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----- Original Message -----
Sent: Saturday, April 15, 2000 11:34 AM
Subject: [phoNet] Re: Polish1

Łukasz wrote: [...] the clusters [tk] and [drgn]
respectively were once split by the so-called 'yers'.
I was wondering why Polish, on its way of development, lost these
'yers' and made these consonantal clusters quite difficult to
Hi, Łukasz, welcome to the group.

The yers developed from proto-Slavic short vowels *i and *u, which were probably lax ([ɪ], [ʊ]) and strongly centralised. The qualitative contrast between them was not very salient, so they differed mainly in the effect they had on the preceding consonant: [ɪ] caused such a consonant to become palatalised, while [ʊ] did not.
Eventually, the contrast [tʲɪ] vs. [tʊ] was transformed into [tʲə] vs. [tə], that is, the CONSONANTS became contrastively different and a new series of palatalised phonemes appeared. The reduced vowel [ə] had such a low functional load that its omission -- at first presumably in fast, casual speech -- could not lead to any communication problems, especially because pre-Polish had very simple syllable structure, with nearly all syllables being open and initial clusters as simple as in English or Latin. Gradually the schwa-less pronunciation established itself as dominant.

Not ALL shwas were deleted. If a word had more than one of them in consecutive syllables, loss affected the last schwa, and then each alternate one, while even-numbered schwas counting from the end of the string were not only preserved, but strengthened -- they merged with [ɛ]. Hence such Polish alternations as pies 'dog (nom.)' vs. psa (gen.) < *pʲəs-ə vs. *pʲəs-a.
The loss of reduced vowels is commonplace cross-linguistically. In the history of English there have been several waves of such loss; e.g. in Middle English word-final schwas were lost with the compensatory lengthening of the preceding syllable (if stressed and light), e.g. Early ME [namə] > Late ME [na:m] 'name'. The loss of Slavic yers had a similar effect in Polish, e.g. [vɔzə] > [vɔ:z] (> [vo:s] > [vos] > wóz [vus] 'wagon' in Modern Polish). French has something similar to the creation of those Polish cluster: petite [pətitə] > [ptit], on ne se lave pas [ɔ̃nəsəlavəpα] > [ɔ̃nslavpa]. Also in English schwa-loss operates in certain contexts, though not so regularly as in Old Polish: police [pəˈli:s] may be realised as [ˈpli:s], separate is usually [ˈsepɹət], etc.