The presence of the two mid-back vowels (open o and closed ô) in some contemporary South Russian dialects including regions of Kursk, Orel, Kaluga, Belgorod, Voronež and Rjazan′ suggests that two different phonemes might have existed in the dialects of these regions in medieval times. Kotkov (1963: 28–35) provides such data in seventeenth-century South Russian manuscripts as roitarskova struju, dragunskova struju, rabutu, dubruvu, upolunnikov, etc., which can be interpreted as graphic reflections of closed /ô/. Based on these examples, Kotkov claims that there was the phoneme /ô/ in some South Russian dialects, including Rjazanian dialects.
In this paper, I tried to verify whether Kotkov’s claim holds in a corpus of texts that are the principal relics of medieval Rjazanian dialects. In most of the previously investigated manuscripts, there are four systems in the graphic representation of the phonemes /ô/ and /o/, i.e., kamora system, omega system, the “narrow-o” system and the “wide-o” system. (Zaliznjak 1990: 2–5).Fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Rjazanian legal documents under investigation belong to the omega system. Most of the fifty documents show two letters, omega and o. Only two documents (No. 1, 50) exemplify the single letter <o>, but they are not long enough (less than a half page long each) to claim that the scribes of these documents did not use the letter omega. Two issues are discussed: (1) Were there any patterns in the use of the letter omega in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Rjazanian legal documents, or was the use of the letter omega just at random? (2) If the use of omega follows certain patterns, what are the possible implications? Does the letter omega reflect any phonological/phonetic reality of the given times or is it still a purely graphic device reflecting orthographic traditions? To answer the first question, I collected all the examples of the letters omega and o, and then tried to determine whether there were any tendencies in their distribution. To answer the second question,I paid special attention to those slots in a phonological words that were reflexes of the Late Common Slavic acute or neo-accute accent. Presumably these slots would be the ones that were most likely to exemplify the letter omega consistently, if there was the phonemic distinction between /ô/ and /o/.
The investigation reveals that the letter o and omega did not represent separate phonemes in the dialect represented in the corpus. The use of the letter omega was purely graphic and traditional. Yet, there are certain patterns in its graphic distribution. Two positional principles apply: (1) the letter omega was used after another vowel letter. (2) The letter omega was used in the initial slot of phonological words. These two positional principles were constrained by an ordering restriction: Positional principle 2 was applied before positional principle 1. There are also certain morphemes that have relatively higher frequency of the use of the letter omega. On the other hand, the letter o was unmarked or default letter so that it could be used in the place of the letter omega. However, the opposite case rarely happens, and in case it happens, it can be ascribed to hypercorrection.