The Fall of the Jers in the Light of Menzerath’s Law
It was the aim of the lecture on which this paper is based to model one of the most important sound changes in Slavic on the basis of Menzerath’s law in order to establish an explanation for this process. The sound change in question is the fall of the “reduced” vowels Ь and Ъ — the jers — in “weak” position; cf. in Russian otъcъ > otec, pЪtica > ptica, sЪnЪ > son. The fall of the jers had far reaching consequences for the phonological systems of all Slavic languages. In Russian, for instance, the whole vowel and consonantal system was restructured, one result being the development of the correlation of palatalization, so characteristic for the Russian consonantal system. Another consequence of the fall of the jers was the restructuring of syllable structure: Before the sound change there had only been open syllables in Slavic, i.e. syllables ending in a vowel, but as a result of the fall of the jers closed syllables also became possible. There also developed consonantal sequences “forbidden” in the period before the fall of the jers. The fall, i.e. the elimination of a jer automatically led to the reduction of the number of syllables in the word in question. At the same time longer and more complex syllables emerged. So, for instance, the three-syllable word otЬcЬ became the two-syllable word otec, the second syllable of which now comprises three instead of two phonemes, the three-syllable word pъtica resulted in the two- syllable word ptica. The onset of the first syllable of this new word comprises three instead of two phonemes, with a sequence of two plosives, formerly “forbidden” in Slavic.
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