Andreev’s Chuvash textbook and what’s wrong with it

I wrote this review of I. A. Andreev’s Чувашский язык. Практический курс 3rd ed. (Cheboksary: Чувашское книжное издательство, 2011) ISBN 9785767018130 for a book-rating website, but I thought I should also post it here where it is probably more likely to be read. The cover of Andreev’s textbook (3rd ed. 2011) While I do love to just rant about this and other poor learning resources, I think it would be helpful if this book’s flaws were known, as one can avoid being too greatly disappointed. I remember how thrilled I was to discover the book nearly a decade ago, and how quickly my bubble was burst.

Continue reading Andreev’s Chuvash textbook and what’s wrong with it

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.

Inexplicably unproposed Uralic etymologies

There are resemblances between some Mari words and items in other Uralic languages that are extremely blatant and yet, to my knowledge, have gone uncommented. That’s not to say that an etymological link is tenable, but one would expect the UEW or other general references to at least note and shoot down some prior attempt to relate the given words. Why have the following not been compared before, even in the heady early 20th century when standards were relatively lax?

  • Finnish salama ‘lightning’ ~ MariE šolem ‘hail’. Yes, there’s a difference in meaning, but it’s not unusual for words denoting weather conditions to shift semantically, e.g. MariE jür ‘rain’ < Cv. yur ‘snow’. I suppose the difficulty here is that MariW šolem doesn’t show /a/ as some might have earlier expected in a word from *salama. However, it does agree with a formulation by Ante Aikio that Proto-Mari *o appears before *l if the word does not begin with a glide.
  • Finnish pakkanen ‘frost’ ~ MariE W pokšə̑m ‘frost’
  • Russian леньгас ‘loafer’, Estonian lõngus ‘lout’ ~ MariE laŋga ‘lazy’. Paul Ariste connected the first two in a 1966 paper, even mentioning some Finnish words, but he didn’t mention the Mari at all even though it’s there staring one in the face.
  • MariE W paŋga ‘lump’ ~ Udmurt pog id. One would have thought the Mari would be included in the UEW (404) under *puŋkaKnollen, Beuele, Unebenheit’, as similar forms from across Uralic are listed there. MariE paŋga is in Paasonen’s dictionary, so it’s not like earlier researchers could have been unaware of this word. Even if one would prefer to see the Mari as a loan on account of its first-syllable *a, it’s curious that Bereczki didn’t include it in his 1992 list of Permian or Udmurt loanwords in Mari.

Amusing linguistics web searches

Maintaining a blog with musings on linguistics has brought a lot of search engine traffic my way, and I occasionally look at my server logs to see what searches bring up my website. Often these are not particularly interesting, as people either come for something very specific that I’ve written about, or conversely, for some reason one of my posts shows up for what would seem to be a completely unrelated non-linguistics search. However, occasionally I see very amusing search strings. Here are four of the most recent ones that made me chuckle:

  • is tocharian worth learning, it’s hard to imagine what position a person would have to be in to need to ask this;
  • are people poor in yoshkar-ola, well, I think bednost’ is an apt word for Mari El in many senses;
  • салфетки glagolitic, is someone making a medieval Slavic-themed restaurant?
  • navajo elders understand chinese, looks like someone has been reading Gavin Menzies.

An anachronistic paired word in Chuvash

I have written here before about the use of paired words in the Volga–Kama languages to denote an entire class of things, e.g. Chuvash yïvăś-kurăk ‘vegetation’ < yïvăś ‘tree’ + kurăk ‘grass’.

An amusing consequence of this is a jarring anachronism if one of the items in the paired word construction was discovered or invented after the event being described. Consider the following from a Chuvash children’s text on the history of the Olympic games: Хӗҫ-пӑшаллӑ ҫынна Олимпие кӗме юраман ‘[In Ancient Greece] people bearing arms were not allowed into Olympia.’

The paired word here is xĕś-păşal ‘arms, weapons’, made up of xĕś ‘sword’ and păşal ‘rifle’. Obviously there were no rifles in Ancient Greece, but apparently the paired word has become so lexicalized that an author can legitimately use it in any historical context.

Mari /ŋ/ represented by Cyrillic <н>

In attestations of the Mari language from the 18th-century, Mari /ŋ/ tends to be represented with the Cyrillic letter <н>. Lots of manuscripts represent MariE jeŋ ‘person’ as <ен>, for instance. For more examples, see Alhoniemi’s 1979 commentary on the Mari wordlist of P. S. Pallas.

A colleague of mine found this odd, as he would have expected the sequence <нг>. Yet, denoting the sound [ŋ] in the same way as another single consonant has a long history. Consider Greek where the sequence [ŋg] is always spelled <-γγ->. Also, a samoyedologist once told me of a foreign colleague (Japanese, if I recall correctly) who kept hearing Nenets /ŋ/ as /g/; his ears simply couldn’t pick up on the nasal property of the consonant.

But if historically /ŋ/ has been confused by other peoples as either /n/ or /g/, the question remains why these Russian (and Russia-resident German) wordlist compilers constantly denoted Mari /ŋ/ with the symbol for /n/ and never for /g/. One reason for this may be that the compilers were already using Cyrillic <г> to represent Mari /ɣ/, which is a fricative, not a stop. Since the only other voiced velar sound in the language was a fricative, the velar stop /ŋ/ was heard as the closest stop to it: /n/.

But in the neighbouring Udmurt language, where the /g/ is a stop, not a fricative, 18th-century compilers still denoted /ŋ/ with the same symbol for /n/. D. G. Messerschmidt’s wordlist, which has been reprinted with a commentary by V. V. Napolskikh, has <Gurpuhn> for Udmurt dial. gurpuŋ ‘heron, stork’. (Note, however, how Messerschmidt denotes the sequence [ŋg] in <Ning-goron> for Udmurt dial. ńiŋgoron ‘woman’.)

So what else in these Uralic languages and in the native languages of these Russian and German compilers could have motivated the choice of the letter usually denoting /n/ and not the letter for /g/? Something worth thinking about.

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.