The squirrel-less are guilty

Courtesy of Loanwords in the World’s Languages ed. Haspelmath & Tadmor (Mouton de Gruyter, 2009) comes one of the most amusing etymologies I’ve ever seen.

In his contribution on loanwords in Ket, Edward Vajda describes the historical background of how speakers of Yeniseic languages first encountered Russians through the latter settlers’ demand for a tribute of furs. Due to these pressures, many Yeniseic speakers sought to avoid contact with Russians, and Russian loanwords before the Soviet era are fairly limited. But the Ket also showed a predilection for coining their own words for new concepts from native Ket material instead of borrowing foreign words.

Vajda ultimately drops this little gem: The concept ‘guilty’ was interpreted in Ket as saʁan, derived from a combination of native Ket sa’q ‘squirrel’ with the case marker -an ‘without, lacking’, since someone without furs to pay their tax was ‘guilty’ or ‘at fault’ in a legalistic sense.

Unmarked loanwords in Tscheremissisches Wörterbuch

In Tscheremissisches Wörterbuch known loanwords in Mari are usually noted as such, e.g. “taɣaWidder, Hammel, Schafbock’ [< Tschuw.]”, “pülẟaremfordern, verlangen’ [< Tat.]”. By going through the dictionary and compiling a list of unetymologized words, I’ve been able to propose a few new etymologies that hopefully will be published eventually. However, one must tread cautiously, as a few loanwords are left unmarked even when they have long been recognized as such.

One of these is the Mari word for ‘frog, toad’, listed under the headword užaβa with a great deal of dialectal variation. This bears a striking resemblance to Russian жаба id. Indeed, I turned to Savatkova’s Русские заимствования в марийском языке, and the loanword is included in the great big Russian–Mari index at the back (namely on page 95).

MariE taɣarl’aein kleiner Vogel’ is a borrowing of Tat. täkärlek, as recognized already by Räsänen in his Die tatarischen Lehnwörter im Tscheremissischen of 1923, p. 65. The word may have come into Mari through Chuvash mediation on account of the voiced velar spirant if one supposes that Mari did not take it from a Tatar dialect that voiced the velar, but that would still have merited writing “[< Tschuw./Tat.]” next to this headword like with other doubtful items, such as purlogräulich’.

Mauritian words in J.M.G. Le Clézio’s La quarantaine

I recently finished J.M.G. Le Clézio’s 1994 novel La quarantaine, about two Mauritius-born brothers returning to their native land but stranded for two months on a neighbouring smaller island used as a quarantine station. Le Clézio’s French prose is straightforward, maybe disappointingly so if one has read other authors with a great flair for language.

The dialogue is also in standard French, with the exception of the single creole sentence Pour faire la guerre licien, napa bisoin fizi, bisoin coup de roce. I initially imagined that this sentence, while opaque to me, would be readily decipherable by native French speakers, as why else would Le Clézio dare to present it without any gloss in Standard French? In fact, the several French people I have presented this passage to stumbled on fizi, and only from the unexpected source of the Dictionnaire pratique du créole de Guadeloupe did I learn that this creole word goes back to fusil. The same French people also couldn’t identify licien, but several sources on the internet (e.g. here) show that the word means ‘dog’, originating in le chien. Thus I suppose the full sentence in the novel would be ‘To fight a dog, one doesn’t need a firearm, one just needs to hit it with a stone.’

There are several individual Mauritian words that pop up throughout the book, however. Three refer to Indians who were employed by the colonial authorities as recruiters or overseers of coolie labour: arkottie and sirdar, encountered often in the book, and duffadar. A Google search for arkottie and duffadar shows that they are found mainly in 19th-century English publications and must have entered Mauritian French or Mauritian Creole from English, which makes sense considering that the labour was sourced from British India. The title sirdar was widely used through the Middle East and the Indian Subcontinent as a military or aristocratic rank.

Le Clézio’s main Indian character refers to Europeans as les grands mounes. This is presumably ‘the big people’, as in the creole of Réunion, (dë)moune ?< monde is frequently used as a replacement for Standard French hommes or gens.

There is also longaniste, a native sorcerer and healer, comparable to the sangoma of South Africa, and laffe-la-bou, a name for a venomous stonefish.

Finally, Le Clézio mentions astère used as a creole equivalent of maintenant. In an interesting comment thread on a blog about mauricianisms, the French Canadian linguist Marie-Lucie Tarpent notes that the word is ultimately a contraction of à cette heure, and present in Canada, too, as asteur(e), but the origin must have been a west France dialect where the phrase was no longer analyzable.

In addition, Le Clézio mentions in passing that a dialect of the North Indian language Bhojpuri is still spoken on the island.

When I stayed in Madagascar in the company of the Russian hitchhiking club Academy of Free Travel several years ago, I was jealous that several people had got to see Mauritius on the way to Madagascar, and after reading La quarantaine I’m again intrigued by this island and its unusual cultural mix.

Article on hitherto unidentified Mari items in Pallas’s Vocabularia comparativa

Linguistica Uralica 2016:3 is out, and in it is my article “On some hitherto unidentified Mari items in the ‘Vocabularia comparativa’ of P. S. Pallas” (PDF). Here’s the abstract followed by the considerably more detailed Russian-language summary:

The ”Linguarum Totius Orbis Vocabularia comparativa” of Peter Simon Pallas published in 1787—1789 is a prominent early record of the Mari language, containing Mari translations of 273 Russian headwords.This material has been examined by Thomas A. Sebeok in an ample commentary published in 1960, and by Alho Alhoniemi two decades later, but they were unable to identify all words. Using recent lexical resources on Mari and studies of the original manuscripts, the present contribution identifies further words and corrects some errors in earlier interpretations. The result is a more complete picture of Pallas and 18th-century Mari.

«Сравнительный словарь всех языков и наречий» П. С. Палласа, изданный в 1787–1789 годах, является выдающейся ранней записью марийского языка, содержащей марийские переводы 273 русских заглавных слов. Этот материал был исследован Т. А. Себеоком в его обширном комментарии, опубликованном в 1960 г., а затем А. Алхониеми, почти двадцать лет спустя. Оба ученых не смогли однако распознать всех марийских слов содержащихся в этом словаре. С помощью современных лексических источников по марийскому языку, а также благодаря изучению рукописных словарей являвшихся источником для Палласа, автор статьи расшифровал некоторые из ранее неидентифицированных слов, а именно: Ирла́ ‘боль’ = MariE (Большой Кильмез) irla ‘ворчать’; Шу́идабу́и ‘власть’ = MariE šüδə̑βuj ‘сотник’; Чюмышта́ ‘ростъ’ = MariE č́ə̑memčəmem ‘натянуть’; Шитешь ‘ростъ’ = MariE šə̑tem W Nw šətä ‘прорастать’; (Чумра)тырмышь ‘шаръ’ = MariE tə̑rtə̑štərtəš ‘шар’; Пыла́мирь ‘буря’ = MariE pulamə̑r ‘беспорядок, смута, раздор’; Садиги ‘паръ’ = MariE saδə̑γe ‘так, таким образом’; Муней ‘колъ’ = MariE (Большой Кильмез) munej ‘жаба’; Кунзя ‘судно’ = MariE (Малмыж) kunźə̑ ‘воз’; Чипталмаш ‘брань’ = MariE č́ə̑ptalaš ‘нападать’; Пилнышь ‘побѣда’ = MariE pə̑lnaš ‘слабеть’; Шурть ‘китъ’ = MariE šə̑rt Nw šərt ‘злой дух’; Всерсе ‘послѣ’ = MariE βarase ‘последний (только что появившийся)’; Умсысь ‘безъ (кромѣ)’ = MariE umsə̑z ‘безумный’. В статье также отмечено, что бяи ‘въ’ – это возможно удмуртское слово, ошибочно упомянутое как марийское. Результат настоящего исследования дает лучшее понимание словаря Палласа, а также марийского языка XVIII века, несмотря на то, что 17 марийских слов из словаря Палласа по-прежнему остаются неясными.

Contraction as a source of Meadow Mari a in an inherited Uralic word

In his article “The Finnic ‘secondary e-stems’ and Proto-Uralic vocalism”, published in the 2015 issue of Journal de la Société Finno-ougrienne, Ante Aikio presents a new set of related Uralic items involving Mari: [Proto-Uralic] *woja/i ‘wild (animal)’ || MariW wojǝr | Komi vej | KhVVj wajǝɣ (< PKh *wājǝɣ) | MsSo ūj (< PMs *ūj) (UEW: 553). — The Mari word has not been previously been included in this cognate set.

I had formerly noted down MariW βojə̑r, drawn from Tscheremissisches Wörterbuch, in my big collection of unetymologized Mari words, so now with Aikio’s observation I must strike it from the list. What is interesting, however, is that the word is apparently attested in literary Meadow Mari, as well, but under the form вар ‘wild, running wild (after confinement)’. If this is the same word, then the originally two-syllable word has undergone contraction, producing an initial-syllable /a/, not something one generally expects from inherited Uralic material.

I know from Oleg Sergeev’s description that Zemljanitsky’s dictionary, compiled in the 1870s, has воеръ ‘дикий’. Unfortunately, Zemljanitsky’s dictionary contains words drawn from both Hill Mari and Meadow Mari forms, and Sergeev fails to make clear if this particular item was accompanied by any indication as to its origin (as some entries in the dictionary do specify Hill or Meadow Mari). Thus, it is presently impossible to know whether an uncontracted MariE βojə̑r did exist until recently, without going through the challenging process of examining the original manuscript in situ. It is extremely urgent that the Mari manuscript dictionaries in Russian state collections be digitized.

(For information on Zemljanitsky’s dictionary and the presence of this item in it, see O. A. Sergeev’s article “Рукописный словарь марийского языка Земляницкого” in Советское финно-угроведенеие XXIV No. 4 (1988), pp. 292–295).

The Albanian language in Kosovo

One of the great pleasures of this recent trip to Kosovo is that now equipped with a decent reading knowledge of Albanian, I could make sense of all the signage around me. But for one wanting to turn a fairly passive knowledge of the Albanian language into an active one, Kosovo is a frustrating place. I didn’t have a chance to buy the earlier edition of Routledge’s Colloquial Albanian written by Isa Zymberi that is based on Kosovo speech, so I have been using a mixture of more general resources for the artificial standard created in Socialist Albania a few decades ago. Kosovars understand that perfectly fine, and when speaking to me they kindly adapt their speech to a more standard variety, but I cannot understand Kosovars talking among each other and that makes for an awkward experience, especially when being able to follow many YouTube videos from Albania before the trip had so lifted my spirits.

Even bringing along a reference with details on Geg Albanian wasn’t as helpful as I expected: Martin Camaj’s Albanian Grammar with Exercises privileges Geg forms in the vocabulary, with Tosk/Standard Albanian forms following in parentheses. However, many of these Geg forms are not actually usable in Kosovo. Some are said by Kosovars to either be foreign to Kosovo (with the person vaguely pointing west towards northern Albania or Montenegro). Others are dismissed as from the village – indeed, residents of Prishtina and Gjakova seem to have a haughty attitude to rural speech and take pains to speak in a different way, though one that is not necessarily any easier for a foreign learner.

(From where I write this now in northeastern Albania, the accent remains much the same, but lexically things are closer to what I would expect from my learning materials, and it’s a lot easier to get language immersion than among the more cosmopolitan Kosovars who are quick to show off their knowledge of German or English.)

Spelling quirks

It’s curious indeed that after Hoxha’s Albania choose Tosk as the basis for the standard language, the Albanian minorities in Montenegro, Kosovo, and Macedonia – Geg speakers all – so readily adopted this rather perverse standard. Virtually all texts are created in the standard language, showing invariably the Tosk rhotacism though it’s utterly foreign to these parts. Still, occasionally one sees mistakes made in the writing of Standard Albanian ë. In final position it is no longer pronounced in either colloquial Geg or Tosk, and therefore one sees it left out on some signs associated with rural contexts, e.g. blejm hekur for blejmë hekur ‘we buy scrap metal’.

The other misspelling comes from Geg’s preservation of nasal vowels when the standard language has reduced these to ë. Consider the storefront windows shown here, only a couple of hundred meters from each other in Gjakova. A cafe advertises ëmbëlsira ‘sweets’ but writes the initial-syllable vowel with a instead of the standard ë, while another, perhaps more upscale establishment shows the word spelled according to the standard orthography which is indeed the norm even in Kosovo. A storefront reading “Ambelsira, espresso, kapuqino, makiato”Shop window reading “Punëtoria e ëmbëlsirave ‘Dor’ Pasticeri. Punojmë me porosi bakllava, torte dhe ëmbëlsira sipas kërkesave tuaja”

What I wish I had know before I became a (Russian–English) translator

It has been a few years now that I’ve made my living as a freelance Russian-English translator. For the most part I’m quite satisfied with the job for the great freedom it involves; I can either work from home or as a digital nomad around the world when so desired. Translators actually based in Russia or in English-speaking countries, where they can provide certified translations, probably get a steady stream of dull-but-unobjectionable birth certificates and university diplomas. Since I am based in a third country, I don’t get those, but most of my work continues to be similar to what one might imagine a translator might do: technical manuals, company websites, advertisements, press releases, subtitles for film or television, the occasional full-length book.

Most of what I had read about the art of translation concerns the rendering of the source text into the target language itself, and how to do this well. And yet there are everyday aspects of the job that no one ever told me about before I started. For example, when I began networking with other translators, a universally popular cause of complaint is clients not paying and the need to spend some of one’s precious time chasing them. But another challenge I knew nothing of was that to get to the really good jobs, one has to deal with such irksome or disquieting offers as the following:

  • Propaganda. Due to the deteriorating economic situation in Russia, some clients in the business or arts world are cutting back, but the Russian state continues to have deep pockets. More and more of the work offered to me has been of a crassly political nature: hit jobs on members of the Russian opposition or on the leadership of neighboring countries. Even with things that initially don’t seem of a propaganda nature, one finds somewhere in the text that the writer suddenly mentions the Ukrainian, Georgian, or Kazakh leadership for curiously precision-targeted disparagement.
  • Science cranks. Two or three times a year I am offered a job translating someone’s book or scientific paper, only to discover that the client is a crank claiming to have discovered perpetual energy or some Time Cube-ish understanding of the universe. Such jobs would have to be turned down regardless, because the text is often garbled enough that it is not subject to translation into another language, but by the time you get to the point that you turn it down, you’ve wasted enough time already communicating with the author to try to figure out what exactly his text is about.
  • Self-published fiction of no literary value whatsoever. Nine of ten potential clients here will back out once they realize what translation actually costs, because the average person really does seem to believe that they can get their 300-page book translated for US$100. The tenth client has agreed to your rate, but the writing is so excruciatingly bad that it doesn’t feel worth it at any price.
  • Online casinos. There are quite a few of these around, and they offer a tremendously high rate, sometimes higher than for the aforementioned siloviki-funded propaganda texts, but should one really contribute to this exploitative industry?

Is it still a job worth doing? Sure, I think so. But it’s not all glamour, and even being able to turn something that one loves into a paying job doesn’t mean that one is saved from all hassles and stresses.

An unexpected corpus: Russian version

Over at his blog Panchronica, Guillaume Jacques expresses his delight about The Jesus Film, that product of some American Protestant sect that has now been translated into an enormous amount of languages, even ones for which written material is extremely scanty. It has certainly been of great help to me as I’ve learned Ossetian, and the existence of separate Albanian translations for Kosovo and the Republic of Albania will help foreign learners feel comfortable with both the Gheg and Tosk variants of that language.

While there is probably no other film so widely translated as The Jesus Film, for my own particular purposes I’ve been pleased to find something else, and where the story is less likely to be familiar to the viewer: the Soviet cartoon Трое из Простоквашино (“The Trio from Prostokvashino”) has been dubbed into a number of languages, mainly from Southern Russia and the Caucasus, for example:

  • Ossetian
  • Ingush
  • Lezgian
  • Karachay-Balkar (I was very surprised by how difficult this language is to understand, I thought I would be able to follow it pretty easily after learning Kipchak languages from further east);
  • Lak
  • Kumyk
  • Tatar (under the translated title Простоквашинодан өчәү)

Clicking the links in the sidebar, one can find one’s way to other cartoons in various languages of the former USSR. There’s even an entire playlist of Ossetian-dubbed cartoons.

MariE tolašemtalašem ‘try hard, strive’ < Tatar talaš

One of the frustrations of working with Tscheremissiches Wörterbuch is that some Mari items are labeled Tschuw. or Tat., but the exact source is not specified and sometimes one has to dig a little to determine the original Chuvash or Tatar word.

A case in point is MariE tolašemtalašemsich bestreben, eilen, irgwendwie zu tun versuchen’. This is marked as a Tatar loanword in TschWb, and the word is clearly of Turkic origin since it has a causitive derivational form MariE tolaštaremtalaštarem. I turned to my dictionary of literary Kazan Tatar, the Татарско-русский словарь (Казань: Мәгариф, 2007), and found a phonetic match: талашу. However, the meanings ‘сспориться, скандалить, переругиваться’ of this verb and its derivational forms were not close enough to the Mari verb to satisfy.

If my Tatar dictionary doesn’t help for a Turkic loanword in Mari, the next stop is a Chuvash one. Ashmarin’s Thesaurus Linguae Tschuvaschorum contains a verb corresponding to the Tatar one and almost certainly a borrowing of it, namely tulaş, and the first meanings mentioned are the same as for the Tatar: ‘беситься, злиться, грызться’. However, buried deeper down in the entry is the meaning we’re looking for: возиться, стараться. This is an understandable extension of the Turkic root tal-, the basic meaning of which is ‘to force; to take by force’.

Thus Mari and Chuvash preserve a meaning of the Tatar word that seems to have died out among Kazan Tatars. Interestingly, Russian too borrowed this Tatar word dialectally and uses it in a similar sense, or at least it did in the 19th century: a verb талашитьсясуетиться, толочься, метаться’ is attested from the Tambov region in the Толковый словарь Даля, compiled by Vladimir Ivanovich Dal’ and published in 1863–1866.

Incidentally, had I carefully examined the Mari–English Dictionary instead of basing myself solely on Tscheremissiches Wörterbuch, then I could have figured out this etymology more quickly, because one of the meanings of MariE lit. толашаш is ‘to quarrel, to squabble, to bicker’, and that meaning is not found in TschWb. However, the Mari–English Dictionary, being a general literary-language reference and not a dialect dictionary, does not list the origin of the item, and I wonder if the word in that meaning was found only in Eastern Mari communities under heavy Tatar influence before the rise of the literary language, and only the meaning ‘try hard, strive’ is pan-Mari.

More adventures in Latin American Spanish

Argentina was a rather surprising experience. In Spain, where I had learned Spanish, the stereotype of the Argentine in television and films must be based on people from Buenos Aires: one hears the same invariable accent with no hint of the immense variety that one would actually encounter in Argentina. As I cycled west across the country, I found the regional accents clearly changing every 300 km or so.

Once I reached the provinces of La Rioja and Santa Fe, I was shocked to discover that the dialect here had not experienced the shift of *y (and *ʎ > *y) to /ʒ/ like Rioplatense Spanish and the Argentinian stereotype. Instead, it was *r that had shifted to /ʒ/, while *y remained /y/. My first inkling of this was when rápido ‘fast’ was increasingly heard as [ʒapiðo], but it happened to instances of word-medial *r as well and took some getting used to in fast speech. A child came up to my wife and I at a campground and asked if we had seen a man in a [ɣoʒaroxa], and only after a minute of thought did I realize he was looking for someone wearing a gorra roja ‘red hat’. Weeks later, in Chile, while I was cycling on the motorway, another tourist stopped his car to ask me if he had missed the turnoff to [βiyaʒika], i.e. Villarrica. I laughed, thinking that he was lucky to have come across a non-local who could understand his question.

I have seen it claimed in several popular sources that the dialects of western Argentina are transitional to Chilean Spanish, but I didn’t find that to be the case at all. Not only does the shift of *r to /ʒ/ stop at the Andes, but the intonation of Chilean Spanish is vastly different. The Andes serve as a mighty wall. For the first week or so in Chile, I had to concentrate very hard to understand what people were saying, and I could sympathize with the many Spanish speakers who point to Chilean Spanish as the most difficult to understand of all the Latin American varieties. Fortunately, after that first week, my difficulties vanished and the local speech came to feel entirely normal.

I’m not quite able to determine what phonetic quirks set Chilean Spanish apart, and I’m not sure that if I hear this accent qua accent again in some other part of the world, I would be able to trace it to Chile. However, the Chilean colloquial lexicon is very sui generis, and I’m sure I’ll be able to immediately identify Chileans by the presence of certain words. People are very fond of the item ueyá/ueyón, which is not only a generic word for ‘thing’ rather like Philadelphian English jawn, but apparently even works as a exclamation and more. Chileans also tend to end sentences with po’h, a reduction of pues and a particle which has an exotic, non-Spanish air about it, as if something from an East Asian language.

Curiously, while Argentines accepted my use of vosotros without batting an eye, Chileans have been much more ready to make fun of me for it. They complain that the mere existence of such a form is silly, because Spain is the only place in the world where people say that. (Clearly Chileans never get to talk to a Spanish speaker from Western Sahara or Equatorial Guinea.) Once when having dinner with several upper-class and well-educated Chileans, I found tiresome the company of a writer-who-should-know-better who kept claiming that vosotros, and not the word itself as much as the grammatical form in general with its verb marking, was an innovation that appeared in Spain after the colonization of the New World; my appeal to Latin *‑atis etc. was dismissed because, as a foreigner, I surely cannot have any understanding of the history of the Spanish language.

Hopefully, after making my way through Uruguay, Argentina and especially Chile and finding it entirely possible to communicate with the locals (with perhaps a few days of acclimatization), I can now travel in the remaining countries of Latin America without fear. Still, it is always the variety of the language in the place where you first learn it that sounds the sweetest, and I am very much looking forward to passing through Madrid next month.