The Decomposition of Syllabic r/l In Baltic & Slavic

James Weller, Ohio State University

Baltic and Slavic share common reflexes for syllabic r/l. In general, syllabic r/l decompose via epenthesis of chiefly i but often u before the sonant, but Schwebender Ablaut (vowel epenthesis after the sonant) occurs as well. If the treatment of syllabic r/l represents a shared innovation, it may be probative for a period of Balto-Slavic unity. There are four major competing explanations: 1) inherited qualitative ablaut; 2) the phonetic environment theory; 3) dialectal variation; and 4) the "alternation theory" (to use Shevelov's term). I propose a fifth explanation which resembles the alternation theory but attributes the phenomena to different origins: analogical epenthesis.

In the research I am proposing I made two observations: the quality [front/back] of the epenthetic vowel and its location (before or after the sonant) tend to match those of the full grade. Note the following exemplary full-:zero-grade alternations: Li berti:birus 'to strew': 'friable'; La bart:burt 'to scold': 'to do magic'; OCS prebresti:prebride (i=front yer vowel) 'to cross' : (third pers.) 'crossed'; Li grameti:grumeti 'to fall into an abyss': 'to thunder'. On the basis of such examples, I argue that if the decomposition of syllabic r/l started out as a phonetic process, the vowel epenthesis was soon analogized to the full grade.

I will show how, in testing the four major theories to determine how well they account for the data, I found that theories 1-3 fall short. Shevelov's theory, on the other hand, works quite well in accounting for the origin of u and the analogical epenthesis that took place. My addition will be the proposition that the origin of the analogical epenthesis of i/u may have been a Balto-Slavic innovation in which the old zero grades of oral diphthongs (i.e., La klausit:kluss 'to listen': 'quiet') came to serve as the basis for the analogy. I argue that the decomposition of syllabic r/l started out phonetic, was analogized to the zero grades of oral diphthongs, that analogical epenthesis was the result, and that this is a shared innovation probative for a period of Balto-Slavic unity.