I’m racing through Blindsight, by Peter Watts (grim and gripping, and recommended to sf fans… but the plural of plexus is plexuses, not “plexii,” for God’s sake — I just had to get that off my chest), and when “Kolmogorov complexity” was mentioned I thought “Surely that should be Kholmogorov?” Because холм [kholm] is the Russian word for ‘hill’ (the Slavic word is borrowed from Germanic, cf. English holm), and гора [gora] is ‘mountain,’ and, well, it just seemed obvious. But I looked it up and sure enough it was named for Andrey Kolmogorov, so of course I had to look Kolmogorov up in Unbegaun’s book about Russian family names, and it turns out it’s the original form, based on a place name, Kolmogory, of Finnish origin, and the form Kholmogorov is a folk etymology. So I’m passing that along as a public service for those interested in Russian surnames.

For the rest of you, here‘s a parrot that spoke with a British accent when it disappeared from its home four years ago and now speaks Spanish, and here‘s a video rendition of John Skelton’s poem about a multilingual parrot, “Speke Parott,” recorded by students at Groningen University (see the Skelton Project website for more info); thanks to Martin Langeveld for all parrot links!


  1. And, of course, Lomonosov was born in Kholmogory (more precisely, in a nearby village). The place is a hot bed for great scientists.

  2. Steve Shaviro’s post on ‘Blindsight’ is excellent, though you won’t want to read it till you’re finished: http://www.shaviro.com/Blog/?p=522

  3. I am familiar with Kolmogorov thanks only to the Kolmogorov-Smirnov test – the only statistical test that is easier to carry out than it is to pronounce.

  4. Stefan Holm says:

    Kolmogory appears to be a russification of Finnish kalma, ‘dead’ (archaic) and kari, ‘rock’ or ‘skerry’ (the latter indicates a Germanic loan: skerry is Sw. ‘skär’). Seems like a dull place.

  5. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    Your interesting post led me to the Wikipedia article on Kolmogorov, which says, amongst other things: [He] was born in Tambov, about 500 kilometers south-southeast of Moscow, in 1903. His unmarried mother, Maria Y. Kolmogorova, died giving birth to him. Andrey was raised by two of his aunts in Tunoshna (near Yaroslavl) at the estate of his grandfather, a well-to-do nobleman … In 1910, his aunt adopted him, and they moved to Moscow.

    This has striking parallels with the life of Victor Henri, a physical chemist who is usually regarded as French but was actually wholly Russian in background. His mother was also unmarried, and came from the family of minor nobiility (she was first cousin of the mathematician Alexander Lyapunov), also well-to-do. She didn’t die giving birth, but lived in a ménage à trois with her sister, who was the wife of Henri’s biological father. He was adopted, officially as an orphan of unknown parentage, by his aunt and father. He was born in Marseilles (I have visited the house, which is in what was then a very classy part of the city, and not the sort place you’d expect a child of unknown parentage to be born), and the reason given by his modern relatives is that being born out of wedlock in the Russia of the 1870s wasn’t a good idea, even in a noble family, and his father and mothers came to France specifically so that he could be born here and would enjoy full rights as a French citizen.

    However, unless things changed a lot in 30 years, the story of Kolmogorov calls this explanation into question. Was it really so bad to be illegitimate in pre-revolutionary Russia?

  6. Will the parrot ever revert to a British accent? Surely early conditioning would be hard to erase.

  7. Was it really so bad to be illegitimate in pre-revolutionary Russia?

    Presumably it depended on all sorts of factors; I don’t think you can generalize from one case.

  8. marie-lucie says:

    being born out of wedlock in the Russia of the 1870s wasn’t a good idea, even in a noble family

    Judging from mores in various social classes in Europe in general at the time, I would think that being born out of wedlock would be a bad idea especially in a noble family. Even worse would be having the baby out of wedlock. It was tolerated among the poor (as presumably with Kolmogorov’s mother), but a big no-no farther up the social ladder. Things were not that different in America not too long ago, which is why there was no shortage of babies for adoption if there was no possibility of a “shotgun marriage”.

  9. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    OK, I chose my words badly: in a noble family the facts would be scandalous if known, but a wealthy family would have ways of ensuring that the facts could be concealed. However, in Henri’s case the fact that the mothers were sisters and probably the subject of some gossip anyway made it wise not to be in St Petersburg when the baby was born. I have wondered if the reason they chose Marseilles rather than somewhere more fashionable like Paris or Nice was that they would be more likely to run into people they knew in Paris. As I was writing this I remembered the Paris Commune, and Paris probably wasn’t a good place to go in 1871.

    Actually the source of the information (the geologist Andrei Kapitsa, son of the low-temperature physicist Petr Kapitsa, and Henri’s great-nephew) indicated that the problems were legal rather than social. No doubt the facts were just as scandalous in France (if known), but illegitimate children had legal rights in France that they didn’t have in Russia.

  10. Generally speaking, it was a bad idea, however, I can recall several illegitimate children who made a spectacular career in 19th century Russia.

    Usually, in most of these cases, royal parentage was suspected.

    General Konstaninov, engineer, inventor and founder of Russian rocketry is widely believed to be an illegitimate son of Grand Duke Konstantin Pavlovich and French actress Claire-Anne de Laurent.

    General Inzov, governor of Bessarabia. Spectacular career and physical likeness to Grand Duke Konstantin Pavlovich led many contemporaries to conclude that he was an illegitimate son of Grand Duke Pavel (emperor of Russia in 1796-1801)

    Admiral Alekseev, viceroy of Russian Far East during Russo-Japanese War. Believed to be an illegitimate son of emperor Alexander II.

  11. And let’s not forget Alexander Herzen.

  12. Another great career – general Lavr Kornilov who rose from very humble origins to become commander-in-chief of Russian Army in 1917 (later he founded White Army in Russian Civil War)

    He had clearly Asiatic apperance and according to a popular theory he was born from affair between a Don Kalmyk and a Russian woman and was later adopted by family of his mother’s brother.

  13. Steve Shaviro’s post on ‘Blindsight’ is excellent, though you won’t want to read it till you’re finished

    Thanks; having finished the novel, I just read it, and it is indeed excellent.

  14. I am familiar with Kolmogorov thanks only to the Kolmogorov-Smirnov test – the only statistical test that is easier to carry out than it is to pronounce.

    ditto 🙂 but it’s a piece of cake to pronounce 🙂

    Коломяки Kolomyaki, obviously Finnic and meaning some sort of a hill, is a historic neighborhood in St Petersburg – could the “m” in Kolmogorov be a split consonant from “myaki”?

  15. kalma, ‘dead’ (archaic) and kari, ‘rock’

    That’s what Vasmer says, but Russian wiki claims that a more trusted hypothesis is from kolmo “three”? It also mentions that the first documented use of Kholmogory instead of historic Kolmogory is in 1692.

    I surprised btw that people insist on equating “gory” in “Holmogory” with a Finnic root. Across Russian North, categorical parts of Finnic toponyms such yarvi “lake”, myaki “hill”, salmi “peninsula” are translated into Russian

  16. David Marjanović says:

    Kolmogory appears to be a russification of Finnish kalma, ‘dead’ (archaic) and kari, ‘rock’ or ‘skerry’ (the latter indicates a Germanic loan: skerry is Sw. ‘skär’). Seems like a dull place.

    Like Prague…? 🙂

    (Reportedly an etymologically dry place on top of a rock. That would make it similar to Dürnstein, which lies in the same landscape and is transparently a so-dry-it’s-withered stone.)

  17. marie-lucie says:

    Der kaukasische Kreidekreis

    No obvious relation to the above, but it happened to pop up among LH’s book titles in the right column. I only knew this title in French and English and so was not aware of the alliterative power of the German original, which is lost in the other languages.

  18. salmi “peninsula”

    Salmi is “strait”. Peninsula is niemi – “наволок”. (Incidentally, in a village my mother is from “Салма” is a proper noun for one specific strait).

  19. Janne Saarikivi’s dissertation on Finno-Ugrian Substrate in Northern Russian Dialects says that about 200-300 words in Finnic and Saami don’t have any plausible etymology (either native or borrowings from historically attested languages like Baltic or Germanic).

    He (I think Janne is male name in Finland) believes that these words are Paleo-European substrate and its traces are found in toponymy of Finland and northern Russia.

    These words include mäki (hill), saari (island), suo (swamp), niemi (cape).

  20. Sorry for the late-night “salmi” error 🙁
    My point, anyway, is that the geographical-category words in Finnic toponyms are almost universally translated into Russian – while the morphology of the resulting Russian toponyms remains recognizably Finnic with the category-word agglutinated. Instead of characteristically Russian constructs such as Переяславское озеро “lake of Pereyaslavl”, the toponyms of the North have no adjective suffix and no space between words: Выгозеро, Лекшмозеро etc. (or occasionally with a dash: Пур-Наволок).
    Inclusion of untranslated category-words is rare, and mostly limited places of the more recent Russian habitation (Кузонемь “Pine Point”) or wherever the word has been borrowed into the local Russian dialect (Масельга “Earthen Mound” with Russ. dial. сельга “forested hill separating swamps” <=Karelian selka “oblong hill”)

  21. In this publication BTW, they argue that in the general Kolmogory area, many village names indicate Finnic-speaking founders (either personal names or sanctuary names or identifiers such as old/new), whereas “gora” (generally just “hill” in Russian) locally designates a village / a place of human habitation.

  22. PS: in the same publication, I discovered that in Russian, occasionally, Finnic toponyms ended up folk-etymologized when the final part *sounded like* a geographical category name, e.g. Рандростров < *Rantasara ‘shore/brook’

  23. Very interesting!

  24. Der kaukasische Kreidekreis

    m-l: You can see the traces of old alliteration in the English and French written forms “Caucasian Chalk Circle” and “Le cercle de craie caucasien”, but I agree that the spoken forms are not as effective.

    While looking this up, I noted in passing that Kreis, which is a native word, is thought to be cognate to Russian krai ‘province’.

  25. By the way, Finnish ranta is a Germanic loan from something close to English strand ‘shore’.

  26. David Marjanović says:

    Indeed, the districts of Germany are called Kreis (pl. -e).

  27. marie-lucie says:

    JC: “Le cercle de craie caucasien”

    It had never occurred to me to take particular notice of the initial c’s, perhaps because when I read French I automatically think of the sounds. Even the sequence craie caucasien does not strike me, probably because the words do not make a phrase (since caucasien agrees with cercle not craie) and also because to my reading mind the initial sounds are not two [k]’s but [k] and [kR]. Similarly, in the English title, the initial consonants are not [k-k-k] but [k-č-s]. It is true that there is alliteration in Caucasian/caucasien, but it gets lost in the non-alliteration of the other consonants.

  28. occasionally, Finnic toponyms ended up folk-etymologized when the final part *sounded like* a geographical category name

    Very interesting. The village I mentioned is called Нижмозеро, except that there’s actually no such a lake and the river the village is on is called Нижма. This just must be the case of such misinterpreted -sara.

  29. Saarikivi also writes that in most villages in northern Russia, language shift was involved – locals simply switched to Russian at some point (sometime in 15-16 centuries).

    There are other villages, however, which clearly have been founded by ethnic Russian migrants from the south. They tend to have purely Russian names.

    I think it is very likely that those translated placenames originate in Finnic speakers switching to Russian.

    New arrivals obviously didn’t know Finnic and simply used whatever name they’ve heard from locals without any knowledge of its meaning.

  30. Stefan Holm says:

    SFReader: I think Janne is male name in Finland.

    It is – and a Swedish nickname (for Jan). In Finland boys are baptized as Pelle, Nisse, Olle, Kalle, Lasse etc. (in Sweden proper they are just nicknames for Per, Nils, Olof, Karl, Lars). A similar phenomenon occurred in Sweden after WWII and throughout the 50:s when a lot of boys were named Benny, Tommy, Conny, Billy, Johnny, Ronny etc. I suppose that at least back then those were all American nicknames (for Benjamin, Thomas and so on).

  31. I believe the corresponding Finnish nickname is Jukka.

  32. those were all American nicknames

    They began so, but now often function as ordinary first names. James Earl Carter Jr. had to go to court to get himself on the ballot as Jimmy Carter, the preferred (but not official) form of his name, or nobody would have voted for him for President.

  33. Stefan Holm says:

    John: Finnish ranta is very much so their borrowing of Gmc strand, being impossible for them to have initial consonant clusters: school is koulu, Stockholm is Tukholma etc.

    When an old merchant place in southern Karelia got city status in 1721 it was by the then ruling Swedes called Villmanstrand. Modern Swedes sometimes ask ’who was this Villman’? Those who know are often unwilling to explain that the origin actually is ’wild man’, in this context a Saami (a Lapp). The Finnish calque, i.e. the modern name of the town, is however crystal clear: Lappeenranta.

    Dimitry: (Масельга “Earthen Mound” with Russ. dial. сельга “forested hill separating swamps” <=Karelian selka “oblong hill”).

    You could add that the intial ‘Ma-‘ looks suspiciously like Finnish maa, ‘land’, ‘earth’. So more or less: ‘Ridgeland’.

  34. Illegitimacy was more of a legal than a moral problem, it seems. Zhukovsky was the son of a wealthy landowner called Bunin and a captive Turkish beauty. The boy was formally recognized or adopted by his father’s poor but noble client. The composer and chemist Borodin was born of a Georgian prince and a petty-bourgeois Muscovite and legitimized as a child of his father’s serf, who was immediately freed. Borodin regained hereditary nobility through academic achievement. The poet Fet’s life was almost ruined by this fight to regain his father’s name and family membership.

    But technically, in the eyes of the law, none of the three was illegitimate. In contrast, Korney Chukovsky was just that.

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