Mari šaške ‘mink’ borrowed even into South Kipchak

MariE šaške, MariW šäškə ‘mink’ and Finnish dial. häähkä ibid. have some kind of old relationship with Lithuanian šẽškas ‘polecat’. Whether it’s a Baltic > Uralic loan or vice versa doesn’t matter, the match is very old, and therefore we must assume that Chuvash šaškă ‘mink’ is a loan from Mari.

Moving on to the Volga Kipchak languages, we find an irregular initial correspondence in Tatar čäške ‘mink’, but one could suppose that we are dealing with the same word. Äxmatjanov’s Tatar etymological dictionary, at any rate, accepts a Mari etymology. And then the word is also found in Bashkir, as šäške.

Now, the most interesting aspect of all this, is that the word is found in Kazakh. Though standard Kazakh has suw küzeni for ‘mink’, Radloff recorded a form čäške ‘some kind of aquatic animal’, and this must have been borrowed from Bashkir. When I first began studying the Volga-Kama region, I would compare features found there to Kazakh, and if they were present in the latter, assume that they were either from Proto-Kipchak or at least from outside the Volga–Kama area. However, at least some words have been borrowed from North Kipchak to South Kipchak, and ‘mink’ is another one.

With so much language learning, how does one ever publish anything?

A couple of years ago I quoted a statement from an introductory Altaic studies textbook that the continual language learning in this field means a lifelong commitment. It’s one thing to continually learn languages over one’s scholarly career to broaden one’s horizons, but lately it seems that so much language learning is imposed that I cannot ever actually finish a journal submission.

This is how things have gone so far:

  1. When I began my studies of Finno-Ugrian linguistics, my initial concern was just Mari, which struck me as the Uralic language with the most readily assimilable grammar, and Russian so that I could use the only decent textbook of Mari available at the time. (Of course I was learning Finnish too as a foreigner in Helsinki, and Saami, Erzya and Nenets as other coursework.)
  2. After a few months it became clear that one can hardly do anything with Mari without having real proficiency in Chuvash and Tatar.
  3. A few months after that, I saw that understanding the Turkic languages of the Volga–Kama area requires some knowledge of what they were like before they arrived in that part of the world. So, numerous references on the Turkic family in general were added to my reading list, and I had to learn a couple of other Turkic languages (I chose Turkish and Kazakh) to act as a sort of control group for Volga Kipchak.
  4. As the years went by, it became clear that I had considered enough the relationship of the Permian languages with Mari, so courses of Udmurt and Komi became obligatory before I could even dare to comment on the prehistory of Mari. The Ob-Ugrian languages are another area I should strengthen.

At the moment I’ve got a Mari-related research project that I would very much like to bring to publication, but I have the feeling that I will not have done my scholarly due diligence unless I get two more languages under my belt, namely Moksha Mordvin (Erzya Mordvin is not enough) and Ossetian. I’m very worried that the latter is going to lead to even more things to follow up on in Iranian. This could bog me down for years.

The low-hanging fruit in Uralic studies has long been taken. I think it virtually impossible now to publish a paper on Mari considering only that language and no others around it. To someone today, it seems incredible that in 1950 Thomas Sebeok was able to score another entry on his list of publications simply with a two-page article on how Mari family names or patronymics typically precede a person’s own name.

Do scholars who frequently publish simply say at some point OK, I’ve got enough data now and I am collecting no more? Are they not scared that during the peer review process some possibly more knowledgeable scholar is going to condemn them for overlooking data from another language spoken far away but nonetheless essential to the subject?

Sibagu: Bird names in languages of Asia

Every time I’ve learned a new Uralic or Turkic language in the last decade, I’ve had to quickly learn the names of trees, birds and fish. For peoples maintaining a rural way of life, these are important lexical domains, and without a knowledge of them, a foreigner won’t manage with visiting speakers’ communities or reading texts in the language.

Unfortunately, with languages like Udmurt and Chvuash, I’ve found myself first having to look up the name of the species in a Russian bilingual dictionary, and then looking up the Russian in a bilingual English dictionary. That approach comes with pitfalls, as somewhere along that chain of translations, one word might refer to two different species. There’s often no easy way to determine the unambiguous Latin name of the species.

Luckily, for at least birds and languages of east/southeast Asia, there’s the helpful site Sibagu. It is a database of bird names in Chinese, Japanese, Mongolian, Thai, Turkish, Kazakh, Malay, and Indonesian. The website interface is rather clunky, harkening back to the early web, but it’s worth it for getting the valuable Latin names. Plus, the administrator’s literal translations of native bird names are often charming, e.g. Chinese 小太平鳥 xiǎo tàipíng-niǎo ‘small peace bird’ for Bombycilla japonica.

The Steppe of Hunger

The English-language publicity for Sergey Dvortsevoy’s film Tulpan, a love story among the hardscrabble pastoralism still found in some parts of Kazakhstan, said that the film was set on the Hunger Steppe. Intrigued by that name, I lazily googled to find more but got only links to Tulpan reviews with that wording and forgot about the matter for a couple of years. Well, while recently reading Étienne de la Vaissière’s surprisingly entertaining Sogdian Traders: A History, I found the name in a slightly different form:

To the north of Samarkand, between Ustrushana and Čāč, the Steppe of Hunger formed a considerable obstacle on account of its aridity. It compelled travellers to follow the piedmont north of the Turkestan range as far as Zaamin, and thereafter to reach either Ferghana or the Syr Darya as rapidly as possible, then the piedmont west of the Tianshan to finally get to Čāč.

Armed with the wording Steppe of Hunger, I could then find plenty of references to the area by this name. In Russian it is know as the Голодная степь and there is an entire article about the area at the Russian Wikipedia under that title.

However, the association with hunger seems to exist only in Russian. In Kazakh the area is called Мырзашөл and in Uzbek Мирзачўл. These are compounds of mïrza ‘lord’ (< Persian) and šöl ‘desert’.

North Kipchak loans in South Kipchak

When I began studying the interaction of Uralic and Turkic languages in the Volga-Kama area, I assumed that existence of a feature in both Tatar and Kazakh was sufficient to prove that Tatar inherited it from Common Turkic and did not borrow it one of the languages of the Volga-Kama area. However, it turns out that contact between the Kipchak languages persisted long enough for North Kipchak to contribute some loanwords to South Kipchak.

The first example is Kazakh moncha ‘sauna’. According to Klára Agyagási in Ранние русские заимствования тюркских языков волго-камского ареала Ⅰ (Debrecen, 2005) p. 58, this ultimately derives from Russian баня, borrowed into Ancient Chuvash with the rounding of a typical for early Chuvash and the shift of b > m before nasals typical for Turkic in general, and finally taken up by the South Kipchaks sometime before the North Kipchak vowel shift (cf. Tatar munča).

The second example comes from a paper by András Róna-Tas, “Three Volga Kipchak Etymologies” in Studies in Chuvash Etymology I. (Szeged: Szeged University Press, 1982). He traces Tatar and Bashkir izge ‘holy, good’ back to a Volga Bulgarian form that produced modern Chuvash ïră. Kazakh izgi ‘kindly’ must therefore be a loanword from the Volga Kipchak languages.

Furs for a kopek

One of the interesting lexical relationships in languages of the Volga region is that between currency and animal hides.

Meadow Mari ə̂r ‘kopek’ was originally identical to ur ‘squirrel’, though when the word was used in the latter sense it did not undergo the sporadic reduction of high vowels in Mari.

This equivalency exists also in Tatar, where tijen means both ‘squirrel’ and ‘kopek’. As Ähmät’jänov’s etymological dictionary explains, ‘борынгы заманнарда тиен тиресе вак акча функциясен үтәгән [in ancient times squirrel hides functioned as a low-value monetary unit]’.

Chuvash doesn’t connect its term for the kopek to ‘squirrel’. However, Cv. pus ‘kopek’ is, according to Fedotov’s etymological dictionary, derived from Persian پوست post ‘animal skin’, though used purely in the sense of currency.

I suspect that Volga Bulgar was the first language in the area to have a relationship between these two concepts, as a Chuvash loan from Persian unreflected in Tatar must predate the arrival of Kipchak. Tatar must have developed this relationship during the period of Kipchak unity, because Kazakh has tıyın ‘kopek’ and tiyin ‘squirrel’ (variation in vowel harmony suggesting one is a loanword). Mari must have picked up the equivalency before 1500–1600 when high vowels began to reduce, calquing it almost certainly on the Tatar.

Specifics of Tatar vowel rotation

The phenomenon of vowel rotation in Volga Tatar – the reduction of original high vowels and the raising of original mid vowels to fill their place – is evident to anyone who knows any other Turkic language. In fact, especially troublesome for this language learner are such reversals as Tat. iske ‘old’ ~ Turkish eski or Tat. ike ‘2’ ~ Kazakh eki.

But there are some exceptions to the straightforward flip-flop of original mid and high vowels which I haven’t yet seen explicitly sketched out. Often one need go no further than Kazakh for comparison, as Kazakh preserves (at least graphemically) the height of the Proto-Kipchak vowels. One finds that in Tatar original round high vowels failed to reduce in words of the type CV or VC. For the Proto-Kipchak CV demonstrative pronoun *bu ‘this’ Tatar shows bu instead of the expected ˟bo. However, in the oblique stem, the vowel is indeed reduced: compare Tatar’s genitive monïŋ to Kazakh bunïŋ. The Proto-Kipchak VC word *ul ‘son’, cf. Kazkah ul, is maintained as such in Tatar instead of showing the expected reduction ˟ol.

For words of CV and VC shape with original /ü/, examples are few, but the Tatar verb root üz-давать ростки’ ~ Old Turkic üz offers support.

However, in words of the type CV and VC original mid vowels did raise. For the former, compare the Kazakh reflexive pronoun öz to Tat. üz, and for the latter the Kazakh 3 sg. personal pronoun ol to Tat. ul.

Turkic cities

I’ve encountered two different Turkic terms for ‘city’, spread rather haphazardly across the Turkic languages. Initially I knew Chuvash хула xula (which was borrowed into Mari as ola e.g. Yoshkar-Ola ‘Red City’). In Kazakhstan one quickly learns the obvious cognate қала qala.

Crossing the border into Kyrgyzstan revealed a completely different word here on the streets of Bishkek, шаар šaar. This, it turns out, is found elsewhere among Turkic languages, with Azeri having şəhər and Turkish şehir. After doing some web searches, I found a helpful comparative Turkic glossary that shows which languages have what, but I’m still wandering what the original semantic connotations of each word were and what happened to the other word in languages that prefered either *qala or *šaɣar.

Almaty acquisitions

I arrived in Almaty two days ago and have had much better luck acquiring Kazakh language resources than on my last visit.

My first find was Тіл ұстарт: қазақ тілі/казахский язык учебный комплекс. (Almaty: Жибек жолы, 1996) ISBN 5-7667-3819-6. This is yet another one of those annoying textbooks that seem so common in the former Soviet Union where it is assumed that the reader already has some basic proficiency in the language, hearing it from childhood. The exercises also do little to develop practical speaking ability, being often more interested in helping you appreciate the etymology of toponyms and terms of endearment. I bought it for 500 tenge in a used bookstore.

A considerably more helpful introduction is Самоучитель казахского языка: 1500 слов и сочетаний (Almaty: Аруна Ltd., 2005) ISBN 9965-26-047-8. This has a great number of exercises that help the reader quickly absorb useful everyday vocabulary, but it is less effective at teaching morphology. It cost 290 tenge. I bought it in the basement bookshop of the large media store next to Iubilennij on ul. Golgol.

The most substantial of the textbooks currently on the market seems to be Казахский язык для всех (Almaty: Атамұра, 2004) ISBN 9965-05-910-1. It weighs in at over 700 pages, has an audio portion (which I’ve not yet found), and combines rigorous grammatical presentation with extremely worthwhile exercises. The title page boasts that it is recommended by the Kazakh Ministry of Education. It cost only 1125 tenge. I also got it at the bookshop on ul. Golgol.

Great free Kazakh textbook on the web

I enjoyed learning what I could of Kazakh while I was in Almaty in the summer, and now in Helsinki I’ve found a Kazakh immigrant willing to do a Kazakh-English exchange. Finding a textbook was a bit difficult, as while my department has the old Indiana University manuals of Tatar, Yakut, Bashkir, and so forth, there is no Kazakh entry in the series.

I was delighted, however, to find a textbook available at no cost on the web. The Kazakh Language Course for Peace Corps Volunteers in Kazakhstan was commissioned by the U.S. government and is therefore freely downloadable. It is quite well-written, and since it has abundant exercises it certainly beats a dry old introduction like IU manuals. A pity that it is only a PDF scan of the book instead of a fully electronic version, though.