I’ve started reading War and Peace in Russian (something I’ve been wanting to do for many years), prompted by reaching that point in Henri Troyat’s biography, and in the very first section I’ve noticed several items of linguistic interest. The first thing, of course, is the fact that the first paragraph of the Great Russian Novel is almost entirely in French; Tolstoy goes on to talk about “том изысканном французском языке, на котором не только говорили, но и думали наши деды” [‘that recherché/distingué/refined/exquisite French in which our grandfathers not only spoke but thought’]. The second paragraph includes this bit of language history: “у нее был грипп, как она говорила (грипп был тогда новое слово, употреблявшееся только редкими)” [‘she had the grippe, as she said (grippe was then [July 1805] a new word, used only by the few)’].
But it’s at the end of the section that the linguistic interest intensifies to the point that it grippes me by the throat and won’t let go. Prince Vasilii has arrived early at Anna Scherer’s soirée in order to propose his son as first secretary in Vienna (at the Russian embassy, I presume), Anna having influence at court, but she shoots the idea down (with “an expression of devotion and respect, joined with sadness”). She then makes a counterproposal: he should marry off his “prodigal son” Anatolii to the daughter of the “rich and miserly” Prince Bolkonskii (modeled on Tolstoy’s own maternal grandfather, Prince Volkonskii). The prince perks up immediately and says:
Ecoutez, chère Annette. Arrangez-moi cette affaire et je suis votre вернейший раб à tout jamais (рап — comme mon староста m’écrit des донесенья: покой-ер-п).
The first part of this, before the parenthesis, is unproblematic: “Listen, dear Annette, arrange this affair for me and I am your most faithful slave forever.” The parenthesis, though, involves some kind of wordplay I can only partially penetrate: “rap, as my starosta [village headman] writes in his reports: pokoi-yer-p.” Evidently the starosta was not strong on spelling and wrote раб [rab]—in prerevolutionary spelling рабъ, with a silent hard sign (“yer”) at the end—the way it sounds, /rap/ (with final devoicing), i.e., рапъ (with Cyrillic p instead of b). Now, pokoi is the archaic name for the Cyrillic letter п (=Latin p) and yer is the hard sign ъ, but I can’t make out what the collocation pokoi-yer-p is supposed to mean. (Of the translators I have at hand, Ann Dunnigan says “‘slafe,’ as my village elder writes,” and Constance Garnett simply omits the parenthesis.) If anybody can explicate this, je suis votre вернейший раб à tout jamais.
Update. Commenter Ransom very kindly sent me scans of the relevant pages of B. A. Uspenskii’s “Старинная система чтения по складам,” which explains the old system of reading Russian by syllables, and all is now clear. The practice was to “spell” a word by breaking it up into syllables and reading each with the old names of the Cyrillic letters, so that, e.g., великъ [velikъ] would be read “веди езь, ве; люди иже, ли, вели; како еркъ, великъ” [vedi + ez’ = ve; lyudi + izhe = li > veli; kako + yerkъ > velikъ], where vedi, ez’, lyudi, izhe, kako are the names of the Cyrillic letters v, e, l, i, and k, but the hard sign, called yer, is read with the preceding consonant following it: yerkъ, pronounced “yerk.” Now we can see what’s going on in the Tolstoy passage: the Prince is giving only the end of the word рабъ, spelled рапъ by the starosta, because that’s the part that’s different; thus pokoi-yer-p is exactly parallel to kako-yer-k above. Furthermore, this also explains the peculiar word slovo-er-s, which I wrote about here; I’ll have to emend that entry after I’ve had some sleep.