Vowel Length and Syllable Structure in Čakavian

The čakavian dialects are characterized by the lengthening of vowels in a broader range of environments than is typical for štokavian; e.g., Novi stãrca ‘old man (G sg.)’: N sg. stȁrac, krãj ‘edge’: G sg. krȁja, dĩm ‘smoke’: G sg. dȉma, sĩr ‘cheese’: G sg. sȉra, Hvar dîd ‘grandfather’: G sg. dȉda versus standard Croatian/Serbian stârca, krâj, dȉm, sȉr, djȅd/dȅd. This is usually attributed to a historical process of compensatory lengthening triggered by the reduction and eventual loss of a jer vowel: CVCŭ/ĭ > CV:C. The lengthening was subject to additional conditioning factors, such as the nature of the accent or the intervening consonant, which vary among different Slavic dialects (e.g. Timberlake 1983a, b; Bethin 1998).

While a phonological analysis of the synchronic čakavian alternations in terms of compensatory lengthening is possible in principle, a consideration of a wider range of data suggests the need for an alternative approach. Many dialects lengthen vowels before voiceless obstruents, in addition to the environments illustrated above, and there are numerous examples of lengthening in forms where there is no evidence for positing a jer vowel; e.g. dîgnuti ‘to raise’, lâstavica ‘swallow’, mâslina ‘olive’, mêsto ‘place’ (examples attested in various central čakavian dialects). While lengthening before sonorants is more consistent in internal than in final syllables in some čakavian dialects, the reverse situation, with lengthening restricted to final syllables, is never found (the same is true of štokavian). The opposite state of affairs obtains for lengthening before obstruents, a number of dialects lengthen vowels in final but not internal syllables; e.g. Lešće bobrîg ‘kidney’: N pl. bobrȉzi, jezîk ‘language’: G sg. jezȉka versus bȁčva ‘barrel’, jȁčmen ‘barley’, prȁsci ‘pig (I pl.)’. It would be difficult to account for these facts if the lengthening is treated as compensatory in nature.

This paper will suggest that a more satisfactory explanation is possible in terms of syllable structure. Patterns of accent retraction that occur in numerous čakavian dialects indicate that CVC syllables are treated as heavy, and the lengthenings illustrated here will be explained as a reinterpretion of a bi-moraic CVC syllable as CVVC. The different behavior of final as opposed to medial syllables may then also be attributed to constraints on permissible syllable types. Čakavian dialects differ with respect to the types of segments that may be moraic, and discrepancies are also found within certain individual dialects, where all CVC syllables may count as heavy for the placement of accent but only some CVC syllables are lengthened. Similar inconsistencies, while rare, have been pointed out in other languages (e.g. Hayes 1995: 299–305). While Hayes proposes a two-layer moraic representation to account for these, the čakavian facts are more consistent with an approach along the lines of Steriade (1991), in which there is a single level of moraic representation of weight, but different processes may refer to this representation in different ways, based on the sonority level of the segments. As a final note, the lengthening in historical circumflex stems (e.g. brôd ‘ship’: G sg. brȍda), which is common to all northwest SSl. dialects and is not dependent on the nature of the final consonant, appears to require a different interpretation than the one suggested for the types of forms discussed here. The čakavian data may call into question historical explanations which lump all these lengthenings together as part of the same process.


Bethin, Christina. 1998. Slavic Prosody. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hayes, Bruce. 1995. Metrical Stress Theory. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Steriade, Donca. 1991. “Moras and Other Slots.” Proceedings of the Formal Linguistics Society of Mid-America 1. 254–80.

Timberlake, Alan. 1983a. “Compensatory lengthening in Slavic, 1: Conditions and Dialect Geography.” In Markov, Vladimir and Dean S. Worth, eds. From Los Angeles to Kiev: Papers on the Occasion of the Ninth International Congress of Slavists. Columbus, OH: Slavica. 207–235.

Timberlake, Alan. 1983b. “Compensatory Lengthening in Slavic, 2: Phonetic Reconstruction.” In Flier, Michael S., ed. American Contributions to the Ninth International Congress of Slavists 1. Columbus, OH: Slavica. 293–319.