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Review of  The Prehistory of the Balto-Slavic Accent

Reviewer: Jean-François R. Mondon
Book Title: The Prehistory of the Balto-Slavic Accent
Book Author: Jay H. Jasanoff
Publisher: Brill
Linguistic Field(s): Historical Linguistics
Language Family(ies): Baltic
Issue Number: 29.4655

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How to link the largely parallel accent systems of Ancient Greek and Rigvedic Sanskrit to the wholly different pitch accent systems of the Balto-Slavic (BS) languages has long been a chimera of Indo-European linguistics. Jay Jasanoff’s recent book, “The Prehistory of the Balto-Slavic Accent,” a culmination of the author’s work on the topic over the past two decades, offers the best solution to the problem to date.

Chapter 1, “The Indo-European Background,” begins with a review of the communis opinio of the phonological system of Proto-Indo-European (PIE) as well as the standard reconstruction of the nominal system (i.e. the Erlangen model) replete with its interaction between accent and ablaut. The chapter continues the discussion on accent by summarizing the synchronic state of affairs of the accent systems of those Indo-European (IE) branches in which it is recoverable and, where it is relevant, the diachronic developments which resulted in them. Specifically this includes Sanskrit’s accentual markings (udātta, anudātta, and svarita) and its distractable vowels, Greek’s complementary distribution between circumflex and acute vowels everywhere except on the ultima as well as the differing behavior of final “-oi” and “-ai” depending on their morphological role (locative and optative on the one hand versus nominative plural on the other), Hittite’s scriptio plena, Germanic’s Verner’s Law and the contrast between bimoric and trimoric vowels (following Jasanoff 2002 in which it is claimed syllable-final *VHV (*H = one of the three reconstructed laryngeals of PIE) and *-V:# were lengthened becoming trimoric vowels in contrast to other long-vowels which remained bimoric). Jasanoff completes the chapter with a review of the “Generative-Compositional Approach” espoused in several papers by Paul Kiparsky and Morris Halle (e.g. most recently Kiparsky 2010). Jasanoff is fair in his treatment of these approaches acknowledging that they are useful for describing the synchronic state of affairs of Sanskrit and Greek. Nonetheless, besides finding the systems inadequate for the synchronic state of affairs of PIE due to uncomfortable compromises they are forced to make (e.g. being forced to posit two genitive singular forms /-ás/ and /-s/ which are clearly allomorphs in an accentual and ablaut relationship), Jasanoff is not convinced of Kiparsky’s “grammar optimization” which motivates analogical changes based on internal pressure from the grammar. As he states in relation to his own enterprise, “According to the view taken here, there was only an indirect relationship between the computational process that assigned the surface accent in the synchronic grammar of late PIE and the changes that gave rise to the differences among the accentuation systems of the individual IE languages” (p. 29).

In Chapter 2, “Balto-Slavic: The Descriptive Picture,” Jasanoff moves to the Balto-Slavic branch itself, offering a summary of the arsenal needed to wade into the century-long seemingly never-ending battle of the origin of the Proto-BS accent system. He very clearly emphasizes the need to separate the tone from the accent. As he states “the two are linked in standard Lithuanian by the fact that only accented vowels can bear a phonetically salient tone” (p. 34) but, as he explicates, this was not true at an earlier stage of the language in which tones could occur on unaccented syllables too. As Jasanoff shows this has to be the case since Leskien’s Law and Saussure’s Law both point in this direction. The former shortened an acute monopthong, accented or not, when in the final syllable (galvà “head” (nom. sg.) with a shortened acute final syllable < *-ō vs. galvõs (gen. sg.) with a long non-acute final syllable < *-ōs). The latter was the attraction by an acute vowel of the accent when on a preceding non-acute vowel (*védo where *-o is acute and the *e is not > vedù “I lead”). The genesis of this acute v. non-acute distinction forms the centerpiece of chapter 3. Chapter 2, however, continues with an overview of the intonational and accentual systems of the other Baltic languages (Latvian and Old Prussian, pp. 62-7) as well as that of Proto-Slavic (pp. 42-62). He includes an important discussion of the three Slavic accent classes, first proposed in Stang 1957, and hints as to their origins. The section highlights several of the questions which have plagued the field and provides a glimpse of Jasanoff’s solutions, to be fleshed out later in the book. For instance, why do some “class c” forms move the accent to the right but others do not? Jasanoff proposes a distinction between “lexical accent” and “left-marginal accent.” Only the former was subject to Dybo’s Law (rightward movement in late Proto-Slavic of the accent from a non-acute vowel), not the latter. The origin of this accentual distinction forms the centerpiece of chapter 4.

Chapter 3, “The Origin of Acuteness,” is devoted to tracing the origin of the “introduction of the originally autonomous (i.e. accent-independent) feature of acuteness” (p. 74). At the end of the previous chapter (pp. 70-2), Jasanoff offers a hypothesis as to what the phonetics of acuteness may have been in Proto-BS. He assumes it must have been some type of glottal constriction much like the Danish “stød” since glottalization manifests itself in the broken tones of both Žemaitian dialects of Lithuanian as well as Latvian. Unlike other scholars, most notably Frederik Kortlandt of the Leiden School (for instance in Kortlandt 2008), who trace the rise of acute vowels to the presence of an adjacent glottalic stop or laryngeal, Jasanoff, as already spelled out in Jasanoff 2004, derives acute vowels from both PIE long-vowels, which are inherently long or contraction products of a *VV sequence, as well as from long-vowels resulting from *VH. Non-acute vowels comprise everything else; namely, short vowels as well as long-vowels which are the result of vocalic contractions across a laryngeal *VHV. These acute vowels, Jasanoff claims, acquired stød “to limit or check the outflow of air during their production,” ultimately making them mark with respect to the non-acute vowels. Evidence external to BS comes from Germanic where the difference between bimoric and trimoric vowels in final syllables corresponds exactly to the BS difference between acute and non-acute vowels. With this theory proposed, the chapter progresses through the data and assesses historic problem spots, contrasting throughout the predictions of Jasanoff’s theory with that of the glottalic alternative. As an example of one unique insight, the differing behavior of diphthongs in the instrumental plural (-ais) and the 1st sg. present of ā-verbs (-au) is troubling. The problem is that only the latter induces Saussure’s Law (recall, the rightward movement of the accent to an acute syllable) though the instrumental ending should also have been acute since it goes back to a long vowel in PIE: *-ōis. Jasanoff (p. 91-5) accounts for the differing treatments by deriving the 1st sg. -au from a hiatal sequence *-āō with the thematic verbal ending *-ō analogically added to this class of verbs. At the time that final diphthongs lost their acuteness which must have predated Saussure’s Law, the verbal ending *-āō had not yet contracted to a diphthong, thus maintaining its acuteness.

Chapter 4, “Mobility and the Left-Marginal Accent,” focuses on the other seemingly intractable problem of BS accentology which consists of two parts, “the creation and spread of bilateral mobility and its associated left-marginal accent” (p. 74). The falling “left-marginal accent” (LMA) was coined by Jasanoff in an earlier paper (Jasanoff 2008) and contrasts with the rising “lexical accent” (LA). Such an accentual difference seems evident from Latvian which maintains a distinction between acute LMA and acute LA on initial syllables; the former has broken tone while the latter has sustained tone. Similarly in Proto-Slavic “Meillet’s Law” converted acutes to non-acutes only when bearing an LMA and not an LA. Whatever the precise phonetic details which differentiate LMA from LA, such clear differences in behavior as evinced by Latvian and Slavic indicate that it is reasonable to push the dichotomy back to Proto-BS. LMA arose via the workings of what Jasanoff terms “Saussure-Pedersen’s Law” (SPL) which incorporates key insights from two decades-old laws, Saussure’s Law and Pedersen’s Law. Specifically, SPL retracts the PIE accent from a word-internal short open syllable, yielding an LMA on the initial syllable. Jasanoff offers the suggestion that the movement of the accent (what must have originally been a high-tone) to the initial syllable via SPL did not replace the original rise in that formerly pretonic syllable, but compressed it resulting in a rising-falling tone (i.e. LMA). Word-internally, if SPL led to an LMA ~ LA contrast, Jasanoff proposes that it was subsequently eliminated in favor of LA only.

As far as the rise of BS mobility which in no way mirrors the mobility of Greek and Sanskrit, Jasanoff follows the communis opinio that mobility has its origin in oxytonic words. He shows the problems with alternatives, such as reconstructing Proto-BS mobility for PIE as well as deriving all mobility from Hirt’s Law (the movement of a lexical accent to a preceding syllable containing a laryngeal). Jasanoff derives mobility from SPL combined with a rule he dubs “Proto-Vasil’ev Dolobko’s Law” (Proto-VDL). This latter replaced an initial LMA with a word-final LA in words of more than three syllables. Jasanoff conjectures naturally enough that the final LA was formerly a secondary stress which acquired prominence due to a drive for polysyllabic words of more than 3 syllables to bear an LA.

Chapter 5, “Mobility in Nominal Forms,” explores how SPL and Proto-VDL ran amok among the nominal system and resulted in the rise of mobility. He spends ample time reviewing the various declensions and the predictions that his theory makes versus the most recent competing theory on the rise of mobility, the “Mobility Law” (Olander 2009). Jasanoff argues convincingly that the “Mobility Law” is fraught with phonological issues (e.g. the assumption that the hiatal structures of the type *VV and *VHV with stress on the first *V of each sequence would have been treated identically) and is forced to rely on incredible analogical proportions.References Jasanoff’s own theory is not free from the necessity of analogy (e.g. acuteness of the o-stem nominative plural ending *-ōs spread to the originally non-acute pronominal ending *-oi which itself then spread to the nouns ousting original *-ōs, hence varnaĩ “crows” with final accent having been pulled to the acute ending via Saussure’s Law) though many of them fall out naturally from the morphological output of his system. One crucial phonological adjustment he is forced to make is the extension of SPL to apply in *-VN(C) sequences in addition to open syllables. By allowing SPL to pull the accent away from such a sequence, he can readily account for accusative singulars from various declensions, such as miñtį < *mntím “thought.” While this rule might strike one as ad hoc, it does find support in the morphologically isolated supine (p. 223, fn. 96). Proto-VDL easily accounts for the “heavy cases” (those endings where the accent sits to the right of the reconstructed locus of the accent) since many words, particularly those with suffixes, would have been more than three syllables in precisely these cases and thus subject to the dislocation of initial LMA to word final LA. Every conceivable nook and cranny of nominal morphology is touched upon in the chapter, and Jasanoff’s own, not unreasonable solutions, are laid out.

Chapter 6, “Mobility in the Verb, expands upon Jasanoff 2008 to cover the entire verbal system. The fundamental crux of the matter is how the continuations of the PIE thematic present end up with mobile accent in Slavic, a phenomenon which is unattested anywhere else in the daughter languages of PIE. After indicating the problems with Olander 2009’s solution of deriving mobility from “tudáti-presents,” Jasanoff proposes that BS verbs had absolute and conjunct forms, terms borrowed from Old Irish grammar. Absolute forms were the verb alone unaccompanied by any particles, while conjunct forms consisted of monosyllabic accretions, such as negatives or question particles, which formed a phonological unit with the verb. The crucial detail is that by expanding the syllable count of the verb via the particles, the phonological environment for Proto-VDL was satisfied everywhere outside of the 1st person singular, the only form whose desinence was shorter by a syllable than the others. The absolute ~ conjunct distinction was subsequently jettisoned and the conjunct forms were generalized. As with the previous chapter, so to in this one Jasanoff leads no stone unturned, touching on every problematical corner of the Slavic verb. One cornerstone of his theory is the proposed process “thematic barytonization” in which present stems with a monosyllabic thematic suffix moved the LA from the thematic vowel to the initial syllable, falling together with regular thematic presents. Subsequently, all thematic verbs with stress on the initial syllable underwent SPL and Proto-VDL resulting in mobility. The chapter continues with a discussion of other present types (athematc, semi-thematic) as well as the aorist and non-finite forms.

The book concludes with a brief summary chapter reviewing the major theoretical claims and their results. It is followed by a very useful three page glossary defining important laws and terms, a bibliography, and an index of forms cited.


Typographically very few errors creep into the book and those that do are self-correcting. The only one worth mentioning is fn. 9 of Chapter 2 in the discussion of non-acute in Lithuanian in which the locus of the H specification is placed on the “second” mora and not the “first” as indicated (cf. his statements on pp. 33 & 42).

With respect to content, one of the major strengths of this book is its clarity. Whether one agrees with Jasanoff’s assessment, one doubtless would agree that he does a formidable job at articulating the issues, summarizing previous viewpoints judiciously, and illustrating the predictions which his own theory makes. It is difficult to find fault with his phonological and analogical claims since, especially as he stresses on more than one occasion, analogical claims in particular are an important part of any theory trying to make sense of the mess of BS accentuation. Phonologically his rules do not seem impossible and he spends ample time trying to justify them all phonetically when they are introduced. Certainly theoretical linguists might be uneasy in adopting his Proto-VDL since it runs contrary to the sacrosanct commandment of locality which is a fundamental tenet of many current theories of phonology and morphology (see for instance Embick 2010). The principles of locality dictate that a phonological rule or morpheme can only see what is immediately adjacent to a specific point on a certain phonological plane; that is, they cannot count. While Jasanoff’s Proto-VDL requires counting beyond 2 in order to determine whether the rule would apply or not, a historical linguist could counter the concerns of theoretical linguists by saying this posited rule makes the best sense of the messy data; it is for the theory to adapt and account for it, rather than the other way around. Additionally, something similar seems to have occurred within Slavic itself in moving the accent to enclitics in a verbal complex (i.e. Vasil’ev-Dolobko’s Law, which is the namesake of Jasanoff’s proposed Proto-VDL).

In sum, Jasanoff’s opus can take its rightful place alongside works such as Stang 1957 as being essential reading in the field of BS accentology for a long time to come.


Embick, David. 2010. Localism versus Globalism in Morphology and Phonology. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Jasanoff, Jay. 2002. “The nominative singular of Germanic n-stems,” in Verba et Litterae: Explorations in Germanic Languages and German Literature: Essays in honor of Albert L. Lloyd (eds. A. Wedel & HJ. Busch): 31-46. Newark, DE: Linguatext.

Jasanoff, Jay. 2004. “Acute vs. circumflex: some notes on PIE and post-PIE prosodic phonology,” in Per Aspera ad Astericis. Studia Indogermanica in Honorem Jens Elmegård Rasmussen (eds. A. Hyllested et al.): 247-256. Innsbruck: Institut für Sprachwissenschaft der Universität Innsbruck.

Jasanoff, Jay. 2008. “The accentual type *védō, *vedetí and the origin of mobility in the Balto-Slavic verb. Baltistica 43.3: 339-379.

Kiparsky, Paul. 2010. “Compositional vs. paradigmatic approaches to accent and ablaut,” in Proceedings of the 21st Annual UCLA Indo-European Conference, October 30th and 31st, 2009 (eds. S. Jamison et al.): 137-181. Bremen: Hempen.

Kortlandt, Frederik. 2008. “Balto-Slavic phonological developments,” Baltistica 43.1:5-15.

Olander, Thomas. 2009. Balto-Slavic Accentual Mobility. Berlin: de Gruyter.

Stang, Christian. 1957. Slavic Accentuation. Oslo: Universitetsforlaget.
I am an Associate Professor of Foreign Languages at Minot State University with interests in Indo-European Linguistics and Theoretical Morphology and Phonology.