Mari-language humour

From the 3 August 2007 issue of the Mari newspaper Кугарня (Friday) here’s an except from the humour page.

Эше ик мут — эше ик страф!

Ик гана кевытыш пурышым, но тушто шуко шым кудалт — вич минут гычак лектым. Ончем, милиционер шога да машинам йоҥылыш шогалтымылан штрафым воза. Воктекыже миен шогальымат, ойлем Ну йӧра, ик ганаже проститле.

Садет пуйто нимом ок кол, тугак квитанцийым воза.

Тидлан тудым аҥыра манын лӱмдышым.

Вашмут олмем эше ик страфым возыш, тиде ганаже покрышкылан.

Вара тудым сӧсна маньым.

Сырымыж дене милиционер кумшо страфым кусныш.

Тыге ме коктын 20 минут шогылтна, а садет почела-почела стафым возыш.

А мыламже вет садак ыле: шкемын машинам йӧршеш вес верыште шоген. Изишак мыскарам ыштымем шуо.

One more word, one more fine

Once I went into a shop, but I didn’t stay long. I left in five minutes. I saw that a police officer was writing a ticket for the car, improperly parked outside. I went up to him and said, Come on, forgive just this once.

He didn’t listen, he just wrote out the ticket.

So, I called him an idiot.

Instead of answering he just wrote out another ticket, this time for the tire.

Then I called him a pig.

The policeman angrily wrote out a third ticket.

Thus we stood together for 20 minutes, and he wrote out ticket after ticket.

But for me it was all good: I had actually parked my car somewhere else entirely. I just wanted to have some fun.

One does wonder about the legality of such a stunt.

The difficulty of finding a Chuvash textbook

I had a very difficult time finding a decent Chuvash textbook here in Cheboksary, which was quite unexpected considering Chuvash is among the largest minority languages in Russia. G. A Degtiarev’s Изучаем чувашский язык (Cheboksary: Chuvashkoe knizhnoe izdatel’stvo, 1995) is sold in a few bookstores, but it is an oddly structured book that assumes some sort of prior familiarity with the language. Booksellers are generally completely clueness about the kind of book an adult student needs to learn Chuvash, with my request for a textbook usually answered with Ah, you want a dictionary/phrase book/children’s primer.

A friend of mine telephoned the Chuvash National Congress, an organization one might expect to support the further use of the Chuvash language. The office administrator said he’d very much like to meet me, but once I arrived the people in the office didn’t understand my needs either. They too smiled and said, Ah, you want a dictionary/phrase book/children’s primer. I showed them my Mari textbook and told them I wanted that sort of book, a rigorous series of dialogues, grammatical paradigms, and exercises. At that point, they said that unfortunately there is no Chuvash textbook in English. I answered that of course I can use a Russian-language textbook, as we were speaking Russian at that very moment and I had already learnt Mari through Russian. Nonetheless, after one of the staff telephoned a Chuvash lecturer at a local institution, he reported, We might have found you a Chuvash-French dictionary!. At this point I gave up and left.

My local friend said we should check out the university library, where we found a beautiful textbook that was just what I was looking for, I. A. Andreev’s Чувашский язык (Cheboksary: Chuvashkoe knizhnoe izdatel’stvo, 1996). It is now impossible to buy, but I would have happily made a photocopy of it. Unfortunately, the library staff complained that my friend was missing some minor detail in his student documents, and would not accompany me and the book to the photocopier. While traveling abroad I try to maintain some level of humility, but it seems to me that if someone comes all the way to your country from far away to learn your language, you should help him out. However, when I said that I vitally needed the book for my studies and this was my only chance to get it (my friend offering the white lie He’s come all the way from America!), the staff just walked away from the counter.

Well, there was another university library not too far away, where the staff luckily didn’t notice the missing detail in my friend’s documents. I was able to give the book to the staff of the photocopying centre, and though it cost quite a bit and I’m not too happy with how they did it, at least I now have a Chuvash textbook.

It’s funny how Mari, a language which is threatened both by lack of official support and declining numbers of speakers, and whose community is fairly poor, has turned out to be much easier to learn than Chuvash, whose speakers boast it to be a strong and healthy language.

Horálek’s introduction to the Slavonic languages

Several days ago I came across Peter Herrity’s two-volume translation of Karel Horálek’s An Introduction to the Study of the Slavonic Languages (Nottingham: Astra Press, 1992) ISBN 0-946134-26-X (Volume I) and 0-946134-34-0 (Volume II). Horálek’s original Úvod do studia slovanských jazyků was published in 1955 in Prague, with a second edition following in 1962.

The first volume is the most wide-ranging, examining the Slavonic family from a diachronic perspective from Proto-Indo-European up to those specific changes which set each of the national languages apart from each other. Unexpectedly, the discussion of Proto-Indo-European takes laryngeal theory into account; either Horálek was unusually visionary for a Slavicist, or this came as part of the amendations which Herrity contributed. While the discussion of sound changes throughout this long span are more substantial than in most other introductions I’ve encountered, Horálek’s discussion of accent and intonation is skimpy and confused. I fear we still await a decent introduction to Slavonic historical accent for the beginning student, and I’ve seen graduate students of the subject forced to piece together a vague idea of the system from articles and monographs overly specific and far beyond the layman’s reach.

Horálek’s introduction uses a wealth of data from Sorbian, Kashubian, and Polabian. I’ve encountered no English-language introduction to the field that even gives these two acceptable passing mention, let alone treats them as just as worthy of attention as the rest of the family. But as the author wrote for a Czech audience, Czech gets the most attention of all. This is sometimes a problem, for Horálek often compares other Slavonic languages to Czech, making it difficult for the reader without knowledge of Czech to understand his point. And as the author was writing during the height of socialism, a common text presented in each of the Slavonic languages is taken from the Communist Manifesto instead of something less technical, though to his credit Horálek does make it obvious that he hates this obligation.

The lack of information on accent is more than compensated by the attention given to comparative syntax: fifty whole pages worth. I’ve never seen such a friendly introduction to the syntactical features of the whole family (Oxford’s Comparative Syntax of Balkan Languages obviously only serves for Bulgarian and Macedonian in a Sprachbund context).

The second volume ends the comparative examination of the entire family with the matter of lexicology. Then a new theme arrives with a survey of the history of each of the literary languages from the earliest times (dialectal differences in OCS texts) to the age of nationalism. This is followed, putting the cart somewhat before the horse, with a history of Slavonic writing systems. Horálek sensibly upholds that Glagolitic was the first alphabet, making the usual arguments in favour of this point. After this there is a brief listing of the identifying features of each Slavonic language. Much of this information has already been presented in the first volume, but scattered long discussions of obscure features. This section is useful for quick reference when one is wondering how, say, Polish treats original dj.

The final portion of the book is an outline of the history of comparative Slavonic linguistics. This is quite brief, but I find it of enormous importance. Resources on Old Church Slavonic mention many famous personalities, but the reader is left to wonder at their biography and major overall achievements. Nor does the beginner in comparative Slavonic linguistics get much idea of what theories have already been tried and found wanting. I find Winfred Lehmann’s Theoretical Bases of Indo-European Linguistics (Routledge, 2005) the best overall IE primer specifically because it introduces the reader not only to the field as it stands today, but also to its growth and to those major figures who moved it along. Horálek has provided a great service by giving the same sort of history for his own specific field.

My biggest complaint about the book is the quality of the typesetting. I understand that this was probably a labour of love, brought out by a small press with little funding available, but there’s no excuse for such ugly pages. Hear me, O academics forced to self-publish: if you pay a graduate student (like me, for example) just a hundred euro or so, and promise a free copy, your book can be typeset to as high a standard a quality as if it came from Cambridge University Press or the Clarendon Press. Of course, even were the book nicely typeset, the printing of the volume is on cheap paper and from time to time one finds words a little blurry.

I couldn’t even tell you how much this book costs, as it’s not listed at Amazon, hence my posting my review here on my weblog. Still, seek out this through inter-library loan if you enjoy reading about the Slavonic languages. It’s a valuable resource alongside the English-language standards especially if you’re wondering who exactly were all these 19th-century gentlemen whose names constantly pop up.

The early rivalry of FU and IE linguistics

Scholars of Finno-Ugrian linguistics can boast that their field actually predated comparative Indo-European linguistics. János Sajnovics’s work Demostratio idioma Ungarorum et Lapponum idem esse appeared in 1770, fifteen years before Sir William Jones’ rather off-the-cuff and tangential remark on the resemblance between Sanskrit and the European classical languages. Sámuel Gyarmathi (a Kolozsvári, by the way) wrote his Affinitas linguae Hungaricae cum linguis Fennicae originis grammatice demostrata in 1799, some years before any rigorous scientific studies by the likes of Bopp et al. appeared.

Nonetheless, Finno-Ugrian linguistics took a long time to get off the ground, and I think that the problem was simply Finland’s lack of an empire and funds to walk through it collecting all manner of linguistic data. The scholars of fledgling Indo-European linguistics already had grammars of many languages conveniently compiled, and the field moved ahead at a fast clip. Meanwhile, for FU linguistics, it wasn’t until a couple of decades into the 19th century that the first great expeditions were successful organized. I recently bought a delightful history by Mikko Korhonen titled Finno-Ugrian Language Studies in Finland 1828–1918 (Finnish Society of Sciences, 1986). It reveals that it was actually an Indo-Europeanist, the eminent Rasmus Rask, who helped get things off the ground:

One crucial factor was Rask’s visit to Finland in 1818. Rask only remained in Finland for about three weeks, but during this short stay he had time to meet, among other, [Gustav] Renvall who taught him Finnish daily, and [Reinhold von] Becker. There has already been talk of Rask helping to get Renvall’s dictionary project off the ground. It is quite obvious that Rask’s influence, as a pioneer of comparative linguistics, on Finnish scholars in Turku was, in any case, inspiring and productive. Rask’s most important achievement was his contribution to the idea that had been under discussion since Porthan’s time, about the possibility of an expedition to the Finnic peoples living in Russia.

In 1816 Count N. P. Rumyantsev had asked bishop Jacob Tengström (1755–1832) to nominate two Finns who would be willing and qualified for an expedition that was to form part of Rumyantsev’s extensive research projects in eastern Russia. Tengström recommended Renvall who had already shown his skills as a scholar of Finnish, and E.G. Ehrström (1791–1835) who was a scholar of Russian language and history. However, other commitments on both sides meant that eventually the plans for the expedition were canceled. The expedition was still discussed in both Turku and St. Petersburg and several names were put forward. In 1819 a young Finn, Anders Johan Sjögren, informed Rask in a letter passed on by Renvall that he was willing to make a study of the Finnic peoples living in Russia. Rask was, at the time, living in St. Petersburg and was in contact with Rumyantsev. Sjögren was invited to come to St. Petersburg so that he could make himself known and demonstrate his skills for such an expedition. Sjögren travelled to St. Petersburg the following year and made his first expedition in 1823. Finally, in 1824 he set out on his long journey among the Finnic peoples that was to last five years. Thus began a career that was not only important in terms of Sjögren’s own accomplishments, but also because it laid the foundations for later research, for example, the work of M. A. Castrén.

Cognates between Finnish and Sami

I’m taking the Finno-Ugrian Studies department’s Introduction to Historical Linguistics this semester. As I’ve long since become familiar with the comparative method, basic issues of areal convergence, and types of sound change, I assumed that the course would serve only for university credits and for improving my Finnish comprehension. But as all examples are drawn from the Uralic languages, I’m learning a lot about basic sound correspondences between the languages I’m not so familiar with. Yesterday we examined the following Finnish and Northern Sami cognates:

Finnish Sami
h-s- hirvi sarva ‘elk’
hämä sápmi ethnic name
heinä suoidni ‘hay’
halla suoldni ‘frost’
s-s- sappi sáhppi ‘bile’
souja suodji ‘shelter’
salo suolu ‘wilderness’
sormi suorbma ‘finger’
säyne sievnna
s-č- sysi čađđa ‘coal’
silmä čalbmi ‘eye’
selkä čielgi ‘back’
sotka čoađgi
sarvi čoarvi ‘horn’
suomu čuopma ‘(fish) scale’
sata čuohti ‘100’

Of course the cognates s-s- easily gives a proto-form *s-, but for the other two it would be necessary to use data from many other Uralic languages. Finnish h- ∼ Sami s- goes back to a proto-form š-, while Finnish s- ∼ Sami č- are descended from ś-.

What I find very interesting about this list is that it shows that the numeral 100, sata in modern Finnish, was borrowed from an Indo-Iranian language before the breakup of the common ancestor with Sami.

More Rusyn

In Fall 2005 I wrote a post about Rusyn, that little-known Slavonic language of the Carpathians. Oddly, that post brings more visitors to this weblog through Google searches than any other. It seems that there is more interest in Rusyn out there than one might expect.

In addition to his Rusyn textbook from the 1970s, Paul R. Magocsi recently edited A New Slavic Language is Born: the Rusyn literary language of Slovakia (Columbia University Press, 1996). Though the process of Ukrainianization has already been carried out well-nigh to the end across the border, it’s a pleasure to see that in Slovakia the language has a chance of survival.

One thing I’m puzzled about, however, is how much continuity there is between old native speakers of Rusyn and the new proponents of a literary language. In his textbook, Magocsi writes that Rusyn was so dead in the Carpathians that the only reliable informants were elderly immigrants in the U.S. A historical grammar from the very first attestations through to the norms set down by those who would revitalize the language for literature is sorely needed.

Summer plans

Thinking about the summer helps me get through the cold and dark days of winter, bad enough in Cluj and just hellish in Helsinki. Here are some thoughts:

  • Last exams are in the first several days of May. That means I can immediately take off for Mari El. For real this time. I mean it. Really.
  • Then to the twenty-third IFUSCO (International Conference of Finno-Ugrist Students), to be held in Saransk (Mordovia) from the 20th to the 24th of May.
  • Trans-Siberian from Moscow to Beijing. Stop in Ulan Bator for some amount of time.
  • China and Vietnam. This isn’t going to be very fruitful for language practise. In Beijing I have no problem communicating, but as I go further south in China, the locals’ command of Putonghua will surely get more and more out of touch with the standard. In Vietnam, forget it, that language scares me.
  • South Korea and Japan. As funds permit, but feasible enough, I think. I’ve always wanted to learn some Japanese. Though the writing system is difficult enough to cast doubt on learning the language to completion, some limited command of the spoken language seems feasible now that Finnish has innoculated me to the horrors of consonant gradation.
  • Trans-Siberian back to Moscow, then by train through Kyiv and Suceava to Cluj.
  • Several weeks home, and maybe a couple of trips to Szekélyföld to practise Hungarian.
  • A short visit to Budapest to tour the city’s antiquaries for another long list of linguistics and Sandor Weöres books. Finally, returning by plane from Budapest to Helsinki.

If any readers will be in East Asia during that time, send me an e-mail and we’ll meet up.


Alkukoti, a yearly review for students and young people about activities in the Finno-Ugrian world issued by the University of Helsinki student union, can now be read online. I’d rather read it on paper, since it is very stylishly printed, but hopefully this will bring it to an audience that can’t just pick up a copy in Helsinki. It is in Finnish, but even for those with a rudimentary command of the language the photos, tables, and captions already provide a wealth of information about what’s been going on recently.

A puzzle of Hungarian palatalizations solved

As far as I know, there’s no historical grammar of Hungarian available in English. But as I think my Hungarian has improved enough lately to try one produced in Hungary. While stopping in Budapest on my way back to Helsinki, I wanted to get Akadémiai Kiadó’s new history of the Hungarian language, but that being unavailable I settled instead for Magyar nyelvtörténet ed. Jenő Kiss and Ferenc Pusztai (Budapest: Osiris Kiadó, 2003). I’m happy that I finally picked up such a resource, as just on the first opening of the book I learnt the answer to a feature that long puzzled me.

Many Hungarian words end in -ly (now pronounced /j/, formerly /lj/), seemingly without any etymological justification for the palatalization. One example is személy ‘person’. As one learns from the grammar, in the Old Hungarian period this slowly spread by analogy from the plural. As the plural ending ended in a front vowel (Hungarian possessing vowel harmony), palatalization could easily occur there:

  1. személ : személek : személt (original forms of nom. sg., nom. pl., and acc. sg.)
  2. személ : személyek : személt (palatalization appears in nom. pl.)
  3. személy : személyek : személt (palatalization spreads by analogy to nom. sg.)
  4. személy : személyek : személyt (palatalization spreads last to the acc. sg.)

Another curious occurance of palatalization is in hártya ‘map’. As it comes from Latin charta any palatalization clearly appeared sometime after the word was borrowed. Apparently the consonant cluster rt regularly gives rty, a phenomenon visible also in gyertya from Turkish ǰarta.

Slovak dabblings

Leafing through a few Slovak resources in the library yesterday evoked the image of a fractured landscape. The dialects considered Slovak actually differ on those specific phonological developments which usually define other Slavonic languages. In Rodolf Krajcovic’s A Historical Phonology of the Slovak Language (Heidelberg: Carl Winter, 1975) one reads:

Up to the present day we find roC-, loC-, and š in western and eastern Slovak for the CS oȓC-, ol̑C-, and x’, as well as the preservation of CS dl, tl, whereas in Central Slovak we have raC-, laC- and s respectively, and, with the exception of the verbal forms of the type padla, l for the CS dl, tl.

Nor is the lexicon of the language much standardized. In Beginning Slovak by Oscar E. Swan and Sylvia Gálová-Lorinc (Columbus: Slavica, 1992), the authors write:

A country where asking three different people how to say a “pack” of cigarettes may yield three different responses (škatuľka, krabička, balíček), or where two different informants will disagree vehemently about how to say “watch television,” presents special challenges both for the textbook writer and the student.