As readers must surely have noticed, this weblog went on a long hiatus back in January. In the spring semester, I was focused so much on learning Mari that most of my other activities came to a standstill. That concentration paid off, as after just six months I was able to fairly comfortably converse in Mari, but my studies didn’t have that breadth that could have made for interesting posts. Well, that has now changed. My advanced Mari studies produce plenty of translations that I can post here, my addition of Chuvash (and soon Tatar) to the mix means that I can examine the fascinating relationship between Mari and its neighbours, and in the fall semester I intend on taking an enormous load of general Finno-Ugrian linguistics courses.
My summer travels were fairly productive in terms of linguistics activities. I spent most of May in Russia, first practising Mari in Yoshkar-Ola and one samogon-clouded day in a village, and then taking part in IFUSCO (International Finno-Ugrian Student Conference), held this year in Saransk. While I was happy to finally speak Mari with people other than my tutor in Helsinki, finding speakers is an enormous frustration. In Yoshkar-Ola, asking a shopkeeper ‘Do you speak Mari?’ is universally met with ‘No’ and a frown. I met a number of Mari students, but they seemed little interested in this foreigner and his love for their native language. I also spent a day in Cheboksary, where I bought a few Chuvash items, and later two days in Kazan, where I got a Tatar textbook.
Towards the end of May I traveled by means of the Trans-Siberian Railway from Moscow to Ulan-Bator. Mongolian sounded nothing like I thought it would, very vague and slurred instead of the sharpness I’ve always identified with agglutinative languages. Still, I’m sure I’ll eventually learn at least the written language, with all its comforting ‘Altaic-ness’.
I was in China for nearly two months. My Mandarin skills got a good workout, and I think I’ve gained back all that I’ve forgotten since studying the language at Defense Language Institute over seven years ago. But since one use of the language was fruitlessly pleading with and shouting at station clerks for train tickets, difficult to come by lately, I have unfortunately come to associate the language with stress and hassle. I spent four days in Vietnam, but except for Mandarin, which I didn’t exactly choose to learn, it seems that tonal isolating languages just aren’t my thing.
Towards the end of July I worked my way up to Xinjiang, that area of China better described as East Turkestan. Uighur people were very amiable and their food delicious, but since I’m a visual language learner and I haven’t yet mastered the Arabic script, I got nothing. Once I took an overnight bus from Urumqi to Almaty in Kazakhstan, however, things got better. As Kazakh uses the Cyrillic alphabet, I could walk around the city absorbing words, many of which I already know from Turkic loans into Mari (e.g. акша ‘money’ cf. Mari окса). I didn’t hear much Kazakh, however, as Almaty is a Russian-speaking town in spite of the official status given to Kazakh.
Back in Russia I’ve spent a week in Yoshkar-Ola, this time somewhat less productive in terms of Mari-language conversation since most Mari people resident there are back in their native villages for the summer. I spent the following week in Chuvashia, with a couple of days in a village. At this point, however, I’m really burnt out with anything outside (my conception of) Western Europe, and am looking forward to moving on. I’ve got enough books and newspapers to keep me busy until my next visit to the Volga republics, which will probably be in the spring.
So far I’ve been keeping up a good pace of posts. Unfortunately, I’m still on the road, and will be away from the Internet for various lengths of time. Today I intend on hitchhiking from Moscow to the south of Romania, where I will relax on the Black Sea beach for a week.