AMATEUR LINGUISTICS.

Andrey Zaliznyak, a Russian historical linguist, gave a talk last month “On professional and amateur linguistics” that can be read (in Russian) here (found via Anatoly). I recommend it to anyone who can read Russian; for those who can’t, I’ll translate an excerpt of general applicability:

In school they teach the spelling and grammar of one’s native language and elements of foreign ones, but they don’t give even a basic idea of how languages change over time. As a result, to satisfy their lively interest in questions related to language, most people must content themselves with whatever information they happen to read or encounter on radio and television. But many try to get answers to these questions by means of their own thoughts and guesses. The fact that they have mastered their own language gives them the feeling that they already possess everything they need to understand the subject, and they only need to think a little in order to get correct answers. In just such a way arises what can be called amateur linguistics.
It must be admitted that part of the blame for the situation lies with the linguists themselves, who take little trouble about the popularization of their science…

In discussing one folk etymology (relating помада [pomada] ‘pomade’ to the verb мазать [mazat'] ‘to grease, smear, anoint’), he makes the point that when confronted with the true etymology (the word is borrowed from French), available in Vasmer’s etymological dictionary, people are likely to say “So what? Vasmer has one hypothesis, and here’s another; why is it any worse?” That inability to see what makes one explanation better than another is a basic problem here as well as in Russia.
He gives an interesting example of a kind of nonsense that is apparently widespread in Russia: some people claim that “not only did Moscow exist before Rome [which is Rim in Russian], but it was by Moscow’s command that the Etruscans built the city and named it Mir ['peace,' 'commune,' 'world'] in the spirit of Russian tradition. Since Etruscans read in the reverse direction, it was read as Rim. In this city, built by the Etruscans, for whom Russian was their native language and Etruscan was a kind of soldiers’ jargon, Russian was heard for a long time. Only much later, when Latins moved to Rome, did they distort it according to their own phonetics and grammar.”

Comments

  1. A.J.P. Crown says:

    And why don’t Russians get etymology from dictionaries like the rest of us? I’d hardly call that Rome story amateur linguistics, it’s more like amateur propaganda of the ‘greatest nation on the face of the earth’ variety.

  2. “It must be admitted that part of the blame for the situation lies with the linguists themselves, who take little trouble about the popularization of their science…”
    Most linguists I know were initially passionate about talking to the public about their work, but once they saw how much their accounts were distorted by the press, they then retreated into academia. Can you blame them? I’ve given numerous interviews to journalists on so minor an issue as the Esperanto movement, and half of what makes it into print is very different than anything I said.
    “not only did Moscow exist before Rome”
    Well, even if the city is recent, the origin of the name does indeed go back to before Rome in the sense that “Moscow”, if from “bear”, is a Finno-Ugrian word. Of course, Russian nationalists would have it that the Slavs inhabited the area forever.
    Reminds me of the book “Noi nu suntem urmasii Romei”, in which Napoleon Savescu claims that Romanians went and founded Rome, not vice versa.

  3. “In school they teach the spelling and grammar of one’s native language and elements of foreign ones, but they don’t give even a basic idea of how languages change over time.” Well they did at my school; we were told about the evolution of vowels and consonants in the Germanic languages, with examples from modern and antique English and German. It was probably covered in the first year of Secondary School, as light relief from bloody Latin.

  4. In discussing one folk etymology (relating помада [pomada] ‘pomade’ to the verb мазать [mazat'] ‘to grease, smear, anoint’),

    Oops… it seems like I fell for the same folk etymology in Croatian (we have pomada vs. mazati).

  5. And why don’t Russians get etymology from dictionaries like the rest of us?
    Russian dictionaries don’t give etymologies; you have to go to the specialist dictionaries like Vasmer, which are full of abbreviations and turns of phrase intelligible only to specialists.
    Well they did at my school
    He’s talking about Russia.

  6. Amateur is one of those words I like to consciously use in an archaic sense. I am an amateur of linguistics, and I think that there are lot of others like me out there. Because we love the subject, we care enough to listen to and learn from those who actually do know what they’re talking about. This tends to reduce the likelihood od such amateurs spouting that “Rome=Rim+Mir” sort of nonsense.
    Sadly, though, linguistics generally, and etymology specifically, does seem to be a popular tool for nationalist propagandists. In an ESOL forum, an Indian contributor often posts etymologies for English words in which he asserts that any relationship between English and Sanskrit words is proff that the English word was borrowed from Sanskrit. It turns out that, as far as his intent can be deciphered, he effectively views Sanskrit as P.I.E, where “P” means not “Proto”, but “Parent of”. People of this sort give old-fashioned amateurs like me a bad name.

  7. I have personally heard Russian (academics!) mouth that very line about Slavs founding Rome, and it is indeed more a part of the ethno-nationalist bullshit that is nearly inseparable from the ‘Russian character’ rather than any kind of folk historical linguistics. At least in terms of its motivation.
    Ask Russian pseudo-intellectuals and regular folk alike about uncredited deeds in Slavic history. Historical fiction abounds! For example: either Mycenaeans or Dorians were of Slavic descent, depending who you ask. I’m sure that some fudged historical linguistic accounts are brought to the aid of these theories as well.

  8. Glad to know mediaeval methods are still alive and well somewhere in the world!

  9. I fondly remember meeting a gentleman who informed me that Ukrainian is the language of all intergalactic communication, and that Jesus was an ethnic Ukrainian, crucified for preaching to the Jews that Ukrainians were the chosen people.

  10. David Marjanović says:

    Napoleon Savescu claims that Romanians went and founded Rome

    How fitting.
    BTW, where does the consistent Slavic /i/ in “Rome” come from? Has been puzzling me for a long time.

  11. David, I don’t have access to my dictionaries at the moment, but I suspect that Gothic had /u:/ for Latin . After the Slavs had borrowed the name from the Goths, /u:/ became /ɨ/ in middle Common Slavonic, which in turn became /i/ in most branches. Perhaps Russian’s /i/ is due to the influence of Church Slavonic.

  12. Stuart – are you sure your Indian contributor hadn’t been watching an episode of the BBC comedy show Goodness Gracious Me? (Go to 3’12″ in on that YouTube clip for the relevant sketch – “Indian word!”)

  13. Zythophile – sadly, no. Unlike that most excellent comedy team (their skit showing them as ESOL teachers working with Geordies was hilarious), this gentleman is deadly serious. I sometimes think it would be nice to introduce him to some Tamizh-speakers I’ve met who feel about their language the way he does about Sanskrit. Of course, the Tamizh supremacists also have John Emerson on their side. :)

  14. Teach the controversy!
    I guess we shoulda lobbied for Pullum to take over Dawkypoo’s chair instead of Marcus to Sautoy (I don’t recall how he pronounces it, but he was interviewed on a recent Guardian podcast for those interested – and every-bloody-where else, I hope).
    To be fair, though. Maths really need some good publics relations.

  15. Christopher Culver: That’s one of the possible etymologies Vasmer gives, too.
    He also cites the following explanations:
    - It may be borrowed from the umlauted Germanic adjective. (römisk > римьскъ)
    - Germanic r may have been borrowed as Slavic soft ŕ.

  16. When I in Brussels first encountered the word for fuel oil “mazout”, I thought the etymology was obvious. The root should be Semitic. Ugaritic zt ‘olive tree’, Hebrew zayit, Arabic zayt etc. Various dictionaries sent me in various directions. I think Russian was mentioned, but I didn’t find мазать until now. Lots of thanks!
    And Stuart, I enjoyed your spelling “Tamizh”!

  17. No, you were right the first time. OED:
    [< Russian mazut fuel oil, perhaps < an Azerbaijani Turkish derivative ultimately of Arabic zayt oil (plural zuyūt); probably unrelated to Russian regional mazutina oily stain (Tver´ region, 1897), Russian mazat´ to oil, to smear. Compare French mazoute (1895), mazou (a1900), mazout (1902).
      The Russian word originated in the oil-producing region of Baku in Azerbaijan; if the derivative suggested above is correct, the Turkish etymon is or was probably derived from Arabic via Persian.]

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