An overlooked Russian loan etymology in Chuvash and Mari

I was surprised to find Mari pajə̑rka, pə̑jə̑rka and Chuvash payarka ‘small amount’ in Agyagási’s set of shared Mari–Chuvash lexical material of unknown etymology (“Der sprachliche Nachlaß der Spät-Gorodec Bevölkerung in den tschuwaschischen und mariischen Mundarten”, 2000). The words seemed to me like straightforward borrowings of Russian поярок known from Dal’ and glossed ‘шерсть с ярки, первой стрижки, с овцы по первой осени’. When lambs are shorn for the first time, they produce a quite small amount of wool, and the example sentences that Beke’s dictionary gives for Mari pajə̑rka suggest the word was mainly applied to small amounts of material (wool/straw/bast), and so one could readily propose a semantic development ‘small bundle of wool’ → ‘small bundle of any material’ → ‘small thing’.

Agyagási’s ascription of the word to an unknown Middle Volga substrate had the consequence that, first of all, the word was overlooked in her later work Ранние русские заимствовния тюркских языков Волго-Камского ареала, and secondly, the editors of Tscheremissisches Wörterbuch only marked these Mari items “[~ Tschuw.]” I began writing up this Russian loan etymology with publication in mind, so I was rather disappointed to find the etymology had already been presented as an aside in Rédei & Róna-Tas’s 1983 paper “Early Bulgarian loanwords in the Permian languages”, though at the same time it is nice to see my hunch confirmed.

On p. 37 of the article, the authors discuss the mistaken comparison of Komi pargain der Flachshechel zurückgebliebener flockenförmiger, reiner Abfall vom gehechelten Flachs’ with Chuvash pargaBüschel’. They write:

The Chuvash parga (Zolotnickij, Čuv.-russk sl.; Paasonen, Csuv. szój) ‘heap, bundle’ is a dialectal form: more exactly, the word is paŕga (Ašmarin IX, p. 117) and is the equivalent of the payărka of the literary language. This word exists in Cheremiss (pajə̑rka, pə̑jə̑rka, Räsänen, Tat. Lehnw., p. 88 Cher. ← Chuv., Etym. Wb., p. 378 Cher. → Chuv.), and also in Tatar (dial. payarka). These words are adoptions of the R poyarokšerst’ jagnjat (pervoj strižki)’ (Vasmer III, p. 351) and the semantic development is ‘small heap of wool’ → ‘small heap, bundle’ (Cf. Cher. miž-pajə̑rkaein wenig Wolle’).

Unmarked loanwords in Tscheremissisches Wörterbuch

In Tscheremissisches Wörterbuch known loanwords in Mari are usually noted as such, e.g. “taɣaWidder, Hammel, Schafbock’ [< Tschuw.]”, “pülẟaremfordern, verlangen’ [< Tat.]”. By going through the dictionary and compiling a list of unetymologized words, I’ve been able to propose a few new etymologies that hopefully will be published eventually. However, one must tread cautiously, as a few loanwords are left unmarked even when they have long been recognized as such.

One of these is the Mari word for ‘frog, toad’, listed under the headword užaβa with a great deal of dialectal variation. This bears a striking resemblance to Russian жаба id. Indeed, I turned to Savatkova’s Русские заимствования в марийском языке, and the loanword is included in the great big Russian–Mari index at the back (namely on page 95).

MariE taɣarl’aein kleiner Vogel’ is a borrowing of Tat. täkärlek, as recognized already by Räsänen in his Die tatarischen Lehnwörter im Tscheremissischen of 1923, p. 65. The word may have come into Mari through Chuvash mediation on account of the voiced velar spirant if one supposes that Mari did not take it from a Tatar dialect that voiced the velar, but that would still have merited writing “[< Tschuw./Tat.]” next to this headword like with other doubtful items, such as purlogräulich’.

Mapleland and Thornybank

My Romania–Finland hitchhiking commute and a memorable cycle tour have often brought me through extreme southeastern Poland and western Ukraine. I have been struck by constantly encountering the same toponym, e.g.:

  • Jawornik in Poland, on the 892 road south of Sanok;
  • Yavoriv, in Ukraine just across the border from Poland, south of the Ukrainian town of Turka;
  • Yavor, also in that same part of Ukraine, but just north of Turka.

For a long time I would half-consciously mull over this word and think about derivations (e.g. some weird creation from *voriti), but I should have just searched for the term on the web: Common Slavic *(j)avor means ‘maple’. And the reason why I found no headword in Derksen’s Etymological Dictionary of the Slavic Inherited Lexicon is because, according to Pronk-Tiethoff’s The Germanic Loanwords in Proto-Slavic, the term was borrowed after the Proto-Slavic period. I wonder if that makes a case for the Slavic Urheimat, which was supposed to be in this general area, not reaching down to the Carpathians, as why would the Slavs borrow a name for a tree that evidently was so distinguishing a feature of their landscape?

Another riddle from the same part of Europe remains slightly unsolved for me. For a long time, on the basis of the Romanian town of Târnaveni and the Bulgarian city of Veliko Tarnovo, I again, without thinking too deeply about the matter, thought it might be some contraction of *trgŭ novŭ ‘new market’, a sensible name for a place acting as a commercial centre. However, in the Romanian case, the town was actually named after the Târnava River, and one doesn’t often name rivers after markets. Plus, the Bulgarian town should be seen as containing the adjectival ending *‑ovo. Then, at some point I passed through the Polish town of Tarnobrzeg and realized that the common element here is Common Slavic *trŭnŭ ‘thorn’. So, these are areas with thorny banks, which the Polish toponym would seem to express clearly.

But my knowledge of Polish dialectology is scanty. The word ‘thorn’ in standard Polish is cierń. With a place-name like Tarnobrzeg, does this mean that the southeastern Polish dialects had a different development of early Slavic syllabic *r (or sequences of *r and a yer), one that led to a non-front vowel that wasn’t affected by the shift *t > c before front vowels? Interestingly, the Polish Wikipedia article for Tarnobrzeg speaks of a relationship to śliwa tarnina ‘blackthorn, sloe, Prunus spinosa’, and here we have a Poland-wide term with the unchanged consonant.

Linguistic pseudoscience in the breakup of Serbo-Croatian

I’m all too familiar with Romania and its dacomania, and I’ve read a great deal about Albania’s insistence on a glorious Illyrian past in order to present itself as a proud and stately nation today. But reading Greenberg’s Language and Identity in the Balkans showed me that there’s similar nuttery in the land in between, that is, the former Yugoslavia:

In an interview posted on the Montenet website entitled “Does a Montenegrin Language Exist?” (“Da li postoji crnogorski jezik”) [Montenegrin nationalist Vojislav] Nikčević made the highly dubious claim that the prototype for the Montenegrin language is the Polabian language, having based these unfounded assertions on hun­dreds of Montenegrin place names. Even more unlikely is his assertion that the ancestors of the Serbs came from an ekavian-speaking area of southeastern Poland, and that their ekavian reflexes of jat’ are somehow linked to those found in Byelorussian. For him, the Montenegrins are the sole authentic ijekavian speakers in the Balkans, and other peoples in the area (Serbs, Croats, Bosniacs) had acquired ijekavian speech secondarily. There is no credible evidence to justify any of these claims. The Montenegrins would be as connected to the Polabians as any other Southern Slavic people, and toponyms in the Southwestern Balkans can usually be traced to substratum languages or to South Slavic influ­ences, rather than West Slavic ones.

You’d think that any academic passionate about the distinctions between the languages of Yugoslavia as well as other Slavic languages would know better. And then there’s this:

[Bosnian language advocate Senahid] Halilović considered the term Bosna to be pre-Slavic and possibly even pre-Indo-European. Such statements on the ancient origin of a name bring to mind Fishman’s notion (1972: 7) of stressed authenticity, whereby ancient terms provide the necessary trappings of legitimacy to a linguistic revival.

That Joshua Fishman citation is Language and Nationalism (Rowley: Newbury House, 1972), which seems to have captured an especially common sort of woo-woo around smaller languages and peoples on the defensive, going well beyond the Balkans.

Жгонский язык

While trawling back issues of the journal Sovetskoye Finno-Ugrovidenija for interesting reading on Mari, I came across a Russian dialect I had never heard of before, and which seems virtually unknown on the English-speaking web. As S. M. Strel’nikov writes in his 1978 article “Марийские элементы в жгонском языке” (Mari elements in zhgonsky jazyk):

Жгонским языком (от жгон ’шерстобит’) называют свой условный язык русские ремесленники Костромской области (пимокаты и портные), в недалеком прошлом занимавшиеся отхожим промыслом во многих губерниях России. Хотя численность носителей жгонского языка сокращается, его и сейчас помнят лица пожилого возраста во многих насееленных пунктах Нейского, Мантуровского, Макарьевского районов Костромской области, Варнавинского и Ветлужского районов Горьковской области.

Zhgonsky jazyk (from zhgon “woolspinner”) is the name by which Russian craftsmen in the Kostroma district (bootmakers and tailors) refer to their language; these craftsmen in the not-so-distant past were engaged in seasonal labor in many parts of Russia. Although the number of speakers of zhgonsky jazyk has declined, it is still remembered by elderly people in many settlements in the Ney, Manturov, and Makaryev regions of the Kostroma district, and in the Barnavin and Vetluga regions of the Gorsky district.

This language was an argot, meant to allow these craftsmen to communicate in secret when traveling about. Certainly the examples provided in this article are completely incomprehensible without glosses, e.g. Ши́до в плеха́нку пови́титься сохля́ть ‘I’ve got to head to the steam bath to wash’, Декни́ приты́лить ‘Give me a smoke’.

While zhgonsky jazyk drew on other languages such as Udmurt, German, Greek and Turkish, the Mari stock is prominent and Strel’nikov suggests that this argot arose on the basis of interaction between Russians and speakers of Northwestern Mari. Some zhgonsky jazyk words of Mari origin concern the numbers (e.g. ны́лик ‘4’ < MariNW nəl, канда́йша ‘8’ < MariNW kändäŋš) and weather (уре́ж ‘rain’ < MariNW jur, ю́кша ‘cold, winter’ < MariNW jükšem). Strel’nikov identifies altogether 44 items as derived from Mari, and some of them have gone amusing shifts in meaning as is common in these sorts of secret languages.

Speed dating to save minority languages

There’s an art collective in Belarus that is offering speed dating evenings on the condition that all participants speak Belarussian, that minority language in its own country and one not much loved by the authorities. This news footage (in Belarussian, but I think mainly intelligible to Russian and Polish speakers) offers some of the participants’ perspectives.

I suppose this would work well in a capital like Minsk, which draws people from the villages, and where people plan to stay put. I don’t think that such initiatives would do much good for most minority languages, which are facing not only a population that feels somewhat ashamed of the language, but which are affected by much larger demographic collapse. That native-language disco night in a small Mari town might draw a few young people who will listen to music in Mari for a few hours and maybe even speak the language, but they are still looking to move to the big city or even Moscow where there is zero chance they will be able to preserve their language.

Two Slavic verbs

Johanna Nichols contributed a paper to the collection New Approaches to Slavic Verbs of Motion ed. Hasko & Perelmutter (Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 2010) arguing that Slavic indeterminate motion verbs like xoditi are denominal and not deverbal. The argumentation is complex, bringing in matters of accentuation and aspect, and at one point she presents a table that begins:

POS Earlier PS Late PS CS Aktionsart
V u:k-noN- vykǫti -vyk-nǫ-ti inchoative
-vyk-a(j)-ti iterative?
ouk-ei- / -i:- uč-i-ti uč-i-ti ±telic
uč-i-ti sę ±telic
nes- nes-ti nes-ti ±telic
nos-i-ti atelic activity?
nes-ti sę ±telic (passive)
nos-i-ti sę atelic (passive)

This reminded me that Russian учить(ся) and привыкнуть are related, something that I had learned years ago when studying diachronic Slavic phonology, but had forgotted somewhere along the way. Nichols writes in this regard, The regular use of reflexivization as a detransitivizing device led to lexical dissociation of transitives from the old intransitives: thus učiti ‘teach, study’ : -vyknǫti ‘learn’ > ‘become accustomed’ drifted apart semantically.

It would be interesting to study how much the connection between the two verbs is discerned by ordinary speakers of the modern Slavic languages. If a connection is seen at all, is it more likely in East Slavic, where the reflex of CS *y remains a back vowel, than in South Slavic (cf. Serbian naviknuti se ~ učiti) where *y merged with i?

Moveable past tense markers in Polish

The cover of the Cambridge Textbook in Linguistics CliticsI’ve been slowly going through Andrew Spencer and Ana R. Luis’s Clitics, part of the Cambridge Textbooks in Linguistics series, which is lots of fun. As one might expect, there are a lot of examples from Balkan Sprachbund languages. Usually when I have traveled in the Balkans I have spoken with local people in a South Slavic mishmash located somewhere between Serbian, Macedonian and Bulgarian, and it is easy to think these languages work the same syntactically, but this textbook presents a number of striking differences in their clitic systems that I had never picked up on.

Today’s surprise came from a more distant Slavic language, however. Polish forms its past tense from a participle in *-l plus person endings, and this textbook claims that the person endings can be moved away from the past participle stem to any word in the clause:

  • Ja to robiłem ‘I did that’
  • Ja tom robił
  • Jam to robił
  • Co ty robiłeś ‘What did you do?’
  • Coś ty robił
  • W domu to zrobiliście ‘You (pl.) did it at home’
  • W domuście to zrobili

So I ask the wife, who is a native speaker of Polish. At first she has no idea what I’m on about. After I show her the passage in the book, she answers Oh, old and goes on to explain that today one would see this only in e.g. archaizing poetry. In writing this section, Spencer & Luis relied on several studies from the 1980s and very early 1990s, and it’s strange that the phenomenon would have by now become so antiquated.

More inconsistencies between the book’s claim that “Polish has feature X” and (one person’s) native speaker judgment comes with how words with these endings are stressed with regard to Polish’s typical placement of the accent on the penultimate syllable. Spencer & Luis write:

In ‘cultivated speech’ [the two plural auxiliary clitics, -smy, -scie] fail to affect stress. Thus, in this style we hear zrobíliście ‘you did’, with stress retained on the penultimate syllable of the verb form, rather than the more colloquial zrobilíście, in which the stress is moved forward to the final syllable of the verb form.

The wife claims that the form with penultimate stress is very jarring to the ear. Wanting a second opinion, I turned to Forvo, that helpful website where one can find sound files presenting the pronunciation of a given foreign-language word The verb zrobić isn’t conjugated there, but być ‘to be’ is, and both byliśmy and byliśce are pronounced with penultimate stress. Presented with this, the wife concedes that it is one of those things where everyone knows that it is wrong, but everyone says it nonetheless. If penultimate stress is already so pervasive, will this “rule” last another generation?

’lentil’ as a Romance loan into Common Slavonic

While reading Ronald O. Richards’ The Pannonian Slavic Dialect of the Common Slavic Proto-Language, where the author reconstructs Pannonian Slavic on the basis of loans in Hungarian, I was struck by the comparison Common Slavonic *lętja ‘lentil’ > Hu. lencse, as we must be dealing with a Romance loan in Common Slavonic. The Latin word for ‘lentil’ was lens, lentis, also a feminine noun. Richards notes that this lexeme is found natively only in South Slavic, spreading to East Slavic only in the 13th century.

As the Latin word persisted in Romanian as linte, one might be inclined to posit this as a word out of the Romanian/Aromanian Urheimat (presumably southern Serbia) that was brought far enough north to pass into Hungarian. On the other hand, Richards points to the presence of *lętja in both Slovenian and Bulgarian, and as those two languages are descended from South Slavonic dialects that moved in opposite directions out of Pannonia (Slovenian from Pannonia to the southwest, Bulgarian southeast through Transylvania and Wallachia), it’s hard to see how they could have each taken the loanword from one and the same language. I suppose there are three possibilities here:

  1. South Slavic unity managed to persist across the entire Balkans for some time, so that a word picked up by the South Slavic speakers in Serbia would easily spread to both Slovenian and Bulgarian;
  2. Contact with Romance occurred in multiple places in the Balkans, so that Slovenian borrowed ‘lentil’ from early Dalmatian, and Bulgarian from Romanian/Aromanian, and the forms just happen to look like they go back to Proto-South-Slavic;
  3. Or should we forget about positing a Dalmatian/Romanian/Aromanian origin for ‘lentil’ and instead consider this one of the very early Latin loanwords into Common Slavic, presumably dating from the time of the Roman presence in Pannonia? Unfortunately, since *lętja is not attested in North Slavic like some of those early Latin loanwords (e.g. *kolęda ‘carol, first day of the year’ < calendae), it’s hard to securely date it so early.

The languages of Czernowitz and old Bucovina

From my acquaintance with the life and work of Paul Celan – not to mention passing through on several occasions and seeing traces of its imperial past – I was aware that the former Austro-Hungarian town of Czernowitz was once home to a remarkable ethnic diversity, later erased as the surrounding province of Bucovina was ceded to Romania – whereupon it gained the name Cernăuți – and then the USSR and Ukraine for which it is now known as Chernivtsi. I was happy to discover Gregor von Rezzori’s memoir Blumen im Schnee (in English translation as The Snows of Yesteryear) which sheds much light on the changing demographics of the town. In reminiscing on his childhood nanny Cassandra, hired out of some remote village in the Carpathians, Rezzori makes the following comment on the languages that he heard spoken in his childhood:

She spoke both Romanian and Ruthenian, both equally badly—which is not at all unusual in the Bukovina—intermixing the two languages and larding both with bits from a dozen other idioms. The result was that absurd lingua franca, understood only by myself and scantily by those who, like her, had to express themselves in a similarly motley verbal hodgepodge. Even though it may be questioned whether I was actually fed at Cassandra’s breast, there can be no doubt that linguistically I was nourished by her speech. The main component was a German, never learned correctly or completely, the gaps in which were filled with words and phrases from all the other tongues spoken in the Bukovina—so that each second or third word was either Ruthenian, Romanian, Polish, Russian, Armenian or Yiddish, not to forget Hungarian and Turkish. From my birth, I heard mainly this idiom, and it was as natural to me as the air that I breathed.

How much things have changed in a century. Yiddish disappeared from Czernowitz with the genocide of its Jewish population in World War II. As Rezzori observes, German was already on the wane right after Trianon. From my experiences walking the streets of the city, it’s pretty much down to just Ukrainian, Russian and Romanian now. And while the intermixing of languages was simply accepted as a fact of life back then, today in at least southern (Romanian) Bucovina, the observation that a word in Romanian is of foreign origin is often taken as an insult.