The Balto-Slavic language group consists of the Baltic and Slavic language subgroups of the Indo-European family. The grouping is due to a reconstructed Proto-Balto-Slavic language or dialect continuum.
There is some debate as to the nature of the reconstruction among linguists. Opinons range from an actual genetic unity to a more incidential "period of common language and life" with the strong similarities due to prolongued language contact.
Baltic and Slavic share more close similarities, both lexical and morphosyntactic, than any other language groups within the Indo-European language family. Many linguists, following the lead of such notable Indo-Europeanists as August Schleicher and Oswald Szemerényi, take these to indicate that the two groups separated from a common ancestor, Proto-Balto-Slavic, only well after the breakup of Indo-European.
Other linguists — themselves following such notable Indo-Europeanists as Antoine Meillet — regard these similarities as arising entirely from intensive contact between the two branches well after they had separately split directly from proto-Indo-European (the satem group).
The former view is traditionally the more widely held of the two: Beekes (1995: 22), for example, states: "The Baltic and Slavic languages were originally one language and so form one group". Collinge (1985) includes an appendix (pp. 271–77) on "Laws of accentuation in Balto-Slavic", apparently implying a belief in a single Balto-Slavic proto-language, but does concede, "everything in this section is controversial, including this sentence."
Evidence and interpretation
More than 100 words are common in their form and meaning to Baltic and Slavic alone, among them:
- Lithuanian bėgu "I run," Proto-Slavic běgǫ, Russian: begu, Polish: biegnę;
- Lithuanian liepa "linden tree," Latvian liepa, Old Prussian lipe, PS lipa, Russian: lipa, Polish: lipa.
The amount of shared words may be explained either by existence of common Balto-Slavic language in the past or by the following circumstances:
- Baltic and Slavic speakers are in close geographical, political and cultural contact, which naturally leads to lexical similarities; that is, each has borrowed words and meanings from the other. Differentiating between borrowings and common inheritance requires a careful study of sound shifts, and in some cases the information can be insufficient to resolve the question.
- Slavic and Baltic languages were not written down until 9th and 16th centuries A.D., respectively. Thus, the historical record tracing the development of the languages is limited.
- Baltic and Slavic languages both belong to the Satem sub-group of the Indo-European languages.
Meillet vs. Szemerényi
Until Meillet's Dialectes indo-européens of 1908, Balto-Slavic unity was undisputed among linguists -- as he notes himself at the beginning of the Le Balto-Slave chapter, "L'unité linguistique balto-slave est l'une de celles que personne ne conteste" ("Balto-Slavic linguistic unity is one of those that no one contests"). Meillet's critique of Balto-Slavic confined itself to the seven characteristics listed by Karl Brugmann in 1903, attempting to show that no single one of these is sufficient to prove genetic unity.
Szemerényi in his 1957 re-examination of Meillet's results concludes that the Balts and Slavs did, in fact, share a "period of common language and life", and were probably separated due to the incursion of Germanic tribes along the Vistula and the Dnepr roughly at the beginning of the Common Era. Szemerényi notes fourteen points that he judges cannot be ascribed to chance or parallel innovation, and thus considers proof of Balto-Slavic unity:
- phonological palatalization (described by Kurylowicz, 1956)
- the development of i and u before PIE resonants
- accentual innovations
- the definite adjective
- participle inflection in -yo-
- the genitive singular of thematic stems in -ā(t)-
- the comparative formation
- the oblique 1st singular men-, 1st plural nōsom
- tos/tā for PIE so/sā pronoun
- the agreement of the irregular athematic verb (Lithuanian dúoti, Slavic datь)
- the preterite in ē/ā
- verbs in Baltic -áuju, Slav. -ujǫ
- the strong correspondence of vocabulary not observed between any other pair of branches of the Indo-European languages.
Another common innovation proposed for Balto-Slavic is Winter's law (Werner Winter, 1978), the lengthening of a short vowel before a voiced plosive. Conditions of the operation of the law are disputed; according to Matasović (1995) the change only takes place in closed syllables.