I learned about Elif Batuman’s The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them back in February (see this post, whose thread devolved into the usual inexplicable mix of topics, this time including skis, Jenny Lind, and hunting bears), and having gotten it for my birthday (thanks, Brooke & Elias!) I’m finally reading it, and enjoying it thoroughly. Herewith a passage on what Batuman was told by her Uzbek teacher in Samarkand (where she went to study the language, not knowing that the majority of the population spoke the unrelated Tajik, as did her host family):
Timur was the opposite of Genghis Khan. The Mongols destroyed eleven centuries in 130 years; but Timur rebuilt it all in seventy years. This “Second Uzbek Renaissance” reached its fullest expression in the lifetime of Alisher Navoi. …
Navoi lived for four years in Samarkand: a city so deeply imbued with poetry that even the doctors wrote their medical treatises in verse. But before Navoi himself transformed the Old Uzbek vernacular into a literary language, all of this poetry was written in Persian. In his Muhakamat al-lughatayn, or Judgment of Two Languages (1499), Navoi mathematically proved the superiority to Persian of Old Uzbek, a language so rich that it had words for seventy different species of duck. Persian just had duck. Impoverished Persian writers had no words with which to differentiate between a burr and a thorn; older and younger sisters; male, female, and infant boars; hunting and fowling; a beauty mark on a woman’s face and a beauty mark somewhere else; deer and elands; being adorned and being really adorned; drinking something down all at once in a refined way, and drinking slowly while savoring each drop.
Persian, Dilorom told me, had only one word for crying, whereas Old Uzbek had one hundred. Old Uzbek had words for wanting to cry and not being able to, for being caused to sob by something, for loudly crying like thunder in the clouds, for crying in gasps, for weeping inwardly or secretly, for crying ceaselessly in a high voice, for crying in hiccups, and for crying while uttering the sound hay hay. Old Uzbek had special verbs for being unable to sleep, for speaking while feeding animals, for being a hypocrite, for gazing imploringly into a lover’s face, for dispersing a crowd.
All of this is ludicrous (as Batuman puts it, “It was all just like a Borges story”), but I’m afraid this kind of thing no longer activates the ludic centers of my brain. As Jim Bisso said in the first comment to my first post, “The sad thing about Goropism is that within it lie the seeds of the evil nexus of nationalism, racism, and linguistic chauvinism.” (A few pages earlier she tells the story of how the Soviets invented both Uzbek and “Old Uzbek,” which is actually Chagatai, as part of their divide-and-conquer strategy in Central Asia. Alas, the Soviets are gone but the fruits of their strategy live on.)