Category Archives: Uralic

On the etymology of Hungarian srác

While brushing up on my Hungarian by reading through Routledge’s Colloquial Hungarian (the 2nd edition, which lives up to its title more than the 1st), I learned the previously unfamiliar word srác ‘guy’, the phonetic shape of which is somewhat unusual for Hungarian.

Searching through Google for an etymology took some work, but eventually I came across this article on the very subject at Magyar Narancs (a liberal weekly with a satiric touch roughly comparable to Private Eye):

In the 1950s srác was truly slang (just as csávó is now). The word is of Yiddish origin, that is, from the form of German spoken by Eastern European Jews, which is also the source of haver, szajré, a stikában and many other Hungarian words. The word derives ultimately from Hebrew sheretz (the plural form of which is shratzim), which refers to creeping, crawling creatures. This Hebrew word is found in the Bible at the very beginning, in Genesis 1:20, where it is used to describe the swarming of aquatic animals. Yiddish speakers, knowing Scripture, used this word in a comic metaphorical way, to describe groups of children (let’s not forget that in olden times there were many children playing together outside homes) as little swarms of creatures. Thus the word shratzim came to be used, later shortened to shratz. (The word entered German slang also as Schratz.) Today it is used only in Hungarian: in Yiddish the word did not put down strong roots, and Yiddish dictionaries published in the 20th century make no mention of it: it came to pass that in the 19th century it entered Hungarian slang (the first written attestation dates from 1888) and became entrenched there, while in the donor language Yiddish it was quickly forgotten.

As several sites I came across listed the word among Romani borrowings into Hungarian, I wanted to do some fact-checking, but indeed there is a German Schratz ‘child’ according to Heidi Stern’s Wörterbuch zum jiddischen Lehnwortschatz in den deutschen Dialekten with the same etymology (under the entry for Scheres), so it looks like the claim holds water.

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.

Mari etymological dictionary finally out

Before his death in April 2012, Gábor Bereczki had long been working on an etymological dictionary of Mari. Klára Agyagási and Eberhard Winkler inherited the manuscript and completed work on it last year. Harrassowitz has finally published this Etymologisches Wörterbuch des Tscheremissischen in its series Veröffentlichungen der Societas Uralo-Altaica, ISBN 9783447100540. My proverbial cheque is in the post, though I worry that every one of the Mari words that have most puzzled me in terms of etymology (e.g. шнуй ‘holy’) will be present.

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.

Bartens’s history of Permian vowels

In my study of Udmurt and Komi, I have produced an English translation of the chapter on Permian vowels from Raija Bartens’s Permiläisten kielten rakenne ja kehitys (The Structure and Development of the Permian Languages, Helsinki: Finno-Ugrian Society, 2001). While Bartens’s book no longer represents the state of the art in Uralic linguistics, and in the years since Sándor Csúcs has shaken the field up with such publications as Die Rekonstruktion der permischen Grundsprache (Budapest: Akadémiai Kiadó, 2005), Permiläisten kielten rakenne ja kehitys does provide a helpful introduction to 20th-century work on Permian vocalism. Continue reading

Names for ‘ladybug’ in Udmurt

The Диалектологический атлас удмуртского языка edited by R. I. Nasibullin et al. (Iževsk: R&C Dynamics, 2009) has a series of maps showing the distributions of the Udmurt names for various things across the area where the language is spoken. For the most items, there are only a few variants, and in the case of borrowing, Russian loans are prevalent in the north of the Udmurt Republic while Tatar loans are prevalent in the south.

The word for ‘ladybug’ (Russian божья коровка) is a different story. The atlas lists 124 variants.

Some of these are very colourful: ӵужанай ‘maternal grandmother’, вӧйын нянь сиись ‘bread-and-butter eater’. A large number are formed with зор ‘rain’ (< Volga Bulgarian, cf. Chuvash ҫур ‘snow’). Nasibullin examines these names more closely in his article“Божья коровка” в удмуртских говорах’ in the journal Иднакар (issue 2007-2).

Amusingly, after the myriad names for ‘ladybug’, the atlas documents only one name (with varying vocalism) for that most common pest on Earth, the cockroach: торокан/ таракан/тӓрӓкӓн (cf. Russian таракан).

(If this kind of variation fascinates you, in North America, the various names for the family Armadillidiidae, which I grew up calling a roly poly, have also been mapped.)

Mari and Udmurt children’s poetry

Textbooks of Finno-Ugrian languages written for foreign learners really like to give children’s poetry as translation exercises. Thus Марийский язык для всех presents the following from one Pet Pershut:

Kутко сӱан

Тыгыде кутко —
Шем кутко,
Йошкар кутко —
Ер кутко,
Сар кутко —
Сад кутко
Кеҥеж кечын сад мучко
Каеныт корно мучко,
Пурак веле тӱргалтын,
Изи йыҥгыр мӱгыралтын.
Орава да тарантас ден,
Шым гитар ден,
Шым шӱвыр ден,
Вич тӱмыр ден,
Волен, кӱзен,
Шудым пӱген,
Каеныт сӱаныш,
Рӱж миеныт йыраҥыш.

The ant wedding

Small ants,
black ants,
red ants,
lakeshore ant,
grey ants
garden ants
They made their way
though the garden on a summer day,
carrying only crumbs,
singing a little song.
With carts and wagons,
with seven guitars,
with seven bagpipes,
with five drums,
they sang and danced,
and made merry,
They went on, they went up,
They bent down grain stalks,
They went to the wedding,
with a buzz they headed into the flower-bed.

The third chapter of the Udmurt textbook Марым, леся… gives a series of several poems by Alla Kuznetsova exemplifying the numerals just introduced. Here’s the one for ‘7’:

Сизьым туж тодмо мыным,
Сизьым нунал арняын:
Вордӥськон бере пуксён,
Вирнунал, покчиарня,
Крезьгуро удмуртарня,
Кӧснунал, арнянунал.

Seven things are very familiar to me,
The seven days of the week:
Monday then Tuesday,
Wednesday, Thursday,
Melodious Friday
Saturday, Sunday.

I don’t much care for this. Adult learners should not be treated like children. Sure, it may be a few chapters before a student is ready for it, but it would be more dignified to bring in selections from folk songs or simple selections from novels.

Tatar and Finno-Ugrian separatism real or supposed

The Mari news site MariUver has reposted an interesting article originally published at PolitRUS about a recent political conference in Russia, which I’ve translated from Russian below. There’s an element of conspiracy ravings here; the “expert in Islamic studies” Suleymanov has drawn criticism for his claims of Tatar extremism. The last paragraph reveals something of opinions held within Russia on the Mari, Mordvin and Udmurt emigrants who have been of such help to Finno-Ugrists at European universities.

The West is Evaluating the Possibility of Supporting Islamic Separatists in the Volga Region

The issue of drawing NATO countries’ attention to outbreaks of national separatism and Islamic terrorism in the Volga Region was one of the main themes of the Sixth All-Russian Conference of Applied Studies “Наука молодых” (Study of Youth) which was held on December 18 in Arzamas (Nizhny Novgorod oblast). The conference was organized by the A. P. Gajdar Arzamas State Pedagogical Institute and drew participation from scholars and experts from neighbouring oblasts and republics. Attendees were especially interested in talks by researchers from Tatarstan, where over the last year the situation of religious extremism and national separatism has been sharpened.

As Rais Suleymanov, the director of the Volga Centre for Regional and Ethnoreligious Research РИСИ explained, starting with the “Nurlat episode” (a special forces operation to liquidate a group of armed militants in the Nurlat region of Tatarstan on November 25, 2010), as of December 2012 Tatarstan has been visited by journalists and political analysts from France, the United States, Great Britain, Holland, Poland and other countries. There have even been visitors from Australia and Brazil.

In the opinion of Suleymanov, such visits are not coincidental: Arriving under the pretext of being reporters, scholars and analysts, our Western guests often come not because of an interest in journalism or research, but in order to gather information about how serious the problem of the Volga Region becoming a hotspot is.

At the same time, in the words of this specialist in Islamic studies, the Western experts that he has met with personally use a special “methodology of communication”. Besides, the very existence of greater interest in this subject and the overwhelming desire to meet with separatists and fundamentalists speaks to the fact that the West is evaluating the possibility of financing and providing informational support to the Islamist underground and nationalists in Tatarstan, Suleymanov stated. He added that in this context one should look to the activities of journalists from the Qatar television network Al Jazeera, which has a branch in Kazan.

In addition to Suleymanov’s talk, his colleague Vasily Ivanov noted that the international terrorist organization Muslim Brotherhood through its agents in Russia has also shown an interest in Finno-Ugrian nationalist movements.

Ivanov gave his own talk titled “Finno-Ugrian separatism in the Volga Region: its ideology, the extent of its spread and foreign influences”. Analysing outbreaks of Finno-Ugrian separatism in Russia at the turn of the 20th and 21st centuries, the researcher pointed to the support that Mari, Mordvin and Udmurt nationalists receive today from Finland, Hungary and Estonia.

The situation is becoming more serious because anti-Russian propaganda is published on the internet by people studying in institutes of higher education in those countries — undergraduates, graduate students and PhD candidates from the Volga republics at universities in the European Union, Ivanov underlined.

Competing Udmurt Bibles

In the library of the University of Helsinki I have found two different translations of the New Testament into Udmurt.

The first translation is limited to the four Gospels, and dates from 1912. The title page bears the text Господа нашего Ісуса Христа Сватое Евангеліе отъ Матѳея, Марка, Луки и Іоанна на удмуртском языке. On the following page is written Отъ Перевоческой Коммиссіи Православнаго Миссіонерскаго Общества печатать пазрѣшается. Казань, 7 сентября 1911 года. Предсѣдатель Переводческой Коммиссій Православнаго Миссіонерскаго Общества, Профессоръ Казанской Академіи, М. Машановъ. Though the translation was first published in 1912, this is a reprinting apparently from 1973, to judge from the sole line added to the facsimile: E.B.I.1973.10000. I assume this is one of the contraband Bibles that were smuggled into Russia from Finland during the Communist era.

This translation is interesting in that it documents a transitional stage in Udmurt orthography. Although for the most part it already resembles the 1920s-era modified Cyrillic alphabet still in use today, there is one major difference that is found in words beginning with /j/. Instead of the Russian letters ю, я for /ju/ and /ja/ etc., we instead find something much like ‹ју› ‹ја›. However, unlike the usual representation of Unicode U+0458 cyrillic small letter je, this now antiquated letter is not dotted and sits entirely above the line. Scan of page from 1912 Udmurt Bible translation showing the old orthography

The other translation is of the whole New Testament, under the title Выль Сӥзён (Stockholm/Helsinki: Institute for Bible Translation, 1997) ISBN 9188974822. The Institute for Bible Translation has translated the Bible as well as e.g. retellings for children into many languages of the former Soviet Union (I’ve previously blogged about their series). According to the copyright page, this translation was undertaken by Mikhail Atamanov, a deacon with a doctorate in philology.

Since for several minority languages of Russia there exists both a translation from the late Tsarist era and a recent IBT translation, comparing the two might illustrate the evolution of the standard language. Here is John 1:1–14 in the two translations:

1912: Іоаннъ гоштэм Евангеліе


Вальлянӥсенӥк Кыл вылэм, Кыл Инмарын вылэм. Со Кыл Инмар вылэм.


Со вальлянӥсенӥк Инмарын луэм.


Коть ма но Со вамен луэм, ма гынэ луиз-ке но, Со сяна номре но кылдымтэ.


Со бордын улэп-улон вылэм, со улэп-улон адяміослы люгыт луэм.


Люгыт пеймытын люгдыса улэ, пеймыт сое шобыртыса уг бытты.


Инмарлэн лэзем одӥг муртыз вылэм, солэн нимыз Іоаннъ.


Со дышетыны лыктэм; со вамен ваньзы но мед оскозы шуса, со Люгытэз тодытыны лыктэм.


Со ачыз люгыт луымтэ, только Люгытэз тодытыны лэзьыскькемын вылэм.


Дуньнее лыктысь коть-кыӵе адяміез люгдытысь зэм Люгыт луэм.


Со дуньнейын вылэм, дуньне Со вамен кылдыськем, только дуньне Сое тодмамтэ.


Аслазъёсыз доре лыктэм, Аслазъёсыз но Сое кабыл басьтымтэзы.


Ассэ кабыл басьтысьёслы, Солэн нимызлы оскысьёслы, Инмар піос луыны кужым сётэм.


Соёс вирлэсь ӧвӧл, мугорлэсь но ӧвӧл, піосмуртлэсь но ӧвӧл, Инмарлэсь вордыськыльям.


Кыл мугоро луиз; дӧулетлы, землы тыр луыса, милемын валче улӥз: ми Солэсь быдзым вылэмзэ адӟимы, Атайлэсь огназ Вордыськемлэн быдзымез кадик быдзымзэ (адӟим).

1997: Иоаннлэсь ӟеч ивор


Кустконаз ик Кыл вылэм. Кыл Инмар дорын вылэм. Кыл Инмар вылэм.


Со кутсконаз ик Инмар дорын вылэм.


Мар кылдыны кутскем, ваньмыз Со пыр кылдыны кутскем, Сотэк номыр но кылдыны кутскымтэ.


Со бордын улон, улон адямиослэн югытсы луэ.


Югыт пеймытын пиштыса улэ, пеймыт сое ӝокатыны уг быгаты.


Инмарлэн лэзем адямиез вылэм: солэн нимыз Иоанн.


Со пыр ваньмыз мед оскозы шуыса, со шара ивортыны лыктэм, Югыт сярысь ивортыны.


Со таиз югыт вылымтэ, но ыстэмын вылэм Югыт сярысь шара ивортыны.


Вылэм зэмос Югыт, Кудӥз дуннее лыктэ но котькудзэ адямиез югдытэ.


Дуннеын вылэм, дунне Со пыр кылдыны кутскем, дунне Сое тодмамтэ.


Аслазъёс доры лыктэм, но аслазъёсыз Сое кулэ кариллямтэ.


Нош ваньмыз, кинъёс Сое кабыл басьтӥллям, Солэн нимызлы оскисьёслы, Инмар нылпиос луыны кужым сётэм.


Соос вирлэсь ӧвӧл, мугорлэн кулэ каремезлэсь ӧвӧл, пиосмуртлэн кулэ каремезлэсь ӧвӧл, – соос Инмарлэсь вордӥськиллям.


Кыл мугоро луэм, дэлетэн но зэмлыкен тыр луыса, милемын валче улӥз. Ми Солэсь пиштӥсь данлыксэ адӟимы, Атайлэсь огназ вордӥськем Пиезлэсь пиштӥсь данлыксэ.

A Uralic loanword in late Proto-Indo-European?

I may have come across such etymologies before, but as far as I remember, this is the first proposal I’ve seen of a Uralic loanword in Proto-Indo-European. In Ananta Śāstram: Indological and Linguistic Studies in Honour of Bertil Tikkanen ed. Klaus Karttunen (Helsinki: Finnish Oriental Society, 2010), Asko Parpola has this to say on the etymology of Finnish kaivaa ‘dig’:

The Finnish words kaiva-a ‘to dig’ and kaivo ‘digging, well, pit’ have cognates in Finnic languages, in Saami and the Volgaic and Permic languages. Ante Aikio has shown that Proto-Finno-Ugric *kajwa- can be regularly connected with Proto-Samoyedic käjwa ‘spade’, as the change *a > took place in Samoyedic before a tautosyllabic palatal consonant, thereby settling an old problem, the history and material of which is fully discussed by Aikio. Hence the etymon is an archaic Uralic nomen verbum.

What I offer here is not a new etymology, but simply a reference to an old etymology proposed as early as 1920 that was not included in the indexes of etymologically treated Finnish words by Donner and Erämetsä, and so has escaped notice in SKES and SSA. K. F. Johansson had reconstructed an archaic Proto-Indo-European heteroclitic noun *kaiw-r̥-t (nom.) ~ *kaiwn̥n-eś (gen.) on the basis of Greek and Old Indo-Aryan. Hesychius records καίατα in the sense of ‘pits, excavations, trenches, ditches’ (ὀρύγματα) or ‘landslide chasms caused by earthquake’ (ἢ τὰ ὑπὸ σεισμῶν καταρραγέντα χωρία) The plural καίατα is supposed to stand for καίϝατα, from the singular καίϝαρ. Old Indo-Aryan kevaṭa- ‘pit’ is attested in a single occurence in the oldest text, Rigveda, 6,45,7; Old Indo-Aryan e goes back to Proto-Aryan *ai and *rt has often become retroflex *ṭ. Pokorny accepts the comparison and reconstructs for Proto-Indo-European *kaiwr̥t *kaiwn̥-t. Thomas Burrow and Manfred Mayrhofer have considered the scanty evidence in both Old Indo-Aryan and Greek as too uncertain for the assumption of a PIE hetercliton. Still, Mayrhofer thinks it is possible that the words are related. Herbert Petersson also emphasizes that no trace of this etymon is found in other Indo-European languages — and Frisk points out that no corresponding PIE verbal root can be traced — while the root structure too, with a diphthong following by -w-, also looks peculiar for PIE. Petersson therefore takes this to be one of the rare cases where Proto-Indo-European is likely to have borrowed from Proto-Finno-Ugric. Mayrhofer refers to Petersson’s suggestion as noteworthy but unconfirmed. However, the confirmed Uralic origin of kajwa- and the archaic appearance of the word on both sides gives new significane to Petersson’s hypothesis.

(The title of Parpola’s contribution to this volume is ‘New Etymologies for Some Finnish Words’, pp. 305–318. In quoting it here, I have slightly abridged the text and left out the parenthetical citations for the sake of readabiity.)