COMRIE ET AL.

Back in June I discovered a book I immediately lusted after, The Russian Language in the Twentieth Century by Bernard Comrie, Gerald Stone, and Maria Polinsky. Alas, list price was $260.00, and used copies started at over $100, so I sighed and tried to forget it. But recently I revisited the Amazon page and found that a seller was offering it for a little over $20, and I jumped at the chance. It arrived and I plunged in; so far I’ve just read the first chapter, on pronunciation, and I’m sure I’ll have more to report later, but I wanted to share some striking bits I’ve run across so far. Just about every page has something that makes me revise my ideas; these are a couple of passages I think might be of more general interest. From page 44:

However, for a significant period in the history of the Soviet Union, the palatalized pronunciation of -изм served as a sign of solidarity among the party élite, which led to an unusual case of intertwining of politics and pronunciation. The trend was probably started by Stalin, hardly a bearer of standard Russian, of whom F. Burlackij writes: ‘I fail to understand why he so stubbornly pronounced коммунизьм with a soft з … I am a hundred per cent sure that he did this on purpose, creating a certain standard, to be followed by all the initiated . . . One after another, all the members of his inner circle, including those with university education, leaned towards that pronunciation. This jargon was a sort of key to the room at the top, into the narrow circle of people closely knit to one another both by shared activities and also by shared cultural background.’…
[footnote:] Stalin’s accent, a research question in its own right, was most likely a combination of spontaneous Georgian accent and some deliberate mannerisms, possibly including the pronunciation -зьм. The soft pronunciation of з was expectably apparent in the speech of NS Xruščev, who was a speaker of southern Russian and Ukrainian. A popular joke of the 1960s was that Xruščev’s contribution to Marxism consisted of the soft sign (мaркcизьм).

And from page 60, in a discussion of loan words:

Polivanov (1974 [1931]: 211-19) noted that in the following loan-words, the retention of the non-Russian nasalized and front-rounded vowels was obligatory in the speech of the pre-Revolutionary intelligentsia: [õ] in бомонд ‘beau monde’, лонгшез ‘lawn chair’; [ã] in шансонетка ‘frivolous song; female music-hall singer’, рандеву ‘rendezvous’; [œ] in бретёр ‘swash-buckler’, блеф ‘bluff’; [y] in ревю ‘revue’, парвеню ‘upstart’, and меню ‘menu’; to this list may be added портфель [port'fœj] ‘briefcase’, [ẽ]нтерьер ‘interior decoration’ (Panov 1990: 51].
[footnote:] Panov (1990: 53 n. 40) quotes the following exchange between two famous Russian philologists, B.V. Gornung (b. 1899) and A.A. Reformatskij (b. 1900): while Gornung pronounces [blœf], following the French pronunciation, Reformatskij replies using the English pronunciation [blʌf]. Since they belong to one generation, the difference in pronunciation reflects the speakers’ personal preferences. Both pronunciations contrast with Vladimir Majakovskij’s (b. 1893) nativized бл[е]ф.

Comments

  1. michael farris says:

    Vaguely related: In Poland, party members and wannabe’s could be distinguished by their use of ty and wy in a way that mimicked Russian ty and vy (whereas using wy toward a single person really went against the grain of mainstream Polish usage). That’s one of the things I notice in Polish police novels from the 70′s (a guilty pleasure) the use of wy (with virile plural agreement forms) by police (militia) functionaries.
    Closer to home: IIRC the pronunciation nucular (for nuclear) is Pentagon insider pronunciation (why so many presidents have said it that way).

  2. Closer to home: IIRC the pronunciation nucular (for nuclear) is Pentagon insider pronunciation (why so many presidents have said it that way).
    If this is so, it’s rather intriguing, considering that large portions of the rest of the American populace consider the “nukyuhler” pronunciation a sign of the poor education and/or low socio-economic status of the speaker. (My own general impression is that this pronunciation belongs mostly to non-prestige dialects, as well as to certain regional dialects.)

  3. Dan Milton says:

    Since the discussion thread seems to be veering from Russian to “Nucular”, I’ll point out an essay “Going Nucular”
    http://people.ischool.berkeley.edu/~nunberg/nucular.html
    by Professor of Linguistics Geoffrey Nunberg of Stanford. He has a book by the same title, that apparently covers for contemporary American the sort of thing discussed above for Russian.

  4. mollymooly says:

    Even more vaguely related:
    In Ireland, opposition TDs and the general public say “the Taoiseach”. Government TDs say “An Taoiseach”. The Gaelic article presumably is meant sounds more dignified.

  5. I see there are a few more copies available at Amazon. In the meantime, browsing through the Google preview, thought it was interesting that Ceplitis believes “the intensity and the auditory loudness of spoken standard Russian have increased dramatically in the twentieth century.” Somehow for me that phrase evokes images of Lenin yelling at crowds of workers and babushkas haranguing slovenly teenagers at metro entrances, but (if true) it’s likely also the effect of widespread military training and/or simply industrial culture in general. I wonder if the same tendency is true of spoken American English.

  6. Uncle Vanya, your comment is interesting. There are definite differences in the “loudness” of different cultures. Recently we had Mongolian guests in Beijing who were visibly put off by the ambient loudness of Chinese restaurants. It’s kind of ironic that the civilised Chinese should be so incredibly loud while the barbaric and backward Mongolians should be so soft-spoken :)
    Barbed comments aside, it’s hard to put a plausible cause to this sort of thing. Is it because on the quiet of the Mongolian steppe you don’t need to shout to be heard? Conversely, if you can talk as loud as you like since it’s not going to disturb anyone, surely it should be the Mongolians rather than the Chinese that would get into the habit of speaking loudly without considering their surroundings. Even between similar cultures like China and Japan, which both have crowding problems, there are audible differences in the noise level of ordinary speech.
    Ultimately the cause would seem to be social, but whether it can be pinned down to “military training” or “industrial culture” is another matter entirely. Has anyone done studies on this?

  7. The article on “nucular” makes the comment:
    the same kind of articulatory problem that turns February into “febyooary.”
    I was under the impression that it was supposed to be “Febyooary” or at least “Febyury”, and that “Febrooary” was an illiterate spelling pronunciation…

  8. Crowded people have to shout to be heard over the background.
    Steppe nomads have to not scare the animals.

  9. I remember coming across a writer who referred to the Irish Prime Minister as “The Teabag”. That may be the worst bilingual joke I’ve ever seen.

  10. Even more tangentially related: Reformatskij triggered a memory.
    Unfortunately not enough that I could have told you beforehand what his reaction entailed. Then again, I can’t right now recall what Borodin’s reaction is …

  11. Actually it sounds to me like The T-shirt, but I’m a bit deaf.
    This is a very interesting article, Language.
    Why would a book like this cost $260? Because it’s out of print or something like that?

  12. Actually it sounds to me like The T-shirt, but I’m a bit deaf.
    This is a very interesting article, Language.
    Why would a book like this cost $260? Because it’s out of print or something like that?

  13. whereas using wy toward a single person really went against the grain of mainstream Polish usage
    It did, but not as badly as we foreigners are told. “Wy” towards a single person has some currency in traditional Polish, most typically with a child addressing a parent. This is a rural usage though and probably substandard.

  14. What a lovely topic! In The Power Game Hedrick Smith has pages and pages on Washington insiders’ argot.
    Re Stalin’s коммунизьм, I think there was also a hidden barb against the party intellectuals, including Trotsky, who spoke in a harder, Petersburg accent. You can hear it in the way Putin speaks.
    Khrushev didn’t have as strong a Southern accent as Brezhnev and Gorbachev. But Brezhnev’s was Eastern Ukrainian, his circle was sometimes refered to as ‘Dnepropetrovsk mafia’, while Gorbachev’s is slightly different, it’s a Kuban-Stavropol cossack country dialect. Famously, Gorbachev couldn’t pronounce Azerbaijan and said Azebarjan, so everybody started pronouncing it that way. He also shifted the stress in начАть (to begin) to нАчать. Interestingly this wasn’t copied, but widely mocked – still is. Lenin’s burr was mocked by his opponents and used in jokes about him. Maxim Gorki fell out with Lenin and left Russia in 1921. In 1926 he produced The Counterfeit Coin, a play in which a minor character, a simple-minded young girl drops her ‘r-s’ thinking that it makes her speech more genteel. Others mock her. The play was banned in the Soviet Union until Khrushev’s thaw.
    But my best story is how Brezhnev’s speech problems changed the course of Soviet agriculture. He was to deliver a major speech at a party plenum, recommending wider use of pesticides. Aides noticed that he pronounced it as pizdicides, which sounded like a derivative of the Russian ‘c’ word. To avoid embarassment, pesticides where replaced with herbicides – and Soviet agriculture went into decline.

  15. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    apparent in the speech of NS Xruščev
    That’s a spelling I haven’t seen before in English. When he was in power newspapers in the UK mainly called him Khruschev, whereas I think US newspapers had Kruschev. A Soviet propaganda book I got from the Soviet Embassy in London had Khrushchov, but I never saw that in stuff of UK or US origin. Anyway, where do they get Xruščev from? Is it a Czech spelling?

  16. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    I remember coming across a writer who referred to the Irish Prime Minister as “The Teabag”
    I met someone last month (English, but living for many years in Ireland) who asked me what I thought about about “Tea-cosy” as President of France.

  17. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    There are definite differences in the “loudness” of different cultures.
    Definitely. Each time I’m in Spain I have to get used to the fact that if there are more than about ten Spanish people in the same room the noise is deafening.

  18. Why would a book like this cost $260? Because it’s out of print or something like that?
    No, it’s still in print. University press books cost an arm and a leg these days, in case you haven’t noticed; I’ve complained about it more than once around here.
    Anyway, where do they get Xruščev from?
    It’s a “scientific” spelling, one symbol per letter. Remember, this is a scholarly book, not aimed at the general reader.
    Sashura: Thanks very much for that great comment!

  19. As for “nucular,” I posted about that back in 2003, and I’ve reopened the thread for those of you who want to discuss it.

  20. Yeah, that was very interesting, Sashura.

  21. Dearieme: Try this:
    Why is there no guards van (caboose) on a French goods (freight) train ? Because it’s a fourgon conclusion ….

  22. My god, that’s an old joke, Paul. So old they even tell it on Language Log.

  23. My god, that’s an old joke, Paul. So old they even tell it on Language Log.

  24. Brezhnev’s speech problems were legendary. There were a lot of jokes along these lines:
    “The emergency at the Lenin Meat Processing Plant turned out to be a false alarm. It turned out that the General Secretary had said not “sosiski sranye” [shitty sausages] but “sotsialesticheskie strany” [ socialist countries].”

  25. Anyway, where do they get Xruščev from?
    It’s how it comes out in one of the two most widely-used (in academic circles) transliteration systems. (Most modern linguistics articles using Russian data seem to use this system.) In fact it’s from Хрущёв, so it’s not one-to-one (seven letters for six in the original). In the other system (associated more with older British usage) it would be ‘Khrushchev’, which is what you mostly get in news reports (at least in the UK).

  26. Jan Hus, the inventor of the haček, was a primitive Communist.

  27. Michael Farris says:

    For writing Russian in Roman, I prefer
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ISO_9
    in which it would be : Hruŝëv
    The only change I make to ISO_9 is that I’d write
    я as â only after consonants (hard sign excluded), I’d write it as ja after vowels (and instead of the hardsign).
    A similar principle would work for ю, û and ju.

  28. Russian has no H. Hašek is called Gašek in Russian.
    Hašek was a drunken anarchist before WWI, a teetotalling Bolshevik during WWI, and a drunken anarchist again afterwards. He was a very effective party worker in outlying areas of the Russian Empire / USSR, and is remembered in Mongolia as Sukhbataar’s Russian instructor.

  29. AJP Teabags: I first heard it, from someone who apparently invented it independently, in about 1964 in Paris. (He later had a nervous breakdown…) Is it older ?

  30. AJP: I find I posted the joke here last March, too. How we forget …

  31. To tell the truth I think I’ve heard it only once before and it was from you, probably here.

  32. To tell the truth I think I’ve heard it only once before and it was from you, probably here.

  33. No one’s mentioned the time Brezhnev opened a Komosomol conference – “Comrades, welcome ‘na khui’ (fuck off)” congress of the Komosomol!”
    His flustered aides had to whisper “Leonid Il’ich – it’s the 16th (XVI) congress!”

  34. J.W. Brewer says:

    So does the Stalin/Khrushchev accent come out with essentially “communizhm” and “Markshizhm”, like an American right-winger in his cups fulminating that FDR/Obama/whoever is leading the country down the shlippery shlope to shocializhm?

  35. Not really, but it’s sort of in that direction. (Soft z and zh are two different phonemes in Russian.)

  36. …poor Brezhnev, at least nobody was jailed for telling jokes about him.
    In case anyone is desperate to read the book online questia.com have free trial system here
    It looks as though Stalin had a big chip on his shoulder in connection with the language. In the same article where Lenin demanded Stalin’s dismissal he also calls Bukharin the party’s best orator. Bukharin was shot in the great purges. In the early 30-s Kirov, Stalin’s close friend, developed a reputation for brilliant oratory, he was assasinated in 1934, the murder which was used as a pretext to unleash the great terror. Gillian Slovo mentions in the Ice Road the macabre joke making rounds at the time: How many men does it take to kill one Kirov? And in 1950 Stalin publishes Marxism and Problems of Linguistics and in Russian Марксизм и вопросы языкознания. There is a pattern, isn’t there? The man was desperately trying to get even with his highbrow comrades. So коммунизьм doesn’t sound strange at all. But by 1950s this made him a laughing stock. My father, a young man then, told me that they were openly mocking old Joe. ‘Who is the greatest linguist of our time? Stalin. Where did elephants originate? In Russia.’

  37. Vanya – XVI
    I was going to mention that one, but thought that us, Russians, were already accused of shouting too much here. Another, softer one, was Brezhnev reading the opening address at the Moscow Olympics: ‘Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh?’ The aide rushes to him: Leonid Ilyich, it’s only the emblem of the Olympiad!

  38. Gašek in Russian – Гашек’s
    good soldier Schweik has been a Russian dissident from conception (Chech too).
    Proof? Voinovich’s Chonkin, a clone of Schweik.

  39. marie-lucie says:

    I wonder who actually wrote the pamphlet on linguistics published under Stalin’s name?

  40. I trust my Russian comrades will correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe Stalin actually did his own writing.

  41. Trond Engen says:

    I knew the joke with Brezhnev reading the Olympic rings as one with the Finnish Foreign Minister, later Prime Minister, Karjalainen on the opening of the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki. The Olympic story is obviously apocryphal, since Karjalainen was a young man at the time, but it can’t be a Brezhnev rip-off either, since I’m pretty sure I knew the joke before 1980, from a Finnish colleague of my father’s in the late seventies.
    But I recognized the spirit of Karjalainen in the Brezhnev jokes before I came to that one. No wonder, of course, given the close proximity and the political situation of the cold war.

  42. Thanks for Stalin’s Pravda articles on linguistics, Sashura. Partly because he’s not a linguist they give an interesting flavour of the man that is absent from a biographical account.

  43. From what I know Stalin did write a lot himself, if not by hand then, in Churchill’s manner, pacing up and down his study with a papirosa or a pipe and dictating to a stenographer. It’s a strange story, the linguistics one. Unlike other campaigns of that time, 1946-1953, it appears that Stalin actually played a positive role there in defendinig Vinogradov and other prominent Russian linguists from attacks by ultra-left marxists (the school was called Marrism, after academician Marre) who interpreted language issues in crude class struggle terms. An academic article describing the background (in Russian) is here. Stalin was prompted to intervene and consulted by Arnold Chikobava, a prominent linguist of Georgian origin as his name suggests. As the source material Stalin used a pre-revolutionary text book by D.N.Kudryavtsev, Введение в языкознание, Introduction to Linguistics, republished in Russia in 2009.
    and just a small back thank you to readers who appreciated my comments.
    Trond Engen: reading the Olympic rings… the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki.
    wow, I have often wondered how Silk Roads of joke swapping work. Someone must have reworked that one for Brezhnev – and the time gap is 28 years! Some American jokes about Little Johnny the Badmouth are practically calques of Russian ones about Vovochka.

  44. I can’t remember if I told you this, but when I heard one of those Little Johnny jokes, he was called “Johnny Fuckerfaster” which telegraphed the punchline of the joke.

  45. marie-lucie says:

    Thank you, Sashura. I did read Stalin’s work years ago and was impressed both by its sanity and its evident basic knowledge of linguistics. Those are not qualities one usually associates with Stalin. But I wonder why crazy N. Ia. Marr was allowed to occupy such a prominent place in Soviet linguistics.

  46. Melor Sturuya wrote in an article back in February (Банкиров к стенке или к кормушке?):
    Призрак социализма, который бродит сейчас по Америке, не имеет ничего общего с хрущевским “социализьмом” с мягким знаком и тем более с ленинско-сталинским – с твердым. Даже с социализмом “с человеческим лицом” несчастливого Дубчека. Речь идет о социализме скандинавского толка.
    The specter of socialism now stalking America has nothing in common with Khrushchev’s “socialism” (sotsializ’m) with a soft sign and even less with Leninist-Stalinist with a hard one. Or even with the unfortunate Dubcek’s socialism “with a human face”. What we’re talking about is the Scandinavian brand.

  47. why crazy N. Ia. Marr was allowed
    Marie-Lucie, please refer to The Master and Margarita by M.Bulgakov. They put the Master in the madhouse, he was lucky. The defendants in ‘delo slavistov’ (the slavist affair) in the 30s, a lesser known trial in the history of the Great Terror, weren’t, many didn’t live to see Stalin toasting the great Russian language.

  48. John Emerson
    Is there a good collection of Johnny the Badmouth jokes on-line?

  49. marie-lucie says:

    Thank you for your recommendation, Sashura. I confess that I have not yet read The master and Margarita, and I am not familiar with the slavist affair you refer to.

  50. Sashka, not to my knowledge. My resource is from 1959 and probably has forgotten his material.
    If you Google “Johnny Fuckerfaster” you’ll find a few things, most of them repeated many times.

  51. rootlesscosmo says:

    I wonder who actually wrote the pamphlet on linguistics published under Stalin’s name?
    @marie-lucie et al.: Doris Lessing wrote a terrific short story, “The Day Stalin Died,” which includes a conversation between two earnest British Communists trying, and failing, to work out what Stalin meant by saying that “language belongs neither to the basis nor the superstructure.”

  52. Marie-Lucie: re Nikolai Marr. The simple answer is bullying. You say: I disagree with you. They say: Then you are an enemy of the people.
    The slavists affair was one of the earlier show trials in 1930s, when a number of leading linguists where arrested, tried and sent to gulag.
    John Emerson: thanks for the Johnny pointer.

  53. Thanks, Rootless.
    This may be my favourite comments ever.

  54. a conversation between two earnest British Communists trying, and failing, to work out what Stalin meant by saying that “language belongs neither to the basis nor the superstructure.”
    Ah, but Bakhtin knew: “Bakhtin is largely in agreement with Stalin’s assertions in the anti-Marr articles that language belongs neither to the base nor the superstructure.”

  55. The thing about the Johnny Fuckerfaster jokes is that they weren’t really funny. They were sort of proto-jokes or degree zero jokes, without an actual punch line, one small step removed from just saying “fuck! fuck!” and nothing else. They remind me of some of the folklore motifs that, in written form, just sit there inert on the page and look stupid. “You had to of been there”.
    In fact, one joke the same guy told me was even more folkloric.. There was this guy who was obsessed with the beautiful woman across the street. One night while he was asleep his penis stretched out down the stairs and out the door and across the street and into the woman’s house.
    But nobody will ever know what was going to happen next, because right then a streetcar came down the road.

  56. Base-superstructure analysis is one of the stupidest areas of Marxist dialectics, if you ask me. I used to try to read Marxist stuff, but so much of it consisted of attempts to tweak what Marx said into something that made sense, when actually it was pretty much wrong and people should have just junked the Marx and started over.
    Lest I seem unradical, I don’t say that all of Marx is wrong. I’m talking about the ways I saw Marxists working. They just added layers and layers of interpretation on top of Marx’s mistakes, like papering over a crack in a wall. Everybodygets things wrong, it’s inevitable perfectly normal, but my Marxist friends didn’t think that way.

  57. I think there’s enough material here for me to start my Russian novel.

  58. “Language belongs neither to the base nor the superstructure,” said Stalin.
    “I agree,” said Bakhtin. “The hell with Marr.”
    He passed the vodka bottle back. Somewhere, bells were tolling.

  59. marie-lucie says:

    There was this guy who was obsessed with the beautiful woman across the street. One night while he was asleep …
    I wonder if this joke is not a watered-down adaptation of a Native American folktale. There are similar stories involving whatever Trickster is prominent in the culture (Coyote, Mink, Raven, etc), with the woman or women on the other side of a river. But the Trickster is not only conscious but deliberate, and there is no equivalent of the truck to halt the proceedings (but he is usually disappointed as the women don’t go along).

  60. The person who told me the joke when I was about 13 or so had a very rare surname (only 25 individuals in the US), but according to The Internets the name is Westphalian German, but also found in Poland.

  61. marie-lucie says:

    JE, in the US a name doesn’t mean anything, unless he told you that this was a common joke in his country of origin.

  62. Based on everything I know, he was an average American of German stock. That’s all I meant. No signs of anything exotic.

  63. David Marjanović says:

    Re Stalin’s коммунизьм, I think there was also a hidden barb against the party intellectuals, including Trotsky, who spoke in a harder, Petersburg accent. You can hear it in the way Putin speaks.

    I don’t think he thought that far. I think it’s just a hypercorrection.
    One hallmark of the Russian sound system is that the tongue has to go back and forth all the time. Having stretched his tongue forward for the [nʲi] part, Stalin evidently had trouble pulling it back immediately for the non-palatalized (or even velarized) [z], maybe even trouble imagining it, so he palatalized the consonants on both sides of the [i].
    And then, it appears, someone started imitating him, perhaps to avoid making him stand out…

    I wonder who actually wrote the pamphlet on linguistics published under Stalin’s name?

    Rumor has it, of course, that Chikobava ghostwrote it for Stalin.

    But I wonder why crazy N. Ia. Marr was allowed to occupy such a prominent place in Soviet linguistics.

    Marr : linguistics :: Lysenko : biology
    Stalin gives, Stalin takes, да слава Сталину. :-|

    Sukhbataar

    Oh dear, Tarbosaurus bataar raises its institutionalizedly misspelled head. It’s baatar with the long vowel in front.
    Plus, the guy has an ü. Сүхбаатар.

    Lest I seem unradical

    :-D
    But really, German idealism can only get you so far.

  64. marie-lucie says:

    ” wonder who actually wrote the pamphlet on linguistics published under Stalin’s name?” – Rumor has it, of course, that Chikobava ghostwrote it for Stalin.
    Thank you, DM. I had to look up Chikobava, who “wrote a report” on the topic. Stalin may have discussed the matter with Chikobava, and approved of Ch’s position as opposed to Marr’s. I am not familiar with Stalin’s style of writing as I have never read anything else by him (or published under his name), but as a linguist I don’t find it credible that a person untrained in linguistics wrote the whole thing by himself.

  65. the palatalized pronunciation of -изм served as a sign of solidarity among the party élite, which led to an unusual case of intertwining of politics and pronunciation. The trend was probably started by Stalin, hardly a bearer of standard Russian,
    I seem to remember reading about a similar phenomenon under Khrushchev; apparently his Ukrainian accent involved pronouncing V as W, so he’d say “Wladimir”*, and the “Politburo V” became widespread as a result.
    *And, of course, “nuclear wessels”.

  66. nucular wessels?

  67. The hoarse Wesselsong.

Speak Your Mind

*