[The following is another nugget from the stash of decade-old papers where I found the Mandelstam translation I posted yesterday; I originally sent it as an e-mail in late 1995 to my old friend Holt. The context is the argument among linguists over the phonemic system of Kabardian; some people thought it had only one vowel, others that it didn’t have any at all (see discussion here). Yes, the humor is silly and obvious, but it still gives me a chuckle, so I’m posting it.]
Obviously you are not au courant with developments in the Western North Caucasus, which is understandable, since what attention is left over from the Middle East, the Balkans, and Newt Gingrich has gone in recent years to the Southeastern South Caucasus, the Northwestern South Caucasus, the Central South Caucasus, and of course of late the Eastern North Caucasus. Frankly, the Western North Caucasus has not been much in the news the last couple of hundred years. But I digress.
The fact is that for some time now the Sacred Vowel has not been brought out of the temple and shown unto the people, as was strictly required by He Who Loosened the Tongue of Mankind and Taught Them to Curdle Goat’s Milk (in Kabardian, Pshchtskrekhlkhdmkhrt). Instead, an allegedly faithful replica has been exhibited, while the authorities in Nalchik have claimed that the original is being kept in a temperature-controlled vault to avoid further wear and tear on a vowel that is, after all, many millennia old and not easily replaced.
However, the story does not end there—this is the Caucasus, after all. For years the rumor has been circulating in Kabardino-Balkaria (and before that in the Kabardino-Balkarian Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic, and it was not unknown to the Karachaev-Cherkessk Autonomous Region) that the vowel was not in a vault at all (a supposition strengthened by the fact that the nearest temperature-controlled vault not run by Armenians was in Moscow), but was in the personal possession of Samuil Samuilovich Kshkhbzhmeshchkmov, long-time party chairman of the KBASSRCP and now unquestioned boss of Kabardino-Balkaria, granted what amounts to de facto autonomy by Moscow in return for surreptitious support of the South Ossetians (not to mention quite open participation in the Russian contingent aiding the Abkhaz separatist movement; the Kabardians have so far managed to avoid taking sides in the Chechen conflict, citing a proverb to the effect that “The Terek and the Cherek [rivers] are like the goat and the camel” and plying suspicious Russian ethnographic experts with arak until they quit asking for elucidation). Kshkhbzhmeshchkmov, known familiarly to his people as “Smlsk,” is said to bring out the vowel at wild parties, performing antics that leave even his faithful retainers muttering ancient apotropaic formulae. Although the Kabardians are a fairly stolid lot and unlikely to rebel even with such provocation, it should be remembered that the vowel is sacred to the Circassians as well, a fierce people that, even though much reduced in the 19th century by defections to Turkey, is still capable of causing havoc if roused.
It is possible, however, that the potential crisis may soon fade into the realm of the might-have-been. Conservative as they are, the peoples of the Western North Caucasus have not remained unaffected by the onslaught of modernity, and it is beginning to be said among the younger generation that there never was a Sacred Vowel at all, and that the annual exhibition is an embarrassing relic of bygone days that interferes with the transition to capitalism and prosperity. Saparmurad Niyazov has promised the Turkmens “a Mercedes in every yurt,” and the Kabardians feel they deserve no less. It will be ironic if, by the turn of the millennium, cheap replicas of the Sacred Vowel are being hawked to tourists in Zalukokoazhe and Baksan while the precious original is moldering in a cellar, nosed by the occasional stoat and forgotten by mankind.