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In my experience, it seems to be that people learning as a second language one that is significantly more inflected that their mother tongue(s) experience serious difficulties and tend to avoid flection in informal speech. That happens even nowadays, when flection is often taught in a formal way.

Judging from this point of view, does it really sound feasible that Bulgars, Avars and other Turkic-speaking peoples might have given birth, together with Indo-European peoples, birth to Proto-Slavic as a lingua franca or pidgin to communicate between different themselves? I mean - how Bulgars and other Turkic speaking people give shape to a fully inflected language with almost no loss of inflection complexity with regard to, say, Baltic languages?

I can't see how non-native speakers keep up to that level of inflection.

AFAIK Middle English lost much of the inflection as a result of Old Norse and Old Saxon speakers trying to find a common language and having to remove away the obstacle of different inflection systems.

That (Proto-Slavic as a made lingua franca) is a thesis proposed by Florin Curta. I'm aware that it's subject to much criticism and I wonder if the point above could be an argument.

(I'm just an amateur.)

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    How does using proto-Slavic as lingua franca match with the problem of using flections - it is still a highly inflected language?
    – Roger V.
    Mar 6, 2020 at 11:49
  • My point is that even nowadays people formally studying Slavic inflection in the process of a second language learning fail to master it. Usually pidgins tend to simplify things. I can't see such a complex language such as Slavic, without literary tradition, not only not simplifying, but keeping the complexity among Turkic peoples. Mar 6, 2020 at 11:53
  • Among Turkic peoples that use it only for the sake of interacting in military campaigns. Mar 6, 2020 at 11:54
  • What I am saying is that, given complexity of the Slavic inflections, it is unlikely to be a "simplified" lingua franca - is this what you are trying to say?
    – Roger V.
    Mar 6, 2020 at 11:55
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    I haven't heard this idea that Proto-Slavic was a pidgin/creole before, but it does seem rather implausible, yes.
    – Draconis
    Mar 6, 2020 at 16:39

3 Answers 3

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Curta’s hypothesis sounds a little far-fetched but there’s a more plausible theory that a form of Slavic spread very rapidly — maybe with the Avars — across the Balkans, effectively smoothing out much of the dialectal differences that must have existed at that time. This theory assumes that Slavic was indeed used as a lingua franca but had been adopted rather than created. Nicolaos Trunte gives a historic account in his book on Old Church Slavonic.

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  • That 'middle-ground' hypothesis makes more sense (to me) than Curta's. Still, I'd like somebody to analize the question of how inflected languages get transformed in the path to become a lingua franca. I was rised as a native speaker of two weakly inflected languages (Spanish and Galician) and I can understand the drive of Romance speakers to speak Slavic 'analitycally' (incorrectly), avoiding inflection. This does happen. Avars carrying most almost 100% of Proto-Slavic inflection to the Balkans doesn't seem feasible to me. Mar 7, 2020 at 13:37
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    @AmazingWouldBeGreatBut Generally even if a language gets adopted as a lingua franca, it continues to be spoken by the original native speakers so any tendencies to simplify the grammar are counterbalanced. That said, there are some interesting historical cases where the adopting people outnumbered the native speakers, which led to abrupt changes in the grammar. In the case of Slavic, the southern languages have undergone changes in syntax and morphology but they’re part of a sprachbund so this is not a good example in the context of the question.
    – Atamiri
    Mar 7, 2020 at 19:27
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I would love someone else to answer this more fully, but one thing I would like to point out is the assumption in this question that more inflection implies greater complexity in language. The reality is much more complex than that; languages like English (and in fact, many of the modern Indo-European languages) have exchanged complex inflectional systems (synthetic languages) for syntactic complexity (analytic languages).

When one is a native speaker of English, inflection seems complicated. But for a speaker of a synthetic language, English's use of light verbs to encode grammatical information and the importance of word order are just as complex.

So, it is not necessary that Proto-Slavic had to lose inflection to serve as a lingua franca. (Actually, I do not think that is how Proto-Slavic ever developed but I will let an expert rebut that.) As far as I know, languages aren't necessarily inclined to losing inflection naturally.

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  • Good point about the complexity. Perhaps the question lays rather about natural tendencies (hypothetically: of non-inflected-language speakers to avoid inflection when learning a second, inflected language) than about complexity. Mar 7, 2020 at 13:39
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    Comparing Russian and English I would say that the word order does not pose much difficulty: after all, SVO is the normal word order in Russian, even if it is flexible, the adjectives precede the nouns, etc. On the other hand, keeping track of definite/indefinite articles and English prepositions is probably as hard for a Russian speaker, as keeping track of Russian inflections for a native English speaker.
    – Roger V.
    Mar 7, 2020 at 17:07
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I'm late to the party, but anyway: I think you're somewhat misunderstanding/ misrepresenting his proposal. As I understand it, his idea is that a precursor of Slavic was already spoken, though mostly as a second language, in the region of the Avar Khaganate, but the political unity of and increased mobility under the Avars helped to spread and consolidate it, and contributed to people switching to it as their native language. For further context, he seems to adhere to the Balto-Thracian hypothesis, i.e. the idea that Thracian (and Dacian) are closely closely related/ part of Baltic/Balto-Slavic. This isn't a consensus among historical linguists, but it's not new, or his idea alone, see https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baltic_languages#Thracian_hypothesis

So with this background, what he seems to be saying that Proto-Slavic emerged as a lingua franca sometime before the Avars (maybe in Hunnic times), but more a koïne than a pidgin, with most of its original adapters speaking closely related Thracian, Dacian and Baltic languages, later joined by speakers of more distantly related but also highly inflected languages (Balkan Romance, East Germanic, Iranian,...). When the Avars, whatever language they originally spoke (I don't think we can presume it was Turkic, at least not for all of them), arrived in the Black Sea region and later Pannonia, it would have been the natural choice to adapt that language to communicate with their neighbours and subjects out of practicality instead of learning five or six languages.

It should be said that the Avars probably weren't very numerous, and possibly weren't linguistically homogenous even when they first showed up in Europe. The "standard theory" is that the original Avars were the warrior elite of the Rouran Khaganate of Mongolia and Manchuria who went West to escape subjugation by the Gökturks. There is no reason to assume the Rouran empire itself was linguistically homogenous to start with - they may have been a conglomerate of Turkic, Mongolic, Tungusic speakers from the get go and even could well have included speakers of languages that no longer exist, but they certainly weren't monolingual by the time the crossed the Carpathians. If I recall correctly, some contemporary or near contemporary Byzantine source says that when they crossed the Carpathians, they numbered 100,000, of which 20,000 "true" Avars, the rest presumably people from the Black Sea/Lower Danube region (Thracians? Sarmatians? Goths? Huns? Will we ever know?). The absolute number may well be exaggerated, or a wild ass estimate, but I don't see a reason to assume the proportion is way off. Under this hypothesis, many of the "Avars" in Pannonia would have been familiar with the region's lingua franca from day one, as well as most of the resident population - and quite a few would have spoken a closely related language at home. Certainly in the later part of the Avar period, "Avar" was more a politiconym than an ethnonym - an Avar was an arms-carrying member of the Khaganate's elite, not someone speaking a particular language or worshiping a particular set of gods. Of course, among that elite, a dominant East Asian ancestry would still have been more widespread than among commoners, but I don't think apartheid era South Africa or pre-Civil War Dixieland make a good model for Avar-era East Central Europe.

I'm not saying he's right, just what he actually seems to be suggesting is much more plausible than you make it sound.

I do think that a weaker version of the hypothesis is very plausible: That Balto-Slavic never split into a Baltic and a Slavic branch, but rather that by the time ProtoSlavic became different enough to warrant summarizing the non-Slavic variants of Balto-Slavic as "Baltic", "Baltic" had already split into several languages of which the ancestor of Proto-Slavic was originally but one, and that the rapid linguistic change Slavic was undergoing that made it stand out among all others was in no small part triggered by language contact. Plausibly also that the high degree of uniformity Slavic maintained a it was spreading suggests not just a one-way expansion from an "Urheimat" but a large degree of mobility in all directions within the area where Slavic was establishing itself - otherwise we might expect it to be accompanied by rapid differentiation which is apparently not the case.

Caveat: I'm just a mere syntactician-turned-programmer with an interest in early medieval history, not any kind of historian, historical linguist, or slavicist. I do not consider myself qualified to speculate which languages were most instrumental in said contact scenario and how closely they were related to Baltic/Balto-Slavic, or what political circumstances facilitated the mobility and cohesion of early Slavic during its spread, or how much of that spread was actually due to language shift and how much due to migration. I do think that the apparent cohesion of Slavic precisely at a time when you'd expect divergence due to geographical distance and the influences of very different substrate languages requires an explanation.

Arguably though it works the other way around too: if Slavic was highly uniform, that could have facilitated its use as a lingua franca: if East Germanic and West Germanic were already different enough to hinder mutual intelligibility between Gepids from Transilvania and Lombards from Bohemia, both of them switching to the idiom of their new Slavic neighbours could help them communicate, much like Poles and Croatians today tend to switch to English, so Slavic could have become a lingua franca partly because it was uniform.

(I'm basing my interpretation of his claim on a cursory reading of this paper and I haven't read anything else he wrote on the topic: https://www.academia.edu/227792/The_Slavic_lingua_franca_Linguistic_notes_of_an_archaeologist_turned_historian_ )

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    the problem with Dacian is, there is No trace left of it. Get it, no Thrace?
    – vectory
    Nov 30, 2023 at 6:00
  • There isn't any trace of pre-6th century Slavic either, so that's a good match ;)
    – JakobMST
    Nov 30, 2023 at 9:04

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