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.

The languages of Czernowitz and old Bucovina

From my acquaintance with the life and work of Paul Celan – not to mention passing through on several occasions and seeing traces of its imperial past – I was aware that the former Austro-Hungarian town of Czernowitz was once home to a remarkable ethnic diversity, later erased as the surrounding province of Bucovina was ceded to Romania – whereupon it gained the name Cernăuți – and then the USSR and Ukraine for which it is now known as Chernivtsi. I was happy to discover Gregor von Rezzori’s memoir Blumen im Schnee (in English translation as The Snows of Yesteryear) which sheds much light on the changing demographics of the town. In reminiscing on his childhood nanny Cassandra, hired out of some remote village in the Carpathians, Rezzori makes the following comment on the languages that he heard spoken in his childhood:

She spoke both Romanian and Ruthenian, both equally badly—which is not at all unusual in the Bukovina—intermixing the two languages and larding both with bits from a dozen other idioms. The result was that absurd lingua franca, understood only by myself and scantily by those who, like her, had to express themselves in a similarly motley verbal hodgepodge. Even though it may be questioned whether I was actually fed at Cassandra’s breast, there can be no doubt that linguistically I was nourished by her speech. The main component was a German, never learned correctly or completely, the gaps in which were filled with words and phrases from all the other tongues spoken in the Bukovina—so that each second or third word was either Ruthenian, Romanian, Polish, Russian, Armenian or Yiddish, not to forget Hungarian and Turkish. From my birth, I heard mainly this idiom, and it was as natural to me as the air that I breathed.

How much things have changed in a century. Yiddish disappeared from Czernowitz with the genocide of its Jewish population in World War II. As Rezzori observes, German was already on the wane right after Trianon. From my experiences walking the streets of the city, it’s pretty much down to just Ukrainian, Russian and Romanian now. And while the intermixing of languages was simply accepted as a fact of life back then, today in at least southern (Romanian) Bucovina, the observation that a word in Romanian is of foreign origin is often taken as an insult.

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.

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.

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 Compact 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).

RIP Gennady Aigi

As another language blog, LanguageHat occasionally does, I’m going to write something about a poet. This is not as off-topic as it might seem. My graduate studies in Finno-Ugrian linguistics beginning later this year will be on “marin kielikontaktit” (Mari language contacts), namely Mari’s relations with neighbouring Uralic languages Mordvin and Permian, but also its borrowing of much lexical material from its Turkic neighbour Chuvash. Many experts on Mari learn Chuvash along the way. I was hoping to spend a few days in Cheboksary this summer and find a primer, and also wanted to become acquainted with the early works of Gennady Aigi.

Aigi is sometimes considered the Chuvash national poet. He wrote in his native language before eventually settling in Moscow and becoming know for his hermetic and downright eerie masterpieces in the Russian language. I discovered these late Russian works through the musical works Sofia Gubaidulina based on them. His poetry been translated, mostly into French, such as Aïgui (Paris, Éditions Seghers, 1993) with biography and translations by Léon Robel. As far as I know, the only thing in English is Selected Poems (Northwestern University Press, 1997) with facing-page translation by Peter France.

Как снег, Господь,
что есть
и есть что есть –
когда душа,
что есть –
снега, душа и свет…
а все вот – лишь о том,
что те, как смерть –
что есть,
что как они
и есть
признать, что есть
и вот –
средь света тьма и есть,
когда вокруг снега
о бог, опять снега,
как, может быть, что есть –
а на поверку нет –
как трупы — есть и нет
о есть Муляж-Страна —
вопроса нет,
что есть
когда народ – Глагол,
который значит Нет…
а что такое есть?

from Теперь всегда снега (“Now always snow”)

I have had mixed feelings about this turn to Russian. On one hand, Aigi expressed himself brilliantly in Russian and his work was accessible to a large world audience. On the other hand, the Chuvash language was deprived of a talented poet. The Nigerian poet Ngugi wa Thiong’o (formerly James Ngugi) famously renounced English and now writes only in his native language of Gikuyu and in Swahili, believing that only native-language art can keep a people alive and strong. Can Aigi be condemned for ‘weakening’ his native language? This is a tough issue. One wants to be firm about protecting indigenous languages, but at the same time no one wants to reproach someone whose literary works have given such pleasure.

Sadly, however, it has been reported that Aigi died yesterday (English here). Вечная память.