Category Archives: Chuvash

Mari and Chuvash potatoes

The series of article collections Диалекты и топонимия Поволжья that the Chuvash state university in Cheboksary published in 1972–1977, is a great resource on language contacts in the Volga–Kama region, and anyone interested should really read all of it now, because the print on these low-quality mimeographs of typescripts is fading so quickly that already many passages are illegible in at least the Helsinki university library’s copies. Two papers in this series deal with the terms for ‘potato’ in Mari and Chuvash respectively. As potatoes reached Eurasia from the Americas only fairly recently, after many languages had already separated into divergent dialects, there is often a colourful array of names for the plant (a similar situation can be found with terms for ‘maize’ in various regions).

As F. I. Gordeev explains in his paper on the Mari terms (vol. 5, 1977, pp. 11–22), potatoes were not cultivated in the Mari lands until the mid 19th century. Therefore, there is no mention of the potato in the earliest Mari vocabularies published in the 18th century. From the 1860s on, however, the crop proved immensely popular (it was certainly the only thing I’ve ever seen planted during my visits to Mari El). Gordeev lists the following terms:

  • Variants of Russian картофель, such as карт, картопка, картофка, etc.;
  • пареҥге, the word in the Mari literary language, or slightly phonetically different forms. This is clearly a loan from Tatar бәрәңге, a word that Gordeev claims is ultimately from Russian Парфён, supposedly the name of a trader who introduced the potato to the region, though this sounds to me like rather an urban myth;
  • рокмын < рок ‘earth’, мыны ‘egg’, lit. ‘egg from the ground’;
  • роколма < рок ‘earth’, олма ‘apple’, lit. ‘apple from the ground’ (cf. French pomme de terre or, as Gordeev points out, Moksha модамарь), this is found in the Hill Mari region;
  • рокома < рок ‘earth’, олма ‘apple’, lit. ‘apple from the ground’, this on the other hand is found in the Meadow Mari region;
  • тури, турти, турицки, for which Gordeev gives no etymology except to point out that the last seems to contain the Russian suffix ‑ски.

Chuvash names for ‘potato’ are treated in a paper by L. P. Sergeev (vol. 1, 1972, p. 53–62). He distinguishes six names for the plant across the Chuvash dialects:

  • ҫӗрулми < ҫӗр ‘earth’, улма ‘apple’;
  • паранкӑ, which Sergeev claims contains an ancient Chuvash suffix ‑кӑ (so the word would be < паран + ‑кӑ) and the compound has been used for other plants like nightshade and found in toponyms, so it must be of Chuvash origin and fairly old;
  • карттохкартахви < Russian;
  • калтток < Russian;
  • кантук < Russian.

The respective papers delineate the exact regions where each of these terms is found. The two different explanations of the пареҥгепаранкӑ presents a mystery, but I suspect that tracking down a similar paper somewhere on Tatar names for ‘potato’ (which would discuss бәрәңге) may shed more light on this.

The Volga Bulgarian inscription of Tatarskoe Shapkino

The palatalization of Proto-Turkic /č/ to /č́/ and then the weakening of the affricate’s initial stop to give /š́/ or /š/, is a notable areal feature extending from the Volga–Kama region into Kazakhstan. In the second volume of Róna-Tas and Berta’s Western Old Turkic (Harrassowitz, 2011), which reconstructs the ancestor of Volga Bulgarian and Chuvash on the basis of loanwords into Hungarian, the authors mention how the Tatars, whose own language would soon undergo the same evolution, were confronted by this change already almost complete in Volga Bulgarian:

Important is the bilingual inscription of Tatar Šapkino. In the Arabic inscription containing Volga Bulgarian words, the name of the deceased lady is written as J̌eker, and should be read as /č́eker/, while on the other side of the same stone, the same name is written as Šeker. What was perceived as /č/ by the Volga Bulgars was heard by the Kipchak Tatars as /š/.

Tatarskoe Shapkino is a village in south-central Tatarstan. A description of the Arabic portion of this inscription can be found in Khakimzjanov’s Язык эпитафий волжских булгар (Moscow: Nauka, 1978) on pages 158–159:

هو الحى الذى لا يموت
هذه روضة مستورة
المطهرة الصَّالحة الصائـنة الطيفة
شكر الجى بنت عثمان البلفارؾ
الهم ارحمها رحمة واسعة توفيت
الى رحمة الله تعالى فى اليوم الرابع و العشريں

Huwa-l-xäjji-l-läzi lä jämutu wä küllü häjjin säjämutu. Haẕihi rawḍatu-l-mästüräti-l-muṭahhiräti-ṣ-ṣalixäti-ṣ-ṣa’inäti-ṭ-tajfäti Šäkär-älči bint Gos̱man äl-Bolɣari. Äl-lähummä ärxämha räxmätän wäsigätän. Tuwufijjat ilä-r-räxmäti-l-lahi tägali fi-l-jawmi-r-rabigi wä-l-gišrinä

He lives who does not die, but every living thing dies. This is the plot of the chaste, devout, pious, caring, compassionate Šeker-elči, daughter of Osman the Bulgarian. God, have mercy on her with your great mercy. She was entrusted to the mercy of God the Most-High on the twenty-fourth day.

A photgraph of the Volga Bulgarian inscription of Tatarskoe Šapkino

The monument lies in the village cemetery and has dimensions of 160×60×23 cm. It has been inscribed in two languages: on the obverse there is an Arabic-language inscription written in relief in the Thuluth style of calligraphy, while on the reverse a Turkic text has been inscribed in the Bulgarian variant of the Kufic style. There is also relief writing on the sides of the monument.

A piece of pottery is lying nearby with writing on both sides (but it has not been successfully deciphered). This may give the date of the inscription in question.

A Polish introduction to Chuvash

Adding to the list of Chuvash resources for foreigners, in a Warsaw bookshop I came across Język czuwaski by Anna Parzymies (Warszawa: Dialog, 2000) ISBN 8388238604. Cover of Anna Parzymies’ Polish-language introduction to Chuvash

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.

Language death and revitalization in Russia

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 that Tatar 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 Chuvash have no epics

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.

New Chuvash resources in Cheboksary

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. Chuvash books for sale in a fine Cheboksary bookshop

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.

Tuqay in Volga-Kama languages

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?

Meadow Mari

Еҥлам йӱд-кече йӱлалтет завод тул ден, Озаҥ.
Таза пашазе-влакым пытарен, бучет эше, Озаҥ.

Minority-language books in Kazan

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.

Favours in Mari and Turkic

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.

The Krueger Affair

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.