Chinghiz Aitmatov and Kyrgyzstan.

I still haven’t read any Chinghiz Aitmatov, though I’ve been wanting to for ages (and I got a collection of his back in 2011), so I was intrigued to see Ted Trautman’s Paris Review piece on him from a few years ago (thanks, Trevor!). I hadn’t realized quite how central he was to the cultural life of his country:

It’s hard to overstate Aitmatov’s importance to Kyrgyzstan’s national identity. In my time there, new acquaintances regularly quizzed me on the country’s national this and national that. Kyrgyzstan’s national food? A fried rice dish called plov. The national music? Anything played on the ukulele-like komuz. The national writer? Chinghiz Aitmatov, obviously. (My younger English students had a hard time understanding why I couldn’t as quickly recite the United States’ national writer, et al.) December 12, the author’s birthday, is celebrated nationwide as Chinghiz Aitmatov Day. After Kyrgyzstan gained independence, Aitmatov represented the young country as an ambassador to the European Union, NATO, and elsewhere. “One of the great charms of Aitmatov’s life,” Scott Horton wrote for Harper’s shortly after the writer died, “was that he charted first the decline of the Central Asian life and identity, and then participated in its resurrection as the Soviet Union collapsed and as the Central Asian states regained, quite unexpectedly, their autonomy and footing on the world stage.”

After describing “his masterpiece, The Day Lasts More Than a Hundred Years,” Trautman says:

Aitmatov wrote The Day Lasts and much of his later work in Russian, seeking a larger audience, just as Vladimir Nabokov switched from Russian to English after fleeing the Bolsheviks. But the fact that Aitmatov wrote his early work in Kyrgyz challenged me to see the beauty in a language I often thought of as limited. Compared to English, the Kyrgyz vocabulary is quite small: present and future tense are one and the same; the subtle distinctions between words like similar and same are folded into a single word that hangs on its context. […]

But long before Aitmatov wrote his first words, the Kyrgyz had a robust oral storytelling tradition. The most famous of these stories is the Epic of Manas, the legendary founder of Kyrgyzstan, whose story takes days to recite. Like the Iliad and the Odyssey, Manas is a story of conquest—of Uighurs and Afghans, mainly—followed by a long journey home. As Aitmatov himself said of the oral tradition, while other peoples display their culture in tangible arts like architecture and written books, the Kyrgyz “expressed their worldview, pride and dignity, battles, and their hope for the future in [the] epic genre.”

Every name in Kyrgyzstan tells a story—a village called Mailuu Suu, or “Oily Water,” for example, helpfully reminds travelers that it sits on top of a nuclear-waste dump. And a shameful number of new parents give their daughters names like Boldu (“Enough”) and Burul (“Turn”), to indicate that they would have preferred a son. But less discussed is the name Kyrgyzstan itself, which means more than its primary definition, “the land of the Kyrgyz.” The word Kyrgyz is derived from the phrase körk küz, which means “forty girls”—a reference to the forty daughters of Manas, who became the mothers of the forty tribes of Kyrgyzstan. I can think of no other country whose name is derived from a work of fiction, unless you count the Bible. Even as Kyrgyzstan continues to face the struggles of a developing country, it’s worth remembering that the country came to be in part because its bards told its story again and again. It falls to the storytellers on Aitmatov’s shoulders to write the next chapter.

That starts off mildly dubious but acceptable: OK, small vocabulary, present and future tense the same, subtle distinctions between words yada yada, your basic exotic-language shtick. But that last bit made me grind my teeth. Why are writers so irresistibly drawn to obviously fake etymologies? If Kyrgyz is derived from körk küz, I’ll eat all my hats. Even frequently credulous Wikipedia calls it a “myth” (and says “The original root of the ethnonym appears to have been the word kirkün […], probably meaning ‘field people’). Ah well, hopefully no one goes to the Paris Review for linguistic science.

Comments

  1. “I can think of no other country whose name is derived from a work of fiction, unless you count the Bible.”

    I can only think of a state like that: California.

  2. “I can think of no other country whose name is derived from a work of fiction, unless you count the Bible.”

    Greenland?

  3. marie-lucie says:

    Is Chingiz the Kyrgyz version of Genghis ?

  4. marie-lucie: yes, Чыңгыз/Chynggyz is a Kyrgyz rendering of Chinggis-khan’s name.

  5. January First-of-May says:

    “I can think of no other country whose name is derived from a work of fiction, unless you count the Bible.”

    A popular etymology derives the name Brazil from the mythical island of Hy-Brasil (apparently this is down to the level of “rival theory” now, if not lower, but probably more serious than their Kyrgyzstan etymology).
    Also, Sri Lanka, duh. (It’s debatable where the Ramayana name originated from, or apparently what it even referred to, but the modern country name is a deliberate Ramayana reference.)
    The specific story of Kyrgyzstan is vaguely paralleled by the Virgin Islands (though I don’t think any of their parts is an actual country).
    Might be others I forgot. [EDIT: in particular, I thought Argentina’s name had to do with an Eldorado-esque myth – and apparently it, in fact, did.]

    And of course, as mentioned above, California is a particularly certain case, but is a state, not a country.

  6. Trond Engen says:

    I can think of no other country whose name is derived from a work of fiction, unless you count the Bible.

    The Roman Empire?

    And like Romulus, the körk küz story sounds more like an origin story derived from or adapted to the name by folk-etymology than the other way around.

  7. Trond Engen says:

    I remember reading — on the cover of my Norwegian copy of The Day Lasts …, I think — that Ajtmatov wrote literature in Chukchi while he was living in Eastern Siberia.

  8. The word Kyrgyz is derived from the phrase körk küz, which means “forty girls”

    That has reminded me of a passage in the Little Golden Calf:

    Легенда озера Иссык-Куль

    Старый каракалпак Ухум Бухеев рассказал мне эту легенду, овеянную дыханием веков. Двести тысяч четыреста восемьдесят пять лун тому назад молодая, быстроногая, как джейран (горный баран), жена хана красавица Сумбурун горячо полюбила молодого нукера Ай-Булака. Велико было горе старого хана, когда он узнал об измене горячо любимой жены. Старик двенадцать лун возносил молитвы, а потом со слезами на глазах запечатал красавицу в бочку и, привязав к ней слиток чистого золота весом в семь джасасын (18 кило), бросил драгоценную ношу в горное озеро. С тех пор озеро и получило свое имя — Иссык-Куль, что значит “Сердце красавицы склонно к измене”…
    Ян Скамейкин-Сарматский (Поршень)
    — Ведь верно? — спрашивал Гаргантюа, показывая выхваченные у братьев бумажки. — Ведь правильно?
    — Конечно, возмутительно! — отвечал Паламидов. — Как вы смели написать легенду после всего, что было говорено? По-вашему, Иссык-Куль переводится как “Сердце красавицы склонно к измене и перемене”? Ой ли! Не наврал ли вам липовый кара-калпак Ухум Бухеев? Не звучит ли это название таким образом: “Не бросайте молодых красавиц в озеро, а бросайте в озеро легковерных корреспондентов, поддающихся губительному влиянию экзотики”?

  9. SFReader says:
  10. SFReader says:

    Re: Kyrgyz

    I favor Mongolian etymology for Kyrgyz – from Mongolian khargis “cruel, brutal, fierce”

    There is another Mongol name for Kyrghyz – formerly they were called Buruut which literally means “people on the wrong way”, ie, pagans, non-believers, non-Buddhists.

  11. Strange that the article doesn’t mention the word “mankurt”, which entered the Russian vocabulary through Aitmatov’s work.

    https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mankurt

  12. David Marjanović says:

    A fried rice dish called plov.

    I knew Kyrgyz vowel harmony was hardcore, but that they’d rather have a word-initial consonant cluster than a disharmonic word (pilav) still surprises me.

  13. SFReader says:

    plov is Russian word. Kyrgyz word is

    https://ru.wiktionary.org/wiki/палоо

  14. “America” is named from a work of fiction; Amerigo Vespucci wrote a false account of reaching the American mainland before Columbus, which got the continents named after him.

  15. That has reminded me of a passage in the Little Golden Calf

    Very apposite! I won’t take the time to translate the first part, in which the ridiculous “legend” concerning the origin of the name Issyk-Kul is expounded, but the end is:

    So according to you, Issyk-Kul translates as “The heart of a beautiful woman is disposed to betrayal and change”? Seriously? Don’t you think the fake Karakalpak Ukhum Bukheev might have been feeding you a bunch of bull? Doesn’t the name sound more like “Don’t throw young beauties in the lake, throw credulous reporters who succumb to the baneful influence of the exotic in the lake”?

  16. SFReader says:

    -“The heart of a beautiful woman is disposed to betrayal and change”

    It’s from Rigoletto.

    La donna è mobile
    Qual piuma al vento,
    muta d’accento
    e di pensiero.

  17. Well, let’s say rather that both quotes derive from a common stock of misogynistic cliché.

  18. J.W. Brewer says:

    Is his Genghis-equivalent first name an outlier, or is at as common among Kirghiz-speakers as e.g. “Atilla” is as a boys’ name among Magyar-speakers (who apparently have a more positive view of the historical figure of that name than most other European ethnicities do)? If the latter, how many different Central Asian ethnolinguistic groups favor the name versus avoiding it? What other famous Mongol-conqueror figures are part of the contemporary stock of given names for boys in that part of the world? There seem to be a reasonable number of living Timurs, but that name was apparently already fairly widely extant in the Turkic/Mongolic parts of the world before Tamerlane became its most high-profile bearer, so that might be a bit different. Do any kids get named Kublai (or maybe even better Kubla, to evoke the benevolent-stoner image associated with Coleridge)?

  19. “Compared to English, the Kyrgyz vocabulary is quite small: present and future tense are one and the same”

    Do tell of the separate forms in English present and future tenses.

  20. SFReader says:

    In Mongol tradition, it was taboo to name children after Genghis for religious reasons.

    This prohibition obviously doesn’t apply for the Muslim Kirghiz.

    Most common “Mongol-conqueror” name would be Batu – one of the most common male Mongol names in existence (usually spelled Bat and often forming first component in complex names – Batdorj, Battur, Batsaikhan, etc).

  21. Re the Genghis thing, he keeps playing with it in The Day Lasts, constantly mentioning Genghis Khan and his journey through central Asia.

  22. maybe even better Kubla

    The only Kubla I find with “kubla -khan -coleridge” is Sergé Kubla, the former mayor of Waterloo and, says Wikipedia.fr, a Walloon activist. His surname is Czech in origin.

    Do tell of the separate forms

    Yes, be sure you explain it all to him next time.

  23. marie-lucie says:

    There is another Mongol name for Kyrghyz – formerly they were called Buruut which literally means “people on the wrong way”, ie, pagans, non-believers, non-Buddhists.

    Any relation to Buryat ?

  24. Is his Genghis-equivalent first name an outlier, or is at as common among Kirghiz-speakers as e.g. “Atilla” is as a boys’ name among Magyar-speakers (who apparently have a more positive view of the historical figure of that name than most other European ethnicities do)?

    Those Goths who joined the Huns and decided to become Attila’s vassals must have seen something positive in him if they nicknamed him ‘Daddy’.

  25. Everybody loves you as long as you keep the booty coming…

  26. SFReader says:

    @marie-lucie

    There are some theories that they might be related. The Kirghiz have huge Oirat component and the Oirats do originate from lake Baikal area where Buryats now live.

    Ethnonym Buryat is commonly thought to be derived from ‘buri’ (Turkic word for “wolf”)

  27. “Everybody loves you as long as you keep the booty coming…”

    Hat, I had no idea you were that deep into hip hop.

  28. I contain multitudes, yo.

  29. Ian Myles Slater says:

    “Those Goths who joined the Huns and decided to become Attila’s vassals must have seen something positive in him if they nicknamed him ‘Daddy’.”

    I would certainly agree. However, there is a recent article, “Attila,” by Magnus Snaedal (University of Iceland), challenging the accepted Germanic etymology, and proposing that it is a Hunnic word meaning “horseman.”

    This originally appeared in Studia Egymologica Cracoviensa 20 (2015), but I know of it thanks to its being posted on Academia.edu. (https://hi.academia.edu/MagnúsSnædal) (I think you need to have or create an account to access this — I’ve been using it for several years, and I don’t remember.)

    I have no way of telling whether this conclusion is even plausible, but it is interesting, at least to me, in part for its tracing of the accepted Gothic understanding back to Wilhelm Grimm.

  30. David Marjanović says:

    палоо

    Ah, that’s better.

    I think you need to have or create an account to access this —

    No, only to download it. Everyone can read it by going here. I find it rather disappointing after a promising beginning: after showing that “daddy” is just speculation, it just offers more speculation.

    Some of it stays on the topic of this thread, though: the one story I’ve ever begun to read of Aitmatov begins with a scene where children learn to read, and the blackboard says ат, ата, така – “horse”, “father”, and I forgot the third. …Also, @ has been interpreted as “horse” in Turkish. 🙂

    The popularity of Attila as a name in Hungary (I’m related to one and also have a colleague with that name…) is due to 19th-century nationalists deciding to revalue the Huns so Hungary has something to boast about. It’s like Turks being named Çengiz.

  31. SEC is an open access journal (I have the honour to be one of its consultants and peer-reviewers), and the article can be downloaded here:

    http://www.ejournals.eu/SEC/2015/Issue-3/art/4470/

    I have to say I do not share Magnús Snædal’s reservations as regards the “traditional” Gothic etymology of Attila. The derivation is formally impeccable (the suffix being the same as in Wulfila), and Snædal, of all people, as the author of a Concordance to Biblical Gothic, must know that atta (a nasal stem, and so not directly comparable with Lat. atta etc.) is the normal Biblical Gothic word for ‘father’, occurring ca. 250 times in the Gothic corpus (in various declensional forms). According to Priscus’s report, the subjects of the Huns spoke Hunnic alongside Gothic and often Latin as well. The suggested Hunnic etymology is based on the existence of vaguely similar words in Turkic and Mongolic. No real morphological analysis is offered in the article (and indeed to be able to conduct one we would first have to know way more than we do about the language of the Huns).

  32. Jonathan D says:

    Turkish “Kubilay” seems reasonably common.

  33. SFReader says:

    There is a popular Mongol male name Tengis (“sea”). I wonder if its popularity related to desire to get around the taboo on naming boys after Genghis.

    Two names are probably related, but no conclusive proof has been offered yet.

  34. Kyrgyzstan’s national food? A fried rice dish called plov.

    My impression is it is rather beshbarmak

    Beshbarmak à la Quirguise is a bit different in that the dough is cut into noodles.
    I was surprised to find a similar dish in Grozny (the Chechen name is жижиг галнаш).

  35. Shyngyz and Timur are relatively common names among Kazakhs, while I don’t remember ever coming across a Kazakh called Kublay or Batu.

  36. Sir JCass says:

    Tengiz is also a Georgian name, e,g. the film director Tengiz Abuladze. I’ve always assumed it was related to “Genghiz”. Given the amount of carnage the Mongols caused in Georgia this might seem paradoxical, but there are similar examples from elsewhere in the Caucasus. In their book Les Alains, Vladimir Kouznetsov and Iaroslav Lebedynsky note that Tamerlane, despite laying waste to the land and massacring the population, was “almost deified” by the Ossetians. “The Digors identified him with the Pole Star and his name was associated with several eschatological stories.” Kouznetsov and Lebedynsky ascribe this to the Caucasian cult of warrior prowess, even if that prowess belongs to the enemy. This Wikipedia page appears to bear this out. Almost all the “Tamerlans” listed there come from North Ossetia/Alania.

  37. SFReader says:

    Of course, the taboo on Genghis name doesn’t apply to Temuujin – the name he was born with. It’s very common Mongolian name.

  38. @Sir JCass:

    Tengiz is also a Georgian name, e,g. the film director Tengiz Abuladze. I’ve always assumed it was related to “Genghiz”.

    That’s one of the unanswered questions from my childhood. One of the three Georgian members of the Soviet football team at the 1982 World Cup was called Tengiz Sulakvelidze. (The other two were Alexander Chivadze and Ramaz Shengeliya.) I figured out it could be a Georgian version of Genghiz but I have yet to check this. The only other potentialy candidate would be a Turkic word for “sea” or its Mongol cousin (according to SFReader). Deniz (Turkish), диңгез (Tatar), теңіз (Kazakh), деңиз (Kyrgyz), тенгиз (Karachay/Balkar).

    The Digors have an impressive martial tradition. Some of them resettled on the plains near Mozdok in the early 19th century and were incorporated into the Terek Cossack Host. Timur Kibirov, the Russian poet, is of Digor heritage. (Timur is much more widespread in the ex-USSR countries than Tamerlane; dropping “lame” weakens the link to the monster.) Kibirov’s father was a colonel in the Soviet Army. His paternal grandfather was an Cossack sergeant (урядник) in the imperial army, got exiled in 1929 and executed in 1938. Another ancestor was Colonel Georgy Kibirov, who chased down and killed the famous Chechen outlaw (abrek) Zelimkhan in 1913 and was killed fighting for the Whites in 1919.

  39. (Timur is much more widespread in the ex-USSR countries than Tamerlane; dropping “lame” weakens the link to the monster.)

    At least from an American perspective, Tamerlan Tsarnaev lent some further bad press to the name as well.

  40. Trond Engen says:

    Alexei K.: Tengiz Sulakvelidze. (The other two were Alexander Chivadze and Ramaz Shengeliya.)

    Those names! That World Cup! The Soviet and Poland as crowd-pleasers. Africa making its way into top level football for the first time, with West Germany only beating Algeria to the second round after a suspicious victory over Austria. And then going on to win the best match ever played (when Michel Platini was a brilliant, honest player!).

  41. Not a good World Cup for fans of Argentina.

  42. Trond Engen says:

    Well, it was the introduction of Maradona to the world.

  43. Trond Engen says:

    I’ve been trying to find support for my recollection of reading that Chinghiz Aitmatov wrote in Chukchi. No such support found, so I’ll withdraw the claim before it spreads further.

  44. Bathrobe says:

    Timur (Төмөр) is popular in Mongolian names, but only because it means ‘iron’.

  45. SFReader says:

    -Chinghiz Aitmatov wrote in Chukchi. No such support found

    Chingiz Aitmatov wrote “Spotted Dog Running On Seashore” – novella set among the Nivkh people of the Far East, this is probably was what you were thinking about.

    He wrote it in Russian.

    Aitmatov started as a bilingual writer and in later stage of his career he wrote exclusively in Russian. Perhaps he was a Russian writer – since he lived in Moscow and wrote in Russian, surely he would qualify as such.

  46. @Trond Engen: It also had an unusual format: 24 teams and no knockout matches until the semi-finals. First stage: six groups of four teams each. Second stage, four groups of three.

    @Bathrobe: It’s not clear to me why and how Timur became a popular name in the Soviet Union. (Pronounced in the Russian manner, “Timur” seems to violate vowel harmony. If it’s supposed to mean “iron,” Temir (as in Kazakh), Tomur (as in Uyghur) or Temür (as in Chagatai) would seem more appropriate.) For some reason, Mikhail Frunze named his son Timur in 1923. Arkady Gaidar followed his example in 1926 and gave this name to the good boy of his popular 1940 novella.

  47. It’s Temūr in Persian, so presumably that’s where the front rounded vowel became a back one (as in Greek tourk- < türk. Not that it couldn’t have happened separately in Russian. There was a considerable debate back in the day whether the Lojban for ‘Turk’ should be turk or tirk, with Nick Nicholas pushing for the former and I for the latter.

  48. I vaguely remembered a relative saying that Aitmatov’s mother was a relative of theirs. (My father was born in Tamga – roughly halfway along the southern shore of Issyk Kul – and grew up in Qaraqol/Przewalsk,)
    Well, as it happens, Aitmatov’ sister has published a book, and the surname Suleimanov (the relative in question’s) turns up in it:

    Занимался Хамза и благотворительностью. Об этом, пожалуй, лучше всего свидетельствует обращение к имущим людям с призывом оказывать помощь бедствующим кыргызам, неустроенным русским новоселам и голодающим горожанам. Это обращение было опубликовано в весеннем номере газеты «Семиреченские областные ведомости» за 1913 год. Подписали его 6 человек: генерал-майор Я. И. Корольков, член русского географического общества, городской староста Власов и работники торговой системы Х. Абдувалиев, Сулейманов, Ильин и Рафиков.

    (The relative’s father was a merchant, and the city was not that large…)

  49. I visited Qaraqol / Przewalsk twenty years ago; it still is a small town. They have a nice little museum dedicated to Przewalski’s expeditions (he died and is buried near Qaraqol).

  50. Father said his grandfather–sadly, don’t know which–had brought (some of) the rocks to be used for the monument.

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