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.

Benjamin Franklin and language teaching

It should come as little surprise that in addition to the many other fields in which he showed interest, Benjamin Franklin had some thoughts on the learning of languages as well. In The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin he writes:

I had begun in 1733 to study languages; I soon made myself so much a master of the French as to be able to read the books with ease. I then undertook the Italian. An acquaintance, who was also learning it, us’d often to tempt me to play chess with him. Finding this took up too much of the time I had to spare for study, I at length refus’d to play any more, unless on this condition, that the victor in every game should have a right to impose a task, either in parts of the grammar to be got by heart, or in translations, etc., which tasks the vanquish’d was to perform upon honour, before our next meeting. As we play’d pretty equally, we thus beat one another into that language. I afterwards with a little painstaking, acquir’d as much of the Spanish as to read their books also.

I have already mention’d that I had only one year’s instruction in a Latin school, and that when very young, after which I neglected that language entirely. But, when I had attained an acquaintance with the French, Italian, and Spanish, I was surpriz’d to find, on looking over a Latin Testament, that I understood so much more of that language than I had imagined, which encouraged me to apply myself again to the study of it, and I met with more success, as those preceding languages had greatly smooth’d my way.

From these circumstances, I have thought that there is some inconsistency in our common mode of teaching languages. We are told that it is proper to begin first with the Latin, and, having acquir’d that, it will be more easy to attain those modern languages which are deriv’d from it; and yet we do not begin with the Greek, in order more easily to acquire the Latin. It is true that, if you can clamber and get to the top of a staircase without using the steps, you will more easily gain them in descending; but certainly, if you begin with the lowest you will with more ease ascend to the top; and I would therefore offer it to the consideration of those who superintend the education of our youth, whether, since many of those who begin with the Latin quit the same after spending some years without having made any great proficiency, and what they have learnt becomes almost useless, so that their time has been lost, it would not have been better to have begun with the French, proceeding to the Italian, etc.; for, tho’, after spending the same time, they should quit the study of languages and never arrive at the Latin, they would, however, have acquired another tongue or two, that, being in modern use, might be serviceable to them in common life.

Pia Tafdrup

LanguageHat often posts about poetry, and I should get to do so once in a while as well. After all, along with what languages are (grammar and lexicon), and who uses them (their population of speakers), there’s also the matter of what they are good for. Sure, that most often means conversation, but towards a more eternal edifice it means literature, and within it poetry is the very exploitation of a language’s possibilities. That’s why I’m very passionate about the verse of Pia Tafdrup, which showed me that Danish is much more than the seemingly random succession of schwa, /y/, and glottal stop that I first heard it to be.

I was introduced to Tafdrup through Per Nørgård’s choral settings of her poem Mytisk morgen (‘Mythic Morning’). Only a limited number of her poems have been translated into English and made available in book form, outside of obscure journal issues. Dronningeporten, her Nordic Council Literature Prize-winning collection, is available in translation by David McDuff as Queen’s Gate. I haven’t seen it, but Amazon shows it as even available in the United States, rare for a Bloodaxe Books publication.

Though it’s not my favourite of her poems, one in particular is suitable for exposition here, as it is given on her website in both the original Danish and in McDuff’s English translation, and there’s a documentary excerpt of her reciting it.

Min mors hand

Bader mig i en dråbes stille lys
og husker hvordan jeg blev til:
En blyant stukket i hånden,
min mors kølige hånd om min, der var varm.
— Og så skrev vi
ind og ud mellem koralrev,
et undersøisk alfabet af buer og spidser,
af sneglespiral, af søstjernetakker,
af fægtende blækspruttearme,
af grottehvælvinger og klippeformationer.
Bogstaver der fimrede og fandt vej,
svimmelt hen over det hvide.
Ord som flade fisk der flaprede
og gravede sig ned i sandet
eller svajende søanemoner med hundreder af tråde
i stille bevægelse på én gang.
Sætninger som strømme af fisk,
der fik finner og løftede sig,
fik vinger og bevægede sig rytmisk,
dunkende som mit blod, der blindt
slog stjerner mod hjertets nattehimmel,
da jeg så, at hendes hånd havde sluppet min,
at jeg for længst havde skrevet mig ud af hendes greb.

My Mother’s Hand

Bathing in a drop’s quiet light
I remember how I came into being:
A pencil stuck in my hand,
my mother’s cool hand around mine, it was warm.
— And then we wrote
in and out between coral reefs,
an undersea alphabet of arches and apexes
of snail-shell spirals, of starfish points,
of gesticulating octopus arms,
of cave vaults and rock formations.
Letters that vibrated and found their way,
dizzy over the white.
Words like flat fish that flapped
and dug themselves into the sand
or swaying sea anemones with hundreds of threads
in quiet motion at the same time.
Sentences like streams of fish
that grew fins and rose,
grew wings and moved in a rhythm,
throbbing like my blood, that blindly
beat stars against the heart’s night sky,
when I saw that her hand had let mine go,
that I had long ago written myself out of her grasp.

Wonderfully, so much of her poetry is accessible to someone with still just a fairly low level of Swedish and some general experience of historical Nordic grammar; while the march towards a command of Danish goes on, her work is already enjoyable. Well, on paper, that is, obviously the sound is quite different. Luckily, CD recordings of her recitation are available, and she travels extensively giving readings, one of which I hope to one day attend.

In a rather nice turn of events, David McDuff has a weblog, dedicated to the lasting effects of Cold War politics but which occasionally exhibits some of his translations. He’s written several entries on Tafdrup:

The curious dearth of Albanian language resources

EDIT: While there still aren’t a lot of Albanian resources to choose from, the new edition of Routledge’s Colloquial Albanian has filled the gap and is a great way to get started with the language.

Stuck in a Vienna airport waiting for a flight back to Helsinki, with hours to wait, I went to sit in the airport restaurant. It turned out the proprietor is from Albania. As it was four in the morning and things weren’t exactly busy for him, we chatted a bit about differences among Albanian dialects.

In spite of the many years gone by since the fall of Communism, and the existence of Albanian communities in other European countries and in the U.S., from a language-practise standpoint Albania still seems like an isolated little country and the Albanian language remains little known. Routledge’s Colloquial Albanian, written by Isa Zymberi, has been widely criticized for teaching language specific to Kosovo instead of to the Republic of Albania. Cezar Kurti‘s Mesoni Shqip, now in its third edition, has garnered much praise, but good luck finding it in a bookshop.

If print resources in English are so rare, free and quality Internet resources are understandably pretty much nonexistent, as far as I can tell. At least Kurti has put up several lessons from his book at his website Albanian World. There’s also a phrase guide at a gimmicky site that has the benefit of being printable and easily folded. Albanian does look very Balkan Sprachbund-ish and, except for the unfamiliar lexicon, I think I could pick it up fairly easily, were there only resources available.