Mapleland and Thornybank

My Romania–Finland hitchhiking commute and a memorable cycle tour have often brought me through extreme southeastern Poland and western Ukraine. I have been struck by constantly encountering the same toponym, e.g.:

  • Jawornik in Poland, on the 892 road south of Sanok;
  • Yavoriv, in Ukraine just across the border from Poland, south of the Ukrainian town of Turka;
  • Yavor, also in that same part of Ukraine, but just north of Turka.

For a long time I would half-consciously mull over this word and think about derivations (e.g. some weird creation from *voriti), but I should have just searched for the term on the web: Common Slavic *(j)avor means ‘maple’. And the reason why I found no headword in Derksen’s Etymological Dictionary of the Slavic Inherited Lexicon is because, according to Pronk-Tiethoff’s The Germanic Loanwords in Proto-Slavic, the term was borrowed after the Proto-Slavic period. I wonder if that makes a case for the Slavic Urheimat, which was supposed to be in this general area, not reaching down to the Carpathians, as why would the Slavs borrow a name for a tree that evidently was so distinguishing a feature of their landscape?

Another riddle from the same part of Europe remains slightly unsolved for me. For a long time, on the basis of the Romanian town of Târnaveni and the Bulgarian city of Veliko Tarnovo, I again, without thinking too deeply about the matter, thought it might be some contraction of *trgŭ novŭ ‘new market’, a sensible name for a place acting as a commercial centre. However, in the Romanian case, the town was actually named after the Târnava River, and one doesn’t often name rivers after markets. Plus, the Bulgarian town should be seen as containing the adjectival ending *‑ovo. Then, at some point I passed through the Polish town of Tarnobrzeg and realized that the common element here is Common Slavic *trŭnŭ ‘thorn’. So, these are areas with thorny banks, which the Polish toponym would seem to express clearly.

But my knowledge of Polish dialectology is scanty. The word ‘thorn’ in standard Polish is cierń. With a place-name like Tarnobrzeg, does this mean that the southeastern Polish dialects had a different development of early Slavic syllabic *r (or sequences of *r and a yer), one that led to a non-front vowel that wasn’t affected by the shift *t > c before front vowels? Interestingly, the Polish Wikipedia article for Tarnobrzeg speaks of a relationship to śliwa tarnina ‘blackthorn, sloe, Prunus spinosa’, and here we have a Poland-wide term with the unchanged consonant.

Moveable past tense markers in Polish

The cover of the Cambridge Textbook in Linguistics CliticsI’ve been slowly going through Andrew Spencer and Ana R. Luis’s Clitics, part of the Cambridge Textbooks in Linguistics series, which is lots of fun. As one might expect, there are a lot of examples from Balkan Sprachbund languages. Usually when I have traveled in the Balkans I have spoken with local people in a South Slavic mishmash located somewhere between Serbian, Macedonian and Bulgarian, and it is easy to think these languages work the same syntactically, but this textbook presents a number of striking differences in their clitic systems that I had never picked up on.

Today’s surprise came from a more distant Slavic language, however. Polish forms its past tense from a participle in *-l plus person endings, and this textbook claims that the person endings can be moved away from the past participle stem to any word in the clause:

  • Ja to robiłem ‘I did that’
  • Ja tom robił
  • Jam to robił
  • Co ty robiłeś ‘What did you do?’
  • Coś ty robił
  • W domu to zrobiliście ‘You (pl.) did it at home’
  • W domuście to zrobili

So I ask the wife, who is a native speaker of Polish. At first she has no idea what I’m on about. After I show her the passage in the book, she answers Oh, old and goes on to explain that today one would see this only in e.g. archaizing poetry. In writing this section, Spencer & Luis relied on several studies from the 1980s and very early 1990s, and it’s strange that the phenomenon would have by now become so antiquated.

More inconsistencies between the book’s claim that “Polish has feature X” and (one person’s) native speaker judgment comes with how words with these endings are stressed with regard to Polish’s typical placement of the accent on the penultimate syllable. Spencer & Luis write:

In ‘cultivated speech’ [the two plural auxiliary clitics, -smy, -scie] fail to affect stress. Thus, in this style we hear zrobíliście ‘you did’, with stress retained on the penultimate syllable of the verb form, rather than the more colloquial zrobilíście, in which the stress is moved forward to the final syllable of the verb form.

The wife claims that the form with penultimate stress is very jarring to the ear. Wanting a second opinion, I turned to Forvo, that helpful website where one can find sound files presenting the pronunciation of a given foreign-language word The verb zrobić isn’t conjugated there, but być ‘to be’ is, and both byliśmy and byliśce are pronounced with penultimate stress. Presented with this, the wife concedes that it is one of those things where everyone knows that it is wrong, but everyone says it nonetheless. If penultimate stress is already so pervasive, will this “rule” last another generation?