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The Balto-Slavic languages form a branch of the Indo-European family of languages, traditionally comprising the Baltic and Slavic languages. Baltic and Slavic languages share several linguistic traits not found in any other Indo-European branch, which points to a period of common development. Although the notion of a Balto-Slavic unity has been contested (partly due to political controversies), there is now a general consensus among specialists in Indo-European linguistics to classify Baltic and Slavic languages into a single branch, with only some details of the nature of their relationship remaining in dispute.
A Proto-Balto-Slavic language is reconstructable by the comparative method, descending from Proto-Indo-European by means of well-defined sound laws, and from which modern Slavic and Baltic languages descended. One particularly innovative dialect separated from the Balto-Slavic dialect continuum and became ancestral to the Proto-Slavic language, from which all Slavic languages descended.
The nature of the relationship of the Balto-Slavic languages has been the subject of much discussion from the very beginning of historical Indo-European linguistics as a scientific discipline. A few are more intent on explaining the similarities between the two groups not in terms of a linguistically "genetic" relationship, but by language contact and dialectal closeness in the Proto-Indo-European period.
Baltic and Slavic share many close phonological, lexical, morphosyntactic and accentological similarities (listed below). The early Indo-Europeanists Rasmus Rask and August Schleicher (1861) proposed a simple solution: From Proto-Indo-European descended Balto-German-Slavonic language, out of which Proto-Balto-Slavic (later split into Proto-Baltic and Proto-Slavic) and Germanic emerged. Schleicher's proposal was taken up and refined by Karl Brugmann, who listed eight innovations as evidence for a Balto-Slavic branch in the Grundriss der vergleichenden Grammatik der indogermanischen Sprachen ("Outline of the Comparative Grammar of the Indo-Germanic Languages"). The Latvian linguist Jānis Endzelīns thought, however, that any similarities among Baltic and Slavic languages resulted from intensive language contact, i.e. that they were not genetically more closely related and that there was no common Proto-Balto-Slavic language. Antoine Meillet (1905, 1908, 1922, 1925, 1934), a French linguist, in reaction to Brugmann's hypothesis, propounded a view according to which all similarities of Baltic and Slavic occurred accidentally, by independent parallel development, and that there was no Proto-Balto-Slavic language. In turn, the Polish linguist Rozwadowski suggests that the similarities among Baltic and Slavic languages are a result of both a genetic relationship and later language contact. Thomas Olander corroborates the claim of genetic relationship in his research in the field of comparative Balto-Slavic accentology.
Even though some linguists still reject a genetic relationship, most scholars accept that Baltic and Slavic languages experienced a period of common development. This view is also reflected in most modern standard textbooks on Indo-European linguistics. Gray and Atkinson's (2003) application of language-tree divergence analysis supports a genetic relationship between the Baltic and Slavic languages, dating the split of the family to about 1400 BCE.
The traditional division into two distinct sub-branches (i.e. Slavic and Baltic) is mostly upheld by scholars who accept Balto-Slavic as a genetic branch of Indo-European. There is a general consensus that the Baltic languages can be divided into East Baltic (Lithuanian, Latvian) and West Baltic (Old Prussian). The internal diversity of Baltic points at a much greater time-depth for the breakup of the Baltic languages in comparison to the Slavic languages.
"Traditional" Balto-Slavic tree model
This bipartite division into Baltic and Slavic was first challenged in the 1960s, when Vladimir Toporov and Vyacheslav Ivanov observed that the apparent difference between the "structural models" of the Baltic languages and the Slavic languages is the result of the innovative nature of Proto-Slavic, and that the latter had evolved from an earlier stage which conformed to the more archaic "structural model" of the Proto-Baltic dialect continuum. Frederik Kortlandt (1977, 2018) has proposed that West Baltic and East Baltic are in fact not more closely related to each other than either of them is related to Slavic, and Balto-Slavic therefore can be split into three equidistant branches: East Baltic, West Baltic and Slavic.
Alternative Balto-Slavic tree model
Although supported by a number of scholars, Kortlandt's hypothesis is still a minority view. Some scholars accept Kortlandt's division into three branches as the default assumption, but nevertheless believe that there is sufficient evidence to unite East Baltic and West Baltic in an intermediate Baltic node.
The tripartite split is supported by glottochronologic studies by V. V. Kromer, whereas two computer-generated family trees (from the early 2000s) that include Old Prussian have a Baltic node parallel to the Slavic node.
The sudden expansion of Proto-Slavic in the sixth and the seventh century (around 600 CE, uniform Proto-Slavic with no detectable dialectal differentiation was spoken from Thessaloniki in Greece to Novgorod in Russia[dubious ]) is, according to some, connected to the hypothesis that Proto-Slavic was in fact a koiné of the Avar state, i.e. the language of the administration and military rule of the Avar Khaganate in Eastern Europe. In 626, the Slavs, Persians and Avars jointly attacked the Byzantine Empire and participated in the Siege of Constantinople. In that campaign, the Slavs fought under Avar officers. There is an ongoing controversy over whether the Slavs might then have been a military caste under the khaganate rather than an ethnicity. Their language—at first possibly only one local speech—once koinéized, became a lingua franca of the Avar state. This might explain how Proto-Slavic spread to the Balkans and the areas of the Danube basin, and would also explain why the Avars were assimilated so fast, leaving practically no linguistic traces, and that Proto-Slavic was so unusually uniform. However, such a theory fails to explain how Slavic spread to Eastern Europe, an area that had no historical links with the Avar Khanate. That said, the Avar state was later replaced by the definitively Slavic state of Great Moravia, which could have played the same role.
It is also likely that the expansion of Slavic occurred with the assimilation of Iranic-speaking groups such as the Sarmatians, who quickly adopted Proto-Slavic due to speaking related Indo-European satem languages, in much the same way Latin expanded by assimilating the Celtic speakers in continental Western Europe and the Dacians.
That sudden expansion of Proto-Slavic erased most of the idioms of the Balto-Slavic dialect continuum, which left us today with only two groups, Baltic and Slavic (or East Baltic, West Baltic, and Slavic in the minority view). This secession of the Balto-Slavic dialect ancestral to Proto-Slavic is estimated on archaeological and glottochronological criteria to have occurred sometime in the period 1500–1000 BCE. Hydronymic evidence suggests that Baltic languages were once spoken in much wider territory than the one they cover today, all the way to Moscow, and were later replaced by Slavic.
Lithuanian linguist and scholar Antanas Klimas has criticized Oswald Szemerényi's arguments, which are in favour of the Balto-Slavic theory. His counterarguments regarding the plausible phonetical, phonological, and morphological similarities between the Baltic and Slavic languages had scrutinized the arguments of O. Szemerényi and concluded the following:
He had also noted that:
Regarding the systemic changes of suffixes in Baltic and Slavic languages, Russian linguist A. Dubasova notices that in both cases the following happened: aspirated voiced consonants turned into generic voiced consonants (e. g., *gʰ > *g), iotation (e. g., *d > *di̯ > *dj), palatalization, and later on—the assimilation, dissimilation, metathesis as well as the fallout of some consonants in some instances. According to Dubasova, the aforementioned sequence of common changes in both language groups can be an indication of a special relationship between Baltic and Slavic languages but before making such conclusions it is crucial to scrutinize the basis, consequences and intensity of these processes.
For instance, Dubasova emphasizes that there are core differences when it comes to iotation in Baltic and Slavic languages, which is something other scientists had noticed in the past. In fact, there are differences in iotation between Baltic languages themselves, which probably means that this process began after the split of Proto-Baltic while Proto-Slavic is already known to have iotation. With regard to palatalization, Dubasova notices that it is a trivial phonetic change and it cannot be seen as evidence of a genetic link between Baltic and Slavic languages, especially when taking the core palatalization differences in both language groups. She also concludes that researchers face great difficulties when reconstructing the phonological system of the Proto-Baltic mostly due to the problematic nature of examining Old Prussian and contrasting views of researchers.
In terms of palatalization similarities between Latvian and Slavic languages, Dubasova notes that the reasons behind the changes of consonants before certain vowels or the lack of them are different. In her work on the assimilation of voiced and voiceless consonants, she states that such assimilation already happened in the Proto-Slavic language, which was caused by the fallout of reduced vowels, while in the Proto-Baltic language vowel reduction is not being reconstructed. This shows the different nature of assimilation in Baltic languages.
When analyzing the dropping of consonants at the end of a word, she claims that in Proto-Slavic this process was a consequence of a general tendency but in Baltic languages, the endings of consonants were not dropped at all. According to the linguist, metathesis in the Proto-Baltic was an independent phenomenon that, unlike in the case of Proto-Slavic, is not connected with the open syllable principle (in the Baltic languages such a principle did not and does not exist to this day). When evaluating the gemination (the fadeaway of consonant lengthening) Dubasova emphasizes that linguists do not have a consensus on this: some interpret this as an independent process while some believe it to be a common genetic deviation. Dubasova presents the opinions of other specialists about the system of consonants and even though she notes that there is no common ground regarding this, the linguist draws attention to the alveolar and dental consonant differences that Baltic and Slavic languages possess. In conclusion, Dubasova states:
The examples of previously discussed factors reveal that Slavic and Baltic languages “had put an emphasis” on different ways of reorganization, and used various [linguistic] tools irregularly; all changes despite their similarities in Baltic and Slavic languages are independent processes, which have a different basis and consequences. So, it is more logical to talk about the independent evolution from the very beginning rather than “separation” without postulating the idea of a common Proto-Balto-Slavic language.
The opponents of the Balto-Slavic theory had presented morphological properties that, according to them, prove that the Proto-Balto-Slavic language did not exist:
According to the Russian linguist S. Bernstein, when examining the lexicon of both language groups, it is important to separate the common heritage and vocabulary innovations of the Proto-Indo-European language from the ones that formed during the contact of Baltic and Slavic languages, which is something Reinhold Trautmann had failed to do. In his Balto-Slavic Dictionary (German: Baltisch–slavisches Wörterbuch), published in 1923, Trautmann presents 1,700 common words but more than 75% of the given vocabulary is not unique to Baltic and Slavic languages as these words can be found in other Indo-European languages, they unite only some of the Baltic or Slavic languages or only belong to one specific language.
The opposing linguists of the genetic relationship between Baltic and Slavic languages like Oleg Trubachyov also note that there are notable lexicon and semantic differences that date back to very old times. They emphasize that the most important concepts such as egg, to beat, suffering, girl, oak, chop, pigeon, god, guest, or forger are named differently in Baltic and Slavic languages. According to the Lithuanian linguist Zigmas Zinkevičius, the Baltic and Slavic dictionary of differences would be much more impressive than a dictionary of commonalities.
Those scholars who accept the Balto-Slavic hypothesis attribute the large number of close similarities in the vocabulary, grammar, and sound systems of the Baltic and Slavic languages to development from a common ancestral language after the breakup of Proto-Indo-European. Those scholars who reject the hypothesis believe that the similarities are the result of parallel development and of mutual influence during a long period of contact.
It has always been a riddle how it came about that the Slavic and Baltic languages, while sufficiently similar to suggest a common origin (“Proto-Balto-Slavic”), and developing side by side for thousands of years under natural and technological conditions that must have been fairly similar, came to be so different. Leaving the similarities of structure aside and considering just the lexicon, there are indeed several hundred lexemes in Common Slavic that have etymological equivalents or near-equivalents in Baltic. On the other hand, however, there is not a single semantic field in which there are not deep differences in the corresponding lexis.