First-syllable *ə in Proto-Mordvinic?

The following is, currently, more of a hypothesis I wish to record than an actual result.

Out of the two Mordvinic languages, Erzya shows the simple vowel inventory /i e a o u/ (plus a recent marginal /ɨ/ phonemicized by Russian loanwords). Moksha adds to this firstly an open front vowel /ä/, but also a reduced vowel /ə/ with front and back allophones. In noninitial syllables this corresponds to vowel-harmonic /e ~ o/ in Erzya, or in some dialects instead /i ~ u/. There are two main reconstructions of the Proto-Mordvinic situation: the Finnish/Hungarian approach, which posits Moksha-like original *ə, and the Russian approach, which posits Erzya-like original *i ~ *u. In terms of phonetic typology, the latter seems simpler from the Mordvinic dialectology viewpoint: *i ~ *u > /ə/ is trivial vowel reduction, while *ə > /i ~ u/ is rather less common, and also runs counter to typical vowel inventory trends in the region. [1] The former, on the other hand, seems simpler from the wider Uralic viewpoint: PMo *ə quite typically continues PU unstressed *a ~ *ä, and routing reflexes like *kota >> /kudo/ ‘house’ thru a stage *kudu with a close vowel appears unparsimonious. I have tended to follow the *ə reconstruction already since I mostly talk about Mordvinic within the Uralic context. A second motivation that appears reasonable to me are Erzya dialects where PMo *e *ä yield /ä e/ (minimal pair: /käď/ ‘skin’, /keď/ ‘hand’ ~ Mk. /keď/, /käď/ respectively), a “flip-flop” that seemingly demands some feature in addition to height for distinguishing these. We could posit that *e, *o were, at least phonetically, reduced vowels *ĕ, *ŏ, which would then also suggest that *ə was their unstressed neutralized allophone.

But most of this seems to be further complicated by a look at initial-syllable /ə/ in Moksha. This most typically corresponds instead to /i/ and /u/ in Erzya, including in dialects with /e ~ o/ corresponding to Mk. non-initial /ə/; sometimes we even find both close vowels represented in Erzya dialects; relatively often Uralic sources of such vocabulary would predict **e or **o; sometimes we find loss of the vowel altogether, either in just Erzya or also in Moksha dialects. A few examples:

  • Er. /kirta-/, /kurta-/ ~ Mk. /kərta-/ ‘to singe, scorch’ < PU *kor(p)-tta- (predicted PMo **kurtə-);
  • Er. /turva/ ~ Mk. /tərva/ ‘lip’ < PU *turpa (predicted PMo **torva);
  • Er. /troks/, /truks/, /turks/ ~ Mk. /tərks/, /turks/, /truks/ ‘across, thru’ < PU *tora-ksə (predicted PMo **turəks)
  • Er. /srado-/, /strado-/ ~ Mk. /səradə-/ ‘to be strewn’ < PU *sira- (predicted PMo **sora-).

Generally I’ve seen the /i/ ~ /ə/ and /u/ ~ /ə/ correspondences explained thru new secondary vowel reduction in Moksha. But this really fails to explain why we should have any doublets like /kirta-/ ~ /kurta-/ within Erzya as well. Given this and the cases of syncope, my current hypothesis is that perhaps we should be treating Moksha /ə/ as older, already Proto-Mordvinic, and the Erzya full vowels as secondary. This would obviously confirm that unstressed /i ~ u/ in Erzya also has to be secondary compared to Moksha /ə/; but this comes at a cost: it would also seem to mean that we now have some reason to suspect a contrastive Proto-Mordvinic *ə at least in the first syllable. Many, though not all, cases of such an *ə seem to be further followed by a full vowel /a/. Stress retraction onto full vowels is typical in the region, and so instead of setting up a new vowel quality contrast, a stress contrast might be possible: *tərvá = */tOrvá/ for ‘lip’, versus e.g. *tólga (= Er Mk /tolga/) ‘feather’. Non-initial stress placement like this is in fact attested from both Erzya and Moksha. — But then what of cases like ‘across’? Would we also need to set up contrasts like *təróks = */tOróks/, versus *mórə = */mórO/ ‘song’ (> Er /moro/ ~ Mk. /mor/)? Or even, since reflexes like /turks/ also occur (but not ˣ/turoks/, ˣ/təruks/ etc.), do we perhaps need to set up a syllabic *r̥ here??

All of this should be also further compared with words showing syncope in both Erzya and Moksha. If first-syllable *ə was allowed in Proto-Mordvinic, it seems quite possible to me that words like Er. /pŕa/ ~ Mk. /pŕä/ ‘end, head’ < PU *perä (predicted PMo **piŕə) should be reconstructed not just yet with an initial cluster, but rather as something like PMo *pəŕa, and with syncope only incidentally taking place in both languages later on in this kind of auspicious positions, i.e. where syncope would produce a typologically natural initial consonant cluster (the same environment as initial-vowel syncope in Udmurt).

[1] I would propose solving this by routing the /i ~ u/ dialects thru the mainline /e ~ o/ type: after “de-reduction” of *ə to full vowels, these dialects would have gone thru vowel reduction again, but this time not of the centering but rather inventory-reducing type: unstressed *e > /i/, *o > /u/. This is well paralleled by unstressed /e/ × /i/ > [ɪ] in Russian, which of course has been the most significant contact language of Erzya for the last several centuries already.

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