Dobro Lyudi.

Having finished Sergei Aksakov‘s wonderful Семейная хроника, which I had read years ago in its English translation as The Family Chronicle, I’m now reading his follow-up, Воспоминания [Memoirs] (translated as A Russian Schoolboy), which oddly uses real family names instead of the “Bagrovs” of the earlier book — it must have been an odd experience reading them when they were published together as a book in 1856. At any rate, at the start of the book eight-year-old Sergei is taken by his parents to Kazan in the winter of 1799, and one night as he has just gotten to sleep he is dragged off to visit his parents’ friends the Knyazheviches, whose house “отличался вполне славянской надписью над воротами: ‘Добрые люди, милости просим!'” [was notable for the thoroughly Slavic inscription over the gate: “Welcome, good people!”]. A footnote explains:

Надпись по длинноте и крупноте букв не умещалась, а потому была написана следующим образом: “Д. Л. Милости просим”. Читая буквы по-старинному, то есть “Добро Люди”, получался почти тот же смысл, какой выражался бы в полной надписи.

There wasn’t room for the inscription because of its length and the large letters, so it was written as follows: “D. L. Milosti prosim”. Reading the letters the old-fashioned way, that is “Dobro [good] Lyudi [people],” the same sense was expressed as in the full inscription.

The old Russian letter names are given in a chart here, and further fun with them was had in this 2008 LH post.


  1. What does he mean, “thoroughly Slavic”? Does he mean that the words are native words, or just Russian ones? Or that it’s thoroughly Slavic to welcome everyone? Or only the good people? Or all of these at once? I’m lost….

  2. Or that it’s thoroughly Slavic to welcome everyone?

    That’s what I suspect, but I too am curious and welcome suggestions.

  3. My first guess would be that the inscription was made in letters shaped like before Peter’s reform. Another guess, considering that Knyazhevich came form Serbia, is that the expression is not specifically Russian, but sort of pan-Slavic. I doubt that Aksakov thought that the sentiment of welcoming guests is specifically Slavic.

    Also, мыслете и покой.

  4. Another guess, considering that Knyazhevich came form Serbia, is that the expression is not specifically Russian, but sort of pan-Slavic.

    Ah, yes, of course, that makes a lot of sense.

  5. Serbo-Croatian word for ‘welcome’šao

  6. Trond Engen says:

    Godtfolk “good people” is justified and ancient in Norwegian, not as a welcoming greeting but as a way to adress a group or a crowd, like “ladies and gentlemen”. I imagined it to be Danish as well, and maybe common Scandinavian, but I can’t find it in the online resources for historical Danish and Swedish, Kalkar and SAOB, respectively.

    Edit: I forgot to check ODS, Ordbog over det danske sprog, which knows it very well.

  7. Einar Haugen’s dictionary defines it as “folks; good people; derog. Tom, Dick and Harry.”

  8. Trond Engen says:

    The derogative sense is highly contextual. And maybe developing over time, narrowing in to “you lot” with the spread of the new greeting mine damer og herrer “my ladies and gentlemen”.for polite addressees.

  9. Well, Haugen’s dictionary is half a century old now.

  10. Trond Engen says:

    No problem. Godtfolk was oldfashioned even then.

  11. Yes, for me godt folk as a form of address feels like something that Holberg could put in the mouth of peasants and be realistic, everything later would be archaizing.

    There’s a few set phrases that are usable with only a slight tinge of drollness: … og andet godtfolk to extend a list of people or classes of people, but still with a hint that they’re all in it for some slightly dodgy purpose. And Hvor godtfolk er kommer godtfolk til is something you can say if your party is joined by friends who just happen by — but it’s a citation from Holberg, most likely, and heard as such.

  12. Trond Engen says:

    It may have been current longer in Norwegian. I wouldn’t be surprised if it is in Ibsen’s Peer Gynt. Godtfolk! is how I imagine a 19th century priest would call the attention of his parishioners if something unforeseen is happening and he has to show civil leadership.

  13. Jeffry House says:

    Henrik Ibsen – Brand

    Brand. “Min glade ven, du er jo maler; — vis mig den Gud, hvorom du taler. Du har jo malt ham, har jeg hørt, og billedet har godtfolk rørt. Han er vel gammel; ikke så?

    Ejnar. “Nu ja — ?”

    Brand. Naturligvis. Og grå?”

  14. J.W. Brewer says:

    Were all of the old letter names actual full words, a la the “Alpha, Bravo, Charlie” type of substitution used in Anglophone military-etc. contexts? That would be interesting, because a) my sense is that those “spelling alphabets” only arose in the West in the 20th century with the advent of low-fidelity radio and telephone communications, creating a need for a way of spelling things that would be unambiguous even in lo-fi circumstances (using so many syllables/bandwidth to do so that it would be inefficient in other contexts); and b) the current Russian military/police/etc allegedly have their own Cyrillic equivalent to the Alpha/Bravo/Charlie approach Did they just recreate a wheel their ancestors had possessed but abandoned?

  15. Were all of the old letter names actual full words

    Most of them, except that the vowels are just vowels (but Еры́ for ы) and later in the alphabet you get the more basic Цы, Ша, Ща, Ер, Ерь. But I’m not sure why you think of this as a modern thing; the Semitic alphabet is aleph ‘ox,’ beth ‘house,’ gimel ‘camel,’ daleth ‘door,’ etc.

  16. Trond Engen says:

    Oh, Brand rather than Peer Gynt. That play is more modern and urban in setting and tone, and godtfolk is used as a noun meaning “the general public”. No negative connotations beyond what “the general public” would in that context. That is, whatever is implicated by telling a painter that his work played well with the general public.

  17. I’ve never heard the expression “добрые люди”, but “люди добрые” is used all the time in common speech.

  18. So would this be analogous to the text-speak use of <r> to mean “are”, <u> to mean “you”, etc.?

  19. Sort of, except that /ar/ for r and /yu:/ for u are only coincidentally homophonous with the words they’re used for; we don’t have letters named from preexisting words.

  20. Oh, yes, right. It just took me a really long time to figure out what “Reading the letters the old-fashioned way” meant (despite some clues in the comment thread), that I needed to clarify that part. Not claiming the origins are the same! 🙂


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