European hydrotoponymy (IV): tug of war between Balto-Slavic and West Uralic


In his recent paper on Late Proto-Indo-European migrations, when citing Udolph to support his model, Frederik Kortlandt failed to mention that the Old European hydrotoponymy in northern Central-East Europe evolved into Baltic and Slavic layers, and both take part in some Northern European (i.e. Germanic – Balto-Slavic) commonalities.


From Expansion slavischer Stämme aus namenkundlicher und bodenkundlicher sicht, by Udolph, Onomastica (2016), translated into English (emphasis mine):

NOTE. An archived version is available here. The DOI references for Onomastica do not work.

(…) there is a clear center of Slavic names in the area north of the Carpathians. Among them are root words of the Slavic languages such as reka / rzeka, potok u. a. m.

Even more important than this mapping is the question of how the dispersion of ancient Slavic names happened. What is meant by ancient Slavic names? I elaborated on this in this journal years ago (Udolph, 1997):

(1)Ancient suffixes that are no longer productive today.

This clearly includes Slavic *-(j)ava as in Vir-ava, Vod-ava, Il-ava, Glin-iawa, Breg-ava, Ljut-ava, Mor-ava, Orl-java among others. It has clear links to the ancient common Indo-European language (Lupawa, Morava-March-Moravia, Orava, Widawa). They have a center north of the Carpathians.


(2) Unproductive appellatives (water words), which have disappeared from the language, are certain witnesses of ancient Slavic settlements. A nice example of this is Ukr. bahno, Pol. bagno ‘swamp, bog, morass’ etc. The word has long been missing in South Slavic, although it appears in South Slavic names, but only in very specific areas (see Udolph, 1979, pp. 324-336).

(3) Names that go back to different sound shifts. [Examples:]

  • (…) the Slavic clan around Old Sorbian brna ‘feces, earth’, Bulgarian OCS brьnije ‘feces, loam’, OCS brъna ‘feces’, Slovenian brn, ‘river mud’, etc. is solved with the inclusion of onomastic materials (Udolph, 1979, p. 499-514). (…) Toponymic mapping shows important details.
  • bryn-slavic
    Karte 4. brъn < *brŭn und bryn- < *brūn- in slavischen Namen
  • (…)We also have an ablauting *krŭn-:*krūn- in front of us. Map 5 shows the distribution of both variants in Slavic names.
  • The next case is quite similar. It concerns Russ. appellative grjaz’ ‘dirt, feces, mud’, (…) for which an Old Slavic form *gręz exists. Slavic also knows the ablauting variant *grǫz.

    These maps (see Map 6, p. 222) show that a homeland of Slavic tribes can only be inferred north of the Carpathians.

    (4) Place-names formed by Slavic suffixes of Pre-Slavic nature, i.e. derived from Old European hydronyms.

    (a) The largest river in Poland, the Wisła, German Vistula, bears a clearly Pre-Slavic name, no matter how one explains it (Babik, 2001, pp. 311-315; Bijak, 2013, p. 34, Udolph, 1990 , Pp. 303-311).

    (b) With the same suffix are formed Sanok, place on the southwest of Przemyśl; Sanoka, a no longer known waters name, 1448 as fluvium Szanoka, near the place Sanoka and with a diminutive suffix -ok- a tributary of the Sanok, which is called Sanoczek (for details see Udolph, 1990, pp. 264-270; Rymut / Majtan, 1998, p. 222). The San also has a single-language name, but that does not change anything about the right etymology. The suffix variant -očь also includes Liwocz and Liwoczka, river names near Cracow; also a mountain range of the Beskydy is mentioned at Długosz as Lywocz.

    According to the opinion of the “Słownik prasłowiański” (Sławski (red.), 1974, p. 92), the suffix -ok- represents a Proto-Slavic archaism. It appears, for example, in sъvědokъ, snubokъ, vidokъ, edok, igrok, inok among others, but its antiquity also shows, among other things, that it started at archaic athematic tribes.

    Mapping of older and younger East Slavic place-names and translation into settlement evolution.

    Slavonic Urheimat

    If we apply this to the loess distribution in western Ukraine and south-eastern Poland, it is very noticeable that the center of the Old Slavic place names lies in the area where loess dispersal is gradually “frayed out”, i.e. for example, in the area west of Kiev between Krakow in the west and Winnycja and Moldavia in the east. In short, the distribution of good soils coincides with ancient Slavic names. If that is correct, we can expect a homeland in the Pre-Carpathian region, or better, a core landscape of Slavic settlement.

    The existence of Pre-Slavic Indo-European place names and water names whose structure indicates that they originated from an Indo-European basis, but then also developed Slavic peculiarities, can now – as stated above – only be understood to mean that the language group that we call today Slavic emerged in a century-long process from an Indo-European dialectal area.

    Loess areas between Poland and Ukraine. Image from Jary et al. (2018).

    From a genetic point of view, the scarce data published to date show a clear shift of central-east populations from more Corded Ware-like groups in the EBA towards more BBC-derived ancestry in the common era, to the point where ancient DNA samples from East Germany, Poland and Lithuania evolve from clustering between Corded Ware and Sub-Neolithic peoples to clustering close to Bell Beaker-derived groups, such as West Germanic peoples, Tollense samples, etc. (see below)

    Furthermore, sampled Early Slavs show bottlenecks under “Dinaric” I2a-L621 and central-eastern E1b-V13, which – in combination with the known phylogeography of Únětice and Urnfield – is compatible with its late expansion from a central-east European Slavonic homeland, such as the Pomeranian culture, in turn likely derived from Lusatian culture groups.

    This doesn’t preclude a more immediate expansion of Common Slavic in Antiquity closer to the northern Carpathians, which is also supported by the available Early Slavic sampling, apart from samples from the Avar and Hungarian polities.

    Likely Baltic (yellow-green) and Slavic (orange) groups ca. 500 AD on, with Finnic (cyan) and Mordvinic (blue) groups roughly divided through hydrotoponymy line ca. 1000 AD Top Left: Late Iron Age cultures. Top right: PCA of groups from the Iron Age to the Middle Ages. Y-DNA haplogroups during the Germanic migrations (Bottom left) and during the Middle Ages (Bottom right). Notice a majority non-R1a lineages among sampled Early Slavs. See full maps and PCAs.

    Proto-Baltic / Proto-Slavic

    Northern European hydronymy

    From Alteuropäische Hydronymie und urslavische Gewässernamen, by Udolph, Onomastica (1997), translated into English (emphasis mine):

    NOTE. An HTML version is available at Jurgen Udolph’s personal site.

    Because of the already striking similarities as the well-known “-m-case”, the number-words for ‘1000’, ’11’ and ’12’ and so on, J. Grimm had already assumed a close relationship between Germanic and Baltic and Slavic. (…)

    In my own search, I approached this trinity from the nomenclature side. In doing so, I noticed some name groups that can speak for a certain common context:

    1.* bhelgh-, *bholgh-.

    Map 10, p. 64, shows that a root * bhelgh- occurs in the name material of a region from which later Germanic, Baltic and Slavic originated. The Balkans play no role in this.


    2. *dhelbh-, *dholbh-, *dhl̥bh-

    The proof of the three ablauting * dhelbh, * dholbh, * dhl̥bh- within a limited area shows the close relationship that this root has with the Indo-European basis. Again it is significant in which area the names meet (…)


    3. An Indo-European root extension *per-s- with the meaning ‘spray, splash, dust, drop’ is detectable in several languages (…). From a Baltic-Slavic-Germanic peculiarity cannot therefore be spoken from the toponymic point of view. The picture changes, however, if one includes the derived water names.

    4. The root extension *pel-t-, *pol-t-, *pl̥-t- of a tribe widely spread in the Indo-European languages around *pel-, pol- ‘pour, flow, etc.’, whose reflexes are found Armenian through Baltic and Slavic to the Celtic area, is found in the Baltic toponymy, cf. Latv. palts, palte ‘puddle, pool’.

    The dynamics of stylistic changes of the form of the “Trzciniec pot” in the lowland regions of Central Europe, and spreading routes of the Trzciniec package in Central Europe. A good proxy for contacts through the Northern European Plain during the Early Bronze Age. Modified from Czebreszuk (1998).

    Early Balto-Finnic

    In order to properly delimit (geographically and chonologically) the Proto-Baltic and Proto-Slavic expansions, it is necessary to understand where the late Balto-Finnic homeland was located during the Bronze Age. The following are excerpts from the comprehensive hydrotoponymic study by Pauli Rahkonen (2013):

    In any case, Finnic probably had its origin somewhere around the Gulf of Finland. Names of large and central rivers such as Vuoksi (< Finnic vuo ‘stream’) and Neva (< Finnic neva ‘marsh, river’) must be very old and might represent Proto-Finnic hydronyms. In the southern coastal area of Finland, the names Kymi and Nietoo < *Niet|oja (id. later Porvoonjoki) may also be of Finnic origin and derive from, respectively, kymi ‘stream’ (see SSA I s.v. *kymi; see however SPK s.v. Kemijärvi; Rahkonen 2013: 24) and nieto(s) ‘heap of snow’ (SSA II s.v. nietos), in hydronyms probably ‘high (snowy?) banks of a river’. Mustion|joki is clearly a Finnish name < *must|oja ‘black river’. The river name Vantaa remains somewhat obscure, although Nissilä (see SPK s.v. Vantaanjoki) has derived it from the Finnic word vana ‘water route’. In western Finland the names of large rivers, such as Aura and Eura, are supposedly of Germanic origin (Koivulehto 1987).

    In Estonia the names of many of the most important rivers might be of Finnic origin: e.g. Ema|jõgi Est. ema ‘mother’ [Tartu district] (?? cf. the Lake Piiga|ndi < Est. piiga ‘maiden’), Pärnu [Pärnu district] < Est. pärn ‘linden’, Valge|jõgi [Loksa district] < Est. valge ‘white’, Must|jõgi [Võru district] < Est. must ‘black’. It is possible that Emajogi and especially Piigandi are the result of later folk etymologizing of a name with some unknown origin. However, as a naming motif there exist in Finland numerous toponyms with the stems Finnic *emä (e.g. 3 Emäjoki), *neit(V)- ‘maiden’ (e.g. Neitijärvi, Neittävänjoki, Neittävänjärvi) and Saami stems that can be derived from Proto Saami *nejte̮ ‘id’ (GT2000; NA).

    The historical southern boundary of Finnic hydronyms, excluding hydronyms produced by the Karelian refugees of the 17th century.

    These seemingly very old names of relatively large rivers in southern Finland, modern Leningrad oblast and Estonia support the hypothesis that Proto-Finnic was spoken for a long time on both sides of the Gulf of Finland and it thus basically corresponds to the hypothesis of Terho Itkonen (see below). In the Novgorod, Tver or Vologda oblasts of Russia, Finnic names for large rivers cannot be found (Rahkonen 2011: 229). For this reason, it is likely that the Late Proto-Finnic homeland was the area around the Gulf of Finland.

    Beyond the southeastern boundary of the modern or historically known Finnic-speaking area, there exists a toponymic layer belonging to the supposedly non-Finnic Novgorodian Čudes (see Rahkonen 2011). In theory it is possible that Proto-Finnic and Proto-Čudian separated from each other at an early stage or it is even possible that Proto-Čudian was identical with Proto-Finnic. However, this cannot be proven, because there is not enough material available describing what Novgorodian Čudic was like exactly.

    Yakhr-, -khra, yedr-, -dra and yer-/yar, -er(o), -or(o) names of lakes in Central and North Russia and the possible boundary of the proto-language words *jäkra/ä and *järka/ä. Rahkonen (2013)

    A summary of the data is then:

    • The Daugava River and the Gulf of Livonia formed the most stable south-western Balto-Finnic border (up until ca. 1000 AD): the Daugava shows a likely Indo-European etymology, while some of its tributaries are best explained as derived from Uralic.
    • The first layer of “Early Baltic” loans in Early Balto-Finnic are of a non-attested Baltic dialect closest to Proto-Balto-Slavic (read more about this early layer).
    • The latest samples of the Trzciniec culture (or derived Iron Age group) from its easternmost group in Turlojiškė (ca. 1000-800 BC?) show a western shift towards Bell Beaker, although they show a majority of hg. R1a-Z280; while the earliest sample from Gustorzyn (ca. 1900 BC), likely from Trzciniec/Iwno, from the westernmost area of the culture, shows a Corded Ware-like ancestry (and hg. R1a-Z280, likely S24902+) among a BA sampling from Poland clearly derived from Bell Beaker groups.

    One can therefore infer that the expansion of the Trzciniec culture – as the earliest expansion of central-west European peoples into the Baltic after the Bell Beaker period – represented either the whole disintegrating Balto-Slavic community, or at least an Early Baltic-speaking community expanding from the West Baltic area to the east.

    The similarity of Early Slavs and the Trzciniec outlier with the Czech BA cluster, formed by samples from Bohemia (ca. 2200–1700 BC), and the varied haplogroups found among Early Slavs – reminiscent of the variability of the Unetice/Urnfield sampling – may help tentatively connect the early Proto-Slavic homeland more strongly with a Proto-Lusatian community immediately to the south-west of the Iwno/Proto-Trzciniec core.

    Top Left:Likely Baltic, Slavic, and Balto-Finnic-speaking territories (asynchronous), overlaid over Late Bronze Age cultures. Balto-Slavic in green: West(-East?) Baltic (B1), unattested early Baltic (B2), and Slavic (S). Late Balto-Finnic (F) in cyan. In red, Tollense and Turlojiškė sampling. Dashed black line: Balto-Slavic/West Uralic hydrotoponymy border until ca. 1000 AD. Top right: PCA of groups from the Early Bronze Age to the Late Bronze Age. Marked are Iwno/Pre-Trzciniec of Gustorzyn (see below), Late Trzciniec/Iron Age samples from Turlojiškė, and in dashed line approximate extent of Tollense cluster; Y-DNA haplogroups during the Late Bronze Age (Bottom left) and during the Early Iron Age (Bottom right). Notice a majority non-R1a lineages among sampled Early Slavs. See full maps and PCAs.

    Proto-Balto-Slavic homeland

    Disconnected western border: Germanic

    The common Balto-Slavic – Germanic community must necessarily be traced back to the West Baltic. From Udolph’s Namenkundliche Studien zum Germanenproblem, de Gruyter (1994), translated from German (emphasis mine):

    My work [Namenkundliche Studien zum Germanenproblem] has shown how strong the Germanic toponymy is related to the East, less to Slavic, much more to Baltic. It confirms the recent thesis by W.P. Schmid on the special relationship Germanic and Baltic, according to which “the formation of the typical Germanic linguistic characteristics…must have taken place in the neighborhood of Baltic“.

    If one starts from a Germanic core area whose eastern boundary is to be set on the middle Elbe between the Erzgebirge and Altmark, there are little more than 400 km. to the undoubtedly Baltic settlement area east of the Vistula. Stretching the Baltic area westwards over the Vistula (as far as the much-cited Persante), the distance is reduced to less than 300 km. Assuming further that Indo-European tribes between the developing Germanic and the Baltic groups represent the connection between the two language groups, so can one understand well the special relationship proposed by W.P. Schmid between Germanic and Baltic. In an earlier period shared Slavic evidently the same similarities (Baltic-Slavic-Germanic peculiarities).

    Top: Palaeo-Germanic (G2, blue area), Proto-Balto-Slavic/Pre-Baltic (PBSL, green area) and Early Proto-Balto-Finnic (PBF, cyan area) homelands superimposed over Early Bronze Age cultures. Persante hydronym and Gustorzyn ancient DNA sample location marked. Y-DNA haplogroups during the Early Bronze Age (Bottom left) and during the Middle Bronze Age (Bottom right). Notice a mix of R1b-L151 samples from the west and the process of integration of R1a-Z645 lineages from the the north-east. See full maps and PCAs.

    Substrate and immediate eastern border: Early Balto-Finnic

    While Balto-Finnic shows a late Balto-Slavic adstrate, Balto-Slavic has a Balto-Finnic(-like) substrate, also found later in Baltic and Slavic, which implies that Balto-Slavic (and later Baltic and Slavic) replaced the language of peoples who spoke Balto-Finnic(-like) languages, influencing at the same time the language of neighbouring peoples, who still spoke Balto-Finnic (or were directly connected to the Balto-Finnic community).

    For more on this relative chronology in Balto-Slavic – Balto-Finnic contacts, see e.g. the recent posts on Kallio (2003), Olander (2019), or a summary of this substrate.

    While Rahkonen (2013) entertains Parpola’s theory of a West-Uralic-speaking Netted Ware area (ca. 1900-500 BC), due to the Uralic-like hydrotoponymy of its territory, he also supports Itkonen’s idea of the ancient presence of almost exclusively Balto-Finnic place and river names in the Eastern Baltic and the Gulf of Finland since at least the Corded Ware period, due to the lack of Indo-European layers there:

    NOTE. This idea was also recently repeated by Kallio (2015), who can’t find a non-Uralic layer of hydrotoponymy in Balto-Finnic-speaking areas.

    It should be observed that the territory between the historical Finnic and Mordvin-speaking areas matches quite well with the area of the so-called Textile Ceramics [circa 1900–800 BC] (cf. Parpola 2012: 288). The culture of Textile Ceramics could function as a bridge between these two extreme points. Languages that were spoken later in this vast territory between Finland–Estonia and Mordovia seem to derive from Western Uralic (WU) as well. I have called those languages Meryan-Muroma, Eastern and Western Čudian and an unknown “x” language spoken in inland Finland, Karelia and the Lake Region of the Russian North (Rahkonen 2011; 241; 2012a: 19–27; 2013: 5– 43). This might mean that the territory of the Early Textile Ceramics reflects to some extent the area of late Western Uralic.

    The archaeologically problematic area is Estonia, Livonia and Coastal Finland – the area traditionally assumed to have been populated by the late Proto-Finns. The Textile Ceramics culture was absent there. It is very difficult to believe that the Textile Ware population in inland Finland migrated or was even the main factor bringing the Pre- or Early Proto-Finnic language to Estonia or Livonia. There are no archaeological or toponymic signs of it. Therefore, I am forced to believe that Textile Ceramics did not bring Uralic-speaking people to those regions. This makes it possible, but not absolutely proven, to assume that some type of Uralic language was spoken in the region of the Gulf of Finland already before Textile Ceramics spread to the northwest (circa 1900 BC).

    Top Left: Corded Ware culture expansion. Top right: PCA of Corded Ware and Sub-Neolithic groups. Y-DNA haplogroups during the Corded Ware expansion (Bottom left) and during the subsequent Bell Beaker expansion (Bottom right). Notice the rapid population replacement of typical Corded Ware R1a-Z645 lineages by expanding Bell Beakers of hg. R1b-L23 in central-east Europe, while they show continuity in the described ancestral Fennoscandian West-Uralic-speaking territory. See full maps and PCAs.

    The Corded Ware population in Finland is thought to have been NW Indo-European by many scholars (e.g. Koivulehto 2006: 154–155; Carpelan & Parpola 2001: 84). At least, it is probable that the Corded Ware culture was brought to Finland by waves of migration, because the representatives of the former Late Comb Ceramics partially lived at the same time side by side with the Corded Ware population. However, it is possible that the immigrants were a population that spoke Proto-Uralic, who had adopted the Corded Ware culture from their Indo-European neighbors, possibly from the population of the Fatjanovo culture, e.g. in the Valdai region. This was suggested by Terho Itkonen (1997: 251) as well. In that case the population of the Typical and Late Comb Ceramics may have spoken some Paleo European language (see Saarikivi 2004a). In the Early Bronze Age, the Baltic Pre-Finnic language that I have suggested must have been very close to late WU and therefore no substantial linguistic differences existed between the Baltic Pre-Finns and the population of Textile Ceramics in inland Finland. I admit that this model is difficult to prove, but I have presented it primarily in order to offer new models of thinking.16 At least, there is no archaeological or linguistic reason against this idea.

    This dubitative attribution of Proto-Uralic to the expansion of Corded Ware groups in eastern Europe, which is what hydrotoponymic data suggests in combination with archaeology, has to be understood as a consequence of how striking Rahkonen finds the results of his research, despite Itkonen’s previous proposal, in the context of an overwhelming majority of Indo-Europeanists who, until very recently, simplistically associated Corded Ware with the Indo-European expansion.


    Even Kortlandt accepts at this point the identification of expanding East Bell Beakers from the Carpathian Basin as those who left the Alteuropäische layer reaching up to the Baltic. However, he identified Udolph’s data solely with West Indo-European, forgetting to mention the commonly agreed upon western Proto-Balto-Slavic homeland, most likely because it contradicts two of his main tenets:

    1. that Balto-Slavic split from a hypothetical Indo-Slavonic (i.e. Satem) group expanding from the east; and
    2. that laryngeals can be reconstructed for Balto-Slavic – unlike for North-West Indo-European.
    Indo-European hydrotoponymy in Europe and the Middle East (scarce Central Asian data). Baltic data compensated, statistical method RBF: intermediate regions devoid of Indo-European toponyms are inferred to have them; it compensates thus e.g. for the scarce Indo-European hydrotoponyms in Poland by assuming ‘soft’ continuity from West Germany to the Baltic.

    A hypothetic “Pre-Indo-Slavonic” laryngeal Indo-European layer reaching Fennoscandia and the Forest Zone with Corded Ware is fully at odds with all known data:

    • in comparative grammar, since the one feature that characterizes Graeco-Aryan is precisely its set of innovations relative to Northern Indo-European, which presupposes a longer contact (and further laryngeal loss) once Tocharian and North-West Indo-European had separated – hence probably represented by Palaeo-BalkanCatacomb-Poltavka contacts once Afanasevo and Yamna settlers from the Carpathian Basin / East Bell Beakers had become isolated;
    • in hydrotoponymy, because of the prehistoric linguistic areas that can be inferred from (1) the distribution of Old European hydrotoponymy; (2) Udolph’s work on Germanic and the likely non-Indo-European substrate in Scandinavia and land contacts with Balto-Finnic; (3) from the Northern European traits in the Northern European Plain; or (4) from the decreasing proportion of Indo-European place and river names from central Europe towards the east and north.
    • NOTE. An alternative explanation of Old European/Balto-Slavic layers, e.g. by a ‘Centum’ Temematic – even if one obviates the general academic rejection to Holzer’s proposal – couldn’t account for the absolute lack of an ancestral layer of Indo-European hydrotoponymy in North-Eastern Europe (i.e. the longest-lasting Corded Ware territory), in sharp contrast with Western Europe, South-Eastern Europe, and South Asia. All of that contradicts an Eastern Indo-European community, even without a need to recall that the oldest hydrotoponymic layers common to Fennoscandia and the Forest Zone are of Uralic nature.

    • in archaeology, because cultural expansions of the Eastern European Early Bronze Age province since the Bell Beaker period (viz. Mierzanowice, Trzciniec, Lusatian, Pomeranian, West Baltic Culture of Cairns) suggest once and again west-east movements, most (if not all) of which – based on the presence of Indo-European speakers during the common era – were likely associated with Indo-European-speaking communities replacing or displacing previous ones.
    • in palaeogenomics, because of the late and different association of Corded Ware ancestry and haplogroups among Balto-Slavic and Indo-Iranian communities, in turn corresponding to the different satemization processes found in both dialects, which may have actually been related to the Uralic substrate that is found in both (read more on Uralic influences on Balto-Slavic and on Indo-Iranian).

    On the other hand, a careful combination of Uralic and Indo-European comparative grammar, hydrotoponymic data, and population genomics fits perfectly well Itkonen’s and Rahkonen’s association of Corded Ware in Eastern Europe with Uralic languages, as well as the traditional mainstream view of Uralic before Indo-European in Fennoscandia and in the Forest Zone, as I explained in a recent post about genetic continuity in the East Baltic area.

    Population genomics is not the main reason to reject the Indo-European Corded Ware theory – or any other prehistoric ethnolinguistic identification, for that matter. It can’t be. This new field offers just the occasional confirmation of a well-founded theory or, alternatively, another nail in the coffin of fringe theories that were actually never that likely, but seemed impossible to fully dismiss on purely theoretical grounds.

    The problem with Corded Ware was that we couldn’t see how unlikely its association with Indo-European languages was until we had ancient DNA to corroborate archaeological models, because few (if any) Indo-Europeanists really cared about the linguistic prehistory of eastern and northern Europe, or about Uralic languages in general (contrary to the general trend among Uralicists to be well-versed in Indo-European studies). Now they will.


    Balto-Slavic accentual mobility: an innovation in contact with Balto-Finnic


    Some very specific prosodic innovations affected the Balto-Slavic linguistic community, probably at a time when it already showed internal dialectal differences. Whether those innovations were related to archaic remnants stemming from the parent Proto-Indo-European language, and whether that disintegrating community included different dialects, remains an object of active debate.

    “Archaic” Balto-Slavic?

    The main question about Balto-Slavic is whether this concept represents a single community, or it was rather a continuum formed by two (Baltic and Slavic) or possibly three (East Baltic, West Baltic, Slavic) neighbouring communities, speaking closely related Northern European dialects, which just happened to evolve very close to each other, i.e. in cultures that were closer to each other than they were to Germanic or Balto-Finnic.

    In my opinion, their similarities warrant the reconstruction of a single original central-east European community since the dissolution of Bell Beakers, speaking a North-West Indo-European dialect, and most internal differences between Baltic and Slavic may be explained as innovations. The precise identification of a Proto-Balto-Slavic community remains elusive, although the Unetice-Iwno-Mierzanowice triangle remains the best bet, with Trzciniec showing what seems like an Early Slavic-like population reaching up to the East Baltic.

    Bell Beaker expansion in eastern Europe and around the Baltic.

    The reconstruction of a common Balto-Slavic proto-language is known to range from difficult to impossible, depending on who you ask, not the least because of the differences that are discussed in this post, and which have been the own battlefield created by Balticists and Slavicists for decades. The old tenet that Balto-Slavic had inherited some traits directly from PIE is – in contrast with e.g. the Italo-Celtic concept – surprisingly vivid still today.

    Take, for example, these internal differences and supposedly archaic traits:

    • The ruKi rule, where Baltic shows mostly *is, *us, and Slavic shows *, *; or the different output of Satemization in Baltic compared to Slavic (and both compared to Indo-Iranian). Nevertheless, the Satemization trends in Balto-Slavic and Indo-Iranian are usually explained together and taken as a sign of a traditional three-velar system for PIE.
      • If you consider Satemization as a late trend in Balto-Slavic, affecting each dialect in a different way, and thus Balto-Slavic phonetic evolution clearly distinct from the Indo-Iranian trend, rejecting trictectalism, this problem is solved. This would also solve the impossible Indo-Slavonic problem, and the paradox of Balto-Slavic sharing a genetic phylum with Germanic and Italo-Celtic.
      • If you, however, conflate these differences and North-West Indo-European features with an ad hoc explanation of a hypothetic Centum dialect called Temematic, which intends to solve their (in Holzer’s words) unlösbaren inconsistencies, you essentially add a whole new inconsistency without solving their previous ones. For a full rebuttal of Holzer‘s Temematic etymologies, see Matasović (2014).
    • Kortlandt’s reconstruction of a PIE 3rd singular *-e (Baltic from *-et, Slavic from *-eti) and 3rd plural *-o, which would have been replaced independently in other Indo-European dialects (by *-eti, *-onti), is reminiscent of his own reconstruction of laryngeals almost up to the attestation of all Indo-European dialects, including Baltic. If you consider these traits an innovation, this artificially created problem is immediately solved.
    • Genitive plural Pre-Baltic *-ōm vs. Pre-Slavic *-ŏm is another commonly cited example. However, I would place this difference among other similar differences found within other related IE dialects, hence a common phonetic innovation (see e.g. below for the classicist view of unstable obliques).
    • Kortlandt’s reconstruction of oblique cases in *-m-, shared with Germanic, as stemming from a common Middle PIE *-mus (based essentially on Old Lithuanian *-mus and on a non-existent equivalent Anatolian formation), hence different from those in *-bʰ-. While you can argue for infinite more reasonable alternatives, the most often cited one is the ins.-dat. pl. *-bʰ- as a common NWIE innovation based on ins. sg. *bʰi-, while forms in *-m- (including ins. sg.) as a Northern European phonetic innovation. The simplest, most elegant explanation I’ve read to date (I think by Rémy Viredaz) is the similar bilabial change of Giacobo/Giacomo in Italian…

    As you can see, some Balto-Slavicists could have written whole books about how their object of study holds the key to solve problems on common Proto-Indo-European paradigms, some of which wouldn’t need solving if they hadn’t been started by Balto-Slavicists themselves…

    While all of these “archaic” traits are easily dismissed without further ado (except for some understandable damaged pride among academics), there is one especially pervasive idea among those willing to find the white whale of laryngeal remnants in Indo-European languages (see here for other examples of dubious laryngeal remains).

    The prophecy before the battle, Józef Ryszkiewicz, 1890. Or, how to conjure laryngeal remnants in Balto-Slavic.

    Accentual development in contact

    Whichever position one prefers, the general argument is that the Balto-Slavic accentual system is non-trivial for the classification of both dialects into a common branch. However, that would only be completely true if it were a common innovation, but not so much if it were a natural laryngeal evolution.

    In fact, the broken tone preserving a PIE laryngeal, as proposed by Kortlandt – continuing Meillet’s idea of synchronous PIE-PBS developments – was always very difficult to accept. Even the rising pronunciation is not original, and represents a shift of the accent on the initial syllable in Latvian…

    In my opinion, the derivation of a modern phenomenon from a PIE laryngeal must always raise a red flag (see below on archaisms vs. innovations in IE languages). As you can see from my take of the fable in Balto-Slavic, which uses Kortlandt’s reconstruction, I preferred not to take into account the reconstructed accents. The fable remains thus a model of what could have been a common Proto-Balto-Slavic, unlike other reconstructions, which are much less tentative.

    NOTE. You could argue that accents may be reconstructed in spite of the wrong theory behind them, but this is not true; at least not of all reconstructed accents, some of which require further assumptions. Think about it this way: I wouldn’t take into account a reconstruction of Germanic accent which used Danish glottalized tone for a hypothetical Proto-Germanic laryngeal, even if most accents seemed correct at first sight. The truth is, I didn’t want to dedicate time to go through each reconstructed word and its explanation, so it was easier to delete them all, even though that’s not an actual solution, either. You will find the same doubts in the description of Balto-Slavic evolution in my old Modern Indo-European grammar. The introduction to IE dialects was partially copied from Wikipedia (which, in the case of Balto-Slavic, essentially summarized data from Kortlandt), but in the grammar I just tried to keep the basics, and not very successfully, because you need a comprehensive and coherent description of a language’s evolution. That’s how messed up the question was, and how it still is, even though 15 years of research have passed…

    Despite the idea of an “archaic Balto-Slavic”, especially prevalent among older researchers, the current trend is to consider Balto-Slavic prosodic changes as a natural innovation, even among those who would artificially reconstruct laryngeal remnants up to late Balto-Slavic stages.

    NOTE. You can read more about the Proto-Indo-European laryngeal loss and vocalism. While the presence of certain laryngeals up to Late PIE is certain, the loss in many environments is also generally agreed upon. This is especially true of a hypothetical Indo-Slavonic branch, like that supported by Kortlandt: even those supporting multiple laryngeal loss events must admit that Indo-Iranian showed no laryngeals before its disintegration, whether they put this loss as an internal Proto-Indo-Iranian evolution, or they place it earlier. Tocharian attests to an evolution similar to the rest of Late PIE dialects (hence to a quite early laryngeal loss trend), and Balkan dialects (supposedly splitting before Indo-Slavonic) also lost laryngeals in a similar way, except for initial ones, which show vocalic output instead of full loss.

    So, where does a laryngeal loss fit in this “Indo-Slavonic” scheme, exactly? Before the Tocharian split? Before the Balkan split? After the Balkan split but before the full loss in Indo-Iranian? And where exactly does this group belong regarding Corded Ware, and where does Germanic? No idea (but you can read Kortlandt try fitting his model with Gimbutas’ “Kurgan peoples”). Because one thing is to reconstruct Proto-Greek, or Proto-Celtic, or Proto-Italic forms without laryngeals and to put them in relation with a purely theoretical three-laryngeal PIE, and a different one is to reconstruct laryngeals (including in environments which were already lost in Tocharian) up to Proto-Baltic and Proto-Slavic, which seems more than just a bit of a stretch…

    Indo-European dialectal relationships, from Mallory and Adams (2006).

    Thomas Olander offered a summary of the current positions regarding the Balto-Slavic accentual system recently in Indo-European heritage in the Balto-Slavic accentuation system (2013), which also contains a summary of his Mobility Law, to explain this phenomenon as a common Pre-Baltic and Pre-Slavic innovation.

    Andersen, an advocate of different Baltic and Slavic dialects developing in contact with Satem dialects, suggested in The Satem Languages of the Indo-European Northwest. First Contacts? (2009), partially based on Olander’s initial proposal, that Baltic and Slavic accentual mobility arose as a result of contact with languages with fixed word-initial ictus: the accent was lost in the word-final mora in pre-Proto-Baltic and, independently, in pre-Proto-Slavic. Hence, the central innovation, the accent loss

    technically is not a shared Slavic and Baltic innovation. On the contrary. It shows that the speakers of the Pre-Slavic and Pre-Baltic dialects formed bilingual communities with speakers of contact dialects that were of the same prosodic type, viz. had fixed initial ictus but no free accent.

    In the meantime, Olander (2019) has found out about more real-world examples of this same phenomenon:

    Prosodic features are known to be susceptible to contact influence (Salmons 1992:1 and passim). While it does not directly influence the evaluation of the Mobility Law as a non-trivial innovation, it is interesting that most of the alleged parallels are indeed considered to be contact-induced changes due to influence from languages with an ictus on the word-initial syllable (Andersen 2009: 11-14; Rinkevičius 2013): Balto-Fennic in the case of the Karelian and (perhaps through Latvian as an intermediary) Žemaitian dialects, and Hungarian in the case of the Slavonian dialects (for Karelian see Jakobson 1938/2002: 239; Veenker 1967: 74; Thomason & Kaufman 1988: 122, 241; Salmons 1992: 41- 42; for Žemaitian see Zinkevičius 1966: 45- 46; for Slavonian see Ivić 1958: 287).

    I am not aware of any hypotheses on a contact-induced origin for Greek prosodic innovations, but it is at least worth noting that there is agreement on significant substrate influence on Greek. While we may speculate that these substrate language(s) had word-initial ictus like Balto-Fennic and Hungarian, we do not have any actual information about the prosodic system(s) (thus even Beekes 2014: 9, who in other respects provides a fairly detailed picture of the substrate).

    The parallels from other speech varieties show that an accent loss of the type suggested for a pre-stage of Baltic and Slavic is a type of prosodic change that has occurred several times in different various systems. In the context of the present paper this means that the sound law itself cannot be classified as a non-trivial innovation; it may have taken place in already differentiated dialects or languages. Also, the parallels suggest that a loss of the accent may be the result of influence from languages with fixed word-initial ictus.

    In this time when even linguists agree that substrate/contact languages have to be related to specific ethnolinguistic groups (see here for Germanic), the fact that Olander stops short of naming this substrate behind Pre-Baltic and Pre-Slavic as being Late Uralic in general, or Balto-Finnic in particular, is surprising.

    NOTE. Not the least because Olander is part of the Homeland Timeline map project of the Copenhagen group (their website is not working right now), and they placed Volosovo as Uralians expanding with Netted Ware in contact with the Baltic during the Bronze Age…So what’s to doubt about Balto-Slavic – Balto-Finnic contacts, exactly? Maybe if Balto-Finnic was the substrate language behind Balto-Slavic (as it was in Germanic), it would mean that Uralic languages were previously spoken in territories that became later Germanic- and Balto-Slavic-speaking?

    Still image from the Copenhagen Timeline Map (accessed one year ago), showing in green Volosovo hunter-gatherers who, according to the map, later expand to the north-east with Netted Ware…

    Archaism vs. Innovation

    If we tried to describe these trends of explaining peculiar traits in recent Indo-European dialects as archaism vs. innovation from a purely theoretical point of view, we could roughly distinguish two different positions (with infinite variants, of course) among academics – just like we could find people more inclined to leftist or rightist trends when speaking about economy. When it comes to linguistics, which is the least messed-up field where one can describe Indo-European and Indo-Europeans, I think we can find two alternative basic tenets:

    • One idea would hold that the oldest attested dialects – and those with an older guesstimated proto-language – are the gold standard as to what the original situation may have been, and about what could be described as an archaism. For example, Ancient Greek and Mycenaean or Vedic Sanskrit for old dialects; Tocharian, or Italic dialects for those with quite old guesstimates, each for different reasons; and Anatolian for both, old dialect and attested early.
    • NOTE. Nevertheless, the phonology of Anatolian inscriptions is often difficult to ascertain, and its ancient dialectal nature stemming from a Middle PIE stage may still be disputed by some. The archaic nature of Tocharian seems to be maybe less generally accepted than that of Anatolian, but I would say there is general consensus on the matter today.

    • The other general idea would support that the most isolated dialects are those which may hold the key to the oldest Indo-European traits, somehow hidden from external influences and areal contacts, and thus from generalized innovative trends that have affected the best known ancient dialects. In that sense, languages like Slavic, Baltic, Albanian, or Armenian – as well as some Balkan fragmentary dialects – are quite common aims of study to reveal exceptional PIE traits.

    I think the education system in Southern Europe and South Asia is that of formal classicists. In eastern Europe, I’d reckon the education system – especially in regions that were never connected to the Graeco-Roman tradition – favours linguistics as a study of the own and related proto-languages. For northern Europe, I would say it’s 50/50, especially in Scandinavia, depending on whether classicists or linguists dominate over the departments of Indo-European. For example, while Germany or Austria would maybe lean more toward the classics, Copenhagen’s obsession with Germanic as the most archaic IE branch is well known…

    A 17th-century birch bark manuscript of Pāṇini’s grammar treatise from Kashmir. Image from Wikipedia.

    Both positions, when blindly accepted, are bound to fail at some point or another:

    • If you take Classical Sanskrit, Classical Greek, or Classical Latin as an example of Proto-Indo-European, you are bound to make radical mistakes when reconstructing the parent language, more so if you disregard the oldest attested layers of the languages. An interesting view of the so-called Adradists at the Complutense University of Madrid – apart from their famous 9-laryngeal reconstruction – is that Middle PIE had only 5 cases, with a general (unstable) oblique one in Late PIE that later evolved into the attested 5 to 8 cases in the different dialects. That is, in my opinion, a fairly typical classicist error, which would be easily addressed by taking into account the oldest stages, like those attested in Mycenaean and in Old Latin, instead of focusing on classical grammar. The 8-case system is, in fact, one of the few true Balto-Slavic archaisms, supported by external comparanda.
    • On the other hand, if you take Albanian, Armenian, Baltic or Slavic, or even phonetically dubious data like those from some Anatolian inscriptions, you can eventually argue for anything. And I really mean anything; you are leaving the logic door wide open for any crazy-ass opinion about Proto-Indo-European based on traits found in modern languages: From how many velars evolved (if at all, because you may find all of them in Luwian, or still living in Albanian or in Armenian…) and their nature as ejective consonants in Late PIE (based on Armenian or Germanic); to how many laryngeals and when these laryngeals disappeared (if they actually did disappear, because some may even find them in Modern Lithuanian, in Armenian, or in Danish…); etc. Once you believe your own romantic view of some modern language(s) retaining traits from five thousand years ago, there is no stopping that; not for you, but not for anyone else, either.

    NOTE. One of the funniest consequences of this type of ‘worldview’, where one assumes that – the own interpretations of – modern dialects are as reliable (or even more so than) ancient ones, and that Indo-European dialects somehow split at the same time from the parent language (so there was one common “full laryngeal” language, and then all attested dialects evolved from it) are some of the theories that you can easily find posted on Facebook’s group on Proto-Indo-European. Let’s just say, for the sake of simplicity, that you can compare English ‘sunrise’ with Spanish ‘sonrisa’ “smile” all you want, and assert that both reveal a common origin in PIE *sup- hence from the Sun and the smile going “up” or something, but any explanation as to how you reached that conclusion doesn’t make for the why this comparison shouldn’t have even started at all. Now replace English and Spanish with Armenian, Slavic, and/or Albanian, invent some new IE sound law, throw one or two laryngeals in the mix, and somehow this might get a pass among certain linguists…

    The Celebration of Svetovid on Rügen, Alphonse Mucha, The Slav Epic. Image from Wikipedia. Were Early Slavs some among a selected few romantic peoples to keep the “true” Indo-European language and traditions? Of course not.

    While no one can deny the value of different Indo-European branches for the reconstruction of the parent language, no matter how recently they were attested, the only reasonable solution whenever a difficult case arises is to trust ancient dialects more than recent ones. Using data from fringe theories based on recent dialects to build a Proto-Indo-European paradigm, especially when there is contradictory data from ancient IE dialects, is flawed for two reasons:

    1. Languages attested later – especially after periods of population movements and contacts – would show, in general, a greater degree of change. Preferring Old Slavic or Classical Armenian to reconstruct Indo-European over ancient dialects like Ancient Greek, Vedic Sanskrit, or ancient Italic dialects is, in a way, like taking Byzantine Greek, Pali, or Old French as models, respectively.
    2. Classical languages are indeed modified due to the action of grammarians, but once standardized these “languages behind a state” (or religion) are less prone to change, due to the transmission of oral (and written) literature, education, commerce, etc. Languages left to unorganized tribes are less constrained in their evolution, and their internal (substrate) and external (contact) influences are greater and (what’s worse) unknown.

    Baltic and Slavic, like Albanian or Armenian, are dialects attested very recently, which may have undergone complex internal and external influences we may never fully understand. Confronted with controversial or inexplicable traits compared to ancient branches like Greek, Indo-Iranian, or Italo-Celtic (especially if they fit with other Indo-European dialects), the conservative solution that will be right most of the time (and I mean 99.9999% of cases) is to assume they represent an innovation over Late PIE.

    The fact that some researchers still use these recent dialects as a blank canvas instead, in order to propose unending new ideas about how to reconstruct IE proto-languages, or even older common PIE stages, is shocking. Not “R1a/Steppe” vs. “N1c/Siberian” haplogroup+ancestry bullshit-level shocking, but still unacceptable in a serious academic environment.

    The only reason why Balto-Slavicists have failed so many times in this “unsolvable” question that seems to be Proto-Balto-Slavic reconstruction, apart from the known differences between Baltic and Slavic, is precisely the fixation of many with their object of study as a model for other IE languages (and thus for PIE), instead of taking the rest as a model for the reconstruction of Balto-Slavic (or of Proto-Baltic and Proto-Slavic).

    Repeating ad nauseam the popular concept of Balto-Slavic (or Baltic and Slavic) being among the most archaic IE dialects, or the slowest evolving IE dialects, and cheap nationalist slogans of the sort, does not help this aim, and just reading or hearing that should make anyone cringe instantly. Not less than reading or hearing about Sanskrit being essentially equal to PIE, or spoken in the Indus Valley 10,000 years ago. Because we are not living in the 19th century, mind you.