Category Archives: Slavonic languages

Slavonic-Romanian etymological disputes

One of the fun aspects of reading Old Church Slavonic texts is encountering vocabulary that has disappeared from most modern Slavonic languages, but which persists as a loanword into Romanian even in the everyday conversational language. I thought I had found another example in Matthew 20:30–34:

и сє дъва слѣпьса сѣдѧшта при пѫти слъішавъша ꙗко иисѹсъ мимо ходитъ възъпистє глагол҄ѭшта помилѹи нъі господи съінѹ давъідовъ | народъ жє запрѣти има да ѹмльчитє | она жє пачє въпьꙗашєтє глагол҄ѭшта помилѹи нъі господи съінѹ давъідовъ | и ставъ иисѹсъ възгласи ꙗ и рєчє чьто хоштєта да сътвор҄ѭ вама | глаголастє ємѹ господи да отврьзєтє сѧ наю очи | милосрьдовавъ жє иисѹсъ прикоснѫ сѧ очью има и абьє прозьрѣстє и по н҄ємь идєтє |
And, behold, two blind men sitting by the way side, when they heard that Jesus passed by, cried out, saying, Have mercy on us, O Lord, thou son of David. And the multitude rebuked them, because they should hold their peace: but they cried the more, saying, Have mercy on us, O Lord, thou son of David. And Jesus stood still, called them, and said, What will ye that I shall do unto you? They say unto him, Lord, that our eyes may be opened. So Jesus had compassion on them, and touched their eyes: and immediately their eyes received sight, and they followed him.

The key word here is абьє ‘immediately’. Romanian has the very similar-looking word abia which has the following definitions in the 1998 edition of the Dicționar explicativ al limbii române (I’m translating into English): With difficulty, painstakingly. 2. (quantitative, intensive) very little, almost nothing. 3. (temporal) for a very short time; as soon as, right when; just then, just now. 4. at least; if only. The meanings line up, phonetically the word is almost the same, so surely they’re related.

I was surprised then to see that DEX ’98 derives the Romanian word from Latin ad vix. Alexandru Ciorănescu’s Dicționarul etimologic român (Tenerife: Universidad de la Laguna, 1958–1966) gives the same etymology and even adds the assertion Cihac’s hypothesis that the word is based on Slavonic abije is mistaken. But ad vix seems entirely impossible on phonetic grounds, as it would give in Romanian something like ˣabes.

I don’t think it’s unreasonable to add this to the list of Slavonic etymologies that Romanian linguists, for reasons of national pride or whatever, are unwilling to accept even when they are staring them in the face.

Russian calques in the Romanian of Moldova

While the intonation of Romanian in the Republic of Moldova does not greatly differ from across the border in Romania’s province of Moldavia, several decades in the USSR instilled the Moldovan language with a great many Russian calques. I was quite taken aback the first time I heard someone use the exhortation daţi să… ‘let’s’, a translation of Russian давай instead of the standard Romanian hai să. Doing a little research on the topic, I came across an article by Angela Arama that is a strident call to do away with these calques and return to a more traditionally Romanian way of speaking. I’ve added the Russian original of some of these calques to give an idea of how the Romanian mirrors it.

Daţi să vorbim pe româneşte!: On Russian calques

The grand-scale return of the Romanians of the Republic of Moldova to their ancestral identity is far from over. Awareness of the true scale of the Soviet ideological machine’s disastrous impact has grown over these years of national reawakening. However, the repercussions of this massive de-nationalization are still noticeable and a return to normalcy requires not only a sustained effort on the part of citizens, but also the adoption of a clear and realistic language policy by the authorities of the Republic of Moldova.

Why is this aspect of national politics so important in Moldova? To speak Romanian correctly, the state of this language in communication, is not simply a whim of intellectuals, it’s not an apple of discord thrown from the ivory tower of the Moldovan elite. It is a barometer showing the transformation of a society profoundly altered by a Soviet mentality, into one with European structure and aspirations. The argument is as simple as can be.

The ideology of the USSR was to create through the Russian language (and the language itself can’t be blamed!) a new people, a completely content homo sovieticus. The Russian language was placed in the unhappy role of butchering local cultures and histories. of forcing down the throats (băga în capul, as Chiriţei put it) of representatives of Soviet ethnicities grandiose, Leninist, Marxist, imperialist aspirations. Thus the people spoke and thought in Russian. One day, the next, for a decade, for 70 years. Entire generations. Even if, after the restoration of independence in 1989, Moldova’s citizens have made an enormous effort to cast off Russian influence and learn their native literary language (in classes, from dictionaries and from the works of the newly rediscovered great Romanian authors), for a long time Romanian words were strung on a Russian string. People long thought in Russian, simultaneously translating their ideas into Romanian. Coincidence or not, the democratic parties have been supported by those who not only manage to express themselves in Romanian, but also to think in Romanian. Of those who still vote for the Communists because of conviction or convenience (I’m referring solely to those who identify themselves as Moldovans), the vast majority speak an approximation of Romanian, continuing to employ Russian words and to construct their sentences on a Russian model.

Even if their active vocabulary gradually grows, literal translation from Russian still creates a lot of headaches. Calques based on Russian continue to be a major handicap in expressing ourselves in Romanian. For example, on billboards and in television commercials there persists slogans along the lines of Dacă ferestre, atunci – Veco. The words might be Romanian, but the sense of it is hard to grasp, because it is a word-for-word translation from Russian. The winter holidays will probably bring us an avalanche of advertisements which greet us with Cu Anul Nou! [С новым годом] instead of wishing us La mulţi ani!, while the weather forecast informs us that things have gotten cooler by saying 2 grade căldură [Два градуса тепла]. Unfortunately, the majority of advertising slogans are created in Russian first, then (and not always, because the law does not require advertising in the state language) they are translated into Romanian. And then we could cite Haine pentru copii din piele on one street corner, Autospălătorie on another and between them an advertisement to a cadona [дарить] some cosmetics for your significant other. For example, tonac (for fond de ten, foundation for makeup) or umbre (for fard de pleoape, mascara).

Generally, thanks to educational programmes and politicians’ (relatively successful) change of approach to the languages spoken in the Republic of Moldova, there has been quite a bit of progress in speaking Romanian correctly. One of the major problems that remain is a common source of information: television.

The impact of television on consumers is crucial compared to other media formats. Though 7% of the country’s population read newspapers, everyone watches television. Moldova’s media regrettably remains dominated by Russian-language channels. The channels (which belong to us all!) were initially redistributed without concern for the interest of the majority of the population or, rather, to maintain Moscow’s influence over it. Media in Moldova is still a zone of Russian interference. Everyone watches films, entertainment programmes, news, etc. in Russian. This is why we are casting off Russian calques so slowly. Evening after evening, entire families watch their favourite shows, and during the day they share their experiences using ‘compromised’ expressions: Aseară am văzut pe televizor seria asta, dar n-am dovedit de la început, Ei, acolo a mers vorba despre război, Eu undeva de la mijloc am aprins televizorul, Daţi să ne suim în rutieră şi am să ma stărui să vă povestesc ce-a fost.

Obviously, after the enormous pressure methodically placed on regions annexed by the USSR (for years and years) to deny their roots, it’s impossible to solve everything overnight. But there is clearly an urgent need to offer as many sources as possible, without militarily instituting the study of Romanian. This can be done through the medium of television.

That’s why media reforms must go on, especially based on the stipulations of article 11 of the Media Law of the Republic of Moldova. CCA (Consiliul Coordonator al Audiovizualului) must ensure that, starting from 1 January 2010, at least 70% of channels offer Romanian-language programmes, while locally made news and analysis programmes for radio and television must be 80% in Romanian. There’s a reason that the Media Law stipulates that artistic or documentary films shall be shown with dubbing or subtitles, preserving the original soundtrack, while films for children shall be dubbed or voice-acted in the state language. When films are dubbed in Russian (a common practice in Moldova), no one reads the Romanian subtitles any more.

Reforms in language policy in the media must lead to the gradual yet complete elimination of simply re-broadcasting the Russian-language channels. The current state of Article 11 was achieved through bloody negotiations with the former Communist majority in parliament, who didn’t accept extending Romanian-language broadcasting of any kind, not only news and analysis programmes. But I think it’s not too late to take ‘the macaroni from our ears’ and continue the reform.

It’s sad that just as this writer is passionate about liberating his language from Russian calques, here in Cluj I encounter advertising slogans translated out of English daily, of which I’m certain the tremendously awkward Burger: berea oficială a statului de vorbă is an example.

Turkic-Slavic bilingualism in Kyiv Rus

Paul Goble’s Russian political blog Window on Eurasia recently featured a post whose linguistic ramifications are intriguing:

Olzhas Suleymenov, the Kazakh author of a book that some have helped lead to the rise of perestroika and the disintegration of the Soviet Union, says that he welcomes its translation into Ukrainian because Ukrainians will understand that book’s argument about the close ties between the Slavic and Turkic peoples at the time of Kievan Rus’.

Speaking in Kyiv on the occasion of the appearance of the Ukrainian translation of “Az i Ya,” a 1975 book that sparked controversy in the Soviet Union because of its argument that the author of “The Tale of the Host of Igor” knew both a Turkic and a Slavic language, Suleymenov said Ukrainians are well-placed to understand his point.

… “It seems to me,” he said in Kyiv, that the Tale reflects the complex bilingual culture of the 12th century. But in the 19th century,” he continued, Russian scholars, who were “monolingual,” did not understand the Tale’s ‘Turkisms.”

I hope I’ll eventually have a chance to read Suleymenov’s book on the Слово о плъку Игоревѣ, as I’ve often thought that the Turkic peoples left remarkably few linguistic traces in Ukraine and surrounding countries in spite of their substantial presence.

The semantics of the year

In Indo-European linguistics I so often heard that the proto-language had four clearly defined seasons that I never thought that there could be other prevalent systems of natural cycles. In the collection Проблемы исторической лексикологии чувашского языка (Cheboksary, 1980) N. I. Yegorov contributes a paper titled ‘О названиях времен года в тюркских языках’ (The names of the seasons in Turkic). Yegorov attempts to determine the beginnings of the Turkic system and writes, ‘Many languages up to the present have preserved a binary division of the year into two seasons, a warm one (‘summer’) and a cold one (‘winter’).

Yegorov goes on to argue that in the most ancient period of Turkic—and various other languages perhaps prior to the development of the science of astronomy—there was no unit of time equivalent to one revolution of the Earth around the sun. Instead, the concept ‘year’ was linked to the change of the seasons from warm to cold and back again. So with a binary division of the seasons and the understanding of the year as the period of time from summer to summer, we might be able to connect three universally attested Turkic roots that, after all, look rather similar: *jāj ‘spring, summer’, *jāz ‘spring, summer’, and *jıl ‘year’. Yegorov suggests these go back to a root *ńa, though he wants to reconstruct this for some kind of Altaic proto-language. By the same token, one might derive the words for the colder parts of the year, *kṻz ‘autumn’ and kı̄š ‘winter’, from a common root, which is *q’a according to Yegorov.

This line of thinking even clarifies a stumbling block for learners of the Slavonic languages. Anyone who knows Russian is likely to be vexed that in Polish godzina means not ‘year’ as one might expect from Russian god, but rather ‘hour’. Russian (and I suppose Bulgarian with its godina ‘year’) proves innovative. Russian speakers formerly thought of the year as the period from summer to summer, and this is still visible in the use of leto ‘summer’ in various idioms referring to a period of years. At one time the Common Slavonic word *godŭ was merely a term of vague meaning ‘period of time’. For example, an early Russia manuscript, the Life of Feodosij Pečerskij, still shows this meaning in the sentence bě bo godŭ obědu ‘it was meal time’. Other examples abound in early Russian literature. Only in 1136 is *godŭ first attested in what it has settled into as its contemporary meaning, a period of 365 days. Meanwhile, in Polish a derivation of the root came to mean a very different period of 60 minutes.

Balkan multilingualism

Yesterday I bought in a Cluj used bookstore a Crestomație de literatură română veche (Cluj-Napoca: Editura Dacia, 1983), a selection of early Romanian-language documents edited with commentary, and printed on surprisingly good paper for the Ceaușescu era. As one might expect, the chrestomathy begins with the letter of Neacșu of Câmpulung, the first attestation of the Romanian language (leaving aside the issue of the torna, torna frate Byzantine quotation). Neacșu’s letter is presented for English speakers on an admirable website developed by Bucharest university students.

What I especially like about this document is that it attests to the lively multilingualism of the time. We have here a speaker of Romanian writing in his native language to a German-speaking mayor, with stock phrases from the Church Slavonic chancelery language, about the invasion of the ‘beg’ (Modern Turkish bey) Mahamet. This German-Slavonic-Romanian mixture has now completely disappeared from Romania. It leaves me a bit sad, just like reading Chaucer’s lines about the Prioress, French she spake full fair and fetisly / After the school of Stratford atte Bow, and then comparing it to the foreign language skills of the average educated Briton nowadays.

Romanian snow

A couple of years ago I read a fascinating paper by the Slavicist B.O. Unbegaun entitled ‘Les noms de la neige en roumain’, collected in Selected Papers on Russian and Slavonic Philology ed. R. Auty & A. E. Pennington (Oxford, 1969). While this theme is especially interesting to me because Cluj lies almost exactly on the isogloss between the words nea and omăt, I thought this paper would appeal to a fairly wide audience, and I felt it didn’t deserve to lie forgotten in an old Festschrift. So, I have translated it here into English. There’s probably a great deal of Franglish, but I’m tired and will further edit later.

The Romanian Names for ‘Snow’

Romanian hasn’t preserved the old Latin word for snow (nivem) in the form nea except in a limited area, in western Transylvania mainly to the west of a wavy line going from Sighet Maramuresului (Marmaros Sziget) in the north to the Iron Gate on the Danube in the south. The same word has survived in Istro-Romanian (nęwu), in Megleno-Romanian (nęuă) and in Aromanian (neao)1. The rest of the Romanian-speaking territory is divided into two more or less equal parts by a line, wavy as well, going approximately from Turda in western Transylvania to Sulina in the Danube delta.

In the region to the south of this line, which comprises Wallachia and southern Transylvania, snow is called zăpadă; this term is also the one used in the literary language.

In the area situated to the north of the indicated line, which comprises Moldavia, Bessarabia, Bucovina and northern Transylvania, the word omăt serves for snow.2.

The Slavonic origin of the words zăpadă and omăt is obvious and has been known for a long time: the first word contains the root pad- ‘to fall’, and the second the root met- ‘to throw, to sweep’.

It is entirely natural that the verb ‘to fall’ has given rise to the word for snow. In Albanian, for example, don’t the words reshën and dëborë similarly come from verbs meaning ‘to fall’?3 But precisely this analogy with Albanian on one hand, and the absence in the Slavonic languages of a word zăpadă in the sense ‘snow’ on the other, has resulted in some linguistic misunderstandings which one ought to dispel.

Sextil Pușcariu, in reconciling these two facts, has developed the hypothesis that the word zăpadă belonged to the language of the Slavs who once inhabited Dacia, north of the Danube, and it was calqued, just as the corresponding words in Albanian, on some autochthonous language of the Balkans.4 This hypothesis also served for Pușcariu to corroborate his theory of the autochtony of the Romanians in Transylvania, a theory which will we not concern ourselves further in this article and whose fragility has been pointed out by A. Rosetti.5

While the word zăpadă is not attested in the Slavonic languages with the precise meaning ‘snow’,6 almost all those languages still know or have formerly known the verb whose Slavonic prototype can be derived from the Romanian word and which means ‘to be buried, to be blocked, to be completely covered by something falling’. To give some examples of this, Russian zapadát’: odna byla vo pole dorožen’ka, no i ta snegom zapadala ‘there was only one little road across the field, but it was covered by snow’ (from a folk song); Czech zapadnouti, zapadati: pole sněhem zapadlé ‘field covered by snow’; a nešt’astníky sněhem zapadlé vyhledávali ‘they sought the misfortunate people trapped in the snow’;7 schody zapadané sněhem ‘staircase covered in snow’; Polish zapaść, zapadać, the verb existed with this meaning only in Old Polish and the only example which the Słownik warszawski gives is from the 16th century: Król, na jednym miejscu wielkie niepogody cierpiąc, śniegiem wielkim zapadł ‘the king, suffering from the bad weather, was completely buried in snow’;8 Slovene zapásti (pres. zapádem): sneg je zapadel štiri črevlje na debelo ‘snow fell four feet deep’;9 Serbo-Croatian zàpasti (pres. zàpadnem): snijeg pade, drumi zapadoše, planine se snijegom zaviše, po gori se hoditi ne može ‘snow has fallen, the roads are blocked, the mountains are wrapped in snow, you can’t go through the forest’ (folk song).10 In most of these languages, the verb in question can mean only burial in snow. We point out two verbal adjectives as well: Slovene has the expression zapáden snȇg ‘snow which blocks, which buries’,11 and this adjective zapáden is not used except in combination with snȇg ‘snow’. Polish offers the adjective zapadny ‘snowy’, e.g. polskie zimy należą przeważnie do zapadnych ‘Polish winters are usually snowy’.12

Against this abundance of verbal forms, including verbal adjectives, one does not find any nouns except the example západ sněhu pointed out by Kott,13 with no traces of it anywhere else. The modern colloquial language doesn’t seem to recognize this sense of západ. Furthermore, Ukrainian has a noun západ’ (fem.) in the sense of ‘deep snow’.14 This lack is surprising, as precisely postverbals of the type zapad form in the Slavonic languages an extremely common form of derivation. Nevertheless, zapad is widely found in most Slavonic languages, but with the sense ‘descend, West’; the idea is that the sun ‘falls’ (pad- behind (za-) the earth. It is this sense that seems to have hindered or stopped the development of the meaning ‘snowfall’. But even outside of the occurrence of the meaning ‘West’, the entire family of verbs zapasti, zapadati ‘to be buried’ is receding in the Slavonic languages to the point that it is limited little by little to some stock phrases. The situation of Polish, for example, clearly shows this; and precisely in Polish zapad ‘West’ was less awkward than elsewhere, seeing as Polish has replaced it with the term zachód. The compound verb zapasti in the Slavonic languages could have still other meanings which also on their part seem to have contributed to the weaking of the sense ‘to be buried’.

The rudimentrary state that the historical study of the Slavonic lexicon finds itself in hardly permits us to venture far in our conclusions. Nonetheless, one can already note that the radiance of this semantic group we are interested in here was once more considerable than it is today. It takes Romanian zăpadă out of its supposed isolation and makes it very probable and even a matter of course that it was borrowed from some Slavonic neighbour of Romanian, without having to involve the enigmatic Daco-Slavonic. The geographic breadth of the Romanian word would favour a borrowing from South Slavonic.15 The only problem which remains is whether Romanian borrowed the postverbal zapadŭ16 as it was, or if it created it on its own from a Slavonic verb.

The Slavonic terms which we have cited suggest still another matter, that in the beginning zăpadă did not refer to snow as a meteorological phenomenon, but rather to the accumulation of snow which blocks roads, such as what in the patois and in the French of Auvergne and Forez, for example, is so comfortably called a congère.

This detail reveals another problem to us, which in his time Tache Papahagi faced and could not resolve: why was nea replaced by zăpadă, while the verb a ninge ‘to snow’, of Latin origin, has survived everywhere in Romanian-speaking territory?17 It is because these two words originally belonged to different semantic series, as the verb which corresponds to zăpadă is not a ninge ‘to snow’ but a zăpădi ‘to cover in snow’; one in fact finds it in the Psalter of Coresi from 1577, where it translates the Slavonic osněžatsę.18

The second word with a Slavonic origin, omăt, which is found only in dialects in the east of Romanian-speaking territory (see above), represents exactly the same concept as zăpadă: ‘accumulation of snow’. Here the Slavonic parallels are more clean cut; one could point to Russian omët, which means today ‘haystack’, but whose etymological meaning could be none other than ‘accumulation, heap’. Ukrainian, which should figure in here, taking into account that the geographical distribution of the Romanian word, nevertheless attests omét only with the meaning ‘border’, but an older meaning ‘heap’ is vey probable. With a different prefix modern Ukrainian has the word zamét ‘heap of snow’ and Russian zamët, zámet’ (fem.) and sumët, while Polish has zamieć with the same meaning. As for zăpadă, the Slavonic verb that Romanian omăt is derived from is still used in most Slavonic languages. It suffices to cite here Ukrainian mestý, for example in its impersonal usage (3rd person singular) meté ‘the wind sweeps the snow’; the compound namestý means ‘to heap up snow’ (speaking of the wind). As far as the presence of Romanian ă for Slavonic e, it can be explained by the Romanian sound law which change e to ă after labials (cf. ovăs ‘oats’ from Slavonic oves etc.). It’s useful to also point out the noun nămet (and nemete) ‘heap of snow’ derived from the Slavonic compound indicated above. Just as with zăpadă we find the verb zăpădi, there exists with omăt a verb a omăta,19 and with nămet a verb a nămeți, both of which mean ‘to cover with snow’.

This substitution of the Latin noun for the substance with a Slavonic noun referring to the accumulation that this substance produces is not an isolated one in Romanian. It has the very same thing for the noun for ‘sand’. Indeed, the old Latin noun (arenam) has been preserved only in a limited area, in Transylvania (arină) and in Bessarabia (anină), and furthermore the presence of the word in Bessarabia seems to be due to a Transylvanian colonization. Everywhere else one finds the word nisip which can only go back to the Slavonic nasypĭ, a postverbal from nasypati ‘to accumulate, to heap up’. One finds in some places, in certain dialects, the form năsîp which corresponds exactly to the Slavonic phonetically.20

It is known elsewhere that Slavonic words which in Romanian substituted words of Latin origin generally are not identical in meaning with these; their initial meanings normally expressed special nuances.21

Coming back to words for snow, one will note that the origin of zăpadă and omăt do not pose any enigmatic problem and is linked to well-known Slavonic words. There’s no surprise about the coexistence, in older Romanian, of nea on one hand and zăpadă on the other, as these terms referred to different notions: ‘snow’ and ‘heap of snow’. The only real problem is the disappearance of nea beside the two Slavonic expressions. A tentative resolution has been proposed by E. Gamillscheg. He observed that the area marked by nea an m before i and j did not change to ń (through ), but on the contrary this happened in most of the territory where snow is called zăpadă and, most of all, omăt. In this territory, therefore, Latin agnella ‘ewe’ survived, through the intermediary of mnieauă, as niauă, neauă, falling together with the word for snow, which in the contemporary dialectal form is indeed neauă.21 This clever hypothesis is worth what it’s worth; one ca nonetheless wonder if the homonymy of ‘snow’ and ‘ewe’ could have caused any real inconvenience. Furthermore, the literary language has preserved the form with initial m: mea. Still, this explanation of E. Gamillscheg is the only one offered to account for the disappearance of nea ‘snow’.

Strasbourg, 1953.

  1. S. Pușcariu, Etymologisches Wörterbuch der rumänischen Sprache, № 1160.
  2. It is a pity that the volume de the Romanian linguistic atlas (Atlasul linguistic român), no more than that of the small Romanian linguistic atlas Micul atlas linguistic român) containing the entry for ‘snow’ has not yet been published. Fortunately, this entry (№ 1248) has been reproduced in several publications: in Seven Pop and Emil Petrovici, Atlas linguistique roumain ed. S. Pușcariu, Bucharest, Monitorul Oficial, 1936, carte; in two articles de Sextil Pușcariu: (a) ‘Les enseignements de l’Atlas linguistique de Roumanie‘, Revue de Transylvanie, III (1936) № 1; (b) ‘Le rôle de la Transylvanie dans la formation et l’évolution de la langue roumaine’, La Transylvanie, 1938; in the same author’s work Limba română, vol. 1, Privirea generală, București, 1940, p. 214; and finally in E. Gamillscheg’s study Randbemerkungen zum rumänischen Sprachatlas, Berlin, 1941, p. 18 (Abhandlungen der Preussischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, 1941, Phil.-hist. Klasse, № 7).
  3. N. Jokl, ‘Erbwortschatz des Albanischen’, Indogermanische Forschungen, XLIII (1926), p. 53.
  4. This hypothesis was first formulated in Dacoromania (IV, 1924–6, p. 1365), and then successively reprised in the author’s later works: ‘Les enseignements de l’Atlas linguistique de Roumanie’, Revue de Transylvanie, III (1936); Limba română, I, pp. 180, 282, 291; E. Gamillscheg is associated with it in op. cit., pp. 17–19. Recently Alwin Kuhn has done the same: ‘Probleme der rumänischen Philologie’, Cahiers Sextil Pușcariu, I (1952), pp. 236–7.
  5. Sur la méthode de la géographie linguistique’, Bulletin linguistique, XII (1944), pp. 106–12.
  6. One must add, to tell the truth, ‘based on the present state of knowledge’: with waiting for a problematic linguistic atlas of the South Slavonic languages, the Rječnik hrvatskogo ili srpskoga jezika of the Academy of Zagreb, in the process of publication since 1880, may, if it one day arrives at the letter Z, reveal to use some exact cognate of the Romanian word.
  7. Fr. Št. Kott, Česko-německý slovník, V, p. 180.
  8. VIII, p. 208
  9. M. Pleteršnik, Slovensko-nemški slovar, II, p. 859.
  10. F. Iveković and I. Broz, Rječnik hrvatskoga jezika, II, p. 801.
  11. M. Pleteršnik, ibid.
  12. Słownik warszawski, VIII, p. 201.
  13. Op. cit., p. 179
  14. B. Hrinčenko, Словник україньскої мови, 3rd ed., II, ‘Київ’ 1927, p. 268.
  15. G. Reichenkron assumes a Bulgarian origin in ‘Der rumänische Sprachatlas und seine Bedeutung für die Slavistik’, Zeitschrift für slav. Philologie, XVII (1941), pp. 155–6.
  16. The final of the Romanian word does not go back to the Slavonic and is analogical; see A. Rosetti, Bulletin linguistique, V (1937), p. 227.
  17. T. Papahagi, ‘Dispariții și suprapuneri lexicale’, Grai și suflet, III (1927–8), p. 83.
  18. H. Tiktin, Rumänisch-deutsches Wörterbuch, III, pp. 1792–3. Today the verb a înzepezi ‘to block with snow’ is used.
  19. Ibid., p. 1088.
  20. E.g. in the dialect of Gorj. See I. D. Ionescu, in Buletinul Al. Philippide, VI (1939), p. 231; VII–VIII (1940–1), p. 328.
  21. See also G. Reichenkron, op. cit., p. 165.
  22. E. Gamillscheg, op. cit., p. 19

A weird sound change in Romanian borrowings

I find it rather odd that Romanian has /f/ in some borrowings from Common Slavonic and Hungarian when the CS original had /x/. I don’t think I’ve come across this kind of shift in any other languages. To give examples:

  • CS praxŭ ‘dust’ ∼ Ro. praf ‘dust, powder’.
  • CS vrŭxŭ ‘top, summit’ ∼ Ro. vârf ‘top, summit’.
  • Hu. marha ‘cattle’ ∼ Ro. mărfă ‘commercial goods’

The last example makes me wonder if the basis of the Ro. words târfă ‘prostitute’ and a bârfi ‘to gossip’, the etymologies of which are unknown according to the Dicţionarul explicativ al limbii române, might have had the shape /-rhV-/.

While on the subject, I might as well note down here a sound change internal to Romanian that I’ve noticed this evening. Latin /w/ 〈v〉 gives Ro. /b/ after liquids:

  • Lat. polvis, -ere > Ro. pulbere ‘dust’.
  • Lat. cervus > Ro. cerb ‘deer’
  • Lat. servus ‘slave’ > şerbi ‘serf’

The poor choice of Russian-English dictionaries in Russia

When I was in Kyrgyzstan in June, I lost my Russian-English-Russian dictionary, Random House’s pocket dictionary that had served me well for over six years. I looked around for a new one in Bishkek, but options were few and in the end I got a cheap dictionary that evidentally had been made by a local would-be lexicographer who just copied definitions from an assortment of other, reputable English dictionaries. The result may have adequately served a Russian student of English, but for someone who uses both English-Russian and Russian-English sections often, I found its coverage spotty. In Yoshkar-Ola last week, in a fit of anger at this monstrosity, I tossed it into the rubbish bin.

Though I was without a dictionary for a couple of days, I luckily soon visited Kazan’, one of the few cities in Russia with decent bookstores. Suprisingly what I really had in mind, the Pocket Oxford Russian Dictionary, was nowhere to be seen. Perhaps it’s not sold in Russia at all. What I eventually got was the Collins Gem Russian Dictionary, though in a printing by Astrel’ of Moscow who put their own cover around it. I’ve long been a fan of the Collins Gem dictionaries, and regret that I never purchased their Russian one. I’m quite happy with this so far.

But the buyer of a Russian-English-Russian dictionary in Russia must tread lightly. The vast majority of dictionaries for sale are reprints—photocopies, even—of two antiquated dictionaries of many decades ago. The first is by one V. K. Müller, the second by one M.A. O’Brian. I’ve had the darndest time finding out when either of these was first published, since the reprintings themselves never tell. Of the Müller, I’m thinking very early 20th century, based on the nature of the English. But I know only that all editions before the 7th, published in 1961, are in the public domain. Of O’Brian’s, this must have first been published between the wars, as early editions available in the West touted its listings in the then-new Russian orthography. Dover has reprinted this, but even they don’t tell when it was first published, which is odd indeed considering that they are usually upfront about things like that.

The attraction must be the price, since reprinting something in public domain costs little and you can get these big dictionaries for only 50 rubles (approximately 1.50€). But you wouldn’t get much use of them, because they would fall apart soon. Yes, there is paper of even lower quality than Eastern European toilet paper, and it is used for such reprints. With many of the dictionaries I flipped though, one would find it difficult to use them at all, because the quality of the photocopy and reprinting was so bad. You just can’t make out the text at all.

The situation with Russian is not like that with Lithuanian, Romanian or Bulgarian, where one would do well to buy a dictionary while visiting those countries because at home there’s just overpriced Routledge offerings or shoddy Hippocrene dictionaries. The best selection of Russian-English-Russian dictionaries is in English-speaking countries, so take advantage of that before your trip to the Bear.

The changing face of Russian nominal morphology

While I have learnt some languages fairly quickly and feel that I have mastered grammar if not idiom, Russian continues to present challenges. No matter how much I speak the language (it’s sometimes my daily working language in Helsinki), how much time I spend in Russia among native speakers, and how many textbooks I work through, I am regularly informed that I’ve been getting some basic thing wrong the whole time. Today I came across a list of new irregularities to learn in The Russian Language since the Revolution by Bernard Comrie and Gerald Stone (Oxford University Press, 1978), which proves I sound even more like an idiot when speaking this language.

A number of masculine nouns which in the nineteenth century formed their genitive plural in -ов, now take the zero ending. The following semantic categories are affected:

  1. Fruit and vegetables, e.g. помидор ‘tomato’, апельсин ‘orange’.
  2. Units of measurement, e.g. грамм ‘gram’, вольт ‘volt’.
  3. Members of human groups, including nationalities (e.g. грузин ‘Georgian’) and military units (e.g. драгун ‘dragoon’).
  4. Objects occuring mostly in pairs, e.g. носок ‘sock’, сапог ‘boot’.

I swear I’ve never seen this mentioned in any textbook. Well, now I understand why, when hitchhiking in Russia, my question to drivers сколько километров ‘how many kilometers [are you going along this road]?’ has been answered with a number followed by километр.

Continuing a tendency from the nineteenth century, the number of nouns with nominative plural in а́ has increased still further. Among the words which Černyšev quotes as taking either or а́ in the nominative plural are: директор ‘director’, инспектор ‘inspector’, закром ‘corn-bin’, округ ‘region’, провод ‘wire’, профессор ‘professor’, сорт ‘sort’, том ‘volume’.

I’ve been so proud of myself for finally learning that the plural of город ‘city’ is города instead of something with , and discovering that there are even more words out there that have irregular plurals is exasperating.

The authors give plenty more morphological changes here, including that the small group of masculine nouns that take an irregular genitive singular in is shrinking (good), and that the irregular masculine prepositional singular ending is spreading (bad).