Language and Ethnicity in Recent Approaches to the Reconstruction of Proto-Slavic

Matthew Feeney, University of Kansas


This paper will question the view, expressed in the recent Proto-Slavic dialect reconstructions of the Slavic historical linguists S. L. Nikolaev (Dybo et. al. 1990) and A. A. Zaliznjak (1987, 1988) that the language of the early Slavs in its earliest stage, the Proto-Slavic stage, the stage of before 500 A. D., can be reconstructed by using an approach to proto-dialect reconstruction that depends in part on assuming a correlation of language and ethnicity. It will try, as a basis for criticism, to clarify the meaning of the term “ethnicity” as it applies to the works of these authors and of other authors in Russia and in the West in the study of Russian language, society and culture. It will examine how ethnicity is understood in the dialect reconstructions of Nikolaev and Zaliznjak to correspond to the identity of Old Russian tribes of the Primary Chronicle, which was written in the 12th century, long after the end of Proto-Slavic. Nikolaev connects his linguistic reconstructions of Proto-Slavic dialects to the Kriviči, the Slověne and other tribes of the Chronicle. Zaliznjak connects the early Novgorod dialect to the Kriviči and to Proto-Slavic. Both authors attempt to connect their Proto-Slavic dialect reconstructions to these tribes and to the areas in the territory of the East Slavs that the tribes are said to have inhabited based on the recent work of the archaeologist V. V. Sedov. Sedov depends on work from the late 19th century of the linguist A. A. Šaxmatov, who theorized that a correlation of linguistic, ethnic and cultural data could be used to reconstruct early dialects of East Slavic and who depended on the Primary Chronicle for ethnic data on the Slavs in the form of tribe names.

The paper will argue that a correlation of language and ethnicity cannot necessarily be established to reconstruct Proto-Slavic dialects as in the work of Nikolaev and Zaliznjak. The primary argument against assuming a one to one correspondence of language to ethnicity is that language cannot in many cases be equated with ethnicity over long periods of time because there are many examples of change of language within ethnic groups and many examples of a lack of a one to one correspondence between language and ethnic group. This paper will examine how the works of the Slavic historical linguist Z. Gołab, the linguist and sociologist J. Fishman, the archaeologist C. Renfrew and others attempt to define ethnicity or “ethnos” and how they believe that language may or may not correlate with ethnicity.

I propose that the Old Russian tribes in the dialect reconstructions of Nikolaev and Zaliznjak as ethnic groups cannot be connected to dialects based only on descriptions in the Chronicle which make no reference to any language spoken by the tribes, and that the language of the Proto-Slavic period, not attested in any writings, cannot, based on any evidence, be connected to any specific Slavic tribe in view of the available definitions of ethnicity in relation to language.



Dybo, V. A.; Nikolaev S. L. and G. I. Zamjatina. 1990.  Osnovy slavjanskoj akcentologii. Moskva: Nauka.

Zaliznjak, A. A. 1987.  ”O jazykovoj situacii v drevnem Novgorode.” Russian Linguistics 11: 2, 115-132.

-----.  1988.   ”Drevnenovgorodskij dialekt i problemy dialektnogo členenija pozdnego praslavjanskogo jazyka.” Slavjanskoe jazykoznanie. X meždunarodnyj s”ezd slavistov. Doklady sovetskoj delegacii. Moskva. Pp. 164-175.