Mark Liberman of Language Log has taken my post on the names for the capital of Kyrgyzstan and run with it. After a brief post focusing on a recipe for kumiss (which is what you make with a bishkek), he quoted a series of passages from Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (a wonderful book, which these tastes make me want to reread) dealing with the “mad scavenger” Tchitcherine, sent to Seven Rivers country (south of Lake Balkhash: Semirechye in Russian, Zhetysu in Kazakh) “to give the tribesmen out here, this far out, an alphabet.” Madness ensues:
There is a crisis over which kind of g to use in the word “stenography.” There is a lot of emotional attachment to the word around here. Tchitcherine one morning finds all the pencils in his conference room have mysteriously vanished. In revenge, he and Radnichny sneak in Blobadjian’s conference room next night with hacksaws, files and torches, and reform the alphabet on his typewriter. It is some fun in the morning. Blobadjian runs around in a prolonged screaming fit. Tchitcherine’s in conference, meeting’s called to order, CRASH! two dozen linguists and bureaucrats go toppling over on their ass. … Could Radnichny be a double agent?
Now, in an effort to get to the historical truth behind Pynchon’s fireworks, he gives us a post presenting the history of language reform in Central Asia, as told in Mark Dickens’s 1989 paper “Soviet Language Policy in Central Asia.” I won’t summarize it here; go and read the whole sordid saga, and be grateful you weren’t trying to become literate in that part of the world in the 1930s.