Glokaya kuzdra.

I recently ran across the meaningless Russian phrase Глокая куздра, which has its own English-language Wikipedia article for some reason; the text is short enough I might as well just reproduce it here (in case some overzealous Wikian deletes it for non-notability):

Glokaya kuzdra (Russian: Глокая куздра) is a reference to a Russian language phrase constructed from non-existent words in a grammatically proper way, similar to the English language phrases using the pseudoword “gostak”. It was suggested by Russian linguist Lev Shcherba. The full phrase is: “Гло́кая ку́здра ште́ко будлану́ла бо́кра и курдя́чит бокрёнка” (Glokaya kuzdra shteko budlanula bokra i kurdyachit bokryonka). In the phrase, all word stems (glok-, kuzdr-, shtek-, budl-, bokr-, kurd-) are meaningless, but all affixes are real, used in a grammatically correct way and — which is the point — provide enough semantics for the phrase to be a perceived description of some dramatic action with a specified plot but with unknown entities. A very rough English translation (considering no semantic information is available) could be: “The glocky kuzdra shteckly budled the bocker and kurdyaks the bockerling.”

Shcherba used it in his lectures in linguistics to emphasise the importance of grammar in acquiring foreign languages. The phrase was popularized by Lev Uspensky in his popular science book A Word about Words.

It turns out Sashura mentioned it in a comment back in 2012, but given that I had since completely forgotten it, I thought I’d give it its own post. I’ve been fond of meaningless sentences in other languages ever since I read a selection of them as a wee lad in some popular text on language, perhaps by Mario Pei; for years I could rattle off the ones in pseudo-Japanese and pseudo-Italian, but alas, no more.

Comments

  1. Stu Clayton says:

    It’s a Noam meme.

  2. David Marjanović says:

    all word stems ([…] kurd-) are meaningless

    O kurdę.

  3. Lars (not the original one) says:

    ’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
    Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
    All mimsy were the borogoves,
    And the mome raths outgrabe.

  4. Strugatsky brothers used similar method for devising alien criminal slang in “Hard to be god”:

    – Vystrebany obstryakhnutsya,– govoril on,– i dutoy chernushen’koy ob”yatno khlyupnut po margazam. Eto uzhe dvadtsat’ dlinnykh khokharey. Marko bylo by tuknut’ po pestryakam. Da khokhari oblygo ruzhuyut. Na tom i pokalim srosten’. Eto nash primar…
    Don Reba poshchupal brityy podborodok.
    – Studno tukovo,– zadumchivo skazal on.
    Vaga pozhal plechami.
    – Takov nash primar. S nami gabuzit’sya dlya vashego ogloda ne srostno. Po gabaryam?
    – Po gabaryam,– reshitel’no skazal ministr okhrany korony.
    – I pey krug,– proiznes Vaga, podnimayas’.

    Translation by Wendayne Ackerman, 1973:

    “The murgles are crockled,” he said, “and the crack-stampers have been stubbing around our warrels with their greems quappered up. And there are twenty long zackerlings by now. Crupply and cressly, I would shrab them right on the snoller, crump over crass. But the zackerlings have a zunker way of sharmauning things. That’s why we’ve been brimsing our trunks. That’s our expomple …”
    Don Reba cupped his well-shaven chin in his hand.
    “Murbelously brickered out,” he said pensively.
    Waga shrugged his shoulders.
    “That is krapul our expomple. I wouldn’t flarry that you’d cruckle with us. Well, groosby then?”
    “Groosby,” said the Minister of Internal Security firmly.
    “And smucks off,” said Waga and got to his feet.

  5. @Lars (not the original one): The strangest thing to me about that famous first (and last) stanza of “The Jabberwocky” is that gyre and gimble are perfectly standard English words (although the latter is usually spelled “gimbal”*). Moreover, it makes a reasonable amount of sense to see them together, since they both refer to kinds of rotational motion.

    Humpty Dumpty acknowledges the first of the two words (although not distinguishing that it, unlike the others Alice asks about, is not a novelty), but gives a factitious definition for the second:

    ‘To “gyre” is to go round and round like a gyroscope. To “gimble” is to make holes like a gimlet.’

    I have never been quite sure what to make of this. It seems exceedingly unlikely that Lewis Carroll did not know the word gyre (unlike slithy, for which I think we may take the good egg’s word that it is a nonce portmanteau and not a obsolete variant of sleathy—which is itself so obscure that the OED seems not entirely certain what its stress pattern is).

    * In the original 1855 version of the poem, the spelling was “gymble”—which actually seems to be an attested Anglo-Norman form of the word guimble of which gimlet is a diminutive.

  6. PlasticPaddy says:

    The hard g makes gyre unfamiliar and dissociates it from gyroscope. For me it has moved towards gear. From German Geier I also have the sense “circle like a vulture”, but I do not think the author intended that.

  7. January First-of-May says:

    It turns out Sashura mentioned it in a comment back in 2012

    And I referred to it in a 2018 comment regarding a test on node theory:

    I couldn’t tell node theory from rocket science, and in fact I suspect I would have scored better on a rocket science test.
    As far as I was concerned all the questions were along the lines of “Whom are the doshes distimmed by? A) the kuzdra, B) the gostak, C) the borogove.”

    <…>

    (For the record, the doshes are distimmed by the gostak. The kuzdra budlated the bokr, and the borogoves were all mimsy.)

  8. Thanks for remembering! We had so much fun with the phrase, it was my first year at the university and we were doing lexicolgy.
    However, I remember it as having ‘kudryachit’, not ‘kurdyachit’ as in Wikipedia. I had a quick look, and yes, it varies.

  9. January First-of-May says:

    However, I remember it as having ‘kudryachit’, not ‘kurdyachit’ as in Wikipedia. I had a quick look, and yes, it varies.

    I think I might have seen both as well, but the Wikipedia version is more plausible, because kudr-, unlike kurd-, is not a meaningless stem in Russian.

  10. I too remember it as kudryachit but I see why it’s likely a distortion of Scherba’s original. Budlanut’ sounds rather close to bodanut’ “to butt (once).”

  11. I definitively remember kudryachit , it’s one one of the more memorable bits of a construct, unlike some bland word like “shteko”. The reasons are most likely related to additional meaningful content beyond grammatical which informs our understanding.
    It may be onomatopoeic (“bl” for smack-and-bounce, “dr” for tear) or rhyming-type similarity e.g. wit mat in verbs like budlanul / kudryachit.
    Of course assumilation in dr / kr is also possible. I’m sure that it’s been investigated, just got no time to look up.

  12. Btw I retold it to someone naive about kuzdra, and the last two words made the person burst into laughing

  13. John Cowan says:

    The hard g makes gyre unfamiliar

    Do what? I have always said gyre as /dʒaɪr/, and the OED, the AHD, and Collins all agree with me, as do the general rules of English spelling such-as-they-are.

    Speaking of which, I got an email from a mailing list I thought I had muted, but the occasional posting makes it through; perhaps I was bcc’ed on it. It contained the same passage in 12 different proposed simplified spelling systems for English, most of them one-letter-one-phoneme or close to it, and all painfully unreadable at first sight. So, though I don’t believe in simplified spelling as a political cause, I sent back Regularized Inglish for the same passage, and I’ll inflict it on you here:

    Knollege is the welth of nations, and language is the main social technology by which knolledge is communicated. An efficient orthography is therefore of greit importance. Inglish, as the principal international language of the erly twenty‐first century, has much to offer the wurld, but its spelling is arcaic and dysfunctional. Technically, the reform of English spelling wood not be difficult, but thare ar very major political obstacles in the way. The benefits of spelling reform wood greitly exceed the costs, and a ‘Big Bang’ approach to reform is required. [I doen’t think it is at aul!] The present article outlines a technical solution and the way in which reform cood be implemented.

    (The idea ov this orthography is to eliminate the wurst irregularities, the wurds hooze pronunciation is totally unpredictable frum the spelling. The rules ar still complicated, just as in French. But when you see a wurd you knoe how to pronounce it, though not vice versa. Unfortunately, this text isn’t the best egzample, becuz it’s full of Latinate words that doen’t need to be chainged very much. Sumthing with simpler wurds would be better.)

    I passed the text by Gale, who teaches reading and writing to adult students, and she said they would find it much easier to read; some of the errors even match the errors they themselves produce when writing. My apologies to the L2s among us, who will probably find it hard sledding: see this Wyrdplay page for the inevitably imperfect mapping to IPA; imperfect because the spelling is intended to be diaphonemic. The original message is at Yahoo Groups, so look quick if you care, because it has about 20 days to live.

  14. I approve of the fact that ‘knowledge’ is spelled two different ways in the very first sentence. It’s important to maintain ancient traditions even in modernized spelling systems.

    An efficient orthography is therefore of greit importance

    O RLY? Efficient in what sense? Important to whom, and by what measure?

  15. PlasticPaddy says:

    @jc,
    Looking at the poem, i would say the g in gyre is meant to correspond with the g’s in brillig, gimble, borogroves and outgrabe. Or do you also think gimble is a soft g and the whole line is meant to prefigure the awesome Jabberwock?

  16. I always read “gyre” with a hard g, and I had the vague impression that was how Carroll read it, but I don’t know where I picked that up.

  17. PlasticPaddy says:

    LC (or CD if you prefer) specifically said hard g in gyre and gimble, acc. to Wikipedia, which has ref.

  18. @PlasticPadfy: Neither gimbal nor gimlet has a soft g in standard English, but gyre certainly does. So maybe Carroll really did not (consciously) know the word gyre, or he forgot it some time between he wrote the poem in 1855 and its publication in 1871.

    Given the extent that people have combed over Alice, it seems likely that somebody would have traced all this already.

    Unrelated: I just discovered that I am sitting across an elementary school cafeteria table from a girl (about six years old) named “Renesmee” (per S. Meyer).

  19. I googled it and got Renesmee Cullen (pronounced Ruh-NEZ-may) a vampire/human hybrid member of the Olympic coven.

  20. Ah:

    Renesmee is a feminine given name created by author Stephenie Meyer for a character in Breaking Dawn, the fourth novel in the Twilight series. It is a combination of the names Renee and Esmé. The name, along with others used in the series, came into use due to the popularity of the books and movies. Alternate spellings of the name are also in use.

    Seventeen baby girls born in 2009 in the United States were given the name Renesme or Renesmee.[1] The name rose in popularity for American girls the following year, when forty-seven girls were named Renesmee in 2010 in the United States and an additional eight girls were named Renesme. It dropped slightly in 2011, when thirty-three American girls born that year were given the name Renesmee and another five girls were given the name Renesme. In 2012, 59 American girls were given the name Renesmee and in 2013, the name rose again in popularity, when 135 American girls received the name. In 2013, an additional 17 American girls were given the name with its variant spelling Renesme. In 2014, 135 American girls were given the name Renesmee, while 28 were given the name Renesmae, 24 were given the name Renezmae, 10 were given the name Renesme, eight were given the name Renezmee, seven were given the name Renesmay and five were given the name Renezmay. [2]

    In 2012, Meyer said “I would never name a real child Renesmee.”[3]

    The name is also given to baby girls born in other countries, including three in the United Kingdom, the first in 2009 (in Scotland) the second in 2014 and the third in 2017.[4]

    I guess everybody but me knew that.

  21. I had the vague impression that was how Carroll read it

    It is. Wiki:

    In the author’s note to the Christmas 1896 edition of Through the Looking-Glass Carroll writes, “The new words, in the poem Jabberwocky, have given rise to some differences of opinion as to their pronunciation, so it may be well to give instructions on that point also. Pronounce ‘slithy’ as if it were the two words, ‘sly, thee’: make the ‘g’ hard in ‘gyre’ and ‘gimble’: and pronounce ‘rath’ to rhyme with ‘bath.'”

  22. January First-of-May says:

    Looking at the poem, i would say the g in gyre is meant to correspond with the g’s in brillig, gimble, borogroves and outgrabe.

    In fact I’m pretty sure Carroll explicitly said so at some point. [EDIT: ninja-ed by TR.]

    I tend to pronounce gyre (in this context, at least) as /gɜːr/ (or similar), with the NURSE vowel, which is probably way wrong. (Is the NURSE vowel ever spelled with Y?) Not sure where I got that from, unfortunately.

    OTOH, I do not follow his recommendation on slithy, which instead gets the same vowel as slither (i.e. the KIT vowel).

  23. J.W. Brewer says:

    Not sure what it says about me that my go-to free-association poem for “gyre” is the Yeats one rather than the Carroll one, but in the Yeatsian context I go with /dʒaɪ.ɚ/ which as far as I can tell is (modulo individual rhoticity or non-) how most everyone who reads Yeats aloud pronounces the word. In the Jabberwocky context that pronunciation creates a lack of alliterative parallelism with “gimbel” (at least on the assumption that that’s to be pronounced the way I would pronounce “Does Macy’s tell Gimbels?”), which leaves me confused and wanting to just skip ahead to the vorpal-blade part if I’m reading aloud.

    I’m not sure I’ve ever heard anyone say “gimbal” (in the “thingie-that-keeps-ship’s-compass-level-when-everything-else-on-the-bridge-is-rocking-back-and-forth” sense) aloud, although it’s a word I know from reading. The internet tells me that both /ˈdʒɪmbəl/ and /ˈɡɪmbəl/ are known variants.

  24. Not sure what it says about me that my go-to free-association poem for “gyre” is the Yeats one rather than the Carroll one, but in the Yeatsian context I go with /dʒaɪ.ɚ/ which as far as I can tell is (modulo individual rhoticity or non-) how most everyone who reads Yeats aloud pronounces the word.

    Same here, and I think of them as separate words.

  25. A soft g in gimbal sounds wildly wrong to me, but that pronunciation evidently does exist. However, I have only ever heard the hard g, from engineers talking about gimbal joints or, less often but more memorably, in discussions of special effects rigging. For Titanic, they built a cutaway section of the ship in a giant rotisserie gimbal, so they could film the sets pitching. More famously, the set and camera mount for Fred Astaire’s ceiling dance in Royal Wedding were on rotisserie gimbal.

  26. Is the NURSE vowel ever spelled with Y?

    Myrrh, Byrd, myrmidon, Zyrtec, syrup (for some people), myrtle. But I don’t know why you’d think gyre should be pronounced that way lacking any evidence.

    Gimbal doesn’t really seem relevant to “Jabberwocky”. It’s a homophone of a word in it, not a different spelling. I’d agree with our host that the same is true of the dictionary word gyre, but that might be less clear.

  27. David Marjanović says:

    thare

    Warning: merry/marry/Mary.

    hooze

    Really? With -e just to make it look more traditional?

  28. John Cowan says:

    I approve of the fact that ‘knowledge’ is spelled two different ways

    Both conform to the rules of RI, but knolledge is better because more conservative.

    Efficient in what sense? Important to whom, and by what measure?

    It’s not my text, and I am only the translator: I take no responsibility for the author’s sentiments.

    [Carroll said] “make the ‘g’ hard in ‘gyre’ and ‘gimble’”

    “So he did, so he did”, as the Gryphon said about his Classics master, an old crab who taught Laughing and Grief.

    In 2012, Meyer said “I would never name a real child Renesmee.”

    Stephenie’s mother was of a different opinion, as the Rev. Sydney Smith said to his interlocutor, who had just said truculently: “If I had a son who was an idiot, I would make him a parson.”

    thare

    Thinko, should have been thair (though their, with homonymy, also works).

    Hooze […] with -e just to make it look more traditional?

    More or less. Words in -z are pretty much unheard-of in English, not counting Spanish and Russian borrowings, German/Yiddish borrowings in -tz, and pizzazz.

  29. J.W. Brewer says:

    Words ending in -z may be rare in Actually-Existing English, but off in Fantasyland RI is happy enough to use e.g. “hiz” for “his” and “az” for “as.” So that’s not a barrier for “hooz” for “whose.” I speculate that the motivation for “hooze” is more likely to be trying to stick to the notion of a final “silent e” telling you how to pronounce an earlier vowel, since RI “hooze” is GOOSE but RI “wood” (= actually-existing “would”) is FOOT.

  30. John Cowan says:

    Wijk was a fanatic about changing all voiced s to z with the exception of the possessive, plural, and 3sg endings. This is one area I’ve moved away from him, but not very consistently. (The others are his use of dh for the voiced interdental (the functional load is so low it’s not worth bothering with it, IMO) and aa for /ɑ/, which runs afoul of BATH words. So he wrote faadher, whereas I write faather or even father.

    But you are correct about oo…e for /u/, as in moone, foole. Again, the functional load of /u/ vs /ʊ/ when spelled oo is very low and often varies by dialect or even idiolect: writing roof makes sense given that some say /ruf/, others /rʊf/. In other cases the existing spelling is obviously wrong but there is no universal replacment: any looks like zany, so it must be changed, but to enny, inny, anny? Wijk plumps for enny on majoritarian grounds, and so do I.

  31. Is the NURSE vowel ever spelled with Y?

    Myrrh, Byrd, myrmidon, Zyrtec, syrup (for some people), myrtle.

    +gyrfalcon

  32. [because kudr-, unlike kurd-, is not a meaningless stem in Russian.]

    Both have meanings in Russian. Kudr- – curl, kurd- – related to Kurds, or related to kurdyuk, sheep’s tail fat.
    But they both seem to have no obvious meaning in the phrase.

  33. Is the NURSE vowel ever spelled with Y?

    One more proper name I can find seems to be Hyrcania.

    Unstressed syllables for full coverage (never mind that this has no relevance for gyre anymore): I think reasonably commonly only martyr, satyr, zephyr; among more obscure cases I’d expect at least bogatyr to have this pronunciation; among proper names we can mention at least notorious Y-abusers Lynyrd Skynyrd.

  34. Martyr and zephyr I pronounce with a schwa for the second syllable. Satyr I have always pronounced the same as satire which, to my chagrin, is decidedly non-standard.

    Lynyrd Skynyrd — short i then schwa for both words.

    (I belong to the evil tribe of non-rhoticians)

  35. John Cowan says:

    It’s just pin-pen merging plus a bit of lagging assimilation for the eponymous gym teacher’s actual name, Leonard Skinner. He probably pronounced it just that way himself, perhaps modulo the final /d/.

  36. David Marjanović says:

    oo…e for /u/

    Ah yes, I had overlooked the inconvenience of having just two obvious spellings (oo, u) for three phonemes (/ʊ̯u/, /ʊ/, /ʌ/).

  37. I once wrote a long memorandum on three different types of spherical angle gimballing— and I can assure everyone that it is always pronounced with a hard g, at least among American radar engineers.

  38. Translations of Glokaya kuzrda.

    Irish:

    Bhodlain an chusdra ghloca an bocar go steice agus tá sí ag curdeamh an bhocairin

    Latin:

    Cusdra gloca bocrum steciter budlavit et bocrellum curdecit

    Dutch:

    Een glokke koesdra heeft een bokker geboedlaneerd en koerdeert een bokkertje

    Welsh:

    Budlodd cusdr loc bocr yn dec a mae hi’n curdu bocryn

  39. PlasticPaddy says:

    Irish:

    Bhodlaigh an chúisdre ghloic an bocar go steiceach agus cumhardann sí an bhocairín.
    preserves “palatal consonant harmony”, although gloc and cumhardach are a bit close to real words. Tá sí ag. ..does not work for me here without an adverb of time (e.g., anois).

  40. Cusdra and budlavit have consonant clusters that wouldn’t have survived into Classical Latin.

  41. I’ll try Mongolian:

    Gulgiin khuisder bukhriig ishteekhen budlaad bukhruushiig khurdeed baina.

  42. PlasticPaddy says:

    Last word should be bocairín, not bhocairín. I find it difficult to cut-and-paste or get accents and non-English words past the phone’s automatic correction. Time to quit or get a new phone!

  43. David Eddyshaw says:

    Kazʋdgɔlʋg la daa budur bɔkir la sʋtɛkkk. Nannanna ka o niŋid nɛ bɔkbil la kazʋdzak.

    Verbs are very constrained in possible phonology. Budur is quite unusual, though not unparalleled; like other polysyllabic verb stems in r it’s probably a loanword (cf Mooré a budrame “he has budled.”)

    The second clause uses a common periphrastic construction: “is doing kazʋdzak to the little bɔkir“. Kazʋdzak itself is of course a compound of kazʋdir “kuzdra” and zak “compound”, but as so often the meaning is idiosyncratic and not simply the sum of its parts. It is a technical term from kuzdra husbandry, which is largely the preserve of Fulbe locally; it may well be a calque of a Fulfulde term.

    Sʋtɛkkk is a phonaesthetic ideophone; like many ideophones it diverges quite considerably from the normal phonology of the language (note also the unusual tone contour.) It refers to the sound made by budling kuzdras.

    It’s not grammatical to use “and” to link the clauses in the way that the Russian does; if I had used ka “and” to introduce the second clause it would have suggested that the whole was part of a narrative, which is not compatible with the tenses and aspects. Instead, this ka is foregrounding nannanna “just now.” This seems to be required by the context.

  44. David Marjanović says:

    I lost it at “note also the unusual tone contour.”

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