Afanasy Nikitin’s Languages.

Intrigued by a mention in The Cambridge History of Russian Literature (see this post), I turned to the long extract from “Afanasy Nikitin‘s Journey Across Three Seas” in Medieval Russia’s Epics, Chronicles, and Tales, by Serge A. Zenkovsky, and was struck not only by Nikitin’s audacious and open-minded journey to Persia and India (and return by way of Ethiopia, Arabia, and Armenia — alas, he died in Smolensk in 1472 before he could reach his native Tver) but by his linguistic accomplishments. In his introduction, Zenkovsky discusses the “pious and lyric digressions that sometimes take the form of a prayer or appeal to the Creator, or an evocation to his beloved Russian land”:

Curiously, part of these digressions were written by Nikitin in the language of the Koran, or in the “basic Islamic” business dialect of the Near East in which Arabic, Turkic, and Persian words are interwoven. One may presume that he did this to protect his notes from unwanted readers. It may be added that some intimate and practical observations of Indian women are given in the same dialect.

The presence of Near Eastern linguistic and stylistic elements, together with descriptions of unknown, fairy-tale-like lands, lends Nikitin’s story a particularly exotic touch. The writer obviously enjoyed the profuse use of foreign words and sonorous Oriental names of cities and lands, and played unremittingly with them. […]

The statement that there is just one and the same God in Islam and Christianity, as well as the use in Christian prayer of the word, “Allah,” […] are a most unusual and unexpected demonstration of religious tolerance in both medieval Russian and Western writing. […]

(Nikitin ended his report with a long Christian prayer in Arabic.)

A very interesting-sounding fellow; I’d like to have had a chance to talk with him.

Comments

  1. Steven Lubman says:

    There’s a great site with many Old Russian texts in the original and translations, including Afanasiy’s Travels http://lib.pushkinskijdom.ru/Default.aspx?tabid=5068

  2. “And everyone here is black and they are all bad people and their women are all whores and witches and liars and they poison their guests” (c) Nikitin’s account of southern Indian city of Bidar.

    I gather his relationship with Indian women was not always successful…

  3. There’s a great site with many Old Russian texts in the original and translations, including Afanasiy’s Travels

    Thanks, I bookmarked it!

    I gather his relationship with Indian women was not always successful…

    Heh. Poor Afanasy!

  4. tetri_tolia says:

    The Antiochian Orthodox, who would likely not have been unknown to a Russian even of the Middle Ages, usually use primarily Arabic in their liturgies. I am not entirely positive but I think they must use the name Allah. Can anyone help confirm this?

  5. I think they must use the name Allah

    All arabophones use the same word for God, whatever their religion, and all except the most fringe factions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam agree that they all worship the same entity (though they disagree about his nature, of course). In addition, it was used for the supreme deity among the pre-Islamic Arabs, and is even used by Sikhism, which is monotheistic but non-Abrahamic. Note that Elohim, one of the words for ‘God’ in Hebrew, is a morphological plural but functional singular; the rarely-used morphological singular is Eloah, cognate with Allah, which has no morphological plural.

  6. J. W. Brewer says:

    Most Arabic-speaking Christians in the Middle East (and some of their diaspora descendants in the U.S. etc) now use Arabic as their liturgical language, but in many cases (different communities have different timelines, of course) have changed over to it from something older (Coptic, various sorts of Aramaic, Greek, and/or maybe something else I’m not immediately thinking of) in the “recent”-ish past, by which I mean not since 1950, but perhaps more recently than the 15th century. (I don’t know the specific history of the Antiochians on this issue, but they still had a hierarchy dominated by ethnic Greeks at the top until the early 18th century.) Of course, all of these people must have had ways of talking about religious stuff in their everyday vernacular earlier on, and might have done some of their private prayers in the vernacular just as pre-Vatican-II Roman Catholics did.

    I remember going to Matins at an Antiochian parish in California some years ago where first a youngish and very “California” -looking member of the choir (as in, evoked the Malibu Ken and Barbie dolls of my youth) would chant a psalm in English and then an elderly fellow who looked (by the same criteria) very un-Californian would chant the next psalm in Arabic.

  7. David Marjanović says:

    Eloah, cognate with Allah

    More precisely, /ʔeloː(a)h(a)/ is cognate with Aramaic and Arabic /ʔilaːh(u)/, and Allāh is */alʔilaːh(u)/, “the God” (much like in Greek), first contracted to */alʔlaːh(u)/ and then to /alˁːaːh(u)/ with the one-word phoneme /lˁː/.

  8. I’m curious about the name of the legendary tabla player, Alla Rakha. Was his given name really the Muslim Allah?

  9. Allah [participle] is a subcontinental rather than an Arabic naming pattern; Allah Rakha means ‘saved by God’. Normally both words are used together as a name. When a person with this name becomes westernized, they often either merge their names into Allarakha or adopt a different name altogether in order to avoid being called Allah. An similar name is Allah Ditta ‘given by God’, analogous to the Greek name Theodotos, used by both pagans and Christians, and the rare Latin Christian name (A)Deodatus > French Dieudonné. The participles are transparently Indic rather than Arabic.

  10. Crystal clear now. Thanks!

  11. A comparable situation is the many Arabic names beginning ʿAbd al- (عبد ال‎) ‘servant of,’ followed by one of the names of God (e.g., ʿAbd el-Ḥamīd ‘servant of the Praised One’). Westerners took this as a separate name “Abdul.”

  12. Indeed, which is why the name of Abdul al-Hazred, the putative author of the Necronomicon, is not well-formed: it has two articles in a row. Scholars at Miskatonic generally assume that his Arabic name (or alias, more likely) was عبدالله الحظرد ‘Abd Allah al-Ḥaẓred ‘servant of God the Prohibited’, which would anglicize as Abdullah al-Hazred. (In real life, al-Hazred is an exoticized version of the surname of some of Lovecraft’s ancestors, Hazard).

  13. David Marjanović says:

    See also: Theodoulos, Christodoulos.

  14. A comparable situation is the many Arabic names beginning ʿAbd al- (عبد ال‎) ‘servant of,’ followed by one of the names of God (e.g., ʿAbd el-Ḥamīd ‘servant of the Praised One’). Westerners took this as a separate name “Abdul.”

    The initial component in the corresponding Hebrew name עובדיה Ovadya or Ovadia, rendered Obadiah in English biblical texts, could be translated as either ‘servant of’ or ‘worshiper of.’ The ya or ia suffix, one of several names of God, is seen in many Biblical/Hebrew names.

  15. So Ovadia/Obadiah is exactly parallel to Abdallah. Interesting.

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