Phonology and Inflection with Special Attention to Russian, Czech, Polish, Serbo-Croatian, and Bulgarian

Common and Comparative Slavic: Phonology and Inflection with Special Attention to Russian, Czech, Polish, Serbo-Croatian, and Bulgarian

Robert A Orr

Charles E. Townsend and Laura A. Janda. Common and Comparative Slavic: Phonology and Inflection with Special Attention to Russian, Czech, Polish, SerboCroatian, and Bulgarian. Columbus, OH: Slavica, 1996. 310 pp. Selected Bibliography. $24.95, paper

This book is intended to provide a linguistic introduction to Common Slavic, and to the selected Slavic languages named in the title. Townsend and Janda (T&J) utilise the sixway division of Common Slavic favoured by some scholars (East Slavic, Lechitic, Czechoslovak, Sorbian, West Balkan, East Balkan). For their discussion they select the most prominent language from each group, apart from Sorbian.

The work is divided into ten chapters of varying length, dealing with various topics: Introduction to Common and Comparative Slavic; Proto-Indo-European to Early ProtoSlavic; Early Proto-Slavic to Late Common Slavic (two chapters); Late Common Slavic Vowels and Prosody; Ablaut; Slavic Grammar; Declension; and Conjugation. These are rounded off by a final chapter giving sketches of twenty selected salient features in each of the languages under discussion. Inevitably, the latter vary from language to language. As T&J point out, many of the previous reference works on the subject have been restricted to phonology; their extension of the discussion to morphology is to be welcomed. Another neglected item, which T&J hint at in their Introduction, although perhaps they could have devoted more space to it, is the whole issue of faux amis within Slavic. The presentation is complemented by exercises. Furthermore, with regard to Czech, the differences between Colloquial and Literary Czech are briefly discussed, which is rare in surveys of this sort, and this is yet another welcome feature of this book.

T&J start off with a discussion of Jakobsonian distinctive features and their application to Slavic linguistics. Their explanation is one of the best and clearest short descriptions of the topic that has so far appeared, and any instructors in general (not only Slavic!) linguistics looking for a succinct introduction to distinctive features, and their applicability, could do much worse than to direct students to it. Throughout the work T&J integrate Jakobsonian material into the discussion, cf. especially pp. 43, 48, 68, 72, 75, 78, where they frequently add valuable comments of their own.

There are one or two points, however, which call for minor improvements and reformulations.

From the point of view of internal heterogeneity Slavic is surprisingly uniform. Reading texts in an unknown Slavic language based on one’s knowledge of another using a good dictionary is far less daunting (and entails much less of a sense of futility!) than in many other language groups. In this context one might take issue with T&J over some of their statements in the Introduction, where they hint that it is erroneous to say that learning to read a new Slavic language-based on knowledge of another is “not a very daunting task.” They state that confronted with a passage in, e.g., Czech, Polish, or Serbo-Croatian, based on a knowledge of, e.g., Russian alone, “you will probably have great difficulty doing more than figuring out what the passage is about, if that” (p. 21). However, for a hypothetical unknown language, “figuring out what [a] passage is about” with no prior knowledge is already a tremendous step forward. As an illustration of this point one only has to contrast the degree of internal uniformity within Slavic with that in, e.g., Germanic. This point will be grasped simply by attempting to read a page of Faroese with only a knowledge of English or German as a guide, and then juxtaposing the result with a comparison of any two Slavic languages.

Bearing in mind that this book is partly aimed at graduate students and beginners in Slavic, T&J have kept the sections involving Indo-European short and straightforward, carefully selecting their examples. However, there is some material that could have been omitted, given the intended audience. For example, T&J briefly mention the glottalic theory (p. 40), without explanation, and then give references to suggest that it has been refuted. This may well be justified, but in a work dealing exclusively with Slavic any discussion of the glottalic theory could probably have been omitted. This is especially true as T&J go on to say with regard to another Indo-European problem that “… [ProtoIndo-European] schwa [o] and the … laryngeals … make so little difference for Slavic that there is no need to discuss them here” (p. 41). Also, perhaps the discussion on syllable synharmony could omit the references to Hungarian and Turkish, and to Germanic Ip. 75). Although T&J do not draw an explicit parallel between these languages and Slavic, it might have been better to leave Uralic and Altaic vowel harmony out of the discussion completely. Comparison of this material with Slavic has led to confusion, and has not contributed much to our understanding, except in the negative sense. Furthermore, in this context their presentation of the Germanic material could be improved. (T&J leave the reader with the impression that the alternation in English foot/feet is the result of *u shifting to *i under the influence of a front vowel in a following syllable, whereas in fact [u] and [i] are the modern reflexes of [o:] and [o:] respectively; the relevant fronting was completed long before the rise of the u/i alternation in certain restricted forms.)

In view of T&J’s generally innovative approach, it is astonishing to see that, without apparent comment, they have adhered to an obsolete order of citation for the cases: N-GD-A-I-L, instead of N-A-G-L-D-I. This is in spite of the overwhelming advantages of the latter (cf. the ease in presentation of the dual!), and even more surprising in the light of their single-stem-based approach to conjugation

The work is illustrated with copious examples throughout. Given its very high overall standard, it is disappointing to see T&J continuing with certain proposals for sound-changes in the development of Slavic that should have been laid to rest long ago, e.g., *-os > *-us > *b (p. 52); and especially *pt- > *st (p. 53). T&J’s etymologies include a few small errors of fact or interpretation which could maybe be treated in a later edition, cf. the fact that Latin hic, Greek heteros, and English here all begin with /hl is pure coincidence: in each group Ihl has a different origin (p. 69). As a neuter, Common Slavic *morje surely never had a final *-s (p. 91). T&J have misinterpreted German Geniste; the initial Gen has nothing to do with the gn- in gnezdo, but the word can be etymologised as ge (cognate with Latin cum) + niste (

These criticisms are essentially minor in nature. On odd occasions one comes across a book that really seems to be the last word on a subject; that says everything, that one wishes one could have written oneself. For its target audience, this is such a book. T&J are to be heartily congratulated on putting all the material together and bringing it out. It is likely to become a staple in the field, required reading for graduate students, and equalling or surpassing it will probably prove impossible in the foreseeable future. In the early 1960s a review of Brauer, Slavische Sprachwissenschaft, was quoted as saying “No student who would study the book and learn its contents would fail an examination”; this is far more true for this volume. Another group to which it is to be heartily recommended is specialists in other language families who wish to get a general idea both of Slavic as a whole, and the individual Slavic languages treated.

Robert A. Orr, University of Ottawa

Copyright Canadian Assosciation of Slavists Sep-Dec 1996

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