I’m following up my Caucasus books by reading Henri Troyat’s biography Tolstoy; normally I’m suspicious of biographies that “read like novels,” but this one works for me so far, and it’s now brought me to the Caucasus with the eager but hopelessly unfocused twentysomething Lev Nikolaevich, who’s escaping the social whirl and gambling debts of his Moscow life by hanging out with his beloved older brother Nicholas, serving with a regiment stationed in Chechnya. The future passionate antiwar activist (who helped inspire me to become a conscientious objector almost forty years ago) decided he wanted to be a soldier too and “set off with his brother for Tiflis, where he could take the induction examination.” But when he got to the capital of Georgia (now Tbilisi), he discovered he was missing a necessary certificate and would have to wait for it to arrive from far-off Tula. There follows a description of the town:
Disappointed, he decided to wait for the document there and, letting his brother return to Starogladkovskaya alone, he rented a room in a modest house in the suburbs—the favorite haunt of the German colony, among the vineyards and gardens on the left bank of the Kura.
South of the German settlement, on the same side of the river, the native quarter spread along the mountainside: steep narrow streets, houses with overhanging balconies, a languid sibilant throng in which veiled Moslem women brushed against Persians with scarlet-painted fingernails and high hairdresses, Tatar mollahs in loose gowns and green or white turbans, hillsmen from the conquered tribes wearing Cherkesska belted at the waist. The hieratic camels’ heads swayed above the crowd. It was hot, even in November. The air smelled of dirt, honey, incense and leather. On the right bank of the Kura lay the Russian town, clean, neat and administrative, exhaling the tedium of a provincial capital beneath the sun.
Your basic local color, but what struck me was that odd adjective “sibilant.” It’s not clear what language he’s trying to describe, if indeed he had a particular one in mind—Armenian, Georgian, Persian, Russian, and German, among others, were all heard, and it’s true that they all have sibilants, but how many languages don’t? I imagine if you’d asked Troyat (born Lev Aslanovich Tarasov in Moscow), he’d have given a languid Armeno-Russian-French shrug and waved the question off, but I’ll tell you what I think: I think writers who want to describe the people of some exotic locale and their language throw a dart at a board with labels like “guttural,” “sibilant,” “nasal,” and the like, and use whichever the dart finds its way to. (There’s an amusing discussion of guttural at Language Log, where Ben Zimmer says “it’s one of those words that gets thrown around whenever a speaker finds an alien speech pattern somehow displeasing. … A quick Web search turns up such examples as ‘a guttural English/Chinese mishmash,’ ‘a guttural Yorkshire accent,’ ‘a guttural Southern drawl,’ ‘guttural Ebonics, and countless others.”)
Update. I have decided, based on the comments, that “sibilant” isn’t actually an attempt to describe a language after all, which strictly speaking renders this post superfluous. Good thing I’m lax about staying on topic!
If you’re curious about Tbilisi/Tiflis, there’s a map of the prerevolutionary city (based on the 1914 Baedeker, which I’ve been unable to find except as a small-scale teaser) here, and you can see some old photographs here.