Development of the Polish vocalic system

Part two

Previous partBack to the first page

The author presents his own opinion on many of the touched issues here.

5. The stage of the forming of the Slavic proto-language

Common tendencies during that stage are monophthongization of diphthongs and replacing of differences in length of vowels with differences in colour. Things also came to the very distinct contrast between front vowels causing the palatalization of consonants, and back ones, not causing the palatalization.

An individual development of vowels happened in inflectional endings. Processes not having strictly phonetic basis (like the change *~as > *~us > *~ъ) often acted here, and that is why I shall not give here their detailed description.

5.1. The first palatalization

The first palatalization comprised the velars k, g, x which developed into the č, ǯ (later simplificated usually to the ž), š. It took place before the j as well as before the front vowels (i, e, ī, ē, į, ę, ei, ir, er, il, el, im, em, in, en – or their continuants; strict chronology is not important here). The groups sk, zg developed into šč, žǯ, and kt into tj under the same conditions. E.g.:

5.2. The influence of j over a following vowel, labializations and delabializations

The palatal consonant j had a strong influence over adjoining sounds. If the a, ai, u, ū occurred immediately after it, they underwent change into e, ei, i, ī, e.g. *palja > *palje > pole ‘field’, *jaixam : *taixam > *jeixu : *taixu > jixъ : těxъ > ich : tych (instead of *ciech; pronominal forms), *juga > *jiga > igo ‘yoke’ (now “jarzmo”), cf. Igołomia (name of a town), *sjūtei > *sjītī > šiti > szyć ‘to sew, to make clothes’.

However the au, am, an, ą developed perhaps into rounded ou, om, on, ǫ before (they underwent labialization) which did not undergo so strong influence of the preceding j. The development of the long ā after j is unclear instead. Perhaps the change ā > ē took place here (anyway in some dialects, what is attested by the spelling of the oldest Old Church Slavic monuments), however later the reverse process occurred, and as a result of it the ā was reintroduced in those positions (perhaps analogy affected here).

Why in that case the u, ū were submitted to those changes? It was possible that these vowels had already lost their rounding at that time (as a result of delabialization) – they were high and back but flat (ɯ, ɯ̅). The influence of the preceding j caused moving them to front, so they identified with the i, ī.

5.3. The development of initial prothetic consonants

A consonant was developed before an initial vowel: w- originated before u-, ū-, while there was tendency to develop j- before other vowels. That j- was causing processes discussed in the previous chapter. However, there existed the inverse tendency, namely removing (original) initial j- with transformations of vowels in opposite direction like those given above. These are a few examples:

See also ex. jeż, jeżyna and ożyna, jeden and odyniec (from Ukr., ‘lonely wild boar’), jeleń and łania (*jelinis, *alnijā), jezioro and Russ. озеро, Pol. wątroba (w- secondary) and South Slavic *jętra, the original meaning ‘entrails’; perhaps also jama (*āmā). As a rule, Polish has initial j-, but it is sometimes secondary (when before a-, with no changes), and some words without j-, e.g. olcha.

5.4. The development of yers

Among short vowels, the articulation of i, u (> ɯ) lowered, furthermore they underwent some additional shortening – since then we will name them yers, respectively soft ь and hard ъ.

In the neighbourhood of the j the yers were in the tense position and they changed into vowels i, y with time (that process was not unexceptional). Yers disappeared before l, r closing the syllable, and as the result, sonants developed, see below.

In the later period strong (ь̥, ъ̥) and weak (ь̯, ъ̯) positional varieties of yers developed. The yer was weak when it ended the word (e.g. kostь̯) or when in the next syllable there existed a vowel other than the weak yer (e.g. dъ̯va). The yer was strong only when in the next syllable there existed a weak yer (e.g. pь̥sъ̯).

If in succeeding syllables several yers occurred, the weak years stood on odd places counting from the end, while the strong yers stood on even places (e.g. pь̯sъ̥kъ̯). Let’s observe that during inflexion the yer could be strong one time and weak some other time, e.g. pь̥sъ̯ : pь̯sa. A trace of that alternation is the floating (moving) e today in Polish, namely the e alternating with the lack of a vowel, e.g. pies : psa.

5.5. New labializations, monophthongizations and denasalizations

Relatively late the back (short) a rounded into o. A late process was also the monophthongization au > ou > u (even if long, we can omit the sign of longiness here since the old short u was the hard yer already in that period). The originated rounded vowel did not join with the old ū which lost its labialization and moved slightly to the front in the meantime, giving the y (according to the IPA rules one should write ɨ, the traditional symbol y is taken from the Polish spelling). Things came also to monophthongization of the ei; the result was a new ī which completely identified itself with the older one. Yet another ī developed from the nasal į (the denasalization), e.g. *ginslā > *žįslā > *žįlā > *žīlā > žila > żyła. Similarly the nasal ų joined ū > y, e.g. *sūnuns > *sūnųs > *sūnų > *sūnū > syny. The ę, ǫ did not undergo the denasalization instead.

5.6. Further development of nasal diphthongs

The development of the combinations of the type vowel plus nasal was interesting. Let’s call to mind that before s, z the vowels nasal į, ų developed, and from them the long oral ī, ū did, from which Slavic i, y. In remaining positions the nasal element in groups im, in, um, un could sometimes disappear (e.g. *ḱomtom > *sumta > *suta > sъto, Pol. sto ‘100’), in other occurrences (maybe in later period) the articulation of the vowel lowered (im > em, un > on etc.), e.g. *deḱemt- > *desimtis > *desemti > desętь > dziesięć ‘10’, in the borrowing *peningu > *penengu > *pěnęgъ > pěnęʒь > pieniądz ‘money, coin, penny’. Therefore only the groups em, en, om, on remainded, and finally they also joined with the nasals ę, ǫ.

So, we can finally observe the threefold development of old nasal diphthongs:

5.7. The development of diphthongs of the type AR

Also the groups vowel + r, l (before a vowel) did not survive. The combinations ir, il, ur, ul formed the sonants ŕ̥, ĺ̥, r̥, l̥, while er, el, or, ol underwent various changes in particular dialects. We have finally rze; le; ra, ro, ró; ła, ło, łó on their places in Polish. E.g. *orlja > rola ‘ploughland’, *ordlo > radło ‘lister (primitive plough)’ (cf. *orati > orać ‘to plough’), *korljь > król ‘king’, *xoldъ > chłód ‘coolness’, *bergъ > brzeg ‘shore, bank, border’, *melko > mleko ‘milk’. The various development depended on the type of the old intonation and on the type of the neighbouring consonants.

5.8. The monophthongization of the ai, ui and the second palatalization

The diphthongs ai, ui were relatively persistent. However they underwent monophthongization at last, but only after finishing of the process of the first palatalization. The vowel which developed from the ai mixed with the old ē giving the vowel marked with the symbol ě (“jać”, taken from the Czech spelling), while the one which developed from ui – with the ī giving the Slavic i. Let’s pay attention however that the new ě, i (marked ě2, i2 contrary to the old ě1, i1) caused the new, second palatalization (dated on VII–VIII w.) which results were different than the results of the 1st palatalization. e.g.

5.9. The development of the correlation of palatalness

Depending on the kind of the following vowel, palatalized and non-palatalized varieties of consonants developed: respectively before front i, ь, e, ě, ę, ŕ̥, ĺ̥ and before back o, a, ъ, y, u, ǫ, r̥, l̥. So, things came to the development of the correlation of palatalness. Let’s observe that the vowels o, ъ, y could not occur after the j. There existed however the groups ja, ju, jǫ, disturbing the correlation of palatalness.

The correlation was still valid when (perhaps in VIII w.) the process of the third palatalization took place. It was of the progressing type, namely it concerned the consonant which followed a front vowel. A back vowel standing after a consonant submitted to that process changed into a front one, e.g. *zajękus > *zajękъ > *zajęcъ (palatalization) > zajęcь (changing of the back yer into the front one) > zając ‘hare’.

The development of the Slavic vowel system is presented in the table:

1 i, u im, in e, a a u um, un ī, ū į ei, ai ē, ā ā ū ų
2 i e a u ī į ei ē ā ū ų
3 i e a ɯ ī ei ē ā ɯ̅
4 ь e o ъ i1 ě1 a y

1 ai ui au em, en im, in ę am, an um, un ą ir ur il ul
2 ai ui au em, en im, in ę am, an um, un ą ir ur il ul
3 ai ui ou em, en ę om, on ǫ ir ur il ul
4 ě2 i2 u ę ǫ ŕ̥ ĺ̥

Continuation of the article

Main pagePolish grammar