Category Archives: Mari

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.

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.


In a post over at the blog Memiyawanzi, the proprietor alerts us to the latest entry in the red-cover Cambridge Textbooks in Linguistics series, Linguistic Fieldwork: A Student Guide by Jeanette Sakel and Daniel Everett (yes, that Daniel Everett). He offers us a short review, and as with all new introductions to fieldwork I was quick to scan for coverage of the downsides and unpleasantries of fieldwork, as some of the earlier publications I used to get acquainted with practices failed to mentioned such.

Reading about this new fieldwork textbook, I’m reminded that I never posted about my last fieldwork endeavour, namely my trip to Mari El in September of last year. At the time I was too upset to document what happened, but a few people have been asking me why I now insist on focusing on research perspectives that don’t obligate fieldwork, so I might as well talk about that fateful week in the Morko region of the Republic, supposedly the Mari heartland and the place where the language is still vibrant. Here’s a list of what awaited me:

  • I’m used to dealing with alcoholism in Russian villages, but for the first time I witnessed heroin addiction and its attendent ills – demographic suicide part 1.
  • I’m tired of being asked by schoolteachers or university lecturers to address classes, where I speak in Mari and the pupils or students either stare blankly at me, or venture the rare question in Russian – demographic suicide part 2.
  • Half of the people I met on the last trip to the area are now living in Moscow or abroad – demographic suicide part 3.
  • I feel like I’ve wasted my time in traveling such a distance to this part of the world when most people I talk to refuse to serve as consultants, even when I am offering to pay them a truly generous wage for their assistance
  • The Mari generally show a lack of political engagement, or even political consciousness, that might solve some of the problems they face. Of course, research ethics (as well as the obligations of my visa) forbid me from pushing the natives into any political direction, but I’m nonetheless permitted to note this failure and think it unfortunate.

Many linguists work with minority languages because they either idealistically believe that they can aid its revitalization, or they at least want to witness a revitalization driven by the speakers themselves. I could brush off non-linguistic hassles like corrupt officials, poverty, and the Republic’s awful weather if the speakers of the language were motivated and energetic, but my observations suggest that Mari is already moribund. Further fieldwork would therefore only make me miserable. If I’m in need of information from a living native speaker of Mari, I can depend on the assistance of Mari people resident in Finland, Estonia or Hungary.

Anyway, right now I’m trying to finish my translation of Chavain’s novel Elnet. I’m also interested in phonological changes that have taken place over a broad swath from the Volga-Kama area down to Tajikistan. These changes are documented to have occurred centuries ago, so I’m safe from the need to do fieldwork – unless someone invents a time machine, in which case I’m screwed.

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 Mari have no epics either

Adding to my recent post about the lack of an epic tradition among the Chuvash, I should mention that Víkar & Bereczki claim on the basis of their fieldwork that epics are missing in Mari as well. In Cheremis Folksongs (Budapest: Akadémiai Kiadó, 1971), they write:

The genre of lyrical songs is the only genre in Cheremis folk song. No trace whatever of heroic epic, or of epic fragments, has been discovered. Nor have we been successful in finding historical songs, such as are abundant in Russian and Mordvin folklore. (p. 65)

(They also mention a complete absence of ballads, lullabies and children’s songs. As much as I love the language, doesn’t Mari El sometimes seem the dullest part of Eurasia?)

It is strange, then, that the authors conjecture that it was there once upon a day:

As regards ancient Finno-Ugrian music, we are mainly dependent on hypotheses. From the data available, it may be inferred that this was characterized by monophony, narrow compass, syllabic, and line-repetitive features, and also by unimotival character. The song-texts were ot lyrics but long, epic poems. (p. 21)

Either the authors are thinking of some evidence from other Finno-Ugrian peoples, which they don’t present to us, or this seems an assumption that an ancient preliterate culture, before being overwhelmed by dominant neighbours, simply must have had an epic tradition.

New dictionary of Mari dialects

The Valerian Vasil’ev Institute for Mari Language, Literature and History has published the Словарь марийских говоров Татарстана и Удмуртии (Dictionary of Mari Dialects of Tatarstan and Udmurtia).

The new publication has been compiled by Valerij Vershinin, a senior fellow in the language department.

This dictionary is the first effort to document the lexicon of Mari dialects in Tatarstan and Udmurtia. The editor collected the data over numerous fieldwork journeys. It has over 5000 entries with translation into Russian.

The dictionary serves linguists, ethnologists, historians, scholars on the region, students and all who are interested in the Mari language. Its publication was supported by the Russian Fund for Humanities.

The book is available at the research library of the Institute for Mari Language, Literature and History in Yoshkar-Ola at ul. Krasnoarmejskaja 44, tel. (+7-8362) 565 937.

(Source: MariUver, who also link to a PDF catalogue of publications available from the Research Institute.)

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.