-Indo-European accent was completely reworked in Balto-Slavic, with far-reaching consequences for accentual systems of the modern daughter languages. The development was conditioned by several delicate factors, such as the syllable length, presence of a laryngeal closing the syllable, and the position of PIE ictus. There is still no consensus among Balto-Slavists on the precise details of the development of Balto-Slavic accentual system. All modern research is based on the seminal study of Stang (1957), which basically instituted the field of comparative Balto-Slavic accentology. However, many laws and correspondences have been discovered and arenow held to be true by the majority of researchers even if the exact details sometimes remain in dispute.

Early Balto-Slavic retained a simple accent in which only the placement of the accent was distinctive, but there were no pitch distinctions. The acute register was initially no more than an articulatory feature on certain syllables and could occur independently of accent placement. However, the acute was the trigger for several sound changes that affected the placement of the accent. For example, under Hirt's law, the accent tended to shift leftwards onto a syllable that bore the acute.

On accented syllables, the acute came to be accompanied by a distinct pitch contour in late Proto-Balto-Slavic. Consequently, accented syllables of any type that could carry the acute register in Proto-Balto-Slavic (listed above) now differed in pitch contour as well as articulation; they had rising or falling pitch (whether accented acute syllables had rising or falling pitch differed by dialect). The tonal accents that emerged from this process are called "acute accent" and "circumflex accent" in Balto-Slavic linguistics.

Syllables with a single short vowel could not bear the acute register and so also had tonal distinctions. When accented, they had the same pitch contour (though nondistinctive) as a circumflex-accented syllable. The syllables are said to have "short accent".

To reconstruct the Balto-Slavic accent, the most important are those languages that have retained tonal oppositions: Lithuanian, Latvian, (probably) Old Prussian and the West South Slavic languages of Slovene and Serbo-Croatian. However, one should keep in mind that the prosodical systems of dialects in the aforementioned languages are sometimes very different from those of standard languages. For example, some Croatian dialects like Čakavian and Posavian dialects of Slavonian Štokavian are especially important for Balto-Slavic accentology, as they retain more archaic and complex tonal accentual system than the Neoštokavian dialect on which modern standard varieties of Serbo-Croatian (Bosnian, Croatian and Serbian) are based. On the other hand, many dialects have completely lost tonal oppositions (such as some Kajkavian varieties, the Zagreb spoken nonstandard idiom).

A minority view, originating from Vladimir Dybo, considers Balto-Slavic accentuation (based on correspondences in the Germanic, Celtic, and Italic languages) more archaic than Greek-Vedic and therefore closer to Proto-Indo-European.[19]


What follows is a short overview of the commonly used diacritical marks for Balto-Slavic (BSl.) accents and/or prosodic features, all based on the example letter a. In each case, there is a crude characterization of the pronunciation in terms of High, Mid, and Low-tone sequences.

In Croatian dialects, especially Čakavian and Posavian, the "neoacute" ("new acute", a new rising tone) is usually marked with tilde, as ã. Short neoacute ("short new rising") is marked as à. Neoacutes represent a post–Proto-Slavic development.

Here is a reverse key to help decode the various diacritical marks:

There are multiple competing systems used for different languages and different periods. The most important are these:

  1. Three-way system of Proto-Slavic, Proto-Balto-Slavic, modern Lithuanian: acute tone (á) vs. circumflex tone (â or ã) vs. short accent (à).
  2. Four-way Serbo-Croatian system, also used in Slovenian and often in Slavic reconstructions: long rising (á), short rising (à), long falling (â), short falling (ȁ).
  3. Two-way length: long (ā) vs. short (ă).
  4. Length only, as in Czech and Slovak: long (á) vs. short (a).
  5. Stress only, as in Russian, Ukrainian and Bulgarian: stressed (á) vs. unstressed (a).

Many nonprosodic marks are also found in various languages in combinations with certain letters. The various combinations of letter and diacritic should normally be viewed as single symbols like simple symbols (a, b, c).

Examples on vowels:

Examples in consonants:

Accent paradigms

Proto-Balto-Slavic had, just like Proto-Indo-European, a class of nominals with so called "mobile" accentuation in which accent alternated between the word stem and the ending. The classes of nominals are usually reconstructed on the basis of Vedic Sanskrit and Ancient Greek, which have retained the position of the original PIE accent almost unchanged. However, by comparing the Balto-Slavic evidence, it was discovered that the PIE rules on accent alternations, devised on the basis of Vedic and Greek, do not match those found in Balto-Slavic.

Moreover, nominals that belong to mobile paradigms in Balto-Slavic belong to declension classes that always had fixed accent in PIE paradigms: ā-stems and o-stems. For a long time, the exact relationships between the accentuation of nominals in Balto-Slavic and PIE was one of the most mysterious questions of Indo-European studies, and some parts of the puzzle are still missing.

Research conducted by Christian Stang, Ferdinand de Saussure, Vladislav Illich-Svitych and Vladimir Dybo has led to a conclusion that Balto-Slavic nominals, with regard to accentuation, could be reduced to two paradigms: fixed and mobile. Nominals of the fixed paradigm had accent on one of the stem syllables, and in the nominals of the mobile paradigm, the accent alternated between the stem and the ending. As shown by Illič-Svityč, Balto-Slavic nominals of the fixed paradigm correspond to the PIE nominals with accent on the root (PIE barytones). The only exception were nominals with the accent on the ending (PIE oxytones) when it was shifted onto the root in Balto Slavic in accordance with Hirt's law; such nominals also have fixed accent in Balto-Slavic.

The origin of the Balto-Slavic nominals of the mobile paradigm has not been completely determined, with several proposed theories of origin. According to Illič-Svityč, they originate as an analogical development from fixed-accent PIE oxytones. That theory has been criticized as leaving unclear why PIE nominals with fixed accent on the ending would become mobile, as analogies usually lead to uniformity and regularity. According to Meillet and Stang, Balto-Slavic accentual mobility was inherited from PIE consonant and vowel-stems but not for o-stems foe weigh they represent Balto-Slavic innovation. Vedic and Greek lost the accentual mobility in vowel stems, retaining it only in consonant stems. De Saussure explained it as a result of accent retraction in the medially stressed syllables of consonant-stems exhibiting the hysterokinetic paradigm, with vocalic stems subsequently imitating the new accentual patterns by analogy. According to Dybo the position of Balto-Slavic accent is determined by a formula from PIE tones according to the valence theory developed by the Moscow school, which presupposes lexical tone in PIE. Kortlandt up to 2006 supported the theory of Balto-Slavic losing PIE consonant-stem accentual mobility in nominals, and innovating everywhere else, but after 2006 maintains that the original PIE accentual mobility was preserved in Balto-Slavic in ā-stems (eh₂-stems), i-stems, u-stems and consonant-stems.

The Balto-Slavic accentual system was further reworked during the Proto-Slavic and Common Slavic period (Dybo's law, Meillet's law, Ivšić's law, etc.), resulting in 3 Common Slavic accentual paradigms (conveniently marked with letters as A, B, C) to correspond to 4 Lithuanian accentual paradigms (marked with numbers 1, 2, 3, 4) in a simple scheme:

Acute register on the root
yes no
fixed accent yes a.p. 1/a.p. A a.p. 2/a.p. B
no a.p. 3/a.p. C a.p. 4/a.p. C
Fixed paradigm with acuted root

The simplest accentuation is that of nominals which were acuted on the root in Balto-Slavic. They remain accented on the root (root here is understood in the Proto-Balto-Slavic, not the PIE sense) throughout the paradigm in Baltic (Lithuanian first accentual paradigm) and Slavic (accent paradigm a).

Lithuanian Russian Serbo-Croatian Slovene
sg N várna voróna vrȁna vrána
V várna vrȁno
A várną vorónu vrȁnu vráno
G várnos voróny vrȁnē vráne
D várnai voróne vrȁni vráni
L várnoje voróne vrȁni vráni
I várna vorónoj vrȁnōm vráno
du NAV vráni
DI vránama
pl NV várnos voróny vrȁne vráne
A várnas vorón vrȁne vráne
G várnų vorón vrȃnā vrán
D várnoms vorónam vrȁnama vránam
L várnose vorónax vrȁnama vránah
I várnomis vorónami vrȁnama vránami
Fixed paradigm with non-acuted root

In the nouns with non-mobile initial accent, which did not have an acuted root syllable, both Lithuanian and Slavic had an independent accent shift occur, from the root to the ending. In Lithuanian, they are the nouns of the second accent paradigm and in Slavic, the accent paradigm b.

Lithuanian noun rankà "hand" etymologically corresponds to Russian ruká and Serbo-Croatian rúka, but both became mobile in a later Common Slavic development so the reflexes of the Proto-Slavic noun *juxá "soup" are listed instead.

Lithuanian Russian Serbo-Croatian Slovene
sg N rankà uxá júha júha
V rañka jȗho
A rañką uxú júhu júho
G rañkos uxí júhē júho
D rañkai uxé júsi/juhi júhi
L rañkoje uxé júsi/juhi júhi
I rankà uxój júhōm júho
du NAV júhi
DI júhama
pl N rañkos uxí júhe júhe
V rañkos jȗhe júhe
A rankàs uxí júhe júhe
G rañkų úx júhā júh
D rañkoms uxám júhama júham
L rañkose uxáx júhama júhah
I rañkomis uxámi júhama júhami
Mobile paradigm

Nominals with mobile accent had an accented first syllable in some cases, an accented ending in other cases.

Lithuanian distinguishes two accent paradigms of these nominals, depending on whether the root was acuted, like for the fixed paradigm.

In Proto-Slavic, the operation of Meillet's law converted acute roots to circumflexed in mobile nominals, so there is no split like there is for Lithuanian. All nominals with mobile accentuation in Balto-Slavic belong to one accent paradigm in Slavic, accent paradigm c.

Lithuanian Russian Neoštokavian
Slovene Common Slavic
sg N galvà golová gláva glāvȁ gláva *golvà
V gálva glávo glȃvo ?
A gálvą gólovu glȃvu glȃvu glavọ̑ *gȏlvǫ
G galvõs golový gláve glāvé glavẹ́ *golvỳ
D gálvai golové (OESl. gólově) glȃvi glāvȉ glávi *gȏlvě → *golvě̀
L galvojè golové glȃvi glāvȉ glávi *golvě̀
I gálva golovój glávōm glāvún glavọ́ (*golvojǫ̀)
du NAV glavẹ́ ?
GL ?
DI glaváma ?
pl NV gálvos gólovy glȃve glȃve glavẹ̑ *gȏlvy
A gálvas gólovy glȃve glȃve glavẹ̑ *gȏlvy
G galvų̃ golóv glávā gláv gláv *gólvъ
D galvóms golovám glávama glāván glavȁm *golva̋mъ
L galvosè golováx glávama glāvȁh glavȁh *golva̋xъ
I galvomìs golovámi glávama glāvȁmi glavȃmi *golva̋mi

Post-Balto-Slavic developments

In the later Balto-Slavic languages, the acute articulation itself was often lost, leaving only the pitch distinction on accented syllables as the reflex. There, "acute" is only a type of pitch accent, rather than a specific articulatory feature. The Slavic languages have no trace of the acute articulation and preserve only tonal distinctions although most have since lost even those, in their development from Proto-Slavic. The East Baltic languages preserve some traces of the original acute articulation, in the form of the so-called "broken tone", the is a long vowel with a glottal stop in the middle of it, typically denoted by a circumflex diacritic, not to be confused with the circumflex accent: â [aʔa]. The broken tone is preserved in syllables in certain dialects of Latvian and Lithuanian. The broken tone can occur on unaccented syllables so it is not actually a tone but a register distinction, much like the ngã tone in Northern Vietnamese.

The short accent was preserved as such in both the Baltic and Slavic languages, but its lengthening could be triggered by certain conditions. For example, in Lithuanian, vowels /a/ and /e/ were lengthened when they initially bore short accent in open syllable, and rising tone emerged, marked with tilde sign ã. Compare:


The most direct continuation of the acute is in Latvian, particularly in the three-tone central dialects. There, the acute register is directly continued as a broken tone (lauztā) in originally unstressed syllables, marked with a circumflex diacritic: luôgs "window". In originally-stressed syllables, the acute register is continued as a rising or lengthened intonation (stieptā), marked with a tilde: luõks "spring onion". The circumflex register is generally continued as a falling intonation (krītošā), marked with a grave accent: lùoks "arch, bow". It can occur on all syllables: locative plural gal̂vâs "on the heads" (compare: Lithuanian galvosè with stress on a short final vowel, deleted in Latvian), including monosyllables: dêt "to lay eggs" < *dêtì.[21]


In Lithuanian, the distinction between acute and circumflex is not preserved in unstressed syllables. In Standard Lithuanian, based on the Aukštaitian dialect, the acute becomes a falling tone (so-called "Lithuanian metatony") and is marked with an acute accent, and the circumflex becomes a rising tone, marked with a tilde. In diphthongs, the acute accent is placed on the first letter of the diphthong while the tilde marking rising tone (the original circumflex) is placed on the second letter. In diphthongs with a sonorant as a second part, the same convention is used, but the acute accent is replaced with a grave accent: Lithuanian pìlnas 'full' < PIE *plh₁nos). Word-finally, the acute was regularly shortened: gerà 'good' (indefinite adjective) : geróji 'the good' (definite adjective). That rule is called Leskien's law after the German neogrammarian August Leskien.

The shortening operated according to Leskien's law after the Lithuanian metatony. In monosyllabic words, the acute became circumflexed. Metatonical retraction of the accent from the final syllable to the penultimate syllable also created a circumflex automatically.

In the Žemaitian (Samogitian) dialects of Lithuanian, the usual reflex of Balto-Slavic acute in a stressed syllable is a broken tone like Latvian: Žemaitian (Kretinga) ộmž́iọs "age, century" = standard ámžius.[21]

Old Prussian

In Old Prussian, the acute was reflected probably as a rising tone and circumflex as a falling tone. The marks on long vowels and diphthongs in Abel Will's translation of Martin Luther's Enchiridion point to that conclusion. It is the only accented Old Prussian text preserved. Diphthongs that correspond to a reconstructable Balto-Slavic acute are generally long in the second part of the diphthong, and those corresponding to a Balto–Slavic circumflex are generally long in the first part.


Main article: Proto-Slavic accent

In Proto-Slavic, the acute was lost as an articulatory feature and retained only as a tonal distinction on accented syllables. The acute produced a rising tone and the circumflex a falling tone, as in Latvian and Old Prussian.

Several developments in Late Common Slavic affected vowel length. Syllables that were originally short could lengthen, and those originally long could shorten. However, the long vowels also acquired different quality from the short ones so lengthenings and shortenings did not cause them to merge.

Instead, the vowels remained separate, causing the number of distinct vowels to almost double. Thus, differences vowel quality reflected older length distinctions while new vowel length distinctions were conditioned by accent type and placement. Consequently, in the Slavic languages that retain it, vowel length is often a suprasegmental feature tied to the accentual system rather phonemes. In Czech, Slovak and Old Polish, the mobile accent was lost in favour of fixed stress, which rephonemicised the older accentual length distinctions. Thus, the languages have long vowels as distinct phonemes, but they do not reflect the original Proto-Slavic length distinctions.

In all Slavic languages, the acute was shortened when it fell on a long vowel. A new rising accent (the "neoacute"), generally long, developed from retraction of the stress from a weak yer vowel (later usually lost). The short rising accent that developed from the old acute (and in some circumstances, the neoacute) was later lengthened again in a number of Slavic languages (such as Russian, Czech, Slovenian). The circumflex was shortened in some dialects as well (such as Polish, Russian, Czech, Slovak). Direct continuation of the acute vs. circumflex difference as a tonal distinction occurs only in archaic Serbo–Croatian dialects (such as Chakavian) and, to some extent, Slovenian (although the relationship between Slovenian and Proto-Slavic tones and accent position is complex).

In addition, the Proto-Slavic tonal distinction on liquid diphthongs is reflected fairly directly in Russian as a multisyllable accent shape (pleophony): *ôr (falling) > óro, *ór (rising) > oró. In some other languages (most notably Czech and standard Neoshtokavian Serbo-Croatian), the acute vs. circumflex distinction is continued as a length distinction (although in all languages, both long and short vowels have other sources as well). The length-from-tone distinction no longer exists in Russian.

Here is a table of basic accentual correspondences of the first syllable of a word:

Balto-Slavic and Proto-Slavic Lithuanian Old Prussian Latvian Serbo-Croatian Slovenian Czech Russian
acute V̆V̄ V̏, V̀ VRV́
circumflex V̄V̆ V̑, V́ V́RV

Proto-Baltic and Proto-Slavic

It was formerly thought that Balto-Slavic split into two branches, Baltic and Slavic, which each developed as a single common language for some time afterwards. More-recent scholarship suggests that Baltic does not constitute a single branch of Balto-Slavic.[22][23]

See also


  1. Kortlandt (2002:3)
  2. Matasović (2008:56–57) "Navedimo najvažnije baltoslavenske izoglose...Upotreba genitiva za izricanje objekta zanijekanog glagola"
  3. Kortlandt(1979:58)
  4. Holzer 2001, 2007
  5. Matasović 2008, p. 83.
  6. Eugen, Hill (2012). "Hidden sound laws in the inflectional morphology of Proto-Indo-European". In Nielsen Whitehead, Benedicte; Olander, Thomas; Olsen, Birgit Anette; et al. The Sound of Indo-European – Phonetics, Phonemics and Morphophonemics. Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press. p. 190. Retrieved 11 October 2015.
  7. For an alternative formulation, see Kortlandt (1978:12–24)
  8. Matasović (2008:86). For a more precise formulation of the rule, see Matasović (2005)
  9. Andersen 2003, p. 60.
  10. Vaillant, André, "Grammaire comparée des langues slaves. Tome I, Phonétique", IAC, Lyon 1950, p. 171
  11. c, Jerzy, 1956. "L’apophonie en indo-europeée". Wrocław: Ossolineum. Pages 227–242.
  12. Shevelov, George Y. 1965. A Prehistory of Slavic. The Historical Phonology of Common Slavic. New York: Columbia University Press. Pages 86–91.
  13. Stang 1966, p. 79.
  14. Stang 1966, p. 79-80.
  15. Andersen 2003, p. 62.
  16. Matasović 2008, p. 111.
  17. Matasović (2008:136)
  18. Matasović (2008:109)
  19. cf. Dybo, Nikolajev & Starostin:1978, Nikolaev:1989, Dybo 2007:47-50
  20. All examples given for Serbo-Croatian are based on the standard language, stylised Neoštokavian dialect; they are accented according to the Rječnik hrvatskoga jezika, F. Broz and I. Iveković, Zagreb 1901 and Akademijin Rječnik hrvatskoga ili srpskoga jezika, XXIII volumes, 1880–1976
  21. 1 2 Derksen, Rick (2008). Etymological Dictionary of the Slavic Inherited Lexicon. Leiden: Brill. p. 12.
  22. Kortlandt, Frederik (2009), Baltica & Balto-Slavica, p. 5, Though Prussian is undoubtedly closer to the East Baltic languages than to Slavic, the characteristic features of the Baltic languages seem to be either retentions or results of parallel development and cultural interaction. Thus I assume that Balto-Slavic split into three identifiable branches, each of which followed its own course of development.
  23. Derksen, Rick (2008), Etymological Dictionary of the Slavic Inherited Lexicon, p. 20, I am not convinced that it is justified to reconstruct a Proto-Baltic stage. The term Proto-Baltic is used for convenience’s sake.


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