Four levels of politeness in 17th-century Spanish

One of the more interesting books that I’ve read lately is Christopher J. Pountain’s A History of the Spanish Language Through Texts (London: Routledge, 2001). For the so-called Golden Age of Spanish literature, Pountain especially chooses texts by standardization-minded authors who inadvertently offer many details of the popular speech of their time. The following passage from Gonzalo de Correas’s Arte de la lengua española castellana (1625) suggests a much more complex system than the one found in Peninsular Spanish today, which is down to just tu and usted (and when I moved to Spain in the early millennium, I was urged to use usted much more sparingly than foreigners – on the basis of learning materials from Latin America – usually feel they should).

Devese tanbien mucho notar la desorden, i discordante concordia, que á introduzido el uso, ora por modestia, ora por onrra, ò adulazion. Para lo qual es menester primero advertir, que se usan quatro diferenzias de hablar para quatro calidades de personas, que son: vuestra merzed, él, vos, tu… De merzed usamos llamar à las personas à quien rrespetamos, i debemos ò queremos dar onrra, como son: xuezes, cavalleros, eclesiasticos, damas, i xente de capa negra, i es lo mas despues de señoria. Él usan los maiores con el que no quieren darle merzed, ni tratarle de vos, que es mas baxo, i propio de amos à criados, i la xente vulgar i de aldea, que no tiene uso de hablar con merzed, llama de él al que quiere onrrar de los de su xaez. De vos tratamos à los criados i mozos grandes, i à los labradores, i à personas semexantes; i entre amigos adonde no ai gravedad, ni cunplimiento se tratan de vos, i ansien rrazonamientos delante de rreies i dirixidos à ellos se habla de vos con devido rrespeto i uso antiguo. De tu se trata à los muchachos i menores de la familia, i à los que se quisieren bien: i quando nos enoxamos i rreñimos con alguno le tratamos de él, i de vos por desdén. Supuesto lo dicho, en las tres diferenzias primeras de hablar de merzed, él, vos, se comete solezismo en la gramatica i concordanzias contra la orden natural de las tres personas, xeneros i numeros.

The disorder and disconcordant concord which usage has introduced, whether through modesty, respect or adulation, should also be noted. For this it is necessary, first, to state that four different ways of speech are used for four qualities of person, namely: vuestra merzed, él, vos, tu … We usually call people we respect by merzed, such as judges, gentry, clergy, ladies and black cape people, and it is the highest after señoría. Él is used by older people for someone they do not wish either to call merzed or address as vos, which is lower, and typical of masters to servants; and common and village people, who are not accustomed to using merzed in their speech, address as él people to whom they want to show respect from their class. We call servants and grown up boys vos, and labourers, and such like people; and among friends where there is no gravity nor ceremony vos is used, and so in speeches made in front of kings and addressed to them vos is used with due respect and old usage. Children, younger members of the family and loved ones are called ; and when we get angry and quarrel with someone we call them él, and vos to disparage them. Bearing in mind the foregoing, in the first three of speaking (merzed, él, vos) there are violations of grammar and agreement against the natural order of three persons, gender and number.

One wonders how much this system was really agreed upon by all, and how much it was an idealization of shifting norms across time and space. The Hungarian I learned from Zsuzsa Pontifex’s Teach Yourself Hungarian back in the 1990s seemed to present a straightforward four-level system too: te, maga, Ön, tetszik. However, foreign learners are told very quickly that maga has been on the way out for decades, and if used today is just as likely to be pejorative as it is to tend towards showing respect. In other descriptions, the tetszik address is either replaced by another form of address, or a fifth level is added to the system.

Similarly, of the four-level system I’ve often heard proposed for Romanian – tu, dumneata, dumneavoastră, domnul/doamna – the second is rarely heard in Transylvania and the last is only heard from waiters at high-class restaurants who are clearly aping the French experience.

A calque on Romanian in Transylvanian Hungarian

Another foreigner learning Hungarian, mainly in Hungary with references based on the standard language, has drawn my attention to a grammatical feature he has heard only in Transylvania and which he finds quite jarring. In standard Hungarian, the verb kell ‘to be necessary’ is used with an infinitive (with a personal ending) and optionally a subject in the dative case, e.g. (neked) kell dolgoznod ‘you must work’. Such usage is typical in the Uralic languages.

Some speakers, however, organize things differently, following the verb of necessity with an conjunctive-imperative form and optionally specifying the subject with a nominative personal pronoun: (te) kell dolgozzál ‘you have to work’. This is supposedly found only in these parts.

And if this is a feature specific to Transylvanian Hungarian, then I suppose it is a a calque from Romanian, inasmuch as the Romanian ‘to be necessary’ verb trebuie is optionally preceded by a nominative personal pronoun and followed by a subjective clause containing a finite verb: (tu) trebuie să lucrezi ‘you have to work’. It would be interesting to check if this phrasing or a similar one is also found in Hungarian of Vojvodina, as Serbian has the same construction, just with an indicative verb after treba da instead of a subjunctive mood.

It always comes as a bit of a shock to me when people from Hungary or other foreigners point to Romanianisms in Transylvanian Hungarian, since the ethnic lines are drawn so thick here that influence of Romanian (historically low-prestige) on Hungarian is not ordinarily expected. Hungarians in Cluj who have spent their entire lives around Romanian speakers, speaking Romanian from infancy as they play with Romanian children in the street, nonetheless speak Romanian with a distinct Hungarian accent, because it must be some kind of marker of identity, and with that aloof attitude they must also be resistant to conscious borrowings into the native language. In the Szekler land, where this feature is also attested, many Hungarians have virtually no contact with Romanian, and yet they still get these influences.

Weöres’s ersatz Chinese

The Hungarian poet Sándor Weöres wrote several visual poems, but an especially memorable one is “Kinai templom” (Chinese Temple). Weöres recreates in Hungarian the same monosyllabic, vertically written forms that he must have seen himself during his Asian journey of 1937. The poem is included in his 1941 collection Medusza.

Szent fönn Négy majd
kert, lenn fém mély
tág, cseng: csönd,
lomb: éj Szép. leng
tárt jő. Jó. mint
zöld kék Hír. mült
szárny, árny. Rang. hang.

I tried my hand at translating this into English a few years ago but couldn’t manage to recreate the poem with only monosyllables as in Weöres’ original and his Chinese model. Recently, I discovered that Emery George had translated the poem back in the Seventies:

Sage high, Four then
grove, low, bronze deep
dark night, gongs: peace,
bough: king: Life, tones
green come, rank, like
wing blue fame, chilled
spread, shade. long, song.

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.

On the etymology of Hungarian srác

While brushing up on my Hungarian by reading through Routledge’s Colloquial Hungarian (the 2nd edition, which lives up to its title more than the 1st), I learned the previously unfamiliar word srác ‘guy’, the phonetic shape of which is somewhat unusual for Hungarian.

Searching through Google for an etymology took some work, but eventually I came across this article on the very subject at Magyar Narancs (a liberal weekly with a satiric touch roughly comparable to Private Eye):

In the 1950s srác was truly slang (just as csávó is now). The word is of Yiddish origin, that is, from the form of German spoken by Eastern European Jews, which is also the source of haver, szajré, a stikában and many other Hungarian words. The word derives ultimately from Hebrew sheretz (the plural form of which is shratzim), which refers to creeping, crawling creatures. This Hebrew word is found in the Bible at the very beginning, in Genesis 1:20, where it is used to describe the swarming of aquatic animals. Yiddish speakers, knowing Scripture, used this word in a comic metaphorical way, to describe groups of children (let’s not forget that in olden times there were many children playing together outside homes) as little swarms of creatures. Thus the word shratzim came to be used, later shortened to shratz. (The word entered German slang also as Schratz.) Today it is used only in Hungarian: in Yiddish the word did not put down strong roots, and Yiddish dictionaries published in the 20th century make no mention of it: it came to pass that in the 19th century it entered Hungarian slang (the first written attestation dates from 1888) and became entrenched there, while in the donor language Yiddish it was quickly forgotten.

As several sites I came across listed the word among Romani borrowings into Hungarian, I wanted to do some fact-checking, but indeed there is a German Schratz ‘child’ according to Heidi Stern’s Wörterbuch zum jiddischen Lehnwortschatz in den deutschen Dialekten with the same etymology (under the entry for Scheres), so it looks like the claim holds water.

The Volga Bulgarian inscription of Tatarskoe Shapkino

The palatalization of Proto-Turkic /č/ to /č́/ and then the weakening of the affricate’s initial stop to give /š́/ or /š/, is a notable areal feature extending from the Volga–Kama region into Kazakhstan. In the second volume of Róna-Tas and Berta’s West Old Turkic (Harrassowitz, 2011), which reconstructs the ancestor of Volga Bulgarian and Chuvash on the basis of loanwords into Hungarian, the authors mention how the Tatars, whose own language would soon undergo the same evolution, were confronted by this change already almost complete in Volga Bulgarian:

Important is the bilingual inscription of Tatar Šapkino. In the Arabic inscription containing Volga Bulgarian words, the name of the deceased lady is written as J̌eker, and should be read as /č́eker/, while on the other side of the same stone, the same name is written as Šeker. What was perceived as /č/ by the Volga Bulgars was heard by the Kipchak Tatars as /š/.

Tatarskoe Shapkino is a village in south-central Tatarstan. A description of the Arabic portion of this inscription can be found in Khakimzjanov’s Язык эпитафий волжских булгар (Moscow: Nauka, 1978) on pages 158–159:

هو الحى الذى لا يموت
هذه روضة مستورة
المطهرة الصَّالحة الصائـنة الطيفة
شكر الجى بنت عثمان البلفارؾ
الهم ارحمها رحمة واسعة توفيت
الى رحمة الله تعالى فى اليوم الرابع و العشريں

Huwa-l-xäjji-l-läzi lä jämutu wä küllü häjjin säjämutu. Haẕihi rawḍatu-l-mästüräti-l-muṭahhiräti-ṣ-ṣalixäti-ṣ-ṣa’inäti-ṭ-tajfäti Šäkär-älči bint Gos̱man äl-Bolɣari. Äl-lähummä ärxämha räxmätän wäsigätän. Tuwufijjat ilä-r-räxmäti-l-lahi tägali fi-l-jawmi-r-rabigi wä-l-gišrinä

He lives who does not die, but every living thing dies. This is the plot of the chaste, devout, pious, caring, compassionate Šeker-elči, daughter of Osman the Bulgarian. God, have mercy on her with your great mercy. She was entrusted to the mercy of God the Most-High on the twenty-fourth day.

A photgraph of the Volga Bulgarian inscription of Tatarskoe Šapkino

The monument lies in the village cemetery and has dimensions of 160×60×23 cm. It has been inscribed in two languages: on the obverse there is an Arabic-language inscription written in relief in the Thuluth style of calligraphy, while on the reverse a Turkic text has been inscribed in the Bulgarian variant of the Kufic style. There is also relief writing on the sides of the monument.

A piece of pottery is lying nearby with writing on both sides (but it has not been successfully deciphered). This may give the date of the inscription in question.

Magyar is Turkic

The traditional etymology of the Hungarian self-appellation magyar derives the word from the same Proto-Ugric root as the ethnonym Mańsi, perhaps as a compound with a second word *er of uncertain meaning. However, it is recognized that some of the other Hungarian tribal names during the period of migration into the Carpathian Basin are of Turkic origin, and Árpád Berta shows evidence that magyar is Turkic as well. In a 1998 paper ultimately collected in the memorial volume Studies in Turkic Etymology ed. Lars Johanson and András Róna-Tas (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 2010), Berta suggests that it is a compound of West Old Turkic *ban ‘big’ (cf. Chuvash măn(ă)) and *ǰer ‘place’.

Such an original meaning for this ethnonym acts neatly as the keystone for a series of relationships built up by the other tribal names with Turkic etymologies:

Lastly, let us consider the pattern of meanings that will emerge on the assumption that all Hungarian tribal names are of Turkic origin: ‘Hedge’ (Nyék) – a tribe of guardsmen who, in earlier times, patrolled the borders of the tribal confederation; ‘Chief Place’ (Megyer) – the Chief Tribe after the change of dynasties; ‘Abreast–Behind’ (Kürtgyarmat) – formerly the vanguard and rear guard of the Megyer tribe, merged to protect the new Chief Tribe after the change of dynasties; ‘Tarxan’ (Tarján) – the new Chief Tribe; ‘Little Flank/Face’ (Jenő) – the flank or vanguard of the new Chief Tribe; ‘Back; the Last’ (Kér) – the rear guard of the new Chief Tribe; ‘Fragment’ (Keszi) – the remnant of a former major tribe. (p. 184)

That bit is somewhat speculative. However, the evidence for a Turkic origin of the name that Berta presents is strong and I’d like to see this paper get more attention.

The twists and turns of Chuvash etymology

The Chuvash branch of Turkic actually preserved some lexical items common to the whole Turkic family, but you’d never guess it from looking at modern Chuvash. Here the early Chuvash loans into Hungarian prove essential for knowing the whole history of r-type Turkic.

The first example is Proto-Turkic *teŋiz ‘sea’. Chuvash must have inherited this, because it was borrowed into Hungarian as tenger. In modern Chuvash, we do not find this word, however, but tinĕs, clearly a loan from a z-type Turkic language, presumably Tatar tiŋez (Fedotov 1996: 232).

The other example is also maritime. Proto-Turkic *yinčü ‘pearl’ must have survived into the Chuvash branch long enough to be borrowed by Hungarian as gyöngy and even Russian as žemčhug. The distinct Proto-Chuvash form must have been something like *ǯinǯü (Fedotov 1996: 155). At some point, however, Chuvash must have lost it. Modern Chuvash ĕnče would seem to be a borrowing of Tatar enče, as the Proto-Chuvash form would have developed to something like ˣśĕnśĕ.

(Róna-Tas 1982 also has much discussion of using Chuvash loans into other languages to peer into the history of Chuvash itself.)

I’m curious about the dating of these loans into Chuvash, as they were evidentally borrowed after Volga Tatar’s switch of mid vowels with high vowels, a change I’ve always thought was quite late. Tatar loans in Mari, such as Mari osal ‘bad, evil’ ~ modern Tatar usal, seem to preserve the original vocalism. Did the Mari have heavy Tatar influence so much earlier than the Chuvash?


  1. Fedotov, M. R. (1996). Etimologičeskij slovar’ čuvašskogo jazyka. Čeboksary: Čuvašskij gosudarstvennij institut gumanitarnyx nauk.
  2. Róna-Tas, András (1982). “The periodization and sources of Chuvash linguistic history”. In: Chuvash Studies, ed. András Róna-Tas. Asiatische Forschungen 79. Wiesbaden: Otto Harassowitz, 113–170.

More weird sound changes in Romanian borrowings

The Crestomație de literatură română veche edited by I. C. Chițimia and Stela Toma (Cluj-Napoca: Editura Dacia, 1984) that I picked up for cheap last year in a Cluj antiquary has so much trivia on Slavonic hangers-on in the early modern Romanian lexicon that I could do an endless series of posts here. Less visible but often even more intriguing are the signs of contact with Hungarian. A liturgy book produced in Brașov in Transylvania in 1570 features the following lines of translation of Psalm 50: Ție unuia greșiiu și hiclenșug înaintea ta feciu, ca să dereptezi-te întru cuvintele tale și pîrî-veri cînd veri judeca ‘Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done this evil in thy sight: that thou mightest be justified when thou speakest, and be clear when thou judgest.’

Here the word hiclenșug ‘betrayal’ is clearly a borrowing of Hungarian hitlenség ‘infidelity’, a perfectly Magyar formation formed by hit ‘belief’ plus the caritive suffix lan/len and then the abstract formation ság/ség. I don’t know how to explain the final vowel in the Romanian form other then by wondering if the Hungarian ending, like many Hungarian endings, originally had an invariable back vowel before it was made to conform to vowel harmony.

The dissimilation before /l/ of /t/ to /k/ is a bit odd too, but things get stranger still when one considers that hiclenșug is archaic in Romanian, with not even an entry in the Dicționarul explicativ al limbii române, but the loan survives still today in the further altered form vicleșug. Now, I cannot help but wonder if that change of /h/ to /v/ is related to the word-final change of /h/ to /v/ in loanwords that I previously wrote about here.

The migration of the Hungarians

In Historical and Linguistic Interaction Between Inner-Asia and Europe ed. Árpád Berta (Szeged, 1997), the Proceedings of the 39th Permanent International Altaistic Conference (PIAC) in Szeged, Hungary June 16–21, 1996, András Róna-Tas contributes the paper ‘The migration of the Hungarians and their settlement in the Carpathian Basin’. It sketches the stages by which the Hungarians went from being a minor Finno-Ugrian people somewhere near the Permians to masters of modern-day Hungary, with a few interesting linguistic bits.

Róna-Tas gives the etymology of the Hungarian people’s self-appellation magyar as a compound of the ethnonym *manš (cognate with the self-appelation of the Vogul/Mansi people) plus the word *er ‘man, creature’. Indeed, the form magyer lacking vowel harmony was recorded until the 13th century.

The Hungarians switched to a nomadic way of life in the 5th of 6th centuries AD in the southern part of the Urals near the Rivers Yayik or Ural. This is when all the Chuvash-type Turkic words came in, such as Hu. ökör ‘ox’ ~ Chuv. *văgăr but Old Turkic öküz.

Along with a host of other Turkic peoples, the Hungarians reached southern Russian near the border with modern-day Ukraine, inhabiting the area between the Kuban, the Don and the Sea of Azov. This was just north of the Alans, whose presence in the region is well-documented. Alan contacts gave loanwords such as Hungarian asszony ‘noblewoman’ ~ Old Osetian axsin ‘princess’. Old Turkic loanwords also came into Hungarian at the time, such as Hu. kőris ‘ash tree’ ~ West Old Turkic keürič and Hu. gyümölcs ‘fruit’ ~ OT yemiš. Their vicinity to the Black Sea facilitated the borrowing of words such as Hu. homok ‘sand’ ~ OT kumaki and Hu. hajó ‘boat’ ~ OT. kayik.

The final stage before the occupation of the Hungarian basin is one that I didn’t know about earlier, but seems to have gone on for nearly two hundred years before they eventually reached their current home in AD 895. Towards the end of the 7th century, the Hungarians moved down into the territory between the Dnieper and the Lower Danube. The early Hungarians called this region Etelküzü, where Etel is from the generic West Turkic name for ‘river’ and küzü is the same as the root of modern Hungarian postposition között ‘between’ which has a locative ending tacked on. The name of the region is equivalent to Greek ‘Mesopotamia’. This is when loanwords such as Hu. szőlő ‘wine grape’ ~ Turkic yedlig were borrowed.

I also thought it neat to learn that the Hungarian-speaking inhabitants of ‘Magna Hungaria’, the area around the Kama River visited by the Hungarian friar Julian in 1235 who was amazed to meet long separated kinsmen, had not stayed in the area the entire time, but in fact moved there from Etelküzü with some Bulgar tribes.