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.

Clauson’s terminological rebellion

It has been a minor irritation that the late Sir Gerard Clauson used the term “Turkish” to refer to the entire Turkic family, thus his An Etymological Dictionary of Pre-13th Century Turkish somewhat unexpectedly covers all early Turkic languages and not just words from Anatolia. But in reading his paper ‘The Turkish Y and Related Sounds’ (in the Festschrift Studia Altaica: Festschrift für Nikolaus Poppe zum 60. Geburstag) I finally saw his reasoning for this choice:

I use “Turkish”, not in the limited meaning of ‘the language of Turkey’, but as a generic term for all the languages geneticly related to the language of the Türkü Dynasty (6th to 8th Cent. A.D.), from whose name the word is of course derived, including those anterior to that date. In other words I use “Turkish” where some other scholars use “Turkic”, a word which seems to me open to the objection that if the Greek adjective tourkikos is to be used in English it must be transcribed consistently either as “Turcic” or “Turkik”, both of which look grotesque.

I’m sorry, but that’s just daft.

Favours in Mari and Turkic

While sitting in a bookstore reading a travel guide to Kyrgyzstan, I was struck by the following sentence from the list of useful Kyrgyz phrases: Please write it down: Жазып берсеңчи /dʒʲazɨp berseŋči/. Here we have a construction where the request is expressed as a converb followed by the imperative of the verb ‘to give’.

A couple of hours later, in reading Chavain’s novel Elnet, I found that this construction exists in Mari as well:

Матвей Николасвичын мурымыжымат пеш колыштыч.

— Ынде Тамара Матвеевна мыланна иктаж-мом муралта, — адак пелештыде ыш чыте Василий Александрович.

— К сожалению, мый ом муро, Василий Александрович.

— Туге гын, иктажым декламироватлен пу.

They listened intently to Matvej Nikolavič’s singing.

Now Tamara Matveevna will sing us something, again Vasilij Aleksandrovič would not stay quiet.

Unfortunately, I won’t sing, Vasilij Aleksandrovič.

If that’s the case, recite some poetry for us.

In the last sentence we find декламироватлен пу deklamiroβatlen pu recite-conv give(imp).

Intrigued, I asked a Chuvash informant if this construction existed in his language as well. He said that it did, and he gave the following two example sentences: ман валли чаплă сĕтел туса пар-ха man valli čaplă sĕtel tusa par-xa ‘Make me a nice table, please’, ун валли чаплăраххине туса патăн un valli čaplăraxxine tusa patăn ‘You made a nicer one for him’. The latter sentence is helpful in showing that this construction doesn’t necessarily have to be in the imperative, but can be used in declarative sentences as well.

I was curious to know if this construction made the order more polite than a simple imperative, but both the Chuvash informant and a friend knowledgeable about Kyrgyz said that this construction implies only doing something for the benefit of another. The Chuvash informant pointed to the enclitic xa as the only element of politeness.

The construction is in Turkish too, yazıver ‘write down for me’, which lends support to the notion that it is pan-Turkic and not simply a Kipchak borrowing into Chvuash and Mari.

Mutual intelligibility quantified

One paper I’ve always admired is Gerd Fraenkel’s ‘Mutual Intelligibility Between Turkish of Turkey and Azerbaijani’ in American Studies in Altaic Linguistics ed. Nicholas Poppe (Bloomington: Indiana University, 1962). After writing in an earlier work that these two languages are about as mutually intelligible as Danish and Norwegian, Fraenkel decided to validate this assertion with hard figures. He prepared 75 sentences in English of increasing complexity, had them translated into Turkish and Azerbaijani by native speakers, and then played them back to a set of testees. Each listener had to select which one of four figures presented to him the sentence was related to. The results were that each group understood no less than 33% of the material and no more than 65%.

The author notes some complications inherent here. Not all of the subjects were equally motivated. Even people who were keen and alert at the beginning of the test had flagging interest. Finding Azeris who had not been exposed to Turkish was also difficult. Still, I admire the effort to reach a number instead of always comparing the languages in question to some other two languages. When the mutual intelligibility of Hill Mari and Meadow Mari, for example, is claimed to be less than the languages formerly called Serbo-Croatian, that doesn’t really clarify the issue for many readers. I think a study like this would be useful for many of the peoples I have worked with.

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.

The catastrophic success of Turkish language reform

Geoffrey Lewis is one of the foremost historians of the Turkish language, and I’ve mentioned him here before in a December 2006 post on the ridiculous so-called ‘Sun-Language Theory’. His work The Turkish Language Reform: A Catastrophic Success (Oxford University Press, 2002). That is rare among monographs for its entertaining tone, and you don’t even have to speak Turkish to get much out of it; any vague prior experience with ‘Altaic’ type languages is enough. On February 11, 2002 Lewis delived the Gunnar Jarring Lecture in Stockholm on the theme of his book, and luckily the text can be read online. Read it, and if you like the topic I’d highly recommend getting ahold of the book. Lewis introduces his lecture with:

My subject this evening is the Turkish language reform. I gave my book about it the subtitle ‘A Catastrophic Success’. Though the reform has not been so drastic in its effect on the spoken language, it has made everything written before the early 1930s, and much that has been written since, increasingly obscure to each new generation. It has undeniably been a success, in that the reformers succeeded in their purpose of ethnic cleansing; getting rid of the non-Turkish elements in their language, so that it has changed as much in the last century as in the preceding seven hundred. I hope to show you why I call that success catastrophic.

And there’s some mention of the Sun-Language Theory here as well:

The Language Society’s Third Congress … was dominated by the Sun-Language Theory, for which he was responsible. Uriel Heyd, in his 1954 book on the language reform, calls it ‘this amazing theory’. So does Remt Brendemoen, writing in 1990, who in addition calls it ‘infamous’. It was inspired by a Dr Kvergic of Vienna, who sent Atatürk an unpublished paper entitled ‘La Psychologie de quelques éléments des Langues Turque’, which did not mention the sun. The sun was part of Atatürk’s contribution. Kvergic asserted, among other things, that Turkish was the first language in the world. Atatürk’s theory taught that language began when primitive man looked up at the sun and said Aa! — in Turkish spelling — which became the first-degree radical of the Turkish languages. Its meanings were numerous, ranging from sun and God to water and time.

The Sun-language Theory

I knew the Turkish language reform involved some odd notions of linguistics, but Brent Brendemoen’s chapter on the process in The Turkic Languages (Routledge, 1998) introduced me to the weirdest part yet, the Sun-language Theory:

There are strong indications that Atatürk was not entirely happy with about the lists of proposed replacements for the Arabic and Persian words published by the TDK in the first years of the reform. In 1935 and 1936, a complete retreat was made with the introduction of the so-called Güneş Dil Teorisi, the ‘Sun-language Theory’, based on a draft that Atatürk had received from an Austrian Serb, Dr Hermann F. Kvergić. According to this theory of language development, Turkish was the mother of all languages. Thus it was no longer necessary to search for pure Turkish words to replace Arabic and Persian ones, since the ultimate origin of these words and languages was Turkish anyhow.

A fine introduction to the episode is an article by Geoffrey L. Lewis in the periodical Turkic Languages, vol. I issue 1 (1997). Kvergić’s work, “La Psychologie de quelques éléments des languages torques” was not entirely absurd, for it basically used Turkish as a mere example for some general musings about morphology:

The theme was that man first realized his own identity when he conceived the idea of establishing what the external objections surrounding him were. Language first consisted of gestures, to which some significant sounds were then added. Kvergić saw evidence for his view in the Turkish pronouns. M indicates oneself, as in men the ancient form of ben ‘I’, and elim ‘my hand’.

Things went bad when language reformers thought that Turkish retained somehow all of the primitive interjections, and therefore could be seen as the parent of all other languages. Lewis writes:

[The theory] saw the beginning of language as the moment when primitive man looked up at the sun and “Aaa!”

That vocable, , was the “first-degree radical of the Turkish language”. It originally meant sun, then sunlight, warmth, fire, height, bigness, power, god, master, motion, time, distance, life, colour, water, earth, voice. As man’s vocal mechanisms developed, other vowels and consonants became available, each with its own shade of meaning. Because the primeval exclamation was shouted, and it is obviously easier to begin a shout with a vowel than with a consonant, any word now beginning with a consonant originally began with a vowel, since abraded. The words yağmur ‘rain’, çamur ‘mud’, and hamur ‘dough’, for example, are compounded of ağmur ‘flowing water’, preceded by ay ‘high’, ‘earth’ and ah ‘food’ respectively. (The reader is urged not to waste time searching the dictionary for the last four words.)

… [The reformer] Dilmen began the next day with a lengthy outline of the theory, proving, among other things, the identity of English god, German Gott and Turkish kut ‘luck’. The proof is simple enough: Gott is + ot, god is + od, kut is uk + ut. He avoids explaining the second t of Gott by spelling it with only one t.