Proto-Slavic accent

Proto-Slavic accent is closely related to the accentual system of some Baltic languages (Lithuanian and Latvian) with whom it shares many common innovations that occurred in the Proto-Balto-Slavic period. Deeper, it inherits from the Proto-Indo-European accent. In modern languages the prototypical accent is reflected in various ways, some preserving the Proto-Slavic situation to a greater degree than others.

Evolution from Proto-Balto-Slavic

Proto-Balto-Slavic is reconstructed with a free lexical accent, and a distinction between "short" and "long" syllables. A long syllable was any syllable containing either a long vowel, a diphthong, or a so-called "sonorant diphthong" consisting of a short vowel plus *l, *m, *n or *r in the syllable coda. Short syllables consisted of a short vowel with either no coda or an obstruent in the coda. The distinction between long and short syllables remained important throughout the early history of Slavic.

Long vowels were present in Proto-Balto-Slavic, and remained in Proto-Slavic as well. However, alongside the distinctions in quantity, Slavic also developed distinctions in quality between short and long vowels:

  • Short *a was rounded to *o.
  • Short *i and *u were lowered to and , and later often lost through Havlík's law. Long was unrounded to *y.
  • Long was lowered to .

This became important towards the end of the Proto-Slavic period, where certain dialects acquired new long and short vowels distinct from the older ones, based on these differences in quality.

Proto-Balto-Slavic long syllables could bear a suprasegmental feature known as acute. The acute feature could occur independently of the accent, and Slavic retained this situation until at least the operation of Dybo's law. This sound change shifted the accent one syllable rightwards if it previously fell on a non-acuted syllable (whether short or long), and the syllable that the accent shifted onto still had the acute-nonacute distinction at this time. However, by the time of Ivšić's law, the acute feature was no longer apparent; the accent retraction that occurred as part of this law produced the same result on all long syllables, regardless of whether it was originally acuted or not. The Slavic accent had changed from being purely positional to also being intonational: the acute was converted to a distinct rising intonation on accented long syllables, and lost elsewhere. Unaccented syllables now distinguished only between long and short.

Slavic also inherited from Proto-Balto-Slavic the distinction between fixed and mobile accentual paradigms in verbs and nominals. In fixed paradigms, the accent was on the same stem syllable in all forms, while in mobile paradigms, it would alternate between the first syllable of the stem and the ending. Fixed paradigms were split in two by the operation of Dybo's law, which created a new accent paradigm b by shifting the accent onto the ending. The accent was then shifted back again in some forms by Ivšić's law, creating a new type of mobile pattern. Paradigms which remained fixed were assigned to accent paradigm a. The inherited Balto-Slavic mobile paradigms were not split in this way thanks to Meillet's law, and remained unified in accent paradigm c.


There is no consensus among linguists on the exact prosodical nature of late Proto-Slavic, or Common Slavic. Two different schools of thought exist, the more-or-less "traditional" school (exemplified by Jasanoff, Kapović and Olander among others) and the more radical "Leiden" school (exemplified by Derksen, Kortlandt and Pronk among others). The most important difference between the two, in the context of the Slavic accent and prosody in general, is that the traditional viewpoint holds that Proto-Slavic retained all length distinctions as they were inherited from Proto-Balto-Slavic, whereas the Leiden school argues that some long vowels were shortened and short vowels were lengthened already in Proto-Slavic. Thus:

  • Traditionally, the old acute is reconstructed as long, but it is reconstructed as short everywhere by the Leiden linguists.
  • The Leiden linguists posit a lengthening of short vowels in "monosyllables" (one syllable + final yer), thus allowing for circumflex and long neoacute on originally short vowels. Traditionally, such vowels are considered short in Proto-Slavic, and the long vowels that are found in the later dialects are regarded as Post-Common-Slavic developments.

The various accent types of Proto-Slavic are indicated with different diacritical symbols. The following table helps map between the notational systems found in various sources. The vowel symbols stand for different vowel classes that the accent can appear on: o stands for any original short mid vowel, ъ stands for any original short high vowel (yer), a for any original long vowel or liquid diphthong.

Comparison of prosodic notation
Traditional Leiden
Old short Initial ȍ ъ̏
Medial ò
Short neoacute Initial ò ъ̀
Circumflex Initial ȃ ȃ ȏ ъ̑
Old acute Initial à
Long neoacute Initial ã or á á ó ъ́
Medial á
Long unaccented N/A ā

There may be some variation in notation even within the same school. Both ⟨á⟩ and ⟨ã⟩ are used for the neoacute accent for example, reflecting the accents used in standard Shtokavian and Chakavian respectively. Jasanoff uses a vertical mark ⟨a̍ o̍ ъ̍⟩ to mark the accent on syllables where the tonality is implied because no contrastive tone exists, using the more specific symbols above only to indicate tonal contrasts.

The old acute accent could occur on any syllable of a word (*ba̋ba, *lopa̋ta, *golva̋), but only on a long syllable. Phonetically it is usually reconstructed as a rising tone, traditionally long, but short in the Leiden school. Within Balto-Slavic framework this matches with rising intonation of the cognate Latvian ⟨õ⟩ and length marks on the second part of diphthongs in Old Prussian.[1] However, critics of this interpretation claim that one can hardly derive the Serbo-Croatian short falling tone ⟨ȍ⟩, shortness in Slovak, length in Czech and the rising intonation in Russian pleophony from the former long rising tone.[2] Some speculate that Proto-Slavic acute was phonetically in fact something entirely different, e.g. a glottalized syllable comparable to stød in Danish, or something similar.

The old short and circumflex accents represent the historical lack of the acute register on the syllable, on short and long syllables respectively.[3] They are sometimes referred to as short and long circumflex. In Slavic, they behaved similarly with respect to accent shifts such as Dybo's law, but were differentiated by word position:

  • In initial syllables, both are reconstructed with a falling intonation, and such words were phonologically probably unaccented. That phonological unaccentedness was manifested as a falling tone (which is confirmed by Serbo-Croatian, Slovene and Russian reflexes).
  • In non-initial syllables, the only vowels in this group which could occur were the mid vowels e and o. Ivšić's law had eliminated all circumflex and closed short vowels from non-initial syllables, becoming instead neoacute accents on the preceding syllable. Non-initial accented short vowels bore a rising intonation, although this was noncontrastive.

The neoacute accent was a new type of accent that resulted from accent retraction through Ivšić's law. It is traditionally reconstructed as a rising intonation on the basis of Slovene and Russian, and the description of dialectal Chakavian Serbo-Croatian ⟨õ⟩ as a rising tone.[4] The neoacute occurred in both short and long varieties:

  • The short neoacute had the same intonation as old short vowels on medial syllables, but contrasted with the short falling tone on initial syllables. There is a distinct reflex[which?] in Slovak and some Russian dialects.
  • The long neoacute had a distinctive long rising intonation in all syllables. Unlike the other types of long accent, the long neoacute preserved its length in all languages that retain length distinctions.

Unaccented syllables did not bear contrastive tone, but according to the Leiden school, did have contrastive length. The traditional school does not reconstruct distinctly long unaccented vowels, instead regarding all original long vowels as long within Proto-Slavic.

Proto-Slavic accent paradigms

Since Stang (1957) three accent paradigms (or accent types) are reconstructed for Proto-Slavic, traditionally marked with letters a, b and c. Their reflexes in individual Slavic languages are usually marked as A, B, C. Stang's original reconstruction was for nominals (nouns and adjectives), and Dybo (1963) subsequently expanded these to Proto-Slavic verbs as well.

Accent paradigm a words have a fixed accent on one of the syllables of the stem. If the stem is monosyllabic, that syllable will be acute-accented. If the stem is polysyllabic, the accent may be acute, but can also be short on e and o (from Dybo's law) or neoacute (from Dybo's law followed by Ivšić's law).

Examples: *bàba (feminine noun), acc. *bàbǫ; *gàdъ (masculine noun), gen. *gàda; *kopỳto (neuter noun), gen. *kopỳta; *slàbъ m (adjective), neuter *slàbo; *osnòvā (feminine noun), acc. *osnòvǫ; *nāròdъ; *pàtiti (verb), second-person plural present *pàtīte.

Accent paradigm b words have either a neoacute on the final syllable of the stem (*bòbъ, *võrtīte) or any accent on the first syllable of the ending (*trāva̍, *nosi̋ti). Examples: *žena̍ (feminine noun), acc. *ženǫ̍; *pòpъ (masculine noun), gen. *popa̍; *selo̍ (neuter noun), gen. *sela̍; *ògnь (i-stem noun), gen. *ogni̍; *dòbrъ m (adjective), neuter: *dobro̍; *nosi̋ti (verb), second-person plural present *nòsīte.

Accent paradigm c words have a mobile, free accent (also known as lateral mobility) - either a short/circumflex accent on the first syllable (*rǭka̍: acc. *rǫ̑kǫ), an acute on a medial syllable i.e. the penultimate syllable of the ending (instr. *rǫka̋mi, *uči̋ti) or any accent on the final syllable (dat. *golsomъ̍, second-person plural present *učīte̍). Initial short/circumflex always "jumps" to the preceding syllable (a preposition or a conjunction) in a phonetic word; e.g. *nȃ rǭkǫ (Serbo-Croatian: nȁ rūku). Similarly, if the short/circumflexed word is followed by a word lacking an accent, the accent is transferred onto it: *rǭkǫ že̍.[5] Examples: *nogà (feminine noun), acc. *nȍgǫ; *gȏlsъ (masculine noun), gen. *gȏlsa; *zvȍno (neuter noun), gen. *zvȍna; *gȏldь (i-stem noun), gen. *gȏldi; *dȏrgъ m (adjective), neuter: *dȏrgo; *čini̋ti (verb), second-person plural present *činīte̍).

Developments in Slavic languages

The suprasegmental vowel features of modern Slavic languages largely reflect the Proto-Slavic system, and are summarized in the table below.[6]

Suprasegmental features of modern Slavic languages
Family Language Free
Proto-Slavic Yes Yes Some linguists Some linguists
South Slavic Bulgarian Yes No No No
Macedonian No No No No
Old Shtokavian Yes No Yes Yes
Neoshtokavian Yes Innovated Yes Yes
Chakavian Yes Yes Yes ?
Kajkavian Yes Yes Yes No
Slovene Yes Some dialects Yes No
East Slavic Belarusian Yes No No No
Russian Yes No No No
Ukrainian Yes No No No
West Slavic Czech No No Yes Yes
Slovak No No Yes Yes
Sorbian No No No No
Polish No No No No
Slovincian Yes No Yes Yes

Proto-Slavic accent remained free and mobile in East Slavic and South Slavic. The only exception in South Slavic is Macedonian which has a fixed stress on the antepenultimate syllable in the standard language, with southern and south-western Macedonian dialects exhibiting fixed penultimate stress, and eastern dialects exhibiting free stress.[7] In many dialects the original Proto-Slavic accent position has changed its place; e.g. in literary Serbo-Croatian retracting by one syllable which yielded the new rising pitch (the so-called Neoshtokavian retraction), with old accent preserved in nonstandard dialects (Old Shtokavian, Chakavian, Kajkavian). Beside phonological causes, position of Proto-Slavic accent was often lost due to the leveling out within the mobile paradigm. In Slovene stress shifts occurred in both directions depending on the old pitch and vowel quantity, yielding tonal and stress-based variants of modern literary Slovene. In West Slavic, free accent is attested at the periphery in the northern Kashubian dialects (including Slovincian, an archaic dialect extinct since the 1940s) and Polabian (spoken on Elbe in northern-central Germany, extinct since the 18th century).

Vowel length became distinctive (phonemic) in West and partially South Slavic. In the West Slavic languages it was accompanied by extensive contraction due to the loss of /j/, typically resulting in a long vowel. This process was centered in the Czech area, and covered Russian and Bulgarian areas at its extremes.[8] This new length is preserved only in Czech and Slovak, but is lost in most other West Slavic varieties. Several West Slavic languages reflect older length contrasts in the form of new quality contrasts, indirectly preserving the distinction. For example, Polish ó and ą are reflexes of older long vowels, even though they are no longer long. Length was phonemicized in Serbo-Croatian and Slovene, depending on the pitch. In Neoshtokavian Serbo-Croatian no pre-tonic lengths are allowed; i.e. with Neoshtokavian retraction occurring the length of old long accented syllables was retained as a post-tonic length. In Slovene, length is restricted to the stressed position, with the exception of /ə/ which is always short.

The Proto-Slavic three-way opposition of old acute, short/circumflex and neoacute was in its original form lost in all Slavic languages. It was reworked into a two-way opposition, in one of two typical ways:[9]

  1. Merging old acute and neoacute, contrasting with short/circumflex. In Czech, Slovene and Upper Sorbian the new opposition become that of quantity (acute merger > long, circumflex > short). In East Slavic, Bulgarian and Macedonian this new quantitative opposition was subsequently lost, and sometimes reinterpreted as stress position (e.g. in the pleophonic reflex in East Slavic, with acute yielding VRV́ and circumflex yielding V́RV)
  2. Merging old acute and short/circumflex, contrasting with neoacute. In Slovak, Polish and Lower Sorbian the new opposition become that of quantity (neoacute > long, old acute and circumflex > short). In Serbo-Croatian and Slovene the new opposition become that of pitch (neoacute > rising, old acute and circumflex > falling). Subsequently, Neoshtokavian retraction in standard Serbo-Croatian created new tonal oppositions (former pre-tonic > rising, former initially-stressed syllable > falling).
Correspondences of reflexes of Proto-Slavic accent on initial syllable in languages that have retained lengths and/or intonation
Language Number of syllables Old acute Long neoacute Short neoacute Circumflex Short
Neoshtokavian Serbo-Croatian one |ȍ| |ȏ| |ȍ| |ȏ| |ȏ|
two |ȍ|o| |ȏ|o| |ȍ|o| |ȏ|o| |ȍ|o|
three |ȍ|o|o| |ȏ|o|o| |ȍ|o|o| |ȍ|o|o| |ȍ|o|o|
Chakavian Serbo-Croatian one |ȍ| |ó| |ȍ| |ȏ| |ȏ|
two |ȍ|o| |ó|o| |ȍ|o| |ȏ|o| |ȍ|o|
three |ȍ|o|o| |ó|o|o| |ȍ|o|o| |ȍ|o|o| |ȍ|o|o|
Old Shtokavian Serbo-Croatian one |ȍ| |ó| |ȍ| |ȏ| |ȏ|
two |ȍ|o| |ó|o| |ȍ|o| |ȏ|o| |ȍ|o|
three |ȍ|o|o| |ó|o|o| |ȍ|o|o| |ȍ|o|o| |ȍ|o|o|
Kajkavian Serbo-Croatian one |ȍ| |ó| |ȍ| |ȏ| |ȏ|
two |ȍ|o| |ó|o| |ȍ|o| |ȏ|o| |ȏ|o|
three |ȍ|o|o| |ó|o|o| |ȍ|o|o| |ȏ|o|o| |o|ȏ|o|
Slovene one |ȍ| |ó| |ȍ| |ȏ| |ȏ|
two |ó|o| |ó|o| |ó|o| |o|ȏ| |o|ȏ|
three |ó|o|o| |ó|o|o| |ó|o|o| |o|ȏ|o| |o|ȏ|o|
Czech one |ō| |ō| |ō| |o| |o|
two |ō| | |ō| | |ō| | |o| | |o| |
three |o| | | |ō|ō| | |ō| | | |o| | | |o| | |
Slovak one |o| |ō| | | |o| |o|
two |o| | |ō| | | | | |o| | |o| |
three |o| | | |ō| | | | | | | |o| | | |o| | |

Serbo-Croatian: ȍ = short falling, ȏ = long falling, ò = short rising, ó = long rising, o = short vowel without distinctive tone
Slovene: ȍ = short falling, ȏ = long falling, ó = long rising, o = short vowel without distinctive tone
Czech and Slovak: ō = long vowel, o = short vowel, | | = either long or short vowel


The Neoshtokavian variant of Serbo-Croatian, on which all standard languages are based, initially lost all pitch distinctions. All accents became falling in pitch. Only length distinctions remained, with the old acute, short neoacute and short accent being reflected as short, and the circumflex and long neoacute being reflected as long. In monosyllables, the short accent was lengthened. Length remained in some cases in unaccented syllables.

The Neoshtokavian retraction reintroduced pitch distinctions. All non-initial accents were retracted, producing a rising accent on the newly accented syllable. Both the newly-accented and the originally-accented syllables kept their length. In initial syllables, the new rising accent contrasted with the old falling accent, which remained. In non-initial syllables, only the rising accent could now occur, and the final syllable could not be accented at all.


Chakavian accentuation is particularly archaic, and therefore invaluable for reconstructing the Common Slavic situation. The old acute and short neoacute merge with the short accent, all becoming a short falling intonation. The long neoacute and circumflex remain distinct, reflected as long rising and long falling respectively. Thus, there are no pitch distinctions in short syllables, but they remain in long syllables, unlike the earlier stages of Neoshtokavian.

In a closed syllable before a sonorant, the short falling accent is lengthened, producing different intonation in different dialects. In northern Chakavian, the result is a long rising accent, while in the south there is a long falling accent instead.


Kajkavian accentuation is similar to Slovene. It resembles Slovene in lengthening the old short accent, producing a long falling accent that merges with the old circumflex. However, there is no lengthening in non-final syllables and no progressive accent shift. Thus, the old acute and short neoacute remain short in all syllables. In long syllables, long rising (neoacute) and long falling (circumflex) are distinguished, as in Chakavian.

The neo-circumflex is a change shared with Slovene as well. Original short rising (acute and neoacute) syllables were converted to a long falling accent before a long vowel.


The synchronic descriptions of pitch in modern Slovene differ, with some sources using the standard Slavic/Serbo-Croatian terms "rising" and "falling", while others describe these as "low" and "high" respectively. The traditional terms will be used here.

In the dialectal history of Proto-Slavic, the acute accent was shortened in Slovene, as it was in all neighbouring Serbo-Croatian dialects. It fell together with the short neoacute and was treated identically from there on. Unlike the other languages, however, Slovene kept the old acute and short neoacute distinct from the old short accent in non-final syllables, initially producing a short rising accent that was later lengthened.

The first change specific to Slovene, the progressive accent shift, shifted the word-initial falling tone (short or circumflex) one syllable to the right. The previously accented syllable became short, while the newly accented syllable was lengthened and received a falling intonation.[10] The shift was not completed to its fullest in the more peripheral dialects, notably the dialect of Rezija which was almost entirely unaffected. It was fully completed in the Ljubljana dialect, on which standard Slovene is based. In monosyllables (whether due to loss of a yer or original), the rightward shift was blocked and the falling accent was lengthened without movement. As a result of these shifts, the distinction between short and circumflex accent was eliminated entirely in Slovene, with all falling accents being automatically long.

Following this, the neo-circumflex arose, a change shared with Kajkavian. Original short rising (acute and neoacute) syllables were converted to a long falling accent under certain conditions, which re-established the falling accent in initial syllables of multisyllabic words. The neo-circumflex arose when the next syllable contained a non-final weak yer or a long vowel. The following long vowel was shortened, and the previous syllable received compensatory lengthening. It also occurred in the volja-type nouns, where the exact explanation varies (according to the Leiden school, the final a was long).

Around the 14th century, another change occurred to eliminate length contrasts, this time in rising syllables: all non-final rising accents became long, thus merging with the existing long neoacute.[10] After this change, accented length distinctions existed only in the final syllable. Final short rising accents (old acute or short) were nondistinctively converted to a falling tone; now all rising accents were automatically long.

Following this, the accent retracted from word-final short syllables (old acute or short). This change, again, did not reach all dialects. In Standard Slovene, retraction only occurred if the previous syllable was long or if both syllables were open. It also occurred sometimes in Standard Slovene if the preceding syllable contained a schwa (yer), with both the original and the retracted forms standing side by side. The dialect of Babno Polje went furthest, retracting all final accents, even long ones that were produced by the forwards circumflex shift above. The retraction produced a long rising vowel, or in the case of schwa, a short rising schwa. Short e and o lengthened to distinctive open-mid vowels /ɛː/ and /ɔː/, contrasting with the close-mid /eː/ and /oː/ that were produced by earlier lengthenings.

Modern Slovene completely lacks length contrasts in unaccented syllables. In accented syllables, length is only distinguished in final syllables, while medial accented syllables are always long.


Russian lost distinctive pitch and length, having instead a free stress accent. A vestige of the former pitch accent remains in the outcome of the liquid diphthongs *el, *er, *ol and *or, which undergo so-called pleophony. When these originally bore an acute or neoacute accent, they surface with the accent on the second vowel (oró), while if they had a circumflex accent, they appear with the accent on the first vowel (óro). This reflects the original rising and falling intonations of these accents.

Russian preserves accent paradigms a and b intact, with stem stress and ending stress respectively (or pre-ending stress when there is no ending). A variant known as b' has stem stress in the instrumental singular.

Mobile paradigms have proliferated, however, with Andrey Zaliznyak distinguishing mobile patterns c, d, d', e, f, f' and f''. Paradigms c and e have stem accent in the singular and ending accent in the plural, while this is reversed for paradigm d, and paradigm f has ending stress throughout. Most of the paradigms have one or more anomalous forms that have stem stress where other forms have ending stress.

Proto-Slavic length

Beside the contrastive tone (rising vs. falling), the Late Proto-Slavic also had a vowel quantity (long vs. short) which was phonemically non-distinctive. Vowels were predictably short and thus neutral with respect to length in pretonic positions further away from the accent (stress) than the first pretonic syllable. In other words, long vowels could occur in:[11]

  1. the stressed syllable
  2. posttonic syllables
  3. the first pretonic syllable

Old East Slavic and Old Polish loanwords in Finnish, Karelian, Estonian, Lithuanian and Latvian show that the length of the originally long vowels in Slavic (*a, *ě, *i, *u, *ǫ, *ę) is retained regardless of the intonation, the position in the word or the number of syllables.[12] These loanwords show no trace of the old nasality of *ę and *ǫ which indicates that the original Proto-Slavic length was preserved in all positions and conditions even after the denasalisation of *ǫ and *ę.[13]

After surveying the data with respect to stress type (acute, short/circumflex, neoacute), the number of the syllables in a word, the position (stressed, pretonic or posttonic) and the accentual paradigm (a, b or c), Kapović (2005) offers the following reflexes for West Slavic, and Serbo-Croatian, which have retained distinctive lengths:

Common Slavic accented length Common Slavic pretonic length Common Slavic posttonic length
Rising Falling New rising In front of less than two moras In front of two moras After short/circumflex (a. p. c) After old acute (a. p. a)
The old acute is shortened in Serbo-Croatian to short falling accent. In Czech, it remains long in the mono- and bisyllabic words. The old circumflex remains long falling in mono- and bisyllabic words in Serbo-Croatian, and is shortened in longer ones. It is shortened in West Slavic. The neo-acute remains long everywhere, the number of syllables is irrelevant. The length is preserved in front of less than two moras. The length is shortened in front of two moras (two full syllables or a long accented syllable). Preserved in Serbo-Croatian, shortened in West Slavic. Preserved in Serbo-Croatian, preserved inconsistently in West Slavic.
Example PSl. *vőrna > SCr. vrȁna, Cz. vrána PSl. *mę̑so > SCr. mȇso, Cz. maso; SCr. grȃda (gen. sg.) : grȁdovi (nom. pl.) PSl.*pǫ̃tьnīkъ > SCr. pũtnīk, Cz. poutník PSl. *trǭba̍ > SCr. trúba, Cz. trouba PSl. *trǭbica > SCr. trùbica, Cz. trubice PSl. *gȍlǭbь > SCr. gȍlūb, Cz. holub PSl. *mě̋sę̄cь > SCr. m(j)ȅsēc, Cz. měsíc

See also


  1. ^ Kapović (2008:2)
  2. ^ Kapović (2008:3)
  3. ^ Kapović (2008:3)
  4. ^ Kapović (2008:3)
  5. ^ This is known as Vasiľev-Dolobko's law and is attested in Old East Slavic and Middle Bulgarian.
  6. ^ After Sussex & Cubberley (2011:154).
  7. ^ Sussex & Cubberley (2011:151)
  8. ^ Sussex & Cubberley (2011:135)
  9. ^ Sussex & Cubberley (2011:153)
  10. ^ a b Marc L. Greenberg, Word prosody in Slovene from a typological perspective, 2003
  11. ^ Vermeer & 1986/2010:3)
  12. ^ Stang (1957:52–55)
  13. ^ Kapović (2005:3)


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