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.)


  1. That era is interesting because Persian/Turkish bilingualism has persisted for something like a thousand years. (Tajik is close to Persian). I’ve recommended this book before here: Canfield’s “Turko-Persia in historical perspective” details the parallel development of Turkish and Persian since about 1000 AD. Ottoman and Mughal Turkish was heavily Persianized and Persian itself retained a status in these empires.

  2. John, better to say that Tajik is Persian, one of the varieties of Persian along Persian Farsi and Dari Persian. After all, the standard reference grammar for Tajik in English, John R. Perry’s, is titled “A Tajik Persian Reference Grammar”.

  3. Tajik is close to Persian
    Tajik is essentially a dialect of Persian (with lots of Russian loan words), though of course you couldn’t say such a thing in Soviet times.

  4. Tajik has no navy, it’s true, but it does have secret police.

  5. When I was in HS the gargked R and unmlauted U were regarded as indecent, so we didn’t even try to pronounce them right. But that doesn’t affect the Eiffel Tower.

  6. Even if you granted for the sake of argument the claims here AND the SW-style thinking they are clearly invoking, a language with 7,000 ways to say “crying duck” doesn’t sound that great.

  7. SnowLeopard says:

    Does Persian really have a word for “duck”? I’ve never escaped reading “morgh abi” as “water chicken”.

  8. Ordak (اردکـ) is the most common word for duck in Iranian Persian, although I think that might be a Turkic word, rather than the strictly Persian morgh abi.

  9. I think that might be a Turkic word
    It’s not listed as such in Lambton’s Persian Vocabulary.

  10. The Turkish for duck is ördek, which seems to be originally Turkic ( based on the lack of etymology given here: ).

  11. My English-Tajik dictionary (Фарҳанги Англисӣ-Тоҷикӣ, Абдусалом Мамандазаров, Dushanbe, 2007) gives мурғобӣ and ӯрдак, in that order, as its translations for duck. My Tajik-English dictionary (Olson and Olson, Star Publications, Al-Salam Publishing House, Bishkek, 2001), gives مرغ آبی for the Persian compound. As to whether ordak is Turkic, Perry certainly thinks so:

    The vowel /ů/ has different historical sources (see 1.2). When it commes from the majhul vowel ō it is written as و: روز /růz/ ‘day’, کـوه /kůh/ ‘mountain’. Likewise in an Uzbek or Turkic loanword: کورپه /kůrpa/ ‘quilt’, کومک /kůmak/ ‘help’ (contrast standard Persian کُمک)— except initiall, where spelling vacillates between the literary norm without vov and fuller vernacular variants: اردک، اوردک /urdak/ or /ůrdak/ ‘duck’; اوزبیک، اوزبک، ازبک، /ůzbek/.

    He certainly thinks it is.

  12. steve har says:

    Once in Bukhara over tea a guide said
    Persian [& Uzbek] was for poets
    Arabic was for theologians.
    She seemed to have a clear geographical boundary in mind with some examples of local poets. She didn’t think much of theologians.
    If I remember right Miguel de Unamuno said only a fool lived without one or the other; and more or less, poets write before knowledge, theologians after knowledge. Or maybe it is the other way around, Off the mark one seems caught-up in confusion, the other caught-up in terminal certitude.

  13. OK, looks like Lambton missed that one (not the first thing she’s gotten wrong). Thanks, all!

  14. Old Uzbek had words for wanting to cry and not being able to …
    Presumably all this is explicable by it being an agglutinative language, making it potentially true in a way – but only if you force on it the definition of “words” as in analytic languages.

  15. I would like to add a critical comment, if I may. The mental habits of what Edward Saïd once called Orientalism die hard: as soon as the languages of Central Asia are concerned, the eulogizing of linguistic richness is suspect. If the Uzbek teacher’s boundless enthusiasm about the richness of Uzbek and Chagatai can be called an instance of “Goropism,” and thus a harbinger of “nationalism” and “racism,” why not expose Batuman’s approach of her subject for what it really is, a deeply Orientalist approach to the languages and cultures of Central Asia? By her own admission, Batuman knew little or no Uzbek and yet somehow, mysteriously, was able to extract this “Borges story” from her teacher. Did she, really? Or was she just trying to entertain her Orientalist readers, who can thus pat themselves on the back for having spotted another instance of linguistic nationalism and racism among the backward peoples of Central Asia? Apparently, the eulogizing of linguistic richness bears no such evil traits when the discussion to languages such as English and Russian.

  16. I am not sure that Edward Saïd’s doctrine of Orientalism offers much more than his own, largely unsupported, negative prejudice. Be that as it may, there’s little doubt that Nava’i had some stylishly-expressed prejudices of his own. E.g this:
    söz guhari-dur ki rutbah say-nıng šarḥi-da dur ahl nuṭuq-e ‘ājiz.
    andïn ki erür ḥasīs muhlik körgüzgüči dur masīḥ mu‘jiz.
    A language is a gem whose worth humanity cannot appraise.
    Mean speech does harm; but saving words revitalize the weak and dazed.
    (Quatrain in his Muḥākamat al-luğatain ‘Verdict between the Two Languages’ ), p. 2
    Nava’i himself is blatantly ethnocentric, being particularly scornful of Hindi, not just for its sound (‘resembling the scratching of a broken pen’) and script (‘suggesting the footprint of a raven’), but also because of the dark skin-colour of its speakers, attributed to a curse in Arabic laid on Ham by his father Noah. He also dismisses it semantically as ‘words of quite endless flummery/excrement’ (alfāẓ bilä muzaxrafāt nāfarjām).
    Actually, his main argument for the superiority of Turki (Chagatay) over Sart (Persian) is that everyone knows the latter, but only a (discerning) few know the former: i.e. Persian was the metropolitan language, and (as ever) those who knew this natively didn’t bother with any other.

  17. By her own admission, Batuman knew little or no Uzbek
    No, that’s not true, her Uzbek certainly wasn’t fluent but she was able to compose essays in it, and I have no doubt she was accurately transmitting what her teacher told her. And why do you characterize it as “Orientalism” to attribute to an Uzbek a point of view that is typical for all humans everywhere (note that it is called “Goropism” after a European)?

  18. Bathrobe says:
  19. Bathrobe says:

    Lavish praise for one’s own language seems more acceptable if you’re the underdog — and at the time Uzbek appears to have been the underdog. Thanks to Navoi and his very effective attacks on the ‘elite oppressor’, Uzbek made the transition from an under-appreciated vernacular to a highly-appreciated literary language. Had he failed, I suspect that his impassioned pleas on behalf of Uzbek would resonate more strongly (another wonderful language crushed by the spread of imperial dialects), but as it was, he succeeded, and his writings now sound arrogant and nationalist.
    Let’s face it, it takes a huge amount of energy and passion to reverse the inertia of the status quo. “We’ve got a nice language, too; why don’t we all just respect each other” is a pretty sure recipe for gradual oblivion. Only when you shout your praises from the rooftops are you likely to start inspiring people with a strong appreciation of your language.

  20. Bathrobe says:

    Anyway, poets everywhere have come up with some pretty dodgy expressions of class/nationalist-inspired sentiment. England, “this sceptr’d isle”, poetry, “the purified dialect of the tribe”, etc., etc.

  21. Boy, am I sick of people crying “racism” this week. Yeah that Elif Batuman, what a racist; let’s write a letter & boycott her book. And the LRB, what a racist magazine that is; let’s withdraw our funding. Do you realise what damage you do with this kind of thoughtlessness? You don’t, do you, Zaure. You’re totally clueless.

  22. michael farris says:

    “a language with 7,000 ways to say “crying duck” doesn’t sound that great”
    Some people are just never satisfied. How many more ways do you really need?

  23. at the time Uzbek appears to have been the underdog. Thanks to Navoi and his very effective attacks on the ‘elite oppressor’, Uzbek made the transition from an under-appreciated vernacular to a highly-appreciated literary language.
    Yeah, I wasn’t talking about Navoi so much as the Uzbek teacher who quoted all that stuff (and doubtless added her own elaborations) in the twenty-first century.

  24. Zythophile says:

    Is “crying duck” anything like “crying wolf”?

  25. This reminds me of an almost-speech a relative of mine gave regarding the greatness of the Hungarian language, when I brought a friend over for dinner once: Hungarian, you see (in addition to being one of the hardest and beautiful languages in the world) also uses a different part of the brain than any other language in existence. This is why the Hungarian people are the most creative nation on earth, and thus why they have been behind so many important inventions, many classic Hollywood films, etc.
    This from a well-educated, well-traveled, successful businessman. And he’s definitely not the only one I’ve ever heard talk about Hungarian in this way. Maybe it comes from being a little island in the middle of the Slavs, but assuring themselves of the greatness of their language seems to be a great Hungarian pastime.

  26. Charles Perry says:

    Re Steve Har: As I recall, the full medieval version of the characterization of languages was “Arabic is philosophy [because of Islam, or because of the Semitic derivational morphology, not self-evident like agglutination], Persian was poetry [because of its poetic heritage or its proverbially sweet sound?], Turkish was science [ strict regularity] … and Pashto was the braying of an ass. They made a lot of fun of Pashto back then.

  27. J.W. Brewer says:

    Any thread that attracts input from Nicholas Ostler is a thread worth having! To follow up on a point of Bathrobe’s, the history of, e.g., the Balkans over the last century and change suggests as a general matter that the ethnochauvinist linguistic nationalism of the erstwhile underdog is not (once it comes to power or even gets to the intermediate level of generating a low-level terrorist campaign) any less odious than that of the erstwhile metropolitan/imperial power(s). I doubt that it will prove much different in post-Soviet Central Asia.

  28. the ethnochauvinist linguistic nationalism of the erstwhile underdog is not (once it comes to power or even gets to the intermediate level of generating a low-level terrorist campaign) any less odious than that of the erstwhile metropolitan/imperial power(s).
    Exactly. One could be amused at, say, the Georgian attitude toward the Abkhaz and Ossetians until the killing started.

  29. Milena, look at Zsa Zsa. No one else thinks like that. Q.E.D. Your relative was right.

  30. It’s all Slovos and Huzzeks to me.

  31. Re: Hungarian
    “Because of the unique properties of their language, the Japanese people have brain patterns that differ from those of most other people in the world.” Whereas vowels and consonants are processed respectively in the right and left hemispheres of ‘Western’ brains, for example, it is argued by Tadanobu Tsunoda that the ‘Japanese’ brain processes both sounds in the left hemisphere.
    I seem to hear a bell ringing…
    Re: Persian for “duck”
    Proto-Turkic: *Ebür(d)ek
    Altaic etymology:
    Meaning: duck
    Russian meaning: утка
    Old Turkic: ödirek (OUygh.)
    Karakhanid: (MK) ördek
    Turkish: ördek
    Tatar: ürdɛk
    Middle Turkic: evrek, evek (Qutb)
    Uzbek: ọrdak
    Uighur: ö(r)däk
    Sary-Yughur: jürdek
    Azerbaidzhan: ördäk
    Turkmen: ȫrdek
    Khakassian: örtek
    Shor: örtek
    Oyrat: örtök
    Halaj: irdäk
    Yakut: ördükēn ‘утка-чиранка’
    Tuva: ödürek, edirek
    Tofalar: ödrek
    Kirghiz: ördök
    Kazakh: üjrek
    Bashkir: üjräk
    Gagauz: jördek
    Karaim: ördek, erdek
    Karakalpak: üjrek, ördek
    Kumyk: ördek dial.
    Turkic etymology for DUCK

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