o > u in Anatri Chuvash

The Helsinki university library’s copy of the two-volume collection Материалы по чувашской диалектологии (Čeboksary, 1960–1963) has inserted into it András Róna-Tas’s review of it from Acta Orientalia XVIII (1965). I found this passage very important:

It was supposed formerly that the o > u development of Anatri is not a very old feature but we had no chronological evidence. The oldest monuments of the present Chuvash language (Strahlenberg 1730, the first Chuvash grammar 1769) show forms with o. But since Virjal has preserved o till the present the problem has remained unsolved. In this respect it is very important that Kornilov found in the tongue of Bardjaš (Bashkir ASR) the phone u in the same positions as it is present in the Anatri dialect. The inhabitants of this village had come to their present dwelling-place before 1770 and have since this time had no connections with the Chuvash-speaking people of the Chuvash ASSR. This can be a proof that the phoneme u was already present in Anatri in the first half of the 18th-century, and at the same time it is an indirect reason for locating the material of Strahlenberg to a Virjal dialect.

Here Róna-Tas is referring to G. E. Kornilov’s paper “Некоторые материалы для характеристики говора села Бердяш Зилаирского район Башкирской АССР”, pp. 133–161 of the second volume. Kornilov gives forms like вунӑ ‘10’, пулапр ‘we will be’ (cf. Cv. lit. пулаппӑр) and so forth.

All the more of an impetus to read up on the Mari and Chuvash dialects of Bashkiria in studying the prehistory of these languages. I all too often forget that there is a world of dialectal variation outside the borders of these peoples’ titular republics.

A reading list on the Istanbul–Kathmandu route (the hippie trail)

One of my hobbies is learning about the overland trail between Europe and the Indian subcontinent that flourished in the 1960s and early 1970s, often called the hippie trail for its identification with the counterculture. On one hand, young people in those days had an opportunity that Europeans today lack, as Afghanistan subsequently erupted into a series of wars that ended the possibility of easily transiting the region. Some cities in Iran were developing quickly on a Western model due to the Shah regime, an era ended by the Islamic revolution. On the other hand, the journey took up to a month of hitchhiking or sitting in a bus when we today can fly today for a meagre amount of money, and many who made the journey lost weeks battling Hepatitis A, had problems with officialdom, or got lice. The publications on the era are a window into a very different world, by turns romantic and dismal.

  • David Tomory, A Season in Heaven: True Tales from the Road to Kathmandu (Melbourne: Lonely Planet, 1998) ISBN 0864426291. A collection of oral histories by a number of Western Europeans (and some Americans who started from Europe), covering many different aspects of the journey and describing various places in the Subcontinent that they settled in upon arrival. This book is the best place to get started on the era.
  • Patrick Marnham, Road to Katmandu (1st edition Macmillan, 1971, 2nd edition with new introduction by the author IB Tauris in 2005) ISBN 184511017X. A lightly fictionalized account of the author’s 1968 journey through Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, India and Nepal.
  • Michael H.C. Baker, Journey to Kathmandu (London: David & Charles, 1974). Instead of just hippies, this account from the spring of 1967 represents what was in fact a more typical demographic among English-speaking travellers then: fairly conventional young people trying to get to and from Australia cheaply. Baker was a driver in a convoy of three covered lorries (trucks) that formerly belonged to the army. Carrying 46 passengers, they travelled for several weeks through France, Italy, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India.
  • Borna Bebek, Santhana: One Man’s Journey to the East (London: The Bodley Head, 1980) ISBN 0370302605. Right after graduating from university in his native Yugoslavia, Bebek set off on the overland trail in January 1977, though from Pakistan he sailed to Thailand and Mauritius before finally reaching India. Set against the memories of those who made the trip earlier, this book is interesting because it documents the little-discussed Yugoslav presence on the trail, and Bebek writes of how by 1977 the hippie era was already seen as ancient history. This is an English translation of the Serbo-Croatian original published as Santhana: Putopis (Zagreb: Nakladni zavod MH, 1979).

Another source of information is Nico Morrison’s project The Flower Raj, which tries to document the lives of Westerners who fell in love with India from 1950 on, a poignant task considering that so many of this generation have already passed away. The project’s blog includes a number of travelogues contributed by those who made the overland journey.

On the etymology of Hungarian srác

While brushing up on my Hungarian by reading through Routledge’s Colloquial Hungarian (the 2nd edition, which lives up to its title more than the 1st), I learned the previously unfamiliar word srác ‘guy’, the phonetic shape of which is somewhat unusual for Hungarian.

Searching through Google for an etymology took some work, but eventually I came across this article on the very subject at Magyar Narancs (a liberal weekly with a satiric touch roughly comparable to Private Eye):

In the 1950s srác was truly slang (just as csávó is now). The word is of Yiddish origin, that is, from the form of German spoken by Eastern European Jews, which is also the source of haver, szajré, a stikában and many other Hungarian words. The word derives ultimately from Hebrew sheretz (the plural form of which is shratzim), which refers to creeping, crawling creatures. This Hebrew word is found in the Bible at the very beginning, in Genesis 1:20, where it is used to describe the swarming of aquatic animals. Yiddish speakers, knowing Scripture, used this word in a comic metaphorical way, to describe groups of children (let’s not forget that in olden times there were many children playing together outside homes) as little swarms of creatures. Thus the word shratzim came to be used, later shortened to shratz. (The word entered German slang also as Schratz.) Today it is used only in Hungarian: in Yiddish the word did not put down strong roots, and Yiddish dictionaries published in the 20th century make no mention of it: it came to pass that in the 19th century it entered Hungarian slang (the first written attestation dates from 1888) and became entrenched there, while in the donor language Yiddish it was quickly forgotten.

As several sites I came across listed the word among Romani borrowings into Hungarian, I wanted to do some fact-checking, but indeed there is a German Schratz ‘child’ according to Heidi Stern’s Wörterbuch zum jiddischen Lehnwortschatz in den deutschen Dialekten with the same etymology (under the entry for Scheres), so it looks like the claim holds water.

Mari and Chuvash potatoes

The series of article collections Диалекты и топонимия Поволжья that the Chuvash state university in Cheboksary published in 1972–1977, is a great resource on language contacts in the Volga–Kama region, and anyone interested should really read all of it now, because the print on these low-quality mimeographs of typescripts is fading so quickly that already many passages are illegible in at least the Helsinki university library’s copies. Two papers in this series deal with the terms for ‘potato’ in Mari and Chuvash respectively. As potatoes reached Eurasia from the Americas only fairly recently, after many languages had already separated into divergent dialects, there is often a colourful array of names for the plant (a similar situation can be found with terms for ‘maize’ in various regions).

As F. I. Gordeev explains in his paper on the Mari terms (vol. 5, 1977, pp. 11–22), potatoes were not cultivated in the Mari lands until the mid 19th century. Therefore, there is no mention of the potato in the earliest Mari vocabularies published in the 18th century. From the 1860s on, however, the crop proved immensely popular (it was certainly the only thing I’ve ever seen planted during my visits to Mari El). Gordeev lists the following terms:

  • Variants of Russian картофель, such as карт, картопка, картофка, etc.;
  • пареҥге, the word in the Mari literary language, or slightly phonetically different forms. This is clearly a loan from Tatar бәрәңге, a word that Gordeev claims is ultimately from Russian Парфён, supposedly the name of a trader who introduced the potato to the region, though this sounds to me like rather an urban myth;
  • рокмын < рок ‘earth’, мыны ‘egg’, lit. ‘egg from the ground’;
  • роколма < рок ‘earth’, олма ‘apple’, lit. ‘apple from the ground’ (cf. French pomme de terre or, as Gordeev points out, Moksha модамарь), this is found in the Hill Mari region;
  • рокома < рок ‘earth’, олма ‘apple’, lit. ‘apple from the ground’, this on the other hand is found in the Meadow Mari region;
  • тури, турти, турицки, for which Gordeev gives no etymology except to point out that the last seems to contain the Russian suffix ‑ски.

Chuvash names for ‘potato’ are treated in a paper by L. P. Sergeev (vol. 1, 1972, p. 53–62). He distinguishes six names for the plant across the Chuvash dialects:

  • ҫӗрулми < ҫӗр ‘earth’, улма ‘apple’;
  • паранкӑ, which Sergeev claims contains an ancient Chuvash suffix ‑кӑ (so the word would be < паран + ‑кӑ) and the compound has been used for other plants like nightshade and found in toponyms, so it must be of Chuvash origin and fairly old;
  • карттохкартахви < Russian;
  • калтток < Russian;
  • кантук < Russian.

The respective papers delineate the exact regions where each of these terms is found. The two different explanations of the пареҥгепаранкӑ presents a mystery, but I suspect that tracking down a similar paper somewhere on Tatar names for ‘potato’ (which would discuss бәрәңге) may shed more light on this.

Six weeks cycling South Africa

In January and February 2014, we cycled some 2000 km across South Africa from Johannesburg to Cape Town. South Africa proved a fascinating country from a number of perspectives, and I would strongly recommend it to cycle tourists. Instead of a detailed account of our trip – which would quickly bore readers with our recounting the innumerable tiny towns we passed through that all had the same shops – I shall offer here some more general impressions to guide others planning such a trip. A map showing a route cycled from Johannesburg to Cape Town Continue reading

Why flying on Air Madagascar is not advisable

On the day we were supposed to fly out of Madagascar, we said goodbye to the Academy of Free Travel house and cycled back to Antananarivo’s airport the way we came over a month ago. Piled onto the back racks of our bikes were a few giant-sized Chinese shopping bags, rolls of foam and some twine that we had bought in a Tana market. Bike boxes do not exist in Madagascar, and the ones we came with were already beaten up after the long journey from Europe, so these materials were all we could work with.

We spent a couple of hours dismantling the bikes and carefully wrapping them, then checked into our Air Madagascar flight to Johannesburg and went through security. When we got to the gate, we were surprised how few passengers there were from the Boeing 737 parked on the tarmac outside. Boarding did not proceed on time, and a few minutes later the gate agent announced that the flight had been canceled. Probably because there aren’t enough passengers to make it worthwhile, said a Russian businessman with long experience with this airline.

After initial panic among the several dozen passengers, a somewhat orderly queue formed to find out what to do. A policeman canceled the exit stamps in our passports, we were sent into the baggage claim area to retrieve the luggage we had checked (one of the “bike bags” is already torn and in need of further reinforcement), and then we visited the airport’s Air Madagascar office where we were told of the possibility, but not guaranteed, that the flight would leave the next day.

Though we rue bitterly that we were denied the departure we had been looking forward to, at least the airline sorted for us a hotel room, a shuttle to the hotel and back to the airport, and meals. We had hoped to be lodged in one of the nice 4- or 5-star hotels near the airport (which apparently do much of their business from Chinese businessmen), but instead the shuttle took us and a number of other would-be passengers some kilometres back towards Tana, then down a very dodgy side street to a 2-star establishment known as the Les Flots Bleu.

We couldn’t complain so much: the hotel had wi-fi and the restaurant served (and gratis) the best food we’ve had in our entire trip here. Plus, we were a motley crew, and it was fun to speak to a Botswana-born hotel owner from the idyllic Île Sainte-Marie (Visitor numbers are down, but you don’t live there for the money, you live there for the lifestyle.), a South African economist spending a lot of time in booming Nigeria, and a group of twenty or so Korean tourists.

The next day we had a breakfast and lunch at the hotel and then were shuttled to the airport. Check-in for the flight began late, but most people made it to the gate before the expected departure time. Again, just before boarding was due to begin, it was announced that the flight was canceled.

The Air Madagascar staff claimed that the flight was canceled for weather reasons in Johannesburg. This was immediately exposed as a lie when some South Africans among us telephoned the Johannesburg airport, who said the weather was fine. By claiming it was an unavoidable weather problem, they wanted to avoid compensating us again with hotels and meals. This time the group had to hold their ground for several hours at the airport’s Air Madagascar office, essentially preventing the employees from closing up and going up before we could get our lodging/meals/transportation vouchers. Eventually they again sent us to the same hotel, telling us that the earliest possible opportunity to get out of here would be on Tuesday, in two days.

So, we were back at Les Flots Bleu, though this time the mood was more boisterous as many wanted to drink to forget, and one Dutch girl had to celebrate her birthday under these abysmal circumstances. The next morning, I slept late, only to discover upon waking that all the South Africans had left, probably just giving up and buying a ticket on the competing South African Airlines Airlink flight Antananarivo–Johannesburg that flies daily and has actually left every day that we’ve been stranded.

We spent our Monday lazily in the hotel, but towards midnight got a taxi to the airport instead of waiting for the free shuttle at 0300, so that we could beat the large Korean tour group to the front of the check-in queue. Antananarivo’s airport is open all night long, the lights are shut off completely for a couple of hours. Cleaning staff and security made their rounds, so it never felt entirely deserted as we set up our position at the check-in desks.

The Air Madagascar flight managed to leave on Tuesday morning around 0600 as scheduled, but it was nonetheless a stressful experience. Check-in did not open until an hour and a half before the scheduled departure, and boarding was delayed long past the time printed on our boarding passes. Every time an announcement was made, we quaked in fear that the flight would again be canceled. Only once a team of stewardesses arrived and a fuel truck began to fill the plane could I start to regain my optimism.

Bottom line: if you want to fly between South Africa and Madagascar, avoid Air Madagascar at all costs and take the South African Airways Airlink flight instead.

Looking back at a journey in Madagascar

Tomorrow we fly from Madagascar to Johannesburg and begin several weeks of cycling across South Africa. While it was nice to see Madagascar for myself, I am appalled by the environmental destruction here, which reduces the country’s appeal as a tourist destination because the interesting nature is all forest-based, and the forest is nearly gone. The environmental destruction goes hand in hand with a stagnant political situation, where both opposing blocs are corrupt and focused mainly on the wealthy centre of the island while the impoverished remainder of the country gets ignored. It can be depressing.

From my experience, I offer the following list of things you should take with you to ease your trip, especially if you plan to cycle as we did:

  • A mosquito net. Only more expensive places (30,000 ariary/night and higher) tend to have mosquito nets. There were some cheap rooms on the coast that had nets, but these were filthy, dusty and torn. We regularly put up the inner layer of our MSR HubbaHubba 2 tent in hotels for protection from mosquitos and other insects (there are lots of roaches here).
  • Suncream. Imported suncream (Nivea) is available in Shoprite supermarkets in Antananarivo, but at such high prices that you should bring it from home. The locally-made sun-protection cream is not reliable and will not stop your exposed face and hands from burning.
  • Earplugs. You might imagine that cycling in Madagascar will bring you through remote, tranquil wilderness. In fact, people live everywhere on this island, and chances are that anywhere you sleep will be noisy.
  • Peanut butter. You need something you can spread on a baguette to provide a break from (and more energy than) the rice you’ll be eating at least once a day. You don’t need to bring any from home, just pick some up at a Shoprite supermarket in Antananarivo before setting off. A big jar of imported South African peanut butter (country of origin: India) can be bought for 10,000 ariary (around 3€).

Phantom linguistics publications

It is frustrating when one is alerted by catalogues to books on language that were never actually published.

Routledge’s Language Family Surveys series now covers most of the major language groups of the world. However, the announced volume on the Manchu-Tungusic languages, said to be edited by Alexander Vovin, never appeared even though it worked its way into the Helsinki University Library catalogue (on order) and Amazon. I hear that Vovin is still working on this, but it will appear from a different publisher.

Another phantom publication is Teach Yourself Yiddish, a book that was meant to appear in 2009 and compete with the new edition of rival Routledge’s Colloquial Yiddish, a book which very much exists. Supposedly authored by Chaim Nelsen and Barry Davis, Teach Yourself Yiddish never did appear, in spite of also being announced at Amazon complete with ISBN.

Various Turkic–Mongolic etymological observations

Preparing to study Mongolian from Krueger’s An Introduction to Classical (Literary) Mongolian (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 3rd edition 1993), I’ve been re-reading the Routledge Language Family Surveys volume The Mongolic Languages ed. Juha Janhunen. Below are some musings on and follow-ups to trivia within.

Examples of some crucial [Khalka] consonant contrasts: ad [at] ‘demon’ vs. at [aʰt] ‘castrated camel’; dal [taɮ] ‘seventy’ vs. tal [tʰaɮ] ‘steppe’.

So modern Mongolian is one of those languages that, instead of a voiced–unvoiced distinction in dentals that I could actually pronounce, has an aspirated–unaspirated distinction that I’ll never get down. That’s a damn shame.

[Turkic borrowings in Mongolic] often show a specialized meaning, whereas the native [Mongolic] words have a more general semantic profile, cf. e.g. Mongolic *xüsün ‘hair’ vs. *kilga.su/n ‘hair of a horse’ ← Bulgharic kïlka = Common Turkic *kïl (qïl) ‘hair’.

The ordinary Chuvash word for ‘hair’ today is ҫӳҫ. However, for Russian конский волос ‘horsehair’, the Skvortsovs’ dictionary gives лаша хӗлӗхӗ. For Cv. хӗлӗх, Fedotov’s Этимологический словарь чувашского языка gives a wide array of Turkic cognates, but they are all glossed as ‘horsehair’, so it’s unclear to me on what grounds Claus Schönig in the passage I’ve quoted believes it ever meant ‘hair’ in general.

In the Common Turkic branch, rhotacism, lambdacism is generally absent, but it is occasionally observed in preconsonantal position, which makes the dating of certain loanwords problematic, cf. e.g. Mongolic *buxas ‘pregnant’ (from Common Turkic *bugaz id.) vs. buxar.la‑ ‘to cut the throat’ (from either Bulgharic or Common Turkic, cf. Common Turkic *bogaz ‘throat’).

That Bulgar Turkic had a cognate word for ‘throat’ showing rhotacism is attested by Chuvash пыр id.

Mongolic ulus ← Common Turkic uluš (later replaced in most Turkic languages by a reborrowing from Mongolic).

There is an informative entry on Common Turkic *uluš/ulus on page 152 of Clauson’s A Dictionary of Pre-Thirteenth Century Turkish, which notes that the original Turkic form uluš seems to survive only in Karaim.

Mongolic *kerbish ‘brick’ ← Common Turkic *kärpič

The Common Turkic is the source of Russian кирпич. It must say something of the material poverty and fondess for wooden buildings of the Russians of old, that they had to take the word for ‘brick’ from a population generally associated with yurts.

The early Kipchak source Codex Cumanicus exhibits [Mongolic] borrowings like abaɣa ‘uncle’, čïray ‘face’, ebäk ~ elpäk ‘very much’, yada‑ ‘to get tired’, qurulta ‘assembly, council’, manglay ‘forehead’, nögär ‘follower’, and qaburqa ‘rib’.

For what it’s worth, several of these are commonplace in Tatar as well, namely абый, чырай, бик, маңгай and кабырга.

Mongolic *köper > *köxer ‘proud’ > ‘happy’ vs. Turkic *küpez (> *kübez) ‘proud’, Mongolic *köperge > *köxerge ‘bridge’ vs. Turkic *köprüg (*köbrüg).

Of the first set of words here, I’m tempted to claim some connection to Tatar чибәр ‘beautiful’, with cognates in languages of the Volga region meaning ‘happy’. Could the k‑ of the Mongolic or Bulgar word cited above have shifted to an affricate before a front vowel in some other language that was the source of the Tatar? However, I don’t seem to own any etymological reference that describes this possibility. Äxmat’janov’s Татар теленең кыскача тарихи-этимологик сүзлеге suggests only that the Tatar is borrowed from a Mongolic cegeber ‘white, clean’.

For the second set of words, I’ve long suspected a connection to Greek γέφῡρα, but the entry in Clauson on page 690 mentions no connection between the Turkic and other language families (except the loan in Mongolic), mentioning only morphologically Dev. N. fr. köpür‑ [‘to froth, to foam’] but with no obvious semantic connection. On Greek γέφῡρα, Beekes on page 269 of his Etymological Dictionary of Greek suggests the Greek is borrowed from Hattic hammuruwa ‘beam’, with all instances of the words in Homeric Greek representing ‘beam’ and the meaning ‘bridge’ is attested only later. However, if a meaning ‘bridge’ is attested for this word by the mid 1st millennium BC, would that not give plenty of time for it to be borrowed into an unknown Iranian language of Central Asia and then picked up by Turkic?