Linguistic Eurasianism.

I’ve gotten up to September 2016 in my valiant attempt to work my way through the pile of NYRBs, and I’ve just finished this review essay by Benjamin Nathans about recent books on Putin and Russia (freely available to nonsubscribers). The start of this paragraph struck me:

Eurasianism began as an imaginative—to put it generously—theory of historical linguistics, allegedly showing that Russian tonal patterns had more in common with those of the steppe peoples of Inner Asia (“Eurasia”) than with Europeans’. For Trubetskoy and his collaborator Roman Jakobson, moreover, linguistic structures captured and preserved deep affinities of culture and consciousness, rendering visible, to the trained eye, the true frontiers of a great Eurasian civilization that had amalgamated dozens or even hundreds of tribes in a single “convergence zone.” From here it was a short step to declaring that Russia was neither a Slavic nor a European country, that in fact most of Russia’s problems came from trying to be European when it wasn’t. Better to recognize and embrace one’s inner Mongol.

I’m by no means an expert on Eurasianism, but I’ve read something about it, and I had no idea of the tonal-patterns thing. Anybody know more about it?

Comments

  1. J.W. Brewer says:

    There’s an academic anthology published by Routledge and visible in chunks online with the trendy-sounding title Empire De/Centered which has a chapter by Sergey Glebov called “The Empire of Language: Space and Structuralism in Russian Eurasianism,” which seems to address the Jakobson connection in, at first glance, a not-obviously-flakey way. Perhaps someone else figured out how to draw political analogies from Sprachwissenschaftliche arguments about the importance of sprachbund-type areal features versus a strict family-tree approach to historical linguistics?

  2. Perhaps, and boy is that a trendy-sounding title!

  3. As a linguistic matter: The coined word Eurasia seems to have different meanings in the western and former Soviet spheres. In western Europe and America, the term refers simply to the land mass composed of Europe and Asia, since there is no meaningful geographic or tectonic boundary between the two historically distinguished continents. However, in the former Soviet Union, the word seems to denote a smaller region, the former Russian/Soviet cultural and economic sphere of influence. It extends from somewhere in eastern Europe across all of Russia and some distance to the south, although not all the way to the Indosphere. Many organizations and projects that span multiple former Soviet republics are given Eurasian labels.

    I went to the OED to try to find the approximate date at which Eurasia was coined, but it has no entry for Eurasia. In spite of this, it has Eurasian, which it says is derived from “the compound Eurasia,” attested from 1868. I’m not sure if the missing Eurasia is an oversight, or if it is supposed to be considered a transparent compound, needing no definition of its own. (Neither possibility seems right to me.) The synonym Eurasiatic is of the same vintage, with the first attestation in 1870. (There are four OED citation for Eurasiatic in total; the first is from Thomas Huxley, and two of the others are from his grandson Julian.)

    The OED’s sense 1a for Eurasian is the purely geographical one, while 1b describes the Russian usage: “Applied to a movement in Russia, since the revolution, which regards Russia in Europe and Asia as a distinct civilization,” with a single citation from 1923. However, the wording of this definition seems like it could be confusing to a reader who did not already understand the Russian usage. The phrasing “regards Russia in Europe and Asia as a distinct civilization” is potentially ambiguous; moreover, the definition suggests that this kind of thinking only arose after the Russian Revolution. It may be true that the movement was only described in English using the words Eurasia and Eurasian after 1918, but this line of thinking is certainly older in Russian culture, and I think the use of Eurasia is the relevant sense is older as well.

    Finally, I have always suspected that the Russian/Soviet sense of Eurasia influenced the name Orwell gave to the Soviet-derived superpower in Nineteen Eighty-Four, but that’s just a hunch.

  4. Phonological Studies looks to include Jakobson’s main work on the tonal boundaries of the Eurasian phonological union.

  5. In “normal” Russian Eurasia is just one of the continents (or “materic”, Wikipedia says that there is no distinction, but I have a vague recollection that there was one). Eurasianism as philosophical and political movement is the only place where Eurasia has a meaning of central part of the continent with the exclusion of Far East, South East Asia, and Western Europe. Also called Asiopa by its detractors. This philosophical Eurasia, which seems to be coterminous with Russian Empire at its most expansive, doesn’t exist in any other context.

  6. The OED doesn’t have entries for proper nouns, unless they have non-proper senses: America is not included, but Canada is, because it can mean ‘Canada goose’ or ‘Canadian Pacific Railway share’ (usually in the plural). Of course, American and Canadian are included.

  7. Wait a minute – “Eurasian” is an older word for mixed-race colonial person. (I always found it extremely confusing, like the similar “Anglo-Indian”.)

    It’s what they called the people of Portuguese descent around Goa, for example, from quite early on in the colonial era, I think. I don’t have time to research it right now, but seems like that definition’s still thriving in Singapore?:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eurasians_in_Singapore

  8. @John Cowan: Of course, I knew that; and now I feel foolish.

  9. austimatt says:

    @AG: Yes, Anglo-Indians (like my father) were the ‘output’ of relationships between European (especially British) men and Indian women, and had previously been designated ‘Eurasian’. The Anglo-Indian community developed through the inter-marrying of these people of mixed ancestry. In Hong Kong, Eurasian usually refers to people of mixed Chinese and European ancestry.

  10. David Marjanović says:

    there is no meaningful geographic or tectonic boundary between the two historically distinguished continents

    Of course there’s a tectonic boundary, just west of the Urals. It just hasn’t moved in a quarter-billion years.

  11. From strictly geographical point of view, it makes more sense to think of Europe as just a far western peninsula of the Asian continent.

    India has better claim to being a continent than Europe.

  12. David Marjanović says:

    Its suture with Asia is younger (as are several within “Asia”!) and still moving.

  13. Of course there’s a tectonic boundary, just west of the Urals. It just hasn’t moved in a quarter-billion years.

    Other continents are not defined by plate boundaries, however.

    It would be better to say that continents are large land masses distinguished from each other by actual oceanic separation, or by very narrow isthmuses/peninsulas: the Isthmus of Panama, or the Sinai Peninsula. In which case there’s no obvious way to distinguish Europe from Asia.

  14. Wait a minute – “Eurasian” is an older word for mixed-race colonial person.

    Well, it’s also been used for anyone of mixed European/Asian parentage, outside of colonial contexts. In the US, it tended to imply mixed European/East Asian. (It’s considered a bit old-fashioned and awkward now.)

  15. Alexander Block described:
    Away to the Urals, all! Quick, leave the land,
    And clear the field for trial by blood and sword,
    Where steel machines that have no soul must stand
    And face the fury of the Mongol horde.

    But we ourselves, henceforth, we shall not serve
    As henchmen holding up the trusty shield.
    We’ll keep our distance and, slit-eyed, observe
    The deadly conflict raging on the field.

  16. IIRC a National Lampoon article once described Europe as “that raggedy thing sticking out of Asia’s butt.” My attempt to Google this fetched only porn sites.

  17. Kipling used the word to describe some of the boys Kim met when he entered St. Xavier’s school.

    A few were cadets of the old Eurasian houses that have taken strong root in Dhurrumtollah – Pereiras, De Souzas, and D’Silvas.

    He writes more about the Eurasians in the last chapter of his book about Calcutta, City of Dreadful Night.

    Without doubt, these are the People of India. They were born in it, bred in it, and will die in it.

    Wanted, therefore, a writer from among the Eurasians, who shall write so that men shall be pleased to read a story of Eurasian life; then outsiders will be interested in the People of India, and will admit that the race has possibilities.

  18. Long ago, after a poetry reading or something, a professor came over to me and said “take a course with Jakobson before he dies.” I had not heard of him, but took the course (on poetry, not Eurasianism). Surely one of the best pieces of advice I got in those years.

  19. MMcM: Thanks very much! That first link is the chapter by Glebov from Empire De/Centered, and it does indeed bear directly on this question; the section on linguistics starts on p. 48 and that on tones on p. 50: “Jakobson claimed that ‘Eurasia appears to be symmetrically delimited from two sides by the polytonic language unions, by the Baltic from the North-West and by the Pacific from the South-East.’ To the languages of Eurasia itself, then, polytony is entirely alien.” Glebov goes into great detail about it, which I don’t have the brainpower to try to assimilate at the moment.

  20. Also, I was distressed to learn about Trubetskoi’s anti-Semitism.

  21. J.W. Brewer says:

    “Eurasian” sounds very weird in a 21st century U.S. context to describe a person of racially-mixed ancestry, not least because it is unusual/marked in a U.S. context (and sometimes suggestive of some non-mainstream political agenda, in my experience) to characterize white Americans as “European” or “Eur-anything.” Indeed, the similar word “Amerasian” was coined at some point in the 20th century (by Pearl S. Buck, if you believe wikipedia) to describe racially-mixed kids born in Asia as a result of unions between an American-G.I. father (who had typically skipped town) and a local mother, presumably in large part to get around the sense that “Eurasian” didn’t fit the situation. That coinage, however, doesn’t work particularly well in the context of a US-born child with a white American parent and an Asian-American parent.

  22. J.W. Brewer says:

    and re the anti-Semitism angle, while on the one hand one should never be particularly surprised for that to pop up in Russian-emigre circles (or Russian stay-at-home circles, either, I suppose), I am struck by the notion that *European* anti-Semites not infrequently described Jews as “Asiatic,” with that adjective meant pejoratively, to emphasize their supposedly alien and unassimilable nature. But you’d think from a Eurasianist perspective that Asiaticness could be a feature rather than a bug!

  23. Anatoly Liberman has translated and/or edited at least three volumes of Trubetskoy’s writings (most of his phonology work was produced in German). It probably remains the best overall source on Trubetskoy’s thought.

    Nathans’ summary of the Eurasianism of the 1920s confuses more than it enlightens (he doesn’t even mention the repudiation of Eurasianism by Trubetskoy and Florovsky), as an attempt to sum up, in two lines, a work that’s compilative by itself. I’ve read a few pages from Clover’s book. It’s smoothly and sensibly written, but would greatly benefit from editing by a scholar more knowledgeable in the Russian silver age than the author, a former FT bureau chief in Moscow.

  24. January First-of-May says:

    It would be better to say that continents are large land masses distinguished from each other by actual oceanic separation, or by very narrow isthmuses/peninsulas: the Isthmus of Panama, or the Sinai Peninsula. In which case there’s no obvious way to distinguish Europe from Asia.

    We can (simplifying a little) change “very narrow” to “very low” in this definition, and get a definition that distinguishes Europe from Asia in a purely geographical way; the “isthmus” is then the Volga-Baltic Channel*.
    (It helps to imagine a map with a sea level 110 meters above modern, where Europe would be connected to Asia by a narrow isthmus in what is now Vologda Oblast.)

    The problem is that, once we clarify the details I’ve simplified here, Scandinavia ends up in Asia.

    Another problem is that there’s no reason why such a definition would apply only to Europe; read strictly it would just as easily identify the continent of Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta (in northern Colombia), which most people would probably agree shouldn’t be considered to be its own continent.

    *) and Volga itself, and the Kuma-Manych Depression

  25. Kuma-Manych Depression

    Piece of geographic Europe which got colonized by Asians at about the time when Europeans were colonizing Atlantic coast of North America.

    Kind of remarkable, but true.

  26. David Eddyshaw says:

    Eurasianism seems like a sort of spiritual sequel to

    https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sarmatism

    I wonder if there is any actual traceable intellectual connexion? On first principles, I would guess not – that it’s two separate manifestations of a natural human desire to differentiate yourself from uncomfortably powerful neighbours by claiming an exotic pedigree from a pleasingly exotic and even more powerful long-ago group, conveniently defunct for all practical purposes, so that any real remaining representatives of the group can be ignored and one can focus on the fantasy instead.

  27. I think it should be recognized that Eurasianism appears in Toynbee’s A Study of History as one of his Civilizations, for what it’s worth. It’s so long since I read the Study that I can’t recall if he referred to Eurasianism.

  28. @J. W. Brewer: There is a specific reason that Pearl S. Buck would have coined Amerasian. One of Buck’s many adopted children (the youngest, I think) was the biological daughter of a Korean woman and an African-American G. I. I saw the daughter interviewed on a PBS program about Buck fifteen or twenty years ago. She had been old enough when she was adopted that she had clear memories if living with her biological mother in 1950s South Korea. She said there was plenty of discrimination against the children of absent white fathers, but it was even worse for her and her mother. (There were, of course, plenty of American soldiers who did not abandon their children, but they most typically moved back to America with their new families after their tours were over.)

  29. J.W. Brewer says:

    @Brett: that’s a fair point, although I think it can coexist with the separate factor that “Eurasian” sounds weird as a description for the child of an ethnic Korean mother and a white G.I. father who is not typically thought of as “Euro-” in most registers of AmEng in most contexts. So “Amerasian” may fit multiple needs. Although as I noted above it works best when the “Asian” parent is *not* Asian-American.

  30. speaking of Amerasian…

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bkyCrx4DyMk

    Joe Strummer we miss ya!

  31. Man, I hadn’t thought of that song in years. I remember rushing out and buying Combat Rock when it came out early in 1982 — it must have been one of the first new albums I bought in NYC (I’m pretty sure Greatest Rap Hits Vol. 2 was the very first), during those early years when I had basically no money. Thanks for the memories, and yes, we miss Joe Strummer!

  32. And hey, I just learned that Pere Ubu put out a new album last year. I don’t even try to keep up any more.

  33. J.W. Brewer says:

    It was a great moment in my life as a parent about two and a half years ago when my then-fifteen-year-old headed out the door to school wearing a vintage late ’80’s Pere Ubu t-shirt she had found in the back of my closet. It transpired that she (and presumably her friends, or so she hoped) just thought it looked cool, and it wasn’t as if they’d actually heard of the band, much less heard them. But still.

    Unfortunately my t-shirt from the Clash’s summer ’82 tour is one of those that has gone missing over the years, so I’m not able to gather data on how my kids would react to that one.

  34. Greg Pandatshang says:

    Europe and Asia do have a perfectly natural geographic boundary … if you live in the vicinity of the Aegean, the Bosporus, or the southern Black Sea.

    Other than that … I don’t know, how far east did Early European Farmers live?

  35. Marja Erwin says:

    Up to the rough boundary between forest steppe and open steppe.

  36. David Marjanović says:

    Other continents are not defined by plate boundaries, however.

    I’m having fun with the geological definition of “continent”.

    “Jakobson claimed that ‘Eurasia appears to be symmetrically delimited from two sides by the polytonic language unions, by the Baltic from the North-West and by the Pacific from the South-East.’ To the languages of Eurasia itself, then, polytony is entirely alien.”

    Except for the Yeniseian languages, or at least the last two (the ones known to science reasonably well).

    A blog post series on northern Eurasian prosody, currently at three parts, starts here.

  37. Trond Engen says:

    “Jakobson claimed that ‘Eurasia appears to be symmetrically delimited from two sides by the polytonic language unions, by the Baltic from the North-West and by the Pacific from the South-East.’ To the languages of Eurasia itself, then, polytony is entirely alien.”

    Plate Teutonics.

  38. David Eddyshaw says:

    Evidently China must also be part of Eurasia according to Jakobson’s criteria, because Chinese has developed “polytonia” only in the last couple of millennia or so. Vietnam too. And Tibet, obviously, but perhaps that was already part of the deal.

    Come to that, Russian itself presumably lost word-level tone contrasts over the same sort of period. Is that the point? “Eurasia” as the domain of a strange common innovation: loss of emic tone. Obviously only Mongol influence can explain that … presumably explains the absence of Niger-Congo tone in Wolof, too. It all fits, I tell you!

  39. Plate Teutonics.

    I laughed!

  40. David Marjanović says:

    Within the last millennium, during the Táng dynasty, when syllable-final /h/ became a drawn-out falling tone.

  41. David Eddyshaw says:

    Ha! Chinese evidently developed tone as a result of Turkic influence.

    Um. Wait …

  42. David Marjanović says:

    Come to that, Russian itself presumably lost word-level tone contrasts over the same sort of period. Is that the point?

    I’m sure it is. (Haven’t read the book chapter yet.)

  43. Piece of geographic Europe which got colonized by Asians at about the time when Europeans were colonizing Atlantic coast of North America. Kind of remarkable, but true.

    Far from the only such piece, of course; everything from Greece to the Danube pretty much falls into that category as well.

  44. In the Balkans, Asians were driven back into Asia, but in Manych steppes they stayed and live now.

  45. Asians first colonized New Jersey 14 thousand years ago…

  46. Marja Erwin says:

    Tone goes east, silk and tea go west.

  47. David Marjanović says:

    And in New Jersey:

    “American Kalmyks speak English, of course, but may also speak Russian and Kalmyk. Anyone who has seen the Star Wars movies has heard Kalmyk spoken. It is the language of the Ewoks, those furry, cuddly bipeds living on the moon of Endor who, you may recall, were easily understood by the linguistically gifted robot, C-3PO.”

  48. Also from that article:

    It was not until 1951 that Kalmyks began to come to New Jersey. Earlier, they had been rejected under the Asian Exclusion Acts (repealed in 1943) and immigration quotas based on race (repealed in 1965). They found an ally in the United States Attorney General who argued that since Kalmykia is in European Russia, the Kalmyks are Europeans not Asians, going so far as to insist that they are “Caucasians”—which is silly, but so is racism.

  49. David Marjanović says:

    Funnily enough, Kalmykia is actually close to the Caucasus, at least by Russian standards.

  50. Allan from Iowa says:

    Rodger C, I remember that National Lampoon piece too. I suppose you’ve tried searching for variations on the phrase, but the way I remember it is more like “that bit dangling out of Asia’s ass”.

  51. Trond Engen says:

    I remember a similar description of Europe being used frequently in the run-up to the Norwegian EU referendum in 1994.

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