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Valentyn Stetsyuk (Lviv, Ukraine)

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About the Nature of the Rhotacism and Zetacism in the Altaic languages


One of the puzzles of the Altaic languages is the nature of the phonetic correspondence r/l – š/s (z). This complex phenomenon assumes the existence of two groups of Turkic languages, differing as follows. Similar phonetically words of the same sense can have on the same position either the sounds r, l, or š, s, z. For example, the name of a bull is pronounced öküz, ögüz in many Turkic languages, but Chuvash has văkăr.

Accordingly, these groups are called by scholars r (l/r)-languages and z-languages. The latter are called also standard languages. At present the group of r-language consists of the Chuvash language at present, but it is assumed that other r-languages existed too. However, we can often find even among the z-languages that semantic near words of the same stem can have as the sound z, and the sound r on the same position . For example, the Turkic word semiz “fat" corresponds to the verb semir-“ to fatten, get fat, grow." In addition, some z-languages have r sound in the place where the other have z: Tur. yasa "law, statute" – Karachi džoruq «law», with Kaz., Uzbek. tezek, tizak "manure" – Gag. ders «the same». Thus, a there is no clear pattern of sound transformations in this matter.

The competent British specialist in Turkic philology, uniting l/r-languages into a single one, points to its peculiarities and difficulties of its research by such words:


Our knowledge of l/r Turkish is so fragmentary and discontinuous that it is better not to attempt to trace its history in detail, remarking merely that the difference between l/r Turkish and standard languages was primarily in the pronunciation of certain sounds and probably only to a small extent in matters of word structure, grammar and vocabulary; what is said below about the general structure of standard Turkish is equally applicable to l/r Turkish (CLAUSON GERARD. 2002: 44-45).


It is assumed that the Altaic languages had a certain sound, a sonorant or fricative, which later was preserved in one part of the Turkic languages, but the other part reflected it as the alternative. Correspondence r/lš/s/z in the Turkic languages are quite numerous. For many years, scholars disputed what the sound was original the sonorant or fricative. Evidences in favor of the first and second assumption exist or rather, are treated, fairly conclusive. According to the two positions of scientists, two lines have been developed in the Turkic phonology – the "zetacism" and "rhotacism" theories. The term "rhotacism/lambdaism" is used sometimes too. While some scientists named preservation of archaic r/l by "rhotacism/lambdaism", others understood this term as the transition of primary š, s or z. in r/l. Accordingly the zetacism could be understood as conservation of the sounds š/s/z or the transition r/l in these sounds. This different understanding did not help to resolve the problem, it is still unclear. We can find in the literature directly opposite conclusions about trends in the development of views on this issue. Some believe that it becomes more and more adherents rhotacism, others write the same about the supporters of the zetacism. (Cf PALLO MARGIT K. , 1985: 87 and PETROV L.P., YEGOROV N.I. , 1987: 90.)

The complexity of the problem is in addition complicated by the false conception of the Altaic origin of the Turks and about the supposed genetic relationship of the Turkic languages with the Mongolian and Tungus-Manchu groups. Based on this conception, it goes without saying that any deviation from the common-Turkic norms should have been common in some cases for the Chuvash, on the one hand, and the Mongol or Manchu-Tungus languages, on the other. It is known that the Chuvash language stands alone among the whole set of Turkic languages and it was natural to assume that some of its features should draw it together with the Mongol languages. While searching Chuvash-Mongolian linguistic relations scholars clearly overdone and often given for such coincidences or far-fetched analogies. This applies to the problem of the rhotacism-zetacism. The assertions of a large number of Chuvash-Mongolian lexical correspondences that contain the sounds r and l on those places where the vast majority of Turkic languages have š/s/z wander from book to book.

However, in practice, it turned out that the Mongolian-Chuvash correspondence is not so much. This is acknowledged by some linguists:


The Chuvash language has a number of Mongolian words not found in other Turkic languages. It is above all Pronouns… More Mongolian-Chuvash correspondences are few, but enough to prove the coexistence of the Proto-Chuvash and Mongolian peoples in the distant past – long before the Mongol conquest (AKHMETIANOV R.G., 1978: 119).


EExcept for pronouns, which analysis is a matter for specialists, the cited paper gave six or seven Chuvash words having matches in the Mongolian language, but that does not mean that are absent in other Turkic languages or they never had them or they never existed in the Old Turkic language. A similar phenomenon can be observed in the Hungarian language, where there are present separate Hungarian-Mongolian lexical matches. On this occasion, the famous Hungarian linguist Zoltan Gomboc wrote:


The fact that in some cases, matches to the Hungarian words can be found only in the Mongolian language… has not really matter, as the ancient Turkic vocabulary is known to us, not in all full (GOMBOC ZOLTAN., 1985-1, )


On the other hand, some of the Chuvash-Mongolian matches can not be absolutely considered as ancients, if we pay attention to the meaning of words ("tin", "a shawl"). And, as always, there may be a coincidence. Such a bias inherent also to many scholars finding Chuvash-Mongolian phonetic correspondences, in particular the r/l š/s/z . The list of matches, compiled on the basis of data collected online from the international project "The Tower of Babel", established under the leadership of SA Starostin, is given below. The senses of the Chuvash words were specified in the dictionary.


Chuv çěrě “a ring”, Turkm, Kasrach jüzük, etc. “a ring” – Mong dörü “a ring”.

Chuv jěr “a track”, Trc iz, yz, “a track” – Mong irağa “a shoot, wave”.

Chuv kěr “outmen”, Trc küz, güz, “outmen”, – Mong qura “rain”.

Chuv var “middle”, Trc üz, öz “inside” – Mong örü “inside, chest”.

Chuv samărt “fat, well-fed”, Trc semiz “fat” – Mong semž’i “interior fat”.

Chuv šur “swamp”, Trk saz “swamp” – Mong sirağu “earth”.

Chuv sěr “to filter”, Trc süz, söz “to filter” – Mong sürči “to drizzle”.

Chuv takăr “even, flat”, Trc tegiz, tekiz “even, equal” – Mong tegsi “even, flat”.

Chuv čěrçi “knee”, Trc diz, tiz, dize “a knee” – Mong türei “a bootleg”.

Chuv tar “to run away”, Trc tas, “to run away”, – Mong tergil“to run away”.

Chuv türě “right”, Trcdüz “right” – Mong töre “a rule, law”.

Chuv vărax “slow”, Trc uzun, uzaq “long” – Mong urtu “long”.


As we can see, the list is small, and some matches may be pure Turkic origin, and their Mongol correspondences are just borrowing. In addition, the absence of the Mongolian correspondences to the most ancient Turk words having obvious signs of rhotatcism-zetatcism such as, for example, qyz “a girl" or ögüz “an ox” is to be taken in consideration. Thus there can be no question of absolute regularity in accordance Chuvash and Mongolian r modern Turkic z. However, even a few indisputable Chuvash and Mongol correspondences should be given some explanation. Since, as, in consequence of our studies, the speakers of the ancient Chuvash and Mongol language had no the prehistoric era, but, nevertheless, some facts of common phonetic phenomena exist in these languages, we can make an assumption about the existence specific sounds in the ancient Turkic language, one of which could be easily transformed in r, and s/z, and the other in the l and š. The phenomenon of rhotatcism-zetatcism is known in some Indo-European languages (Latin, German). Since the formation of the Turkic languages took place in the immediate vicinity of the settlements of Indo-Europeans in Eastern Europe (STETSYUK VALENTYN. 1998), one could admit that the phonetics of the Turkic and the Indo-Europeans languages had some common features. Thanks to preserved ancient texts, the phonetics of the Indo-European languages was recovered better than the Turkic one. One of its features is the presence of aspirated sounds bh, ph, th, dh, etc. In addition, the Greek language had affricates ks (ξ), ps (ψ), dz (ζ). It has long that N. Marr developed his theory about the development of speech sounds from simple to complex. These complex sounds might break up into more simple sounds of modern languages, and some of them might exist till now.

In our case, the hypothetical sound that could transit as in r, and in s/z is a fricative trill rz, existing now in the Czech language (ř) and existed in Polish (rz) but transformed into ž or š depending of the sonority the preceding consonant. Whether it was the primordial Proto-Slavic sound, dating back to Indo-European, or did it develop in Polish and Czech under the influence of the Bulgarians who dwelled adjacent to the ancestors of the Czechs and Poles for a certain time, science has yet to find out, but in any case the Slavic language should have two r – either long and short, or hard and soft, or simple and complex. Thus, nothing prevents us assume the existence of the sound rz in the ancient Turkic language, what has been already done before (STETSYUK VALENTYN., 2000: 29). But there were not only in Slavic two sounds r, the same can be said about the Armenian language which has the sounds r and rr (long). In this case just the long Armenian sound corresponds to the hypothetical Old Turkic rz, as it is evidenced by the ancient Armenian-Gagauz lexical match: Arm antarr "a forest" corresponds Gag andyz "a grove, bush". Similar words for a forest in Armenian and Gagauz have survived from the days when Proto-Armenians and Oguz (Gagauz ancestors) populated adjacent habitats. Hr. Acharyan in his etymological dictionary, without considering the possibility of Turkic origin of the Armenian word, supposed that it derived from the Indo-European root der-, meaning "a tree", and gives to it a parallel in Sanskrit – vanatara (ACHARRJAN HR. 1971). However, the question of the origin of the word in this case is not important, important for us is the correspondence long Arm rr and Turkic rz.

The consonant ř (rz) had a voiceless match in the sound ĺ () which could turn at different languages in l, š, ss, s, for example, Old Turk. word yĺyq "warm" became such modifications: Tur. ılık, Cuv. ăšă, Uzb. issik, in other languages also ysyq "the same".

The existence of the fricative trill in Finno-Ugric is good confirmed by the Umurt language were it was transformed in ʤ (cf. Komi ryt "evening" – Udm. ʤyt "the same", Komi roj "moss" – Udm. ʤuj "the same" a.o.)

The rhotacism phenomenon, that is replacing the phoneme z (s) by the phoneme r, known in Latin since the 4th century BC, has taken place also in some West-Germanic languages (YEGOROV V.G., 1971: 25). Some phonetic facts of the Ukrainian language may also give evidence in favor of the existing of the sound rz: Ukr. zherst’ – Rus. zhest’ “tin”. This word was borrowed from the Turkic languages where it had meaning "copper, brass", in the form jes, zes, zis, etc. The unclear r in the Ukrainian word can suggest an idea that the word was borrowed at the time when the sound rz still existed. That is, the Turkic protoform can be restored as *zerz. Then, if existing the parallels *zelz, it becomes possible to explain the hitherto obscure etymology of Proto-Slavic *zelzo "iron".

There is another very interesting match, confirming the existence of phonemes rz. Latin cursarius, from which the word corsair was derived, can have such parallels: Chuv xarsăr "bold", Karachi, Balk. ğursuz "evil" Tur hırsız "a thief" and other Turkic words derived from the ancient *ğurzurz. There are khartsyz, khartsyzak “a bandit”, “a villain” in Ukrainian borrowed from some Turkic language as also the Polish harcerz “a scout”, which has retained its writing to this day, reflecting the existence of the phoneme rz. Usually the etymology of the Latin word cursarius is explained to be from curare "to escape", but, undoubtedly, the Turkic words are semantic much closer to one of the names of the pirates. The Latin, Polish, and Ukrainian words were borrowed from the Türks at different times, and later the Latin word came into many European languages. The given example is interesting that it has two sounds rz, one of which has switched to z, and the other has preserved the same sound.

The word hussar, which originated from Hung huszár, can be referred here too. M.Vasmer saw in the stem of the Hungarian word the number húsz "twenty", what is completely impossible for two reasons. Firstly, Hungarian haz no proper suffix –ar, it is found only in loan-words. If “hussar” meant originally “twentieth”, as Vasmer considered, then this word would have the form húszadik, and not at all huszár. Secondly, the vowel is long in the word húsz, and it is short in the word huszár, which is also important. In addition, the Hungarian word was borrowed from Serbo-Croatian husarъ "a robber" (ZAICZ GÁBOR. 2006, 2006), which has a match in Rus khusar’ “pirate”. The Albanian language has the word kusar “a thief," which summarizes all the made assumptions made. Once upon a time it had the form hurzarz, but later the both original sound rz turned in one case in s, and in another one – in r, i.e. the specified fricative trill could in the same language have different transformation, depending on the convenience of pronunciation.

Thus, Chuvash-Mongolic counterparts can be explained as follows. That part of the Turks, who migrated from Europe to Asia, brought their phonetic features also there. The forebears of the Mongols and Tungus, borrowing many Turkic words, articulate the sound rz/rs as r at once, while the Bulgars simplified its pronunciation in the usual r much later, but the same result of replacing the complex sound in the more simple one gives the warrant to talk about imaginary Bulgar-Mongolian (Chuvash-Mongolian) relation, which in fact never took place.

The proposed hypothesis may be helpful in clarifying the etymology of "dark" words in different languages. For example, Mar. preze "a calf", which has no matches in the other Finno-Ugric languages, can ascend a protoform of modern-day Chuv. păru, closest to the Mari word, but not it could be a source of borrowing on phonological reasons. The ancient Mari borrowed the name of a calf from other Turks, which had it existed in the form of *bürzäv, which developed in Chuv. păru and also in Turkm. buzav, Tur. buzov and other similar ones. Originally, the Mari word Mari had to take the form of *perzav.

They have borrowed said a word from neighboring the Turkic-speaking Scythians (Bulgars), preserving the length of the Turkic sound and simultaneously joining voiced and unvoiced its versions in one word (English – girl). The sound ř was simplified in most sound Turkic languages to z and they have the form qyz of this word, while it was transformed in r in the Chuvash (Chuv. xĕr "a girl"). Complex transformations occurred with the Turkic archetype qyř (qyĺ) "a girl" when borrowing it in the Old English. The studies have shown that for a long time the Anglo-Saxons remained close to his ancestral home in Eastern Europe after the other Germanic tribes migrated westward (see. the section Anglo-Saxons on the Ukraine). They have borrowed said word from the neighboring Turkic-speaking Scythians (Bulgars) preserving the length of the Turkic sound and simultaneously joining voiced and unvoiced its versions in one word (English – girl). The sound řz in most Turkic languages and they have the form qyz of this word, while it was transformed in r in the Chuvash (Chuv. xĕr "a girl").

In general, it can be said that there are ample evidences that the fricative trill of rz and its modifications were widespread in the Nostratic languages in the old times, and traces of these sounds in different languages and in various forms are preserved until now.