Category Archives: Mongolian

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. *kilga.su/n ‘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. buxar.la‑ ‘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?

The beauty of mid-century German linguistics books

Opening a Harrassowitz (Wiesbaden) or Winter (Heidelberg) publication from the 1950s and 1960s is to discover a wealth of linguistic information organized just the way it should be. Even if the author’s prose is abysmal and his pedagogical method suspect, I just find it so easy to absorb information out of these books on the basis of their perfectly proportioned typesetting. By way of example, though imperfectly representing the paper quality, impression, etc., here are two scans from the first edition of An Introduction to Classical (Literary) Mongolian by Kaare Grønbech & John R. Krueger, which Harrassowitz published in 1955 and credited Hubert & Co. of Göttingen for the printing and typesetting.

Pages 20–21 from Grønbech & Krueger (1955)Pages 34–35 of Grønbech & Krueger (1955)

Sadly, this aesthetic was lost when computer typesetting made it easy to forego the use of expert typesetters. It is illustrative to compare this book with Peter B. Golden’s An Introduction to the History of the Turkic Peoples (Turcologica 9) which Harrassowitz published in 1992. Hubert & Co. is still credited as the printer, but it appears that the author was obliged to typeset the book himself and the result is not so soothing to read. Besides some specific errors (the lack of en dashes in ranges, the use of straight quotation marks instead of left and right ones, and line breaks where there should have been a non-breaking space), there’s just a jumbled appearance that is hard on the eye:

Pages 54–55 of Golden (1992)

Nearly all smaller academic presses look like this now. Cost savings are usually cited as the reason, but even when there is the money to spend, there doesn’t seem much interest in the aesthetic anymore. If native English speakers can successfuly charge authors a hell of a lot of money for correcting the language of a book prior to publication (10€/page is the standard rate in Finland), you’d think that the author wouldn’t mind paying another 100€ to a hungry student to iron out the bulk of typesetting infelicities.

Altaic studies: you’re in it for life

It’s nice to always be learning new languages over an academic career and continually expanding one’s knowledge, But had I come across de Rachewiltz & Rybatzki’s Introduction to Altaic Philology (Leiden: Brill, 2010) as an undergraduate, I think I would have found the following passage intimidating and slightly foreboding. After mentioning the extant ancient Turkic literature and presenting some of the personalities in the field, the authors tell their unsuspecting young readers:

Thus, not only is there an abundance of original material, there are also reference works and, indeed, interesting research projects. For someone venturing into Turkic studies there is only one problem. If he/she wants to undertake these studies seriously, it is not sufficient to obtain the literature we have cited, the grammars, dictionaries, texts and critical investigations: it is necessary first to acquire a basic working knowledge of several languages, i.e. English, French, German, Russian and Turkish. To progress further, it will also be necessary to learn some Japanese and Chinese. This means, of course, a total commitment to the discipline – for life.

What’s the attrition rate for courses assigning this book, I wonder?

More mongolianisms in the Manas

Last October I wrote a post on some odd words attributed to the Kalmaks in the Kyrgyz poem Kökötöydün ašı. The manuscript of the Manas epic prepared by Wilhelm Radloff features these and more in a passage where the Kyrgyz lord Kökčö, hearing that Manas has moved his camp towards him, tries to gather intelligence from the Oirots and encounters the nobleman Almambet. Here’s the manuscript portion and a rough translation from Arthur T. Hatto’s edition The Manas of Wilhelm Radloff (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 1990):

Kökčö bu sös aitkanda,
kara-töböl Bulandı mindi,
köl ailana kuš saldı
jarɣak taman kas aldı
kök ala moin son’ aldı
Kızıkkanınan kızıktı,
Isık-köldün jǟginä kirip bardı.
Ar jaɣında adırda,
kabılan tūɣan Almambet,
kaldaiɣan kara börük bašında,
čıɣıp keldi aldınan.
Kökčö anı körüp korktu.
Almambet kördü Kökčönü:
‘Altai? Altai?’ dep aittı,
‘Jabı? Jabı?’ dep aittı,
‘Möndü! Möndü!’ dep aittı.
‘Kalakai kaška?’ dep aittı.
‘Bičik solōn?’ dep aittı.
Kökčö turup mını aittı:
‘“Altai?” kebiŋ bilbäimin,
“Jabı?” kebiŋ bilbäimin,
“Kalakai?” kebiŋ bilbäimin.’
Kabılan tūɣan Alambet
Isık-köldün bašına
ailanıp salıp baradı.
‘Atıŋnın bašın bura-tur, Kökčö,
kak astıma tura-tur, Kökčö!’
Kabılan tūɣan Almambet
Kökčö jakka baradı.
‘Altai? Altai?’ dep aittı,
‘Jabı? Jabı’ dep aittı,
‘Kalakai kaška?’ dep aittı,
‘Bičik solōn?’ dep aittı.—
Kökčö turup mını aitat:
‘Bu kebiŋdi bilbäimin!’
Anda aittıŋ Almambet:
‘“Altai? Altai” degänim—
“Amansıŋbı?” degänim,
“Jabı? Jabı?” degänim—
“Jakšısıŋbı” degänim,
“Kalakai kaška?” degänim—
“Kanıŋ barbı” degänim,
“Bičik solōn?” degänim—
“Töröŋ barbı?” degänim!
Bu dǖnödön ötköndö,
a dǖnögö jetkändä,
biskä jol barb’ekän?’

On uttering these words, Kökčö rode Bulan-of-the-black-blaze, and, rounding the Lake, cast his falcon, he took the web-footed geese and the duck with blue-mottled necks. With mounting excitement he entered the margins of Lake Issyk. On the far side of the ride, tiger-born Almambet, his black cap towering on his head, loomed into view. At the sight of him Kökčö was startled. Then Almambet saw Kökčö.

‘Altai? Altai?’ he asked, and ‘Jabı? Jabı? Möndü! Möndü! Kalakai kaška? Bičik solōn?’ is what he said.

Kökčö standing there answered him: ‘I do not understand your word “Altai?” or your word “Jabı?” or “Kalakai?”’.

Tiger-born Almambet rode briskly round the head of Lake Issyk. ‘Turn your horse’s head and halt, Kökčö, halt now before me, Kökčö!’ And tiger-born Almambet rode towards him. ‘Altai? Altai?’, said he, and ‘Jabı? Jabı? Kalakai kaška? Bičik solōn?’

Kökčö standing there answered him: ‘I do not understand those words of yours!’

Then, Almambet, you said: ‘When I said “Altai? Altai?” I meant “I hope you are well?”. When I said “Jabı? Jabı?” I meant “Are you all right?”. And when I said “Kalakai kaška?” I meant “Have you a Khan?” And when I said “Bičik solōn?” I meant “Have you a lord” When we pass from this world and attain that Other, is there a Path for us?’

There follows a rather lame bit where Kökčö converts Almambet to Islam with remarkably little effort. Now, Hatto offers the following commentary on this passage:

Of these ‘Oirot’ words, only Möndü! (cf. Kalm. mendə ‘well’, Mong. mendü ‘health(y)’ — a first word in greeting) is genuine. Genuine ‘Sain!’ (cf. Kalm. sǟn ‘healthy’, ‘fine’) occurs in other ‘Kalmak’ contexts.

It’s one thing to attribute a mono- or bisyllabic utterance to your neighbours, like the ‘bar-bar’ of Greek barbaros. But it is rather curious that the Kyrgyz would come up with fully formed greetings on no basis at all. Hatto further gives a reference to a paper of his published in Central Asiatic Journal in the early 1970s which I will have to seek out. Perhaps it will provide further answers.

Janhunen and Altaic studies profiled

In last month’s issue of the University of Helsinki’s magazine, Yliopisto 2 (20. helmikuuta 2009) writer Maria Manner profiles Juha Janhunen, one of our linguistics luminaries. Prof Janhunen oversees Altaic studies and his own research has ranged from the Samoyed languages of the Uralic family to the internal relationships of Mongolian. Here’s my translation of the article.

Prof. Juha Janhunen seated in his office

Prof Juha Janhunen’s office is just as a Asian scholar’s office could only be. On the table there is a porcelain tea set, on the wall hangs a large map of Asia, and the covers of his books are adorned with the languages of the East.

One can also see the room as a rare bastion of the scholarly tradition. The University of Helsinki is the world’s summit of Altaic studies, Prof Janhunen claims. Asia’s economic growth has enhanced academic interest in areal studies. Business is chasing after researchers in Chinese studies.

What about the lesser known East Asian languages and cultures, which are Janhunen’s own focus? What insights, observations and questions might arise in journeying from Anatolia to the Altay Mountains? What does that immense patchwork of cultures encompass?

The west of the Altaic map stretches to Turkey, while the east extends to the borders of China. In the north it goes beyond Mongolia and Siberia, and the south includes Afghanistan and Tibet.

Many people might think this region marginal, but in terms of world history it has been very significant, Janhunen says.

Central Asia has always been a crossroads in terms of its flow of peoples, cultures and superpower politics. Across the region ran the fabled Silk Road, which united the Mediterranean and China. Nowadays the region is of interest for its oil production.

Mannerheim on horseback

On the wall of Prof Janhunen’s office is an old black and white photograph which bears witness to the tradition of Asian areal studies in Finland. In the photo is a man on a great research journey, the linguist G. J. Ramstedt, for whom the University of Helsinki founded the Chair of Altaic Studies in 1917 — perhaps the first such professorship in the whole world.

I could make a good argument that the roots of Altaic studies are in Finland. The term Altaic studies was first used by the Finnish linguist and ethnographer M. A. Castrén in the 1840s, Janhunen explains.

Originally Russia supported the tradition of Asian studies in Finland. The Academy in St. Petersburg funded among other things the Finnish research journeys into Asia. That is how the University of Helsinki has built up a vast library for Altaic studies and collected abundant ethnographic material. The most famous collection is the research data gathered by Marshal Mannerheim during his Asian journey at the beginning of the last century.

Endangered and incendiary

The concept of Altaic studies has changed since the days of the trailblazer G. J. Ramstedt. His belief that these languages are genetically related is no longer tenable. According to the prevailing view, the structural similarities of these languages are due to long reciprocal interaction. This language group consists of a good 60 Turkic, Mongolic and Tungusic languages. Japanese and Korean are also counted among this group.

Prof Janhunen himself trained as a linguist first in Finno-Ugrian studies. He defended his doctoral thesis on speakers of the Samoyed languages in Siberia, related to Finnish.

From the beginning of my studies I participated in every course offered on East Asian languages. Then it was possible to study Japanese, Chinese and Korea at the University of Helsinki. I was lucky to become a departmental assistant right after graduation. Ever since then I have been working at the university.

Janhunen has made his name researching the endangered languages of Siberia and the ancient distribution of languages of Eurasia.

It is often believed that migrations are a matter of incoming peoples who drive the earlier inhabitants into exile. In fact these upheavals generally hapen through language shifts. People stay at the same place they’ve always lived, but they change their language.

In addition to his home university, Janhunen has studied and done research in Japan, Hungary and Russia. Nowadays his work focuses not just on Siberia, but also Mongolia, Tibet and Mongolia. At the moment the most important of these projects is on a politically sensitive region, the borders of China and Tibet. The University of Helsinki’s Amdo Qinghai project seeks to detail the shifts in the populations, languages and cultures of these border provinces in a changing China.

A nice small space

According to Janhunen, the continuing value of this research tradition is not always understood in contemporary society. People believe that first-rate research generates a fat wad of cash.

The research tradition grows slowly from teacher-student relationships, the turning over of generations and the gradual accumulation of data.

Janhunen also maintains an international division of labour. Universities ought to focus on fields that are already strong.

Altaic studies is a small and exclusive field. But the tradition has been continuous, and that this the important thing. For example, my teachers Aulis J. Joki and Pentti Aalto were once students of Ramstedt.

Interest in Altaic studies is growing in the world. For example, a few years back Janhunen joined in founding a society for Altaic studies in China.

From the peoples and cultures of Central Asia rises a colourful brilliance, in which history and religions are tightly bound to present-day problems. Ethnicity is an excellent detonantor of political problems.

The fall of the Soviet Union gave birth to several new states in Central Asia, and in these new states questions of nationality and language are a sensitive affair. If the official line is strong, even research can be tainted by politics. Knowledge which touches on the past can change the politically central definitions of peoples.

The uniformity of a nation necessitates that a nation has always been in the same place. But the countries of the world are much younger than languages, and countries have not necessarily ever had a connection to language borders in the first place.

Mulieres vostrum non tangemus

In Biliktu Bashi: G.J. Ramstedt’s Career as a Scholar, a biography of the comparative linguist and founder of the Altaic school, Harry Halén tells of Ramstedt’s time in Mongolia:

Having obtained some Mongolian textbooks Ramstedt noticed that the language was really quite easy. He found the Russian-Mongolian phrasebook by Colonel Voloshinov (Русско-монголо-бурятский переводчикъ. 2nd ed., Saint Petersburg 1898) in a bookshop. It was meant for military use and gave phrases like, ‘Who does not hand over his weapons shall be shot,’ ‘Tell the people to keep calm,’ ‘We demand all of your horses here’, ‘We are not going to touch the women.’

OK, that is quite amusing in itself, but a couple of paragraphs later we find that there is more to it:

It soon turned out that the Mongols hardly understood a single word read aloud from the phrase book by Voloshinov. The pronunciation was presented in the way learned lamas used to describe it. They used an archaising type of pronunciation resembling the written forms, unintelligible to a common Mongol.