This is not a textbook really, but essentially a 30-page introduction followed by a grammar that drily lists paradigms, word-formation tendencies, etc. Still, I’m happy I bought it, because there’s a rich bibliography that mentions some scholarship on Chuvash that I wasn’t aware of before.
There’s an article at Souciant, an online magazine of politics and culture, discussing the state of Russia’s minority languages. Most attention is given to the Volga region. I must credit the authors for addressing something I’ve often felt, namely that active speakers of these languages are often unwilling to admit that prospects for the future are utterly dire:
Some, however, are dismissive of such concern. Leysan Khasanova, owner of a Tatar music shop in Tatarstan’s capital of Kazan, is confident thatTatar will always be spoken on the streets of Kazan,before pointing out that many young Tatars prefer to speak in Russian amongst each other, and that her own children are not proficient in the language.
I could have done without the pointlesss exoticizing, however (
Kabardian – a language that is truly a testament to the dynamism of the human oesophagus). Also, the author makes the dubious claim:
The Komi Permian language, for example, has some eighteen noun cases – a kind of grammatical suicide given that no amount of emotional feeling for the language as that of one’s ancestors can provide the linguistic aptitude necessary to learn such a language without any prior knowledge. Since some of these cases are marginal, and people growing up with Russian are already accustomed to noun inflection, I do not believe that Komi’s declension would present that much of an obstacle.
The Kyrgyz have their Manas and the Tatars a variety of ambitious poetic forms, but the following bit from László Vikár and Gabor Bereczki’s book Chuvash Folksongs (Budapest: Akadémiai Kiadó, 1979) underscores just how thematically limited Chuvash (and Mari) traditional music is.
As with the Cheremis, the short lyrical song is the characteristic genre of Chuvash folk-poetry. There are, however, Chuvash scholars who state that the great peasant-movements of the seventeen century were associated with the production of historical epic also, but that these became extinct as a result of reprisals on the part of state authorities. (М. Я. Сироткин, Чувашский фольклор, Чебоксары. 1965. стр. 91.)
Certain songs survive that tell of Chuvash peasants migrating towards the East, of the death of Pugachov, of the Napoleonic war of 1812, and of the Russo-Turkish war of 1877 (cf. ibid., pp. 92–99). Nevertheless, such songs must have been isolated phenomena in the past, as they are in the present. Collecting has been undertaken by H. Paasonen and Mészáros in those Chuvash regions where pagan beliefs remain intact, and it might be expected that they would have met there with an epic tradition, or at least with traces thereof. Neighbouring peoples, Russian, Mordvinian, and Tatar, possess considerable amounts of epic poetry. Why should similar traditions have perished among Chuvash living under identical conditions? It seems to be more plausible that what little they have has been borrowed from the Russians or Tatars.
As with epic songs, the ballad-genre is also missing in Chuvash folklore. In the category of lyrical songs, we found no traces either of cradle songs or children’s songs. Older collections, however, include specimens of the latter.
The lyrical songs can be divided into two classes that embrace (with scarcely any exceptions) the entire field of the genre: 1. songs performed on festive days; 2. those connected with family events, customs, and tradition. Frequently enough, the words of a song do not refer to a particular feast; only the singer reveals the implicit connection.
I used to be unhappy with the limited range of Chuvash publications available in the bookshops on Leninsky prospekt, but on my most recent trip I discovered a shop with a fantastic selection. Located on Egerskij bul’var near the intersection with prospekt 9-j Pjatiletki (just across the street from the Šupaškar shopping mall and McDonalds), this bookshop offers seemingly every recent publication from the Chuvash state publishing house.
I saw that I. A. Andreev’s Chuvash textbook Чувашский язык has been re-released in a third edition – though I’ve never seen a second – and is now subtitled ‘практический курс’ instead of ‘началный курс’. That’s a bit of a misnomer, as Andreev still has students starting off with translating complicated poetry instead of actually learning how to use Chuvash in daily life, but there’s still enough useful material in the book to recommend it.
Gennady Aigi’s complete poems have recently been issued in a two-volume set. I was able to purchase the second volume, which collects his poems in Russian: Собрание сочинение (Чебоксары: Чувашкое Книжное Издательство, 2009) ISBN 9785767016648. However, the first volume, which collects his poems in Chuvash, is sold out. I heard a rumour from a trusted source that almost the entire print run of that volume went to Chuvash politicians and is gathering dust on their shelves.
One Tatar book being prominently displayed in Kazan bookshops is a slim volume of poems by the Tatar national poet Ğabdulla Tuqay: Габдулла Тукай, Стихотворение (Казань: Татарское книжное издательство, 2011), ISBN 9785298020398.
Remarkably, the 20 poems in this volume appear not only in Tatar and Russian translation, but also in Bashkir, Mari, Chuvash and Udmurt. This is a nice show of solidarity with other minority peoples of Russia. I’ve often bought a Russian translation of Ivanov’s Chuvash work Narspi as a gift for Mari friends as my contribution to дружба народов, but this little book allows one to present Tatar poetry to others in their own language. I’m not sure if the poems were translated into the Finno-Ugrian languages through Russian or not, though I imagine plenty of minority-language activists in this region know something of Tatar.
I’d like to give an example of one of these poems in several languages, but I don’t want to type too much, so I’ve chosen his two-line ‘Kazan’ from 1913:
Ут, төтен, фабрик-завод берлә һаман кайный Казан;
Имгәтеп ташлап савын, сау эшчеләр сайлый Казан.
Огнем заводов дни и ночи людей ты жжешь, Казань.
Здоровых погубив рабочих, ты новых ждешь, Казань.
Ут, төтөн, фабрик-завод менән һаман ҡайнай Ҡазан;
Имгәтеп ташлап һауын, һау эшселәр һайлай Ҡазан.
Заводсен вучӗпе ир те каҫ ҫынсене ҫунтаран эс, Хусан.
Чире ярсан сыввисене, ҫӗннисене кӗтетӗн эс, Хусан.
Тыл но ӵын заводъёсад адямиез сутэ, Казань…
Кужмоез бырем бере, егит борды кутскод, Казань?
Еҥлам йӱд-кече йӱлалтет завод тул ден, Озаҥ.
Таза пашазе-влакым пытарен, бучет эше, Озаҥ.
If you visit Kazan and want to buy books in Tatar, the place to go is the intersection of Bauman (ул. Баумана) and Astronimičeskaja (ул. Астрономическая) streets. It’s unassuming from the outside, but if you open the door and walk down a flight of stairs, you’ll encounter a large selection of Tatar poetry, prose, school textbooks and dictionaries. There are unfortunately no textbooks (on both my 2008 and 2011 visits, the shopkeeper seemed annoyed that I even asked), but as pretty much every Tatar textbook can be found online at pirated linguistics books sites, that’s not a major problem.
The shop also sells some minority-language publications from surrounding regions. For Mari, I was able to buy two of the three volumes of Sergei Chavain’s complete works. Chuvash is represented mainly by dictionaries and cookbooks. Considerably more shelf space is dedicated to Bashkir, but as one northern Kipchak language is frustrating enough for me right now, I didn’t have a detailed look at those offerings.
While sitting in a bookstore reading a travel guide to Kyrgyzstan, I was struck by the following sentence from the list of useful Kyrgyz phrases:
Please write it down: Жазып берсеңчи /dʒʲazɨp berseŋči/. Here we have a construction where the request is expressed as a converb followed by the imperative of the verb ‘to give’.
A couple of hours later, in reading Chavain’s novel Elnet, I found that this construction exists in Mari as well:
Матвей Николасвичын мурымыжымат пеш колыштыч.
— Ынде Тамара Матвеевна мыланна иктаж-мом муралта, — адак пелештыде ыш чыте Василий Александрович.
— К сожалению, мый ом муро, Василий Александрович.
— Туге гын, иктажым декламироватлен пу.
They listened intently to Matvej Nikolavič’s singing.
Now Tamara Matveevna will sing us something, again Vasilij Aleksandrovič would not stay quiet.
Unfortunately, I won’t sing, Vasilij Aleksandrovič.
If that’s the case, recite some poetry for us.
In the last sentence we find декламироватлен пу deklamiroβatlen pu recite-conv give(imp).
Intrigued, I asked a Chuvash informant if this construction existed in his language as well. He said that it did, and he gave the following two example sentences: ман валли чаплă сĕтел туса пар-ха man valli čaplă sĕtel tusa par-xa ‘Make me a nice table, please’, ун валли чаплăраххине туса патăн un valli čaplăraxxine tusa patăn ‘You made a nicer one for him’. The latter sentence is helpful in showing that this construction doesn’t necessarily have to be in the imperative, but can be used in declarative sentences as well.
I was curious to know if this construction made the order more polite than a simple imperative, but both the Chuvash informant and a friend knowledgeable about Kyrgyz said that this construction implies only doing something for the benefit of another. The Chuvash informant pointed to the enclitic xa as the only element of politeness.
The construction is in Turkish too, yazıver ‘write down for me’, which lends support to the notion that it is pan-Turkic and not simply a Kipchak borrowing into Chvuash and Mari.
Because many of the distant parts of Russia were closed during the Cold War, the scholars of the Finno-Ugrian and Turkic languages centered around the University of Indiana at Bloomington had to content themselves with interviewing Russian immigrants to the United States and gleaning what they could from Soviet materials received through the post. Nonetheless, even in the confines of their university offices they came into confrontation with Soviet authorities. One episode from the 1960s illustrated how the seemingly dull field of linguistics served as a Cold War battlefield.
When John Krueger published his Chuvash Manual in 1962, he prefaced it with a brief geographical and ethnographical history of Chuvashia at the request of the US ‘alphabet agency’ he had been working for. This included, for example, a section titled Living Standards that began:
The general living standard in Chuvashia is quite low, and comparison with life in the United States is hardly possible. Incomes are low, people are poorly dressed in rough materials with little style, and the streets are mostly dirt, with a few paved roads in the towns. … Housing conditions are not good, and this is in general one of the worst features of Soviet life. In the cities, people live in overcrowded flats, with very poor sanitary facilities, and production of new housing units proceeds slowly. On the farms, conditions may be better or worse.
The Soviet Union wasn’t happy about this kind of criticism at all. Timofei Akhazov, president of the Chuvash Republic, denounced Krueger in a fiery speech before the Supreme Soviet. Akhazov focused on the handful of lines that Krueger dedicated to ethnic relations, where the author noted that the Chuvash had often seen Russian rule as a yoke.
It is best for Mr. Krueger and his ilk, Akhazov said,
to study the problem of equality and Indians and Negroes in their country. We do not need their help. This speech was reported in a front-page article in the Chicago Tribune and wire services spread the Krueger affair to several regional American newspapers. It’s not often that an Altaic scholar gets that kind of attention.
Another document disseminated by the Soviet Union against Krueger was an open letter by a Chuvash professor, Mikhail Sikotkin. This was originally published in the newspaper Sovetskaya Russia in November of 1962 and then in English translation in the Soviet journal Culture and Life 1/1963. Sikotkin starts off by also mentioning that the United States had no right to criticize Chuvashia when it had its own share of racism. Rather than being oppressors, for Silotkin
the toiling people of Russia have always been the friends and protectors of the Chuvash people. In our folklore we liken the Russian people to the sun.. The bulk of Silotkin’s letter, however, sought to refute Krueger’s claim that Chuvashia was undeveloped, mainly by enumerating Soviet statistics for agriculture and industry. These are as usual dry and not a little unbelievable, but an interesting addition is Silotkin’s praise of Chuvash medicine. Not only, he says, does Chuvash have more doctors per capita (17.3 per 10,000 people as opposed to 12 in the US), but this little-known region’s surgeons were carrying out groundbreaking operations. There were also supposedly 900 choirs in the tiny republic.
Even the Chuvash cosmonaut Nikolayev came out with a statement against Krueger. The American scholar defended himself by saying that he had twice tried to visit Chuvashia, but was denied on the grounds there were no facilities there for tourists, and so he could not help but conclude that conditions were primitive. For the lack of Chuvash industry and modern farming techniques, Krueger pointed to his sources, the vast majority of which were public and of Soviet origin, but by this point the damage was already done.
Over 30 years later, Krueger was somewhat vindicated. The Bulletin of the Chuvash Academy of Arts and Sciences published a letter in 1997 that explained how the entire controversy was coordinated by central Soviet authorities.
One of the interesting lexical relationships in languages of the Volga region is that between currency and animal hides.
Meadow Mari ə̂r ‘kopek’ was originally identical to ur ‘squirrel’, though when the word was used in the latter sense it did not undergo the sporadic reduction of high vowels in Mari.
This equivalency exists also in Tatar, where tijen means both ‘squirrel’ and ‘kopek’. As Ähmät’jänov’s etymological dictionary explains, ‘борынгы заманнарда тиен тиресе вак акча функциясен үтәгән [in ancient times squirrel hides functioned as a low-value monetary unit]’.
Chuvash doesn’t connect its term for the kopek to ‘squirrel’. However, Cv. pus ‘kopek’ is, according to Fedotov’s etymological dictionary, derived from Persian پوست post ‘animal skin’, though used purely in the sense of currency.
I suspect that Volga Bulgar was the first language in the area to have a relationship between these two concepts, as a Chuvash loan from Persian unreflected in Tatar must predate the arrival of Kipchak. Tatar must have developed this relationship during the period of Kipchak unity, because Kazakh has tıyın ‘kopek’ and tiyin ‘squirrel’ (variation in vowel harmony suggesting one is a loanword). Mari must have picked up the equivalency before 1500–1600 when high vowels began to reduce, calquing it almost certainly on the Tatar.
The Chuvash branch of Turkic actually preserved some lexical items common to the whole Turkic family, but you’d never guess it from looking at modern Chuvash. Here the early Chuvash loans into Hungarian prove essential for knowing the whole history of r-type Turkic.
The first example is Proto-Turkic *teŋiz ‘sea’. Chuvash must have inherited this, because it was borrowed into Hungarian as tenger. In modern Chuvash, we do not find this word, however, but tinĕs, clearly a loan from a z-type Turkic language, presumably Tatar tiŋez (Fedotov 1996: 232).
The other example is also maritime. Proto-Turkic *yinčü ‘pearl’ must have survived into the Chuvash branch long enough to be borrowed by Hungarian as gyöngy and even Russian as žemčhug. The distinct Proto-Chuvash form must have been something like *ǯinǯü (Fedotov 1996: 155). At some point, however, Chuvash must have lost it. Modern Chuvash ĕnče would seem to be a borrowing of Tatar enče, as the Proto-Chuvash form would have developed to something like ˣśĕnśĕ.
(Róna-Tas 1982 also has much discussion of using Chuvash loans into other languages to peer into the history of Chuvash itself.)
I’m curious about the dating of these loans into Chuvash, as they were evidentally borrowed after Volga Tatar’s switch of mid vowels with high vowels, a change I’ve always thought was quite late. Tatar loans in Mari, such as Mari osal ‘bad, evil’ ~ modern Tatar usal, seem to preserve the original vocalism. Did the Mari have heavy Tatar influence so much earlier than the Chuvash?
- Fedotov, M. R. (1996). Etimologičeskij slovar’ čuvašskogo jazyka. Čeboksary: Čuvašskij gosudarstvennij institut gumanitarnyx nauk.
- Róna-Tas, András (1982). “The periodization and sources of Chuvash linguistic history”. In: Chuvash Studies, ed. András Róna-Tas. Asiatische Forschungen 79. Wiesbaden: Otto Harassowitz, 113–170.