Another find from my referrer log: Ahnenkult (‘ancestor worship/cult’). The About page says, “This blog is concerned with history, both human and natural, and race in its various senses. Ortu Kan is an Asiatic in the second decade of his life, temporarily in the West but not of it. His people’s language is Altaic (sensu Miller).” Language is not mentioned as a topic, but it comes up frequently, for instance here (Nietzsche: “It is highly probable that philosophers within the domain of the Ural-Altaic languages (where the concept of the subject is least developed) look otherwise “into the world,” and will be found on paths of thought different from those of the Indo-Germanic peoples and the Muslims: the spell of certain grammatical functions is ultimately also the spell of physiological valuations and racial conditions”) and here:

Mongols apparently think that certain ethnic traits are innate, not learnt. For example, language! The pure Halh dialect is something so subtle that no one can learn to imitate it very well. The Buryats who have long lost their own dialect would also tell me that when one is old one can no longer control one’s tongue, but finds oneself intuitively slipping back to the Buryat pronunciation. A Chinese erliiz [half-breed], when old, would often pronounce Mongolian badly with a subtle Chinese flavour, so it was claimed.

But whether they involve language or not, many of the posts are fascinating; did you know, for instance, about the Kalmyks at the fall of Paris in 1814? The blog has been going since last May; I hope it continues for a good long time.


  1. David Eddyshaw says:

    Probably pointless to ask what on earth Nietzsche thought he was talking about.
    Can’t think of any real-world sense in which either Uralic or Altaic (sensu Miller) languages have a “poorly developed concept of subject.”
    I don’t think he was operating in the world of verifiable fact in any case, though. I expect he would have regarded such concerns as bourgeois, even servile and certainly unbefitting an uebermensch.
    Perhaps it makes more sense in the original German? Maybe not “subject” in the grammatical sense?

  2. in dem der Subjekt-Begriff am schlechtesten entwickelt ist

  3. David Eddyshaw says:

    Thanks, 11anon! Jenseits von Gut und Böse, I discover.
    Looks like he was indeed thinking about the grammatical concept. Pity.
    I’m sure Finns and Hungarians would be delighted to be told that their languages make it so difficult for them to appreciate the Western weltanschauung.
    Come to that, what are we to make of all those Muslim speakers of Turkic languages? Does their religion trump their linguistic handicap/privilege?
    Perhaps (seriously) Nietzsche was under the impression that “Ural-Altaic” languages are mostly spoken by Buddhists (e.g. Mongolians, Japanese)? He might not have known that Buddhism arose among speakers of Indoeuropean languages ..
    The context doesn’t really help to make it any more sensible, being essentially higher drivel about race and language.
    The more pity, in as much as there probably is a perfectly respectable case to be made for some aspects of Western philosophy indeed being influenced by chance features of most European languages, like happening to use the same verb for “be (exist)” and “be (something)”.

  4. J. W. Brewer says:

    Says wikipedia: “Hungarian Turanian Society, Hungary, founded 1910, a conservative and highly secretive Turanianist group. [1]. It printed the Turan magazine, with frequent articles on Japan, sent a cultural mission to Japan in 1922 and supporting greater links between the Hungarian Royal Household and the Japanese Imperial Family[2].” Pan-Turanianism was of course the thesis of the essential ethnocultural commonality and joint political destiny of all speakers of Ural-Altaic languages (at a time when that grouping was philologically respectable).

  5. aquilluqaaq says:

    Nietzsche is primarily interested in the ontology of the subject (in, e.g., Descartes, Kant, and Hegel) – hence, I suppose, Philosophen (des ural-altaischen Sprachbereichs) – though he clearly therefore thinks languages exhibit ontological commitments.
    Not that I’m an expert, but the remark about the poorly developed Subjekt-Begriff in Uralic reminds me of a Nenets joke:
    – Мань варкмʼ няʼмадмʼ! (I caught a bear!)
    – Тюконʼ тад! (Bring it here!)
    – Яʼмав! (I can’t!)
    – Харт туʼ! (You come then!)
    – Сиʼми варк ни ӈэдарамбюʼ! (The bear won’t let me!)
    [n.b. мань (‘I’); сиʼми (‘me’); харт (‘-self’)]

  6. David Eddyshaw says:

    I might have gone my whole life and never seen a Nenets joke used as a counter-example to a Nietzschean generalisation.
    I am deeply grateful to you, aquilluqaaq.

  7. aquilluqaaq says:

    The joke cuts both ways, of course: pronominally marked for person, but lacking in agency.

  8. David Eddyshaw says:

    Doesn’t the very fact that it *is* a joke imply a presumption that the “I” in the first line is the agent?
    (More boringly,) are your glosses
    мань (‘I’); сиʼми (‘me’)

  9. David Eddyshaw says:

    Given that Nietzsche was not (whatever else one might say about him) stupid, I’m still trying to puzzle out what he can have been thinking about.
    Maybe he had in mind the lack of subject agreement on verbs in languages like Japanese and Mongolian.
    (He was then simply wrong about Hungarian, Finnish, Turkish … but then he seems to be operating with a pretty hazy idea of “Ural-Altaic.” Makes more sense if one thinks purely geographically, instead of in terms of actual language families; maybe that’s what he’s doing.)
    This is certainly different from familiar European languages and also from Arabic (which is maybe where “Muslim” gets coopted.) I can imagine someone (naively) supposing that this implied a different outlook on the world in some way.
    [I got thinking about this from wondering whether in aquilluqaaq's joke the verbs are marked for subject person. I notice that the bear himself gets an ending when he's caught that he lacks when he's preventing me coming. Accusative?]

  10. Cassirer wrote something along those lines, too, citing Winkler.

  11. aquilluqaaq: The version of this joke I know is about two Irish soldiers in Imperial Russian service and a Ta(r)tar, as a consequence of which the phrase “caught a tartar” entered the English language (first recorded by the OED in 1680).

  12. aquilluqaaq says:

    John Cowan: I wasn’t familiar with the English expression ‘to catch a Tartar’ – thanks for that.
    David Eddyshaw: surely the point of the joke depends on the de facto agency lying not with the speaker, but with the bear, both despite the thematic relations of the opening line (‘I caught a bear!’), and because of their reversal in the punch-line (‘The bear won’t let me!’).
    мань (1st.sg.nom.pers.pron.), сиʼми (1st.sg.acc.pers.pron.);
    варк-мʼ (abs.sg.acc.n.), варк (abs.sg.nom.n.).
    And, yes, the verb няʼма-дмʼ, for example, is marked for person (indet. 1st sg.).

  13. David Eddyshaw says:

    Interesting. Maybe Nietzsche wasn’t so far from contemporary expert linguistic opinion at that.
    I suppose there was in those days a focus on morphology rather than syntax, so it wouldn’t be so bizarre to suppose that languages which didn’t mark subjects with an identifiable inflection didn’t really have the concept at all.

  14. David Eddyshaw says:

    Yes, of course you’re right. I didn’t explain myself very well. What I meant was that if languages like Nenets really didn’t have a “concept of subject”, and with agents typically appearing as subjects, there wouldn’t be any joke, because there couldn’t be any incongruity between the real agent and subject. So that fact that there is a joke at all shows that Nenets *does* have a concept of subject, and that it’s similar to the usual European one in this respect.

  15. @David: There were all kinds of bizarre linguistic “truths” bantered around at that time. I didn’t want to bring it up since you seemed to be biased against Nietzshce from your first post. So, thanks to MMcM for giving an example. After all, such “truths” still crop up today from time to time.
    I quite like #20 of Beyond Good and Evil. Even if he was wrong about Altaic languages, I think fragment 20 was right on and totally in keeping with Nietzsche’s usual critique of philosophy.
    “Unter einem unsichtbaren Banne laufen sie immer von Neuem noch einmal die selbe Kreisbahn…”

  16. marie-lucie says:

    I caught a bear, etc

    Surely the joke works as well in English as in Nenets: the speaker has not actually caught a bear, but has been caught by a bear. He presents himself as the catcher (using the nominative form for “I” and the accusative for “bear”), until he is obliged to acknowledged that the bear (nominative) caught him (accusative for ‘me’) and is still hanging on to him. In a language with more obvious case marking, such as Latin or Russian, the nominative and accusative forms of the noun for ‘bear’ would be used as in Nenets. So the joke is about the deflation of the speaker’s boastful self-report, and has nothing to do with different structures in Nenets and English (at least as shown in this particular instance).

  17. Of course, the joke is the same whether a language uses word order or case markings to distinguish subject and object. But, for example in Russian, it adds to the punchline to keep word order the same as in the opening line. It just sounds more humorous.
    Я медведя поймал … Меня медведь не пускает

  18. marie-lucie says:

    D.O. Sure, but the point raised above concerned Nenets, and whether there is ambiguity in the Nenets sentences about which pronoun is the subject and and which is the object. I don’t think there is, any more than in the Russian or English translations.

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