Category Archives: Languages

The official position of Chuvash is a joke

At LiveJournal there’s a bold new blog called Пĕртанлăх ‘Equality’ consisting of photographs of signage in Chuvashia, which aims to show just how little the language is visible in public spaces in spite of the recognition of Chuvash as an official language of the republic. Take, for example, the following photograph of a rubbish bin. The irony is that the park bench next to it has a Chuvash folk motif, showing some kind of ethnic consciousness, but both sides of the bin have For a clean city written only in Russian:Photograph of a monolingual (Russian) rubbish bin in Chuvashia, taken from the Pertanlah blog

This post compares a Cheboksary advertisement for 2014 as the Russian Federation Year, written only in Russian, with an analogous advertisement in Kazan’ which has a Tatar translation as well.

Not all of the photographs are dismal, though. There are a number of photographs of local businesses putting Chuvash words on their signage as at least ethnographic colour. I was extremely surprised to see that the Russian-wide bank Sberbank translated their timetable into Chuvash.

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.

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.

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. * ‘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.‑ ‘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?

Mari etymological dictionary finally out

Before his death in April 2012, Gábor Bereczki had long been working on an etymological dictionary of Mari. Klára Agyagási and Eberhard Winkler inherited the manuscript and completed work on it last year. Harrassowitz has finally published this Etymologisches Wörterbuch des Tscheremissischen in its series Veröffentlichungen der Societas Uralo-Altaica, ISBN 9783447100540. My proverbial cheque is in the post, though I worry that every one of the Mari words that have most puzzled me in terms of etymology (e.g. шнуй ‘holy’) will be present.

Puzzled by Malagasy

While I don’t feel that six weeks are enough time to learn Malagasy to any reasonable standard, especially as I am unlikely to visit this remote place again, I’ve been interested enough in the language to pick up a few phrases here and there. I had expected pronunciation to be straightforward, since at least those Austronesian languages that are most well know do not have large phoneme inventories. However, I very quickly discovered that Malagasy has a perverse orthography.

  • The letter 〈o〉 is actually /u/. For the vowel /o/, the letters 〈oa〉, originally representing a diphthong, are used instead.
  • All final vowels are silent. I first heard this in practice as the plane was descending into Madagascar’s capital Antananarivo and the pilot repeatedly said [antananariv]. Also note the French spelling of the city’s name during the colonial era: Tananarive.
  • The loss of final vowels nonetheless has ramifications for the preceding consonants that are now final. The phrase tsy misy ‘I have nothing’ (used for troublesome beggars), is at least in some dialects [tsi miʃ], a palatalization that is not surprising. More suprising is what seems to be velarization before a lost /u/: I hear rano ‘water’ as [raŋ].
  • Defeating the simple CV(C) syllable structure that I naïvely expected from an Austronesian language, there are daunting consonant clusters caused by the loss of final and word-internal vowels at the same time. As the honorific particle tompoko, added to the end of any sentence where one wants to show respect to the listener, ends in the enclitic ending -ko, stress is cast to the original antepenult. This means that not only is the final vowel lost as always, but the vowel of the penult is lost by syncope, resulting in [tumpk] with a three-consonant final cluster.
  • The consonant /h/ cannot stand word-finally, so the loss of the final vowel preceded by /h/ results in the loss of the /h/ as well: akoho ‘chicken’ is prononced [ako].

Malagasy is covered in Routledge’s relatively new entry in the Language Family Surveys series, The Austronesian Languages of Madagascar and Asia and I wish I could have managed to read that before coming to Madagascar. Once I get back to my university library, I want to read more on the diachrony of this language and the motivations of those who created the first Latin-alphabet writing system for it.

Perso-Arabic vocabulary in Tatar

The great thing about learning Tatar vocabulary is that, with a little effort at finding out the different spellings, you often get Farsi and Tajik vocabulary (and Arabic, Turkish, a lot of Caucasian languages…) for free. Here’s a list of just a few recent things I’ve acquired:

Tatar Farsi Tajik
игътибар ‘attention’ اعتبار
хөрмәт ‘respect’ حرمت хурмат
һөнәр ‘specialization, focus’ هنر ҳунар
дәрәҗә ‘rank, authority’ درجه дараҷа
табигать ‘nature’ طبيعت табиат
дәвам ‘duration’ دوام ‘durability, endurance’ давом ‘duration’
шигар ‘slogan’ شعار

There may well be Tajik cognates for the two missing items, but unfortunately I never managed to buy a Tajik-Russian dictionary, and I can’t figure these out with my Russian-Tajik dictionary.

The Volga Bulgarian inscription of Tatarskoe Shapkino

The palatalization of Proto-Turkic /č/ to /č́/ and then the weakening of the affricate’s initial stop to give /š́/ or /š/, is a notable areal feature extending from the Volga–Kama region into Kazakhstan. In the second volume of Róna-Tas and Berta’s Western Old Turkic (Harrassowitz, 2011), which reconstructs the ancestor of Volga Bulgarian and Chuvash on the basis of loanwords into Hungarian, the authors mention how the Tatars, whose own language would soon undergo the same evolution, were confronted by this change already almost complete in Volga Bulgarian:

Important is the bilingual inscription of Tatar Šapkino. In the Arabic inscription containing Volga Bulgarian words, the name of the deceased lady is written as J̌eker, and should be read as /č́eker/, while on the other side of the same stone, the same name is written as Šeker. What was perceived as /č/ by the Volga Bulgars was heard by the Kipchak Tatars as /š/.

Tatarskoe Shapkino is a village in south-central Tatarstan. A description of the Arabic portion of this inscription can be found in Khakimzjanov’s Язык эпитафий волжских булгар (Moscow: Nauka, 1978) on pages 158–159:

هو الحى الذى لا يموت
هذه روضة مستورة
المطهرة الصَّالحة الصائـنة الطيفة
شكر الجى بنت عثمان البلفارؾ
الهم ارحمها رحمة واسعة توفيت
الى رحمة الله تعالى فى اليوم الرابع و العشريں

Huwa-l-xäjji-l-läzi lä jämutu wä küllü häjjin säjämutu. Haẕihi rawḍatu-l-mästüräti-l-muṭahhiräti-ṣ-ṣalixäti-ṣ-ṣa’inäti-ṭ-tajfäti Šäkär-älči bint Gos̱man äl-Bolɣari. Äl-lähummä ärxämha räxmätän wäsigätän. Tuwufijjat ilä-r-räxmäti-l-lahi tägali fi-l-jawmi-r-rabigi wä-l-gišrinä

He lives who does not die, but every living thing dies. This is the plot of the chaste, devout, pious, caring, compassionate Šeker-elči, daughter of Osman the Bulgarian. God, have mercy on her with your great mercy. She was entrusted to the mercy of God the Most-High on the twenty-fourth day.

A photgraph of the Volga Bulgarian inscription of Tatarskoe Šapkino

The monument lies in the village cemetery and has dimensions of 160×60×23 cm. It has been inscribed in two languages: on the obverse there is an Arabic-language inscription written in relief in the Thuluth style of calligraphy, while on the reverse a Turkic text has been inscribed in the Bulgarian variant of the Kufic style. There is also relief writing on the sides of the monument.

A piece of pottery is lying nearby with writing on both sides (but it has not been successfully deciphered). This may give the date of the inscription in question.