South Slavic languages, Linguistic prehistory

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The South Slavic languages are one of three branches of the Slavic languages. There are approximately 30 million speakers, mainly in the Balkans. These are separated geographically from speakers of the other two Slavic branches (West and East) by a belt of German, Hungarian and Romanian speakers. The first South Slavic language to be written (the first Slavic language) was the dialect spoken in Thessalonica, now called Old Church Slavonic, in the ninth century AD. It is retained as a liturgical language in some South Slavic Orthodox churches in the form of various local Church Slavonic traditi


The Slavic languages are part of the Balto-Slavic group, which belongs to the Indo-European language family. The South Slavic languages have been considered a genetic node in Slavic studies: defined by a set of phonological, morphological and lexical innovations (isoglosses) which separate it from the Western and Eastern Slavic groups. That view, however, has been challenged in recent decades (see below).

Some innovations encompassing all South Slavic languages are shared with the Eastern Slavic group, but not the Western Slavic. These include:

  1. Consistent application of Slavic second palatalization before Proto-Slavic */v/
  1. Loss of */d/ and */t/ before Proto-Slavic */l/
  1. Merger of Proto-Slavic */ś/ (resulting from the second and third palatalization) with */s/

This is illustrated in the following table:

Several isoglosses have been identified which are thought to represent exclusive common innovations in the South Slavic language group. They are prevalently phonological in character, whereas morphological and syntactical isoglosses are much fewer in number. list the following phonological isoglosses:

  1. Merger of yers into schwa-like sound, which became /a/ in Serbo-Croatian, or split according to the retained hard/soft quality of the preceding consonant into /o e/ (Macedonian), or /ə e/ (Bulgarian)
  1. Proto-Slavic */ę/ > /e/
  1. Proto-Slavic */y/ > /i/, merging with the reflex of Proto-Slavic */i/
  1. Proto-Slavic syllabic liquids * and * were retained, but * was subsequently lost in all the daughter languages with different outputs (> /u/ in Serbo-Croatian, > vowel+ or +vowel in Slovenian, Bulgarian and Macedonian), and * became [ər/rə] in Bulgarian. This development was identical to the loss of yer after a liquid consonant.
  1. Hardening of palatals and dental affricates; e.g. š' > š, č' > č, c' > c.
  1. Proto-Slavic */tl/, */dl/ > /l/
  1. South Slavic form of liquid metathesis (CoRC > CRaC, CoLC > CLaC etc.)

Most of these are not exclusive in character, however, and are shared with some languages of the Eastern and Western Slavic language groups (in particular, Central Slovakian dialects). On that basis, argues that South Slavic exists strictly as a geographical grouping, not forming a true genetic clade; in other words, there was never a proto-South Slavic language or a period in which all South Slavic dialects exhibited an exclusive set of extensive phonological, morphological or lexical changes (isoglosses) peculiar to them. Furthermore, Matasović argues, there was never a period of cultural or political unity in which Proto-South-Slavic could have existed during which Common South Slavic innovations could have occurred. Several South-Slavic-only lexical and morphological patterns which have been proposed have been postulated to represent common Slavic archaisms, or are shared with some Slovakian or Ukrainian dialects.

The South Slavic dialects form a dialectal continuum stretching from today's southern Austria to southeast Bulgaria. On the level of dialectology, they are divided into Western South Slavic (Slovenian and Serbo-Croatian dialects) and Eastern South Slavic (Bulgarian and Macedonian dialects); these represent separate migrations into the Balkans and were once separated by intervening Hungarian, Romanian, and Albanian populations; as these populations were assimilated, Eastern and Western South Slavic fused with Torlakian as a transitional dialect. On the other hand, the breakup of the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires, followed by formation of nation-states in the 19th and 20th centuries, led to the development and codification of standard languages. Standard Slovene, Bulgarian, and Macedonian are based on distinct dialects. The Bosnian, Croatian, Montenegrin, and Serbian standard variants of the pluricentric Serbo-Croatian are based on the same dialect (Shtokavian). Thus, in most cases national and ethnic borders do not coincide with dialectal boundaries.

Note: Due to the differing political status of languages/dialects and different historical contexts, the classifications are arbitrary to some degree.

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