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.


  1. This is one of my favorite “bits” of Gravity’s Rainbow — well they all are but still… I have always assumed, reading this passage, that Džaqyp is cognate to Jacob — does that sound right to you?

  2. Could be… the Arabic is Yakub, and y- > dzh- in these dialects (I think), so yeah, it seems likely.

  3. How does one pronounce “Tchitcherine”? I always feel like I’m missing a joke when I don’t know how to say one of Pynchon’s character’s names.

  4. Ben — I have always pronounced that just like it looks (i.e. “tch” –> “ch” as in “cheese”, “Tchitcherine” –> “CHI-chuh-reen”) but I could easily be mistaken.

  5. Pronounced “chiCHErin”.
    As described here,
    …Chicherin (byn) — “cold wind.”
    Ivan Chicherin, scribe. 1611-2. [RIB II 227]
    See also this reference (with different pronounciation key)

  6. Thanks, Tatyana!

  7. Ah… thanks. I had been using the same pronunciation as Jeremy, but it seemed wrong.
    So how do you pronounce “a-and”? :) Is it a stammer, or a drawn-out “a”, or something else?

  8. Hey! I’ve been slowly working on a post referring to that ’89 paper. It was going to take more of a “how Soviet language policy is important to the debate over why borders were drawn as they were” angle though.

  9. Ben — I pronounce ‘a-and’ by analogizing from ‘b-but’…

  10. It just occurred to my that young Sylvia’s habit of saying “and, and” between her sentences could be an immature/not fully-developed form of “a-and” — making noise while your thought crystallizes, to indicate that you are not finished speaking.

  11. It just occured to me that I might not finished speaking: about “what’s the joke?” thing.—aaaand—
    Risking to appear babbling in classical Soviet tradition of ‘letters to the Editor’ (“I didn’t read the book you review, but I approve of your opinion”), I say nevertheless, that I didn’t read the book, BUT can I suggest the spelling looks like something French would do with this ordinary Russian name Chicherin? -aaaaand- French being a diplomat’s language, it’s a reference to that G.V. Chicherin, Komissar of Foreign Affairs I linked in my comment above? Aaaand, Vaclav being Polish name and therefore the bearer of such presumed to be even more removed from Asian affairs, it is also a hint to the other famous revolutionary leader, Lubyanka Komissar, F. Dzerzhinsky (sp?)?
    Pure speculation, of course.

  12. Fascinating. The divide-and-conquer approach to linguistic policy reminds me of the situation I’ve heard described in white-ruled South Africa, where the apartheid regime subsidized tribal languages in order to discourage unification among blacks of different backgrounds and to maintain the fiction that the tribal “homelands” were autonomous states. For precisely the opposite reason many anti-apartheid leaders preferred to encourage the use of English. I don’t know whether the situation has changed or education and media in tribal languages are still tainted by their association with the old regime.
    Similarly, I wonder what an update of Dickens’ paper would say about the post-Soviet era? Are people writing Central Asian languages in Arabic script again? Are there trends in the direction of pan-Turkic or did the Soviets drive their wedges deep enough that unification is no longer likely? And of course there’s the more obvious question about the current status of Russian.

  13. Prentiss Riddle,
    In my opinion, in case of Central Asia, Soviet policy was generally a positive thing. See my (and others) comments here.
    Many peoples of Central Asia (like, f.ex., Karakalpak, etc.)prior to the language reforms only had verbal/folklore language tradition, no written language. Arabic was used mainly for theological purposes, since languages are mostly from Turkic family. Big proportion of population consisted of small nomadic tribes with no state/country self-indentification, so installation of borders and grouping of languages added to national identities.
    On the other hand, Stalin’s “divide and rule” policy brought misery and death to many peoples of Central Asia – as well as Siberia, Ukraine, and every other nationality in the USSR. In this sense there was a perfect equality achieved.

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