Horálek’s introduction to the Slavonic languages

Several days ago I came across Peter Herrity’s two-volume translation of Karel Horálek’s An Introduction to the Study of the Slavonic Languages (Nottingham: Astra Press, 1992) ISBN 0-946134-26-X (Volume I) and 0-946134-34-0 (Volume II). Horálek’s original Úvod do studia slovanských jazyků was published in 1955 in Prague, with a second edition following in 1962.

The first volume is the most wide-ranging, examining the Slavonic family from a diachronic perspective from Proto-Indo-European up to those specific changes which set each of the national languages apart from each other. Unexpectedly, the discussion of Proto-Indo-European takes laryngeal theory into account; either Horálek was unusually visionary for a Slavicist, or this came as part of the amendations which Herrity contributed. While the discussion of sound changes throughout this long span are more substantial than in most other introductions I’ve encountered, Horálek’s discussion of accent and intonation is skimpy and confused. I fear we still await a decent introduction to Slavonic historical accent for the beginning student, and I’ve seen graduate students of the subject forced to piece together a vague idea of the system from articles and monographs overly specific and far beyond the layman’s reach.

Horálek’s introduction uses a wealth of data from Sorbian, Kashubian, and Polabian. I’ve encountered no English-language introduction to the field that even gives these two acceptable passing mention, let alone treats them as just as worthy of attention as the rest of the family. But as the author wrote for a Czech audience, Czech gets the most attention of all. This is sometimes a problem, for Horálek often compares other Slavonic languages to Czech, making it difficult for the reader without knowledge of Czech to understand his point. And as the author was writing during the height of socialism, a common text presented in each of the Slavonic languages is taken from the Communist Manifesto instead of something less technical, though to his credit Horálek does make it obvious that he hates this obligation.

The lack of information on accent is more than compensated by the attention given to comparative syntax: fifty whole pages worth. I’ve never seen such a friendly introduction to the syntactical features of the whole family (Oxford’s Comparative Syntax of Balkan Languages obviously only serves for Bulgarian and Macedonian in a Sprachbund context).

The second volume ends the comparative examination of the entire family with the matter of lexicology. Then a new theme arrives with a survey of the history of each of the literary languages from the earliest times (dialectal differences in OCS texts) to the age of nationalism. This is followed, putting the cart somewhat before the horse, with a history of Slavonic writing systems. Horálek sensibly upholds that Glagolitic was the first alphabet, making the usual arguments in favour of this point. After this there is a brief listing of the identifying features of each Slavonic language. Much of this information has already been presented in the first volume, but scattered long discussions of obscure features. This section is useful for quick reference when one is wondering how, say, Polish treats original dj.

The final portion of the book is an outline of the history of comparative Slavonic linguistics. This is quite brief, but I find it of enormous importance. Resources on Old Church Slavonic mention many famous personalities, but the reader is left to wonder at their biography and major overall achievements. Nor does the beginner in comparative Slavonic linguistics get much idea of what theories have already been tried and found wanting. I find Winfred Lehmann’s Theoretical Bases of Indo-European Linguistics (Routledge, 2005) the best overall IE primer specifically because it introduces the reader not only to the field as it stands today, but also to its growth and to those major figures who moved it along. Horálek has provided a great service by giving the same sort of history for his own specific field.

My biggest complaint about the book is the quality of the typesetting. I understand that this was probably a labour of love, brought out by a small press with little funding available, but there’s no excuse for such ugly pages. Hear me, O academics forced to self-publish: if you pay a graduate student (like me, for example) just a hundred euro or so, and promise a free copy, your book can be typeset to as high a standard a quality as if it came from Cambridge University Press or the Clarendon Press. Of course, even were the book nicely typeset, the printing of the volume is on cheap paper and from time to time one finds words a little blurry.

I couldn’t even tell you how much this book costs, as it’s not listed at Amazon, hence my posting my review here on my weblog. Still, seek out this through inter-library loan if you enjoy reading about the Slavonic languages. It’s a valuable resource alongside the English-language standards especially if you’re wondering who exactly were all these 19th-century gentlemen whose names constantly pop up.

Schaarschmidt’s grammar of Upper Sorbian

(The academic publisher LINCOM Europa doesn’t have much distribution in the United States, so I can’t review its offerings on Amazon.com as I do with most everything else I read.)

Gunter Schaarschmidt’s Upper Sorbian is a 2002 volume in LINCOM’s Descriptive Grammar Series. (I hadn’t heard much about this series before, but it seems to cover many Uralic languages and so invites further exploration.) The two Sorbian languages are among the least described of the Slavonic languages, and any resource in English is welcome. Schaarschmidt limits his analysis to the Upper Sorbian language, which as it is split into at least nine major dialects, but which is generally described in a standard form.

At 79 pages this grammar can only be a sketch. The phonology and morphology are described mainly in concise charts, with brief comments following. Syntax, however, gets more substantial treatment than is found in many small grammars. The grammar is nearly entirely synchronic. The limitations imposed by the publisher for the size of the grammar mean that there’s no room to go into great detail on historical matters. That’s quite a pity, since many interesting matters, such as the loss of the feminine vocative and the rise of a new masculine vocative, are mentioned but not explained. It would have also been helpful for the author to include the standard Sorbian reflexes of unstable Common Slavonic phonemes (e.g. the yers, nasal vowels, and yat) so that Slavicists could more quickly find their bearing.

Besides the grammar proper, there are some socio- and geolinguistic data, although this is no more substantial than that found in Routledge’s The Slavonic Languages ed. Comrie. There are also two texts with word-by-word glosses. One is from the literary language, and the other from a dialect northeast of Bautzen. This is most useful for seeing how thoroughly the complicated tense system of Common Slavonic, with its aorist and imperfect, has been replaced in speech with a simplified aspectual system like Russian or Serbian while surviving in the literary language.

One major annoyance of the book is its typesetting. Seemingly done in Microsoft Word with default settings, the text is riddled with irregular line spacing, a ragged right edge (so no hyphenation), no headers, and unbalanced position of diacritics. I can bear typewritten publications from the “great textbook crisis” of the late 1970s recession, but there’ s no excuse for this sort of product in this day and age, and I was actually irked enough to write to the publisher to complain.

I’m still waiting for a rigorous historical grammar of the Sorbian languages, like Matthews’ or Vlasto’s for Russian, or Shevelov’s for Ukrainian. Still, for those wanting to know something of the grammar of Upper Sorbian, Schaarschmidt’s sketch is at least something, and the bibliography points one to further resources scattered among various collections of papers.