Untersuchungen zu den baltischen Sprachen

Untersuchungen zu den baltischen Sprachen. By Daniel Petit. (Brill’s studies in Indo-European languages and linguistics 4.) Leiden: Brill, 2010. Pp. viii, 353. ISBN 9789004178366. $169 (Hb).

Reviewed by Ilya Yakubovich, Moscow State University

The principal representatives of the Baltic group of the Indo-European language family are Lithuanian, Latvian, and the extinct Old Prussian. Although all these languages are attested beginning in the second millennium CE, they display archaic traits that make them almost as useful for the reconstruction of Proto-Indo-European as their relatives recorded two or three millennia earlier. In particular, Lithuanian is commonly seen as the most conservative living Indo-European language. An especially well-known feature of Lithuanian and Latvian grammars is the combination of the unpredictable place of accent and phonological tone oppositions in the accented syllable. The closest relatives of the Baltic group within Indo-European are the Slavic languages, but they tend to be phonologically more innovative.

Five chapters of this volume constitute self-contained essays dealing with particular aspects of Baltic historical linguistics that began as lectures at the 2006 Indo-European summer school in Berlin. Ch. 1 is devoted to the dialectal relationships within the Baltic group, and also contains a useful survey of the earliest written texts preserved in individual Baltic languages. Ch. 2 explores the genesis of Baltic tonal oppositions from Proto-Indo-European segmental oppositions. Contrary to the traditional point of view, the author suggests that the tonal opposition between Lith. varnas ‘raven’ and várna ‘crow’ is not rooted in the difference of Indo-European ablaut grades but represents a Balto-Slavic innovation. Ch. 3 discusses the vestiges of the Indo-European neuter gender in Lithuanian and Latvian, which contrast with its apparent full-scale preservation in Old Prussian.

Ch. 4 addresses the origins of the ‘semi-thematic’ verbal stems in Baltic. In my opinion, this is the least successful part of the monograph. The author tells us that he will not fully answer some of the questions he has raised (cf. e.g. 257, 259). When answers are given, they are sometimes problematic: thus the ‘analogical lengthening of the thematic vowel *-a- to *-ā- on the model of the other preterit formation –ē-’ (253) appears to refer to a sort of analogy that is not predicted by general linguistic theory. Ch. 5 discusses Baltic clitics with an emphasis on the evolution of their placement and the chronology of their fusion with accented word forms.

An important positive feature of Daniel Petit’s work is careful attention to primary data. Even scholars not interested in the Indo-European discussion per se can refer to it to learn, for example, about the neuter pronominal forms attested in Lithuanian or the suspect clitics in Old Prussian. Its other commendable trait is honesty toward the reader: if the investigation of a particular chapter does not yield conclusive results, the author informs us accordingly (cf. e.g. 138–39). While P does not claim that his monograph contains groundbreaking discoveries, it does advance our knowledge of Baltic linguistics.