Vanished words for ‘wild animal’ in Mari and Mordvin

In 1960 Thomas Sebeok exhaustively examined the 18th-century Mari wordlist of Pallas (part of the two-volume Linguarum Totius Orbis Vocabularia comparativa, Saint-Petersburg, 1786 and 1789). The majority of Sebeok’s analysis is very solid. However, with the limited resources he had available at the time, he was unable to determine the exact Mari forms for a handful of words, and he was forced to mark them “unattested” and move on. Furthermore, he misread some of Pallas’ Cyrillic spellings (the typeface uses very similar letter forms for <т> <ш>, etc.). Empowered by the publication of Tscheremissisches Wörterbuch, I’ve written an article filling in most of these gaps and correcting misreadings, which I hope to publish next year.

Always intriguing, however, are the prospects of old Mari words (inherited Uralic material or loans) that subsequently vanished. One item that Sebeok left marked as “unattested” is Pallas’s item 147, Russian звѣрь ‘beast’ = Mari важикъ (which Sebeok reads as važik). No such form is attested even in TschWb. It is not satisfying to explain this as a misprint for MariE voĺə̑k ‘livestock’, as languages in this part of the word tend to carefully distinguish between wild and domesticated animals.

Under the same item, Pallas gives Mordvin пакша. Can we establish some connection between the Mari and Mordvin words, desperately assuming metathesis? If we read Pallas’s Mordvin form as pakša, no such item is found in the Heikki Paasonen lexicon. Erzya pakśa, with a slightly different consonant, is found in compounds like pakśarga ‘wild duck’, but the first element is pakśa ‘field’, and this is a loanword from Chuvash or Mishär Tatar. It is not uncommon for languages in this part of the world to designate wild species by adding words for ‘forest’ or ‘field’ to animal names.

It is nonetheless curious that the first, essentially adjectival element of a compound like this would be separated out and treated as a noun corresponding to Russian звѣрь. Furthermore, Pallas’ spelling suggests š and not ś. Veršinin’s Mordvin etymological dictionary gives a word pakš(a), but with the meaning ‘child’, which doesn’t seem to fit here. However, Erzya has the word rakšańaзверёк, little animal’, a diminutive of rakša attested in Paasonen only with the meaning ‘horse’. Could Mordvin rakša have earlier meant ‘animal’ in general and was then misspelled in Pallas with an initial p- instead of r-? Either way, no connection to the supposed Mari word is possible.

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?

Tatar and Finno-Ugrian separatism real or supposed

The Mari news site MariUver has reposted an interesting article originally published at PolitRUS about a recent political conference in Russia, which I’ve translated from Russian below. There’s an element of conspiracy ravings here; the “expert in Islamic studies” Suleymanov has drawn criticism for his claims of Tatar extremism. The last paragraph reveals something of opinions held within Russia on the Mari, Mordvin and Udmurt emigrants who have been of such help to Finno-Ugrists at European universities.

The West is Evaluating the Possibility of Supporting Islamic Separatists in the Volga Region

The issue of drawing NATO countries’ attention to outbreaks of national separatism and Islamic terrorism in the Volga Region was one of the main themes of the Sixth All-Russian Conference of Applied Studies “Наука молодых” (Study of Youth) which was held on December 18 in Arzamas (Nizhny Novgorod oblast). The conference was organized by the A. P. Gajdar Arzamas State Pedagogical Institute and drew participation from scholars and experts from neighbouring oblasts and republics. Attendees were especially interested in talks by researchers from Tatarstan, where over the last year the situation of religious extremism and national separatism has been sharpened.

As Rais Suleymanov, the director of the Volga Centre for Regional and Ethnoreligious Research РИСИ explained, starting with the “Nurlat episode” (a special forces operation to liquidate a group of armed militants in the Nurlat region of Tatarstan on November 25, 2010), as of December 2012 Tatarstan has been visited by journalists and political analysts from France, the United States, Great Britain, Holland, Poland and other countries. There have even been visitors from Australia and Brazil.

In the opinion of Suleymanov, such visits are not coincidental: Arriving under the pretext of being reporters, scholars and analysts, our Western guests often come not because of an interest in journalism or research, but in order to gather information about how serious the problem of the Volga Region becoming a hotspot is.

At the same time, in the words of this specialist in Islamic studies, the Western experts that he has met with personally use a special “methodology of communication”. Besides, the very existence of greater interest in this subject and the overwhelming desire to meet with separatists and fundamentalists speaks to the fact that the West is evaluating the possibility of financing and providing informational support to the Islamist underground and nationalists in Tatarstan, Suleymanov stated. He added that in this context one should look to the activities of journalists from the Qatar television network Al Jazeera, which has a branch in Kazan.

In addition to Suleymanov’s talk, his colleague Vasily Ivanov noted that the international terrorist organization Muslim Brotherhood through its agents in Russia has also shown an interest in Finno-Ugrian nationalist movements.

Ivanov gave his own talk titled “Finno-Ugrian separatism in the Volga Region: its ideology, the extent of its spread and foreign influences”. Analysing outbreaks of Finno-Ugrian separatism in Russia at the turn of the 20th and 21st centuries, the researcher pointed to the support that Mari, Mordvin and Udmurt nationalists receive today from Finland, Hungary and Estonia.

The situation is becoming more serious because anti-Russian propaganda is published on the internet by people studying in institutes of higher education in those countries — undergraduates, graduate students and PhD candidates from the Volga republics at universities in the European Union, Ivanov underlined.

Iranian loans in Mordvin

I found this little bit of trivia from Raija Barten’s Mordvalaiskielten rakenne ja kehitys (Helsinki: Finno-Ugrian Society, 1999) worth translating and sharing.

Mordvin also has Indo-Iranian and Iranian loanwords which are not found in other Finno-Ugrian languages. Some 18 items have been found (Korenchy 1988: 675; only Hungarian has more of these loans: in Hungarian alone 30 Iranian loanwords have been found; in Mari there are only 6 such loans). Examples include M[oksha] pavas, E[rzya] pas ‘God;’ in Moksha also ‘luck’ ~ Sanskrit bhagas ‘God, sun, luck’. E veŕges, M vəŕgas ‘wolf’ ~ Sanskrit vṛgas. By the time of Avestan, Iranian words had already lost final sibilants, so Mordvin may have borrowed the words from an older layer. However, it may be that some Iranian dialects spoken in Southern Russia had conserved old features. Therefore, the borrowing may have occurred later, in the Middle Iranian period. (The Middle Iranian Saka tribes inhabited the north shore of the Black Sea as late as AD 400.) The Erzya name for the Volga, Rav, Ravo is attributed to Iranian, while in Moksha the same word rava means river. The term tarvas for a scythe and the E śeja and M śava ‘goat’ were also borrowed from the Iranians. The Mordvin kinship term E sazor, sazoro, M sazə̑r, sazə̑ra ‘sister’ is attributed to an Iranian source (it is present in Baltic Finnic from a Baltic source and Mari, Udmurt and Komi possibly have cognate words).

The Korenchy 1988 citation given is the chapter ‘Iranischer Einfluss in den finnisch-ugrischen Sprachen’ in The Uralic Languages: Description, history and foreign influences ed. Denis Sinor (Leiden: Brill, 1988).

Festschrift for Sammallahti now available on the web

The Sami-titled Festschrift for Pekka Sammallahti Sámit, sánit, sátnehámit. Riepmočála Pekka Sammallahtii miessemánu 21. beaivve 2007, published last spring as Mémoires de la Société Finno-Ougrienne 253, is now available online. There are a number of interesting papers here, published in Sami, German, Finnish or English. One of them in particular, Juha Janhunen’s ‘The primary laryngeal in Uralic and beyond’ is especially striking for its application of contemporary phonetic and phonological theory (and an updating of FU transcription) to a well-known Proto-Uralic mystery.

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.

Mordovian authorities seek to shut down Erzya-language newspaper

This is unfortunate news for both Erzya-language publishing and for the press freedoms of Russia’s language minorities. There was an English-language article at the Finnish-Russian Civic Forum (no longer available) on the start to this:

Authorities in Russia’s autonomous Republic of Mordovia have pressed charges against the independent newspaper, Erzyanj Mastor (“Land of Erzya”), demanding its closure, Radio Svoboda reports.

The newspaper is being accused of inciting ethnic hatred and of extremism. The trial date has been set at 10 August 2007. The newspaper’s editors expect the court to deliver a verdict that will satisfy the prosecutor.

The editor-in-chief of Erzyanj Mastor, Mr Yevgeny Chetvergov, said the prosecutors moved against the newspaper immediately after the Finno-Ugric festival that was held in Saransk recently. The newspaper criticised the event repeatedly.

Erzyanj Mastor has been published in Saransk since 1994. The newspaper’s publisher is the Foundation for the Salvation of the Erzyan Language, which was founded by members of the Erzyan intelligentsia.

The deputy editor-in-chief of Erzyanj Mastor is Mr Grigory Musalev, Chairman of the Foundation for the Salvation of the Erzyan Language. He is the leading figure in the national opposition movement in Mordovia. has archived a Russian-language article that covers some of the legal attacks made so far.

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.