Adventures in Uruguayan and Argentinian Spanish

Except for a few very brief orders made at Mexican restaurants in North America, these last few days in Uruguay and the Entre Ríos province of Argentina was the first time I had ever spoken Spanish outside of Spain. All in all, what surprised me is how easy it was to communicate on both sides, in Uruguay at least. I could imagine someone who learned some particular regional variety of UK English having some problems in the American South, for example. Even when I used more recently-coined colloquialisms common to Spain, rural Uruguayans understood me. I do find that a bit puzzling, since the Uruguayans to whom I spoke claimed to have virtually no contact with Spanish of Spain: no music or films or television, and Latin America is a large enough market to sustain its own publishing without having to import any books from Spain. In Argentina, however, I’ve been forced to start adapting to their way of talking in certain contexts.

Over the years, other foreigners who learned Spanish in Spain have told me that going to Latin America would require avoiding vosotros and the verb coger ‘take’, but I find that an exaggeration. No one I met seems to mind the use of vosotros as the second person plural, and the indicative endings are so close to the vos forms used here that nobody would be confused by the morphology. While the verb coger has become an obscenity here, no one batted an eye when I used it in its Spanish meaning ‘to take’. Speaking with ceceo provoked no jokes at our expense.

The main aspects of pronunciation which required a brief moment of adaptation was the seseo and the pronunciation of *y/λ as [ʒ]. Once I crossed the border into the Entre Ríos province of Argentina, I started to hear people dropping final /s/, a common development in varieties across Latin America. Otherwise, it feels like everyone here speaks “clearly”. The major differences found were naturally lexical ones:

  • For ‘tap, faucet’, grifo is understood, but apparently only canilla is used here.
  • For ‘tent’, carpa is used here, though tienda has generally been understood.
  • Uruguayans understand los aseos/los servicios for ‘toilet’, but they say el baño, and I’ve found that I have to use the latter in Argentina to be understood.
  • For ‘peanuts’, people here say maní instead of cacahuete, and Argentinians don’t even understand the latter (if the word is explained to them, they tend to laugh at it).
  • For the simple small-town eateries in Entre Ríos, everyone says comedor, which elsewhere means ‘dining room’. I wonder if my asking Hay un restaurante por aquí? suggested that I wanted something posher than these little communities could boast.

Mapleland and Thornybank

My Romania–Finland hitchhiking commute and a memorable cycle tour have often brought me through extreme southeastern Poland and western Ukraine. I have been struck by constantly encountering the same toponym, e.g.:

  • Jawornik in Poland, on the 892 road south of Sanok;
  • Yavoriv, in Ukraine just across the border from Poland, south of the Ukrainian town of Turka;
  • Yavor, also in that same part of Ukraine, but just north of Turka.

For a long time I would half-consciously mull over this word and think about derivations (e.g. some weird creation from *voriti), but I should have just searched for the term on the web: Common Slavic *(j)avor means ‘maple’. And the reason why I found no headword in Derksen’s Etymological Dictionary of the Slavic Inherited Lexicon is because, according to Pronk-Tiethoff’s The Germanic Loanwords in Proto-Slavic, the term was borrowed after the Proto-Slavic period. I wonder if that makes a case for the Slavic Urheimat, which was supposed to be in this general area, not reaching down to the Carpathians, as why would the Slavs borrow a name for a tree that evidently was so distinguishing a feature of their landscape?

Another riddle from the same part of Europe remains slightly unsolved for me. For a long time, on the basis of the Romanian town of Târnaveni and the Bulgarian city of Veliko Tarnovo, I again, without thinking too deeply about the matter, thought it might be some contraction of *trgŭ novŭ ‘new market’, a sensible name for a place acting as a commercial centre. However, in the Romanian case, the town was actually named after the Târnava River, and one doesn’t often name rivers after markets. Plus, the Bulgarian town should be seen as containing the adjectival ending *‑ovo. Then, at some point I passed through the Polish town of Tarnobrzeg and realized that the common element here is Common Slavic *trŭnŭ ‘thorn’. So, these are areas with thorny banks, which the Polish toponym would seem to express clearly.

But my knowledge of Polish dialectology is scanty. The word ‘thorn’ in standard Polish is cierń. With a place-name like Tarnobrzeg, does this mean that the southeastern Polish dialects had a different development of early Slavic syllabic *r (or sequences of *r and a yer), one that led to a non-front vowel that wasn’t affected by the shift *t > c before front vowels? Interestingly, the Polish Wikipedia article for Tarnobrzeg speaks of a relationship to śliwa tarnina ‘blackthorn, sloe, Prunus spinosa’, and here we have a Poland-wide term with the unchanged consonant.

PIE roots as a mnemonic device in Farsi spelling

Persian roots in which a silent vāv must be written after an initial khe are often considered the bane of foreign learners of Farsi. I myself felt some discontent at having to learn this silly spelling rule after initially encountering Persian in the wonderfully clear Cyrillic script used by Tajiki. However, one of those little eureka moments one encounters in historical linguistics was that these words can be traced back to Proto-Indo-European roots with intial *sw-, e.g.:

  • خواهار ‘sister’ < PIE *swésōr;
  • خوابیدن ‘to sleep’ < PIE *swep‑;
  • خویش ‘himself’ < PIE *swe‑ (I guess, but even if I guess wrong, it still helps to remember).

Thus, a little knowledge of PIE can instantly serve as a mnemonic device in some tricky aspect of a language that arose millennia later.

Increasing age may make it more challenging to learn a language to real conversational proficiency and lose that accent, but I’ve been so encouraged lately by how a decade-plus of sometimes focused and deliberate, but just as often casual and absentminded, learning provides remarkable benefits in reaching a middling level effort-free. Another example is when I recently picked up an intermediate-level reference for Japanese grammar (a language I’ve never formally studied) and realized that I know most of the words used in the example sentences purely through some kind of osmosis over the years. It is wonderful how everything out there ties together somehow. Now if I could just have these fruits of a decade’s experience and have that decade itself back…

Linguistic pseudoscience in the breakup of Serbo-Croatian

I’m all too familiar with Romania and its dacomania, and I’ve read a great deal about Albania’s insistence on a glorious Illyrian past in order to present itself as a proud and stately nation today. But reading Greenberg’s Language and Identity in the Balkans showed me that there’s similar nuttery in the land in between, that is, the former Yugoslavia:

In an interview posted on the Montenet website entitled “Does a Montenegrin Language Exist?” (“Da li postoji crnogorski jezik”) [Montenegrin nationalist Vojislav] Nikčević made the highly dubious claim that the prototype for the Montenegrin language is the Polabian language, having based these unfounded assertions on hun­dreds of Montenegrin place names. Even more unlikely is his assertion that the ancestors of the Serbs came from an ekavian-speaking area of southeastern Poland, and that their ekavian reflexes of jat’ are somehow linked to those found in Byelorussian. For him, the Montenegrins are the sole authentic ijekavian speakers in the Balkans, and other peoples in the area (Serbs, Croats, Bosniacs) had acquired ijekavian speech secondarily. There is no credible evidence to justify any of these claims. The Montenegrins would be as connected to the Polabians as any other Southern Slavic people, and toponyms in the Southwestern Balkans can usually be traced to substratum languages or to South Slavic influ­ences, rather than West Slavic ones.

You’d think that any academic passionate about the distinctions between the languages of Yugoslavia as well as other Slavic languages would know better. And then there’s this:

[Bosnian language advocate Senahid] Halilović considered the term Bosna to be pre-Slavic and possibly even pre-Indo-European. Such statements on the ancient origin of a name bring to mind Fishman’s notion (1972: 7) of stressed authenticity, whereby ancient terms provide the necessary trappings of legitimacy to a linguistic revival.

That Joshua Fishman citation is Language and Nationalism (Rowley: Newbury House, 1972), which seems to have captured an especially common sort of woo-woo around smaller languages and peoples on the defensive, going well beyond the Balkans.

Four levels of politeness in 17th-century Spanish

One of the more interesting books that I’ve read lately is Christopher J. Pountain’s A History of the Spanish Language Through Texts (London: Routledge, 2001). For the so-called Golden Age of Spanish literature, Pountain especially chooses texts by standardization-minded authors who inadvertently offer many details of the popular speech of their time. The following passage from Gonzalo de Correas’s Arte de la lengua española castellana (1625) suggests a much more complex system than the one found in Peninsular Spanish today, which is down to just tu and usted (and when I moved to Spain in the early millennium, I was urged to use usted much more sparingly than foreigners – on the basis of learning materials from Latin America – usually feel they should).

Devese tanbien mucho notar la desorden, i discordante concordia, que á introduzido el uso, ora por modestia, ora por onrra, ò adulazion. Para lo qual es menester primero advertir, que se usan quatro diferenzias de hablar para quatro calidades de personas, que son: vuestra merzed, él, vos, tu… De merzed usamos llamar à las personas à quien rrespetamos, i debemos ò queremos dar onrra, como son: xuezes, cavalleros, eclesiasticos, damas, i xente de capa negra, i es lo mas despues de señoria. Él usan los maiores con el que no quieren darle merzed, ni tratarle de vos, que es mas baxo, i propio de amos à criados, i la xente vulgar i de aldea, que no tiene uso de hablar con merzed, llama de él al que quiere onrrar de los de su xaez. De vos tratamos à los criados i mozos grandes, i à los labradores, i à personas semexantes; i entre amigos adonde no ai gravedad, ni cunplimiento se tratan de vos, i ansien rrazonamientos delante de rreies i dirixidos à ellos se habla de vos con devido rrespeto i uso antiguo. De tu se trata à los muchachos i menores de la familia, i à los que se quisieren bien: i quando nos enoxamos i rreñimos con alguno le tratamos de él, i de vos por desdén. Supuesto lo dicho, en las tres diferenzias primeras de hablar de merzed, él, vos, se comete solezismo en la gramatica i concordanzias contra la orden natural de las tres personas, xeneros i numeros.

The disorder and disconcordant concord which usage has introduced, whether through modesty, respect or adulation, should also be noted. For this it is necessary, first, to state that four different ways of speech are used for four qualities of person, namely: vuestra merzed, él, vos, tu … We usually call people we respect by merzed, such as judges, gentry, clergy, ladies and black cape people, and it is the highest after señoría. Él is used by older people for someone they do not wish either to call merzed or address as vos, which is lower, and typical of masters to servants; and common and village people, who are not accustomed to using merzed in their speech, address as él people to whom they want to show respect from their class. We call servants and grown up boys vos, and labourers, and such like people; and among friends where there is no gravity nor ceremony vos is used, and so in speeches made in front of kings and addressed to them vos is used with due respect and old usage. Children, younger members of the family and loved ones are called ; and when we get angry and quarrel with someone we call them él, and vos to disparage them. Bearing in mind the foregoing, in the first three of speaking (merzed, él, vos) there are violations of grammar and agreement against the natural order of three persons, gender and number.

One wonders how much this system was really agreed upon by all, and how much it was an idealization of shifting norms across time and space. The Hungarian I learned from Zsuzsa Pontifex’s Teach Yourself Hungarian back in the 1990s seemed to present a straightforward four-level system too: te, maga, Ön, tetszik. However, foreign learners are told very quickly that maga has been on the way out for decades, and if used today is just as likely to be pejorative as it is to tend towards showing respect. In other descriptions, the tetszik address is either replaced by another form of address, or a fifth level is added to the system.

Similarly, of the four-level system I’ve often heard proposed for Romanian – tu, dumneata, dumneavoastră, domnul/doamna – the second is rarely heard in Transylvania and the last is only heard from waiters at high-class restaurants who are clearly aping the French experience.

Жгонский язык

While trawling back issues of the journal Sovetskoye Finno-Ugrovidenija for interesting reading on Mari, I came across a Russian dialect I had never heard of before, and which seems virtually unknown on the English-speaking web. As S. M. Strel’nikov writes in his 1978 article “Марийские элементы в жгонском языке” (Mari elements in zhgonsky jazyk):

Жгонским языком (от жгон ’шерстобит’) называют свой условный язык русские ремесленники Костромской области (пимокаты и портные), в недалеком прошлом занимавшиеся отхожим промыслом во многих губерниях России. Хотя численность носителей жгонского языка сокращается, его и сейчас помнят лица пожилого возраста во многих насееленных пунктах Нейского, Мантуровского, Макарьевского районов Костромской области, Варнавинского и Ветлужского районов Горьковской области.

Zhgonsky jazyk (from zhgon “woolspinner”) is the name by which Russian craftsmen in the Kostroma district (bootmakers and tailors) refer to their language; these craftsmen in the not-so-distant past were engaged in seasonal labor in many parts of Russia. Although the number of speakers of zhgonsky jazyk has declined, it is still remembered by elderly people in many settlements in the Ney, Manturov, and Makaryev regions of the Kostroma district, and in the Barnavin and Vetluga regions of the Gorsky district.

This language was an argot, meant to allow these craftsmen to communicate in secret when traveling about. Certainly the examples provided in this article are completely incomprehensible without glosses, e.g. Ши́до в плеха́нку пови́титься сохля́ть ‘I’ve got to head to the steam bath to wash’, Декни́ приты́лить ‘Give me a smoke’.

While zhgonsky jazyk drew on other languages such as Udmurt, German, Greek and Turkish, the Mari stock is prominent and Strel’nikov suggests that this argot arose on the basis of interaction between Russians and speakers of Northwestern Mari. Some zhgonsky jazyk words of Mari origin concern the numbers (e.g. ны́лик ‘4’ < MariNW nəl, канда́йша ‘8’ < MariNW kändäŋš) and weather (уре́ж ‘rain’ < MariNW jur, ю́кша ‘cold, winter’ < MariNW jükšem). Strel’nikov identifies altogether 44 items as derived from Mari, and some of them have gone amusing shifts in meaning as is common in these sorts of secret languages.

Mari words in Cheung’s Studies in the Historical Development of the Ossetic Vocalism

J. L. Cheung’s Studies in the Historical Development of the Ossetic Vocalism (Wiesbaden, Reichert Verlag, 2002), which goes well beyond what its title suggests, is in many respects an updating or refinement of Abaev’s Ossetian etymological dictionary. Cheung’s monograph also has an index for each of the languages, Iranian or otherwise, drawn on in the work. Unlike Abaev’s enormous, and mostly wrong, use of Mari, Cheung limits his etymologies to just four Mari words: βerɣe ‘kidney’, kutkə̑ž ‘eagle’, ož(o) ‘stallion’ and pire ‘wolf’.

Thus we are on much firmer ground than in Abaev’s dictionary, although Cheung again misrepresents the Mari word for ‘wolf’ as pirägy, and that is probably a borrowing from Tatar anyway.

Mari words in Abaev’s etymological dictionary of Ossetian

V. I. Abaev’s Историко-этимологический словарь осетинского языка (published in four volumes in 1958–1989) is quite famous and I was happy to discover a PDF on everyone’s favourite filesharing community for linguistics books. You can also order a paper version from some Russian online bookstores as print-on-demand. However, it wasn’t until I browsed the Helsinki library shelves that I discovered there was an index for it as well. The Указатель volume was published in Moscow in 1995.

(Furthermore, Abaev also published 22 pages of addenda and corrections to the dictionary as his contribution to the Festschrift for Ladislav Zgusta Historical, Indo-European and Lexicographical Studies ed. Hans H. Hock, Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, 1997.)

The index contains sections for all the various languages Abaev dealt with, including individual Finno-Ugrian languages. As I am very interested in late East Iranian loanwords in Mari, I looked at what Mari words Abaev had mentioned. Below I present a list, with Abaev’s representation of the Mari (a jumble of transcriptions and dialect forms) replaced by the Tscheremissisches Wörterbuch headwords. Unfortunately, most of these can be treated as Chuvash or Tatar loanwords, inherited Uralic vocabulary or coincidential resemblances, and certainly not as the result of direct Iranian–Mari contact. Clearly the field has moved on since Abaev’s heyday.

Mari Ossetian Page Better etymology
alaša ‘gelding’ alasa id. I 44 < Tatar
čəgət cyxt ‘cheese’ I 328 Not in TschWb, but if Mari it would be < Chuvash
kə̑ńe ‘hemp’ kättag ‘cloth’ I 590
keńe gän id., kättag ‘cloth’ I 513, I 590
kerde ‘sword’ kard id. I 571
kož ‘spruce’ k’ozä ‘conifer shoot’ I 638 < PU *kose
kukšo xysk’ id. IV 270
mör ‘berry’ myrtkä id. II 141 < PU *mïrja
naməs namys id. II 155 < Tatar
pire ‘wolf’ biräğ id. I 263 < Tatar
pursa ‘pea’ pysyra ‘nettle’ II 248 < Chuvash
rüzem ‘to shake (trans.)’ rizyn ‘to shake (intrans.)’ II 418
rə̑βə̑ž ‘fox’ ruvas id. II 434
sokə̑r ‘blind’ soqqyr id. III 138 < Tatar
šu ‘bristle, fishbone’ syg ‘barb’ III 186
šüĺö ‘oats’ syl ‘rye’ III 194 < Chuvash
šur ‘horn’ sy id. III 181 < Proto-Iranian
toβar ‘axe’ färät id. I 451
tomaša ‘strange thing; commotion’ tamaša id. III 228 < Chuvash or Tatar
tul ‘stormwind’ tyfyl ‘whirlwind’ III 328 < Cv. tăvăl or Tat. tawïl
tumna ‘owl’ tojmon id. III 298 < Chuvash
tə̑rke ‘young pine’ tägär ‘maple’ III 252 TschWb says < Tat./FU?
umla ‘hops’ xymlläg id. IV 262 < Chuvash
uža ‘sells’ wäj id. IV 67 < PU *wosa, borrowed from PIE
βaraš ‘hawk’ wari ‘falcon’ IV 50
βürɣeńe ‘copper’ ärxy id. I 186
[eŋer-]βaze ‘fishing rod’ wis ‘rod, pole’ IV 111
βerɣe ‘kidney’ wyrg IV 123

It’s worth mentioning that Abaev’s supposed Mari word for ‘wolf’ is pirägy, clearly from MariE pire but in itself clearly erroneous. Abaev’s ghost word was later perpetuated in J. L. Cheung’s Studies in the Historical Development of the Ossetic Vocalism, p. 173, about which more later.

Terms for ‘stupid’ in Latin

In the introduction to his Cambridge edition of Terence’s Eunuchus, John Barnsby compares Terence to his forebear Plautus. He mentions in passing that Plautus had employed seven different Latin words for ‘stupid’ in a single line, Bacchides 1088. This line reads stulti, stolidi, fatui, fungi, bardi, blenni, buccones and is a metrical tour de force. I thought it would be interesting to look these up in Michiel de Vaan’s Etymological Dictionary of Latin and the other Italic Languages.

Vaan notes that the first two words, stultus and stolidis have been derived from the same PIE root *stel ‘to place’, with the shift of meaning ‘standing’ > ‘inert’ > ‘insensible; stupid’.

Latin fatuus is ascribed a complex etymology by which Fatuus, an alternative name for the oracular god Faunus, has come to be used pejoratively as ‘silly’. (Cf. how English genius can be used as a term of abuse.)

Latin fungi and blennus are not found in Vaan’s dictionary at all, but their etymologies are straightforward. Lewis & Short’s dictionary lists the former under fungus ‘mushroom’, so it is supposedly an extension of that. Latin blennus is a loan from Greek βλεννός ‘idiot’.

For bardus Vaan notes that two earlier commentators have assumed a loanword, possibly from Etruscan. Finally, He considers buccō under bucca ‘puffed, filled out cheek, mouth’, which has often been considered a loanword from Celtic.