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’).

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?

Scan of Lytkin’s Древнепермский язык available

In spite of continuing interest in the Old Permic language (the Old Permic script was added to Unicode in version 7.0 last year), the only substantial reference for it remains V. I. Lytkin’s Древнепермский язык of 1952. Since the book is either not under copyright or no one particularly cares, I have taken the liberty of making a print-quality (300 dpi) and cleaned-up scan of the book: PDF (10 MB) Even the fold-outs are scanned, though you’ll probably need to print them on A3-sized paper for them to be legible.

Bartens’s history of Permian vowels

In my study of Udmurt and Komi, I have produced an English translation of the chapter on Permian vowels from Raija Bartens’s Permiläisten kielten rakenne ja kehitys (The Structure and Development of the Permian Languages, Helsinki: Finno-Ugrian Society, 2001). While Bartens’s book no longer represents the state of the art in Uralic linguistics, and in the years since Sándor Csúcs has shaken the field up with such publications as Die Rekonstruktion der permischen Grundsprache (Budapest: Akadémiai Kiadó, 2005), Permiläisten kielten rakenne ja kehitys does provide a helpful introduction to 20th-century work on Permian vocalism. Continue reading Bartens’s history of Permian vowels

Language death and revitalization in Russia

There’s an article at Souciant, an online magazine of politics and culture, discussing the state of Russia’s minority languages. Most attention is given to the Volga region. I must credit the authors for addressing something I’ve often felt, namely that active speakers of these languages are often unwilling to admit that prospects for the future are utterly dire:

Some, however, are dismissive of such concern. Leysan Khasanova, owner of a Tatar music shop in Tatarstan’s capital of Kazan, is confident that Tatar will always be spoken on the streets of Kazan, before pointing out that many young Tatars prefer to speak in Russian amongst each other, and that her own children are not proficient in the language.

I could have done without the pointlesss exoticizing, however (Kabardian – a language that is truly a testament to the dynamism of the human oesophagus). Also, the author makes the dubious claim: The Komi Permian language, for example, has some eighteen noun cases – a kind of grammatical suicide given that no amount of emotional feeling for the language as that of one’s ancestors can provide the linguistic aptitude necessary to learn such a language without any prior knowledge. Since some of these cases are marginal, and people growing up with Russian are already accustomed to noun inflection, I do not believe that Komi’s declension would present that much of an obstacle.

IFUSCO used for propaganda

The Finno-Ugrian student conference IFUSCO was held in Russia’s Perm Krai in 2010. Madis Tuuder, a student at the Estonian Art Academy, reported her impressions and subsequently a Finnish translation by Sonja Laitinen appeared in the University of Helsinki’s Alkukoti magazine (2010 no. 12, online version here). Here follows my English translation of a report that explains well why I no longer go to academic conferences in Russia.

IFUSCO (the International Finno-Ugrian Student Conference) is turning into a state propaganda event. This claim is based on multiple indicators from the conferences of recent years. This year’s academic event for Finno-Ugrian linguists and others interested in Finno-Ugrian affairs – which IFUSCO ought to be – was held from May 14 to 16 in the Perm Krai of Russia, in the cities of Perm and Kudymkar.

The Komi-Permyak Autonomous Okrug district was combined several years ago with Perm Oblast to form Perm Krai. Now there’s a Finno-Ugrian façade over the whole region, but what lies behind it is something different. The Komi-Permyak Autonomous Okrug was the only area in Russia where a Finno-Ugrian people made up over half of the population. Now the Komi Permjaks’ share in the population of the region is only 3.7%.

In their opening speeches, local officials took every opportunity to boast that Perm Krai belongs to the family of Finno-Ugrian regions; it would certainly be strange to hear claims to the contrary in this sort of conference.

The choice of Perm, a city with a million inhabitants, as the second conference venue might be due to aspirations to put the city on the Finno-Ugrian world map. We were told, however, that Kudymkar, which is little more than a large village, couldn’t organize such an event on its own. That claim is hard to understand, since the entire conference – except for the public opening ceremonies – took place precisely in Kudymkar.

It has become a sad trend that in recent years the opening ceremonies have sung the praises of local officials. The same happened this year, as can be seen from who was on the organizing committee: of the organizers, three were local ministers. The Finno-Ugrian youth organization MAFUN came last in the list of organizers. The opening speeches dealt with Perm Krai’s economical and social progress, with an emphasis on transport.

One theme emerged at the end of the opening ceremony. Alevtina Lobanova, a lecturer at Perm Pedagogical University, spoke passionately and sensibly on the shrinking role of Finno-Ugrian languages in the social life of their titular regions. Her views and arguments were virtually the opposite of what the officials had said before her. The audience applauded Lobanova’s courage and outspokenness several times.

One local historian’s presentation on ‘societal-social modernization’ attracted some interest, as it ought to have dealt with the development of Komi Permyak identity. The historian however criticized the national policies of the Baltic countries (the only example he gave outside Russia) and recommended that they take Russia’s Finno-Ugrians as a model, for whom the policy cultivated in the Baltic countries would not be suitable and wouldn’t even be considered due to its oppressive and discriminative nature. He compared the state of the Baltic countries to the situation prevailing in Chechnya and called on those two areas to solve their national problems in radical ways.

In their presentations officials praised, besides economic progress, the synergy and neighbourliness of the nationalities in the area. According to them, everything is being done to maintain a diversity of languages and identities. Of course, nobody talked about what hasn’t been done, like a sufficient guarantee of teaching in pupils’ native languages. At the same time that IFUSCO was held, there was a seminar for teachers of minority languages. Of Perm Krai’s many nationalities, the most successful in native-language education are the Tatars. The situation of the area’s titular nationality (we use that term with certain reservations), the Komi Permyaks, becomes worse year after year.

Around 180 students registered for this year’s IFUSCO. Estonia sent 12 people, but there were fewer rows of Finnish and Hungarian students this time. It’s unfortunate that more and more talks and abstracts are in Russian. In former years it was required that participants either speak or write abstracts in a Finno-Ugrian language (such as their native language), but now this requirement has become only a suggestion. Some students were even forbidden from using a Finno-Ugrian language in their talk or abstract.

The pathos of this conference was seasoned by plays about invented pseudo-mythological heroes, which have become an integral part of Finno-Ugrian conferences. The plays deal with historical events (which may not have ever happened) and profess the eternal brotherhood and friendship of local (and sometimes made-up) tribes.

The political tone of the conference was also visible in the fact that during Estonian-led sessions, a picture of the Bronze Soldier was projected on the big screen. However, they did allow people to make their own Powerpoint presentations.

Luckily, politics and propaganda didn’t diminish the students’ enthusiasm and happiness at meeting each other. The next IFUSCO will be held in Hungary. The choice of this venue is intended to bring the conference back on track and offer some relief from these kind of IFUSCOs which are dominated by bureaucrats and state figures.

I was frustrated by the IFUSCO conference in Saransk in 2007, but there state control was visible less in propaganda and more in strict control of participants’ movement. All the participants were split up into different groups depending on their nationality – as a holder of a US passport, I was not even allowed to join my fellow students from University of Helsinki – and had to remain with the group at all times, a minder ensuring that no one wandered off alone. The arrival times of each group at events were staggered, and everyone was marched straight into the lecture halls, so that they could not mingle outside. Unfortunately, it seems that some Western students have contact with Russia’s Finno-Ugrians only at these conferences, and I’d recommend that everyone spend their time and money in travelling independently to Russia instead.

Fieldwork hostility

Mikko Korhonen’s history Finno-Ugrian Language Studies in Finland 1828–1918 (Helsinki: Societas Scientarum Fenica, 1986) has a number of interesting anecdotes, but this one proved a bit disconcerting considering that tomorrow I leave for a month of fieldwork in Mari El and Chuvashia. Korhonen tells of the early Neogrammarian scholar of Finno-Ugrian linguistics, Arvid Oscar Gustav Genetz (1848–1915), who set off on a few great research journeys.

On 7 May 1889 he set out with Severi Nyman yet again towards the east, this time with the objective to study the easternmost dialect of Zyryan — eastern Permyak or Komi-Yaz’va — a previously unstudied, unique language with at that time possibly 3,000 speakers who lived on the western edge of the central Urals on the Yaz’va river, part of the Kama basin.

Genetz worked for about a month in the village of Parshakova in the Volost of Upper Yaz’va, in the district of Cherdyn which came under the Government of Perm. Because of the prejudiced and hostile reaction in the village, Genetz thought it best to leave before he had time to complete his research program.

I wondered what exactly his difficulties were, and I tracked down the source, Genetz’s paper ‘Ost-permische Sprachstudien’, published in Journal de la Société Finno-Ougrienne 15 (1897).

Das Material zur vorliegenden Arbeit wurde im Dorfe Parschakowa von der Wolost Werch-Jaswa im Tscherdynschen Kreise des Gouvernements Perm während einiger Wochen im Mai 1889 von mir gesammelt. Mein hauptsächliches Augenmerk war nur das Verhältniss dieses bisher unbekannten Dialekts der permischen Sprache zu der von Rogow beschriebenen westlichen Mundart im Kreise Solikamsk das nämlichen Gouvernements festzustellen, was wohl auch im Grossen und Ganzen gelungen ist. Eine genauere Beschreibung des betreffenden Dialekts häte vor Allem erfordert das syrjänische Wörterbuch von Wiedemann vollständig durchzunehmen, wozu ich aber nicht die Gelegenheit hatte, theils weil die misstrauische, ja sogar feindliche Haltung der altgläubischen Bevölkerung die Arbeit seht erschwerte und ein längeres Verweilen in der Gegend beinahe unmöglich machte, theils weil mein Reiseplan auch andere Zweige des finnisch-ugrischen Sprachstammes umfasste.

So Genetz isn’t any more specific. This leaves a lot of room for imagination. I picture a poor student clutching his notebooks and dictionaries to his chest as he flees a violent mob of indigenous minority villagers uninterested in preserving their language. For me, things are much less violent, if similarily unproductive, for when young Mari speakers see that I would rather talk about verbs than 50 Cent or how to find a job in America, they just sigh and move to the other side of the room.

The uncertain etymology of Mari plural markers I

I’m currently reading through André Hesselbäck’s Tatar and Chuvash Code-copies in Mari (Uppsala, 2005), the sort of doctoral dissertation I wish I could have written. It contains an account of the differing opinions on the origin of the Mari noun plural markers. These suffixes are -βlä (Hill Mari), -βlak (eastern Meadow Mari dialects, and -šaməč̂ (central Meadow Mari dialects).

The traditional etymology of –βlä and -βlak is that they are from Chuvash. This dates back to G.J. Ramstedt’s 1952 proposal that Chuvash had once had a suffix -wlak originating from earlier *bölük. Now, Ottoman Turkish had a word bölük meaning ‘company’, and Mongolian features the possible Turkic loan böleg, bölüg ‘group, horde’, so Ramstedt is simply projecting this back to Proto-Turkic and assuming that Chuvash then retained it. However, neither a descendant of this Proto-Turkic word nor its supposed grammaticalization into a plural suffix are actually attested in Chuvash.

Hesselbäck finds this attribution to Chuvash far too speculative. He seizes upon a detail found in Gordeev’s Etimologicheskij slovar’ marijskogo jazyka of 1983, where the first attestation of the suffix is jeŋ-bel’ak ‘person-pl’. One notes here that there is a palatalized l’. This suggests that the suffix may be linked to an element in such place names as Paražbel’ak, Aržbel’ak, and also (in a variant form) in Esmekplak and Jadə̂kplak.

This element of placenames may in turn go back to a work originally referring to the division of land in peasant communities, for as Hesselbäck writes:

Mari villages were divided into smaller units, consisting of 10–30 houses, and these units constituted smaller village communities … In these village communities, the cultivable soil belonged to the village community and the production mode in use was the three-field technique. Each peasant, or household, was given one or a couple of shares in the three fields the soil was divided into … According to Paasonen, the village of Churaeva, situation to the north of Birsk in Bashkortostan, was divided into territorial units, each consisting of 10–15 houses, and the name of such a unit was koɣə̂l’o-pökla.

This term for land division even has parallels in other Finno-Ugrian languages, namely Udmurt (böl’ak, bel’ak ‘neighbour’) and Komi (e.g. pe̮l’a ‘field’). Hesselbäck sums it all up in the following concluding words:

I argue that the Mari plural suffix -βlak originates in an administrative term, based on kinship and the distribution of cultivable lands, a term that has parallels in other Finno-Ugrian languages in the Middle Volga region. It was probably initially used as collective suffix, gradually acquiring the function of a general plural ending. The Turkic influence can in this respect be restricted to an indirect influence in the form of a system for the distribution of land, but given the fact that the Volga Bulgars originally were cattle-keeping nomads, this does not seem very probable.

Komi and Erzya news broadcasts online

YLE, the Finnish broadcasting company, has run a Russian-language programme called Uzy Druzhby, but it is now supplemented with news snippets in Erzya and Komi. These can be listened to online.

I’ve always been rather disappointed that the library of my department doesn’t have audio material for students to reach real proficiency in listening, but the amount of Internet resources for audio in the Uralic languages is becoming so large that one can get meaningful exposure to them without a trip to Russia.

Adobe says no to exotic Cyrillic

On the URA-List, Johanna Laakso brought attention to an announcement at an Adobe employee’s weblog suggesting that Adobe will not be supporting the Cyrillic characters used in Mari, Udmurt, and Komi-Zyrian, as well as the neighbouring Turkic languages Bashkir and Chuvash. Apparently even common Old Church Slavonic characters will not be provided. Feedback can be posted there.

The problem isn’t in the realm of character sets, sticking with an outdated system of code pages instead of embracing Unicode. Instead, it’s just a matter of Adobe not wanting to undertake the painstaking task of designing fonts that cover the entire Cyrillic range of Unicode. Well, at least LaTeX’s Computer Modern font family has long been extended to cover almost all Cyrillic-based alphabets, it’s all free.