Russian Language Gets ‘Import Substitution’.

An acerbic and amusing Moscow Times column by Michele Berdy starts with her “daily dose of nuts”: a video of a Russian schoolteacher telling her students that Holy Rus was “inhabited by godlike men called богатыри (bogatyrs, mythic warriors and heroes). We know they are godlike, she explains, because of their name, богатырь. And then she deciphers it: с Богом на ты (on a first-name basis with God).” Upon investigation, she discovers that “It’s a Thing. All kinds of armchair folk etymologists are insisting that godlike creatures called богатыри once lived in what is now Russia”:

What’s an armchair folk etymologist? It’s someone with no specialized knowledge of the language or its history, who looks at a word and makes up stories about its meaning. Sometimes this is charming. I know someone who grew up in the Urals and thought, when he was little, that faraway Moscow was the place where the 100 most important people in the country lived — because he parsed the word столица (capital) as сто лиц (100 people).

But he was 8 years old. Here’s what someone identified as a member of the Russian Academy of Sciences writes about the word богатырь: Бога ты то есть, Богу ты принадлежишь. (You are of God, that is, you belong to God.) Завершающее Р — это звук грозы и гнева, но гнева праведного, львиного. (The “r” at the end is the sound of threat and anger, but it is righteous anger, the anger of a lion.) Впрочем, поскольку Бог благ, и гнев Его направлен лишь на грех, этот звук смягчён: РЬ. (And besides, because God is good and His anger is only directed at sin, the sound is lightened with a soft sign at the end of it.)

She gives the actual etymology (it’s a borrowing from Turkic), then concludes:

So what’s the problem? Why are so many people obsessed with proving that богатырь is not a borrowed word?

And then I realized what it is. Some people don’t want mythic ancient Russian heroes to have a name borrowed from another language. So they are manufacturing a “native Russian” etymology.

It’s импортозамещение (import substitution)!

Thanks for the link, Jeff!

Comments

  1. it is often argued that Бог is an Iranian borrowing too.

  2. Some such mistakes by 8-year-olds are delightful. Around 1940, a then-8-year-old-uncle came back from Sunday School reporting that Pontius the Pilot was the man who flew Jesus to Heaven in his airplane.

  3. I remember reading somewhere that when Atatürk created modern Turkish by purging Ottoman Turkish of words of Arabic or Persian origin, the scholars working for him were able to save many such words by providing spurious folk etymologies to give them a false Turkic ancestry.

  4. This is an evergreen genre — one can find similarly absurd derivations by 18th century Russian writers — but it seems to me the bogatyr piece quoted above was a deliberate parody/hoax.

  5. David Marjanović says:

    Serbian is the oldest language. All other languages are derived from Serbian. The founder of Islam? Muhamed = muha + med = fly + honey.

    Apparently that was meant in earnest. There is no limit to how ultra- Serbian ultranationalism can get, and the Russian version recently seems hell-bent on proving the same for itself.

    were able to save many such words by providing spurious folk etymologies to give them a false Turkic ancestry

    Here you go.

  6. no limit to how ultra- Serbian ultranationalism can get

    Indeed. “There is no such language as Croatian. There are only Croats, who speak Serbian — badly. But soon that will no longer matter.” —Usenet, probably some time in the 90s or early 00s.

  7. Around 1940, a then-8-year-old-uncle came back from Sunday School reporting that Pontius the Pilot was the man who flew Jesus to Heaven in his airplane.

    No, no, he was in charge during the Flight to Egypt.

  8. it seems to me the bogatyr piece quoted above was a deliberate parody/hoax.

    Oh, rats. But how can you tell? Remember Poe’s law.

  9. “it is often argued that Бог is an Iranian borrowing too.”

    That makes sense, with some Turkic language as the mediating language. I bet there’s a lot of North Iranian lexical material in Turkic languages.

  10. The Bogatyr quote does seem to come from a 2013 entry in a spoof blog devoted to giving Russian etymologies to all words. Like capitalism <= КУПцы кКУПюры КОПнми наКАПливают. The author gives an alternative etymology of bogatyr right there – “the one stealing from G*d” <= slang “тырить”

  11. There is even a corrected, originally Russian word for linguistics – “lengvizdika”, defined here as follows:

    ЛЕНГВИЗДИКА, так тупые форумные тролли из числа офисменеджеров средней руки, коротающие рабочее время в интернете, прозвали на своем падонкаффском языке упражнения исследователей, утверждающих, что славянский язык явился базовым для всех остальных европейских, что, именно из него дикие европейцы еще совсем недавно черпали лексику для своих примитивных языков. А нам понравилось. Мы подняли это слово на флаг. Мы теперь гордимся, что мы – ЛЕНГВИЗДЫ.

    (Quite a few links to runet sites busy with the alternative etymologies, chronologies, and histories there)

  12. Thanks for confirming that, and the continued relevance of Poe’s law!

  13. That makes sense, with some Turkic language as the mediating language.

    No intermediary in this case. Slavic has plenty of old borrowings taken directly from the Iranian languages once spoken all along the Pontic/Caspian steppe belt (Ossetic and Yaghnobi are relicts of those groups). They are usually cultural loans connected with religion, myths and ideology. In most cases they are not shared with the Baltic languages despite their close relatedness to Slavic. By the way, there are whole layers of Iranian loans in Uralic languages as well (Including Finnish and Saami), and a few likely Iranianisms in Germanic.

    *bog is rather obviosly Iranian. Its semantics is the same in both Iranian and Slavic. As its derivatives show, it once meant ‘wealth, prosperity, good fortune’ (a meaning shared with Vedic); then it developed the meaning ‘god, deity’, which is unique to Slavic and Iranian. It wasn’t just the diffusion of a new meaning across a contact zone. The word reflects earlier *bʰágos (from a PIE root meaning ‘share, apportion’). If it were an inherited item in the Slavic lexicon, the root vowel would have undergone a Balto-Slavic lengthening before a “plain voiced” stop (Winter’s Law). Since it’s short, it seems that Iranian *baga- was borrowed into an early stage of Proto-Slavic some time after the operation of Winter’s Law.

  14. Sorry for the continuing spam 🙂 My field of genetics has a lot of interesting parallels with (the alternative) linguistics and chronology, because so much of its conjectures are based on the similarities of the observed patterns that, without good data and good statistical toolkits, it’s also possible to “discover” identities / common descent of pieces of DNA which are just superficially similar. So you won’t be surprised that I read a ton of Fomenko 🙂

    But Fomenko isn’t nearly as entertaining as the “Lengvizd” Kotelnikov (AFAICT Котельников Андрей Леонидович, a Ph.D. physicist chairing the Young Scientists Board of the Russian Academy of Sciences). Just consider this tale of a drunken party homing in on the true origin of Hadrian’s Wall! BTW even the “explanation” of the word “lengvizdika” which I cited in the previous message seems to be another Kotelnikov’s invention, because the earliest Google hit to this word (in 2001) belongs to Kotelnikov himself, back when he was just starting his grad school 🙂

  15. Dmitry, I love this word. The transformation works in Polish too (I would suggest lęgwizda, lęgwizdyka). The irregularly voiced consonants make it sound pretty freakin’ obscene.

  16. Serb and Croat are Iranian (Sarmatian) ethnonyms. Bulgar is obviously Turkic. Macedonian is Greek.

    Slovene is Slavic, of course, but it’s a rather recent name – originally the people of the region were called Carantanians. Etymology is unknown, but could be Iranian as well.

  17. Russian is of Norse origin, as well as Belarussian. Ukrainian is a recent name, originally they were called Rusyn(Ruthene), same Norse origin.

    Polish is Slavic, however, it is well known that historically they were called Lechites (Лѧховѣ) – obscure term apparently of Germanic origin (from German “land”)

    Hence, the only true Slavs are Czechs and Slovaks….

  18. Vasmer disagrees with Iranian borrowing as explanation of bog. Wiktionary article on *bogъ is somewhat circumspect. But it seems to be pretty clear that everyone agrees that bogatyr is a completely different kettle of fish.

  19. Well, what can I say? For one thing, Vasmer never heard of Winter’s Law. Winter published his paper on it sixteen years after Vasmer’s death.

    As for the meaning and use of the word, there are even parallel derivatives shared by Iranian and Slavic, such as Old Iranian *bagina- ‘temple, sanctuary’, Slavic *božьnъ ‘divine’, *božьnica ‘temple’. It seems clear to me that the word was borrowed from Iranian and then its meaning was “updated” during prolonged contact between Iranian and Proto-Slavic speakers.

  20. Ian Press says:

    Iranian pretty definitely.

    And we all know Ukrainian was spoken in the Garden of Eden.

  21. “And we all know Ukrainian was spoken in the Garden of Eden.”

    Yes. By the Snake. (just kidding!!!)

    Piotr,

    “No intermediary in this case. Slavic has plenty of old borrowings taken directly from the Iranian languages once spoken all along the Pontic/Caspian steppe belt (Ossetic and Yaghnobi are relicts of those groups). ”

    I remember an article in a collection of surveys of languages Bernard Comrie edited that tracked the layers of loanwords in Hungarian. There was a layer of Iranian and two separate layers of Turkic loanwords. You could fairly plot the Magyars track across the continent.

    By the way, is your excellent blog still going?

  22. Ксёнѕ Фаўст says:

    Aren’t there other striking exceptions to Winter’s law, though, like *voda or *xoditi? Or have these been conclusively explained away?

  23. David Marjanović says:

    By the way, is your excellent blog still going?

    Yes! Currently it’s even active. 🙂

  24. Aren’t there other striking exceptions to Winter’s law, though, like *voda or *xoditi? Or have these been conclusively explained away?

    It’s difficult even to decide whether *xoditi is an exception, since we don’t fully understand its etymology, structure, and relationship to *šьd- (no Winter’s Law either). Baltic data suggest that there’s more to *voda than meets the eye. The derivatives *vydra ‘otter’ and *vědro ‘pail’ (if related) show the expected Winterian length. I rather often disagree with Kortlandt, but his explanation of the first vowel of *ognь ‘fire’ as a denasalised reflex of a PIE syllabic nasal is entirely convincing. Nothing else can reconcile the Baltic, Slavic, Indic and Latin forms. What works for fire may just as well work for water: the Balto-Slavic declension was still heteroclitic but its weak stem was riddled with “transposable nasals” (not unlike Germanic *sunnōn- ‘sun’). At one point it became *wundn- (escaping WL because of the *-ndn- cluster > *wǫdn- > *vodn-. How exactly it lost the suffixal *n and evolved into a plain ā-feminine is something people are reluctant to explain. If I ever figure out the details, it will be a great topic for an article.

  25. What works for fire may just as well work for water

    That made my day.

  26. David Marjanović says:

    riddled with “transposable nasals” (not unlike Germanic *sunnōn- ‘sun’)

    Like transposons in biology that cut themselves out of the sequence, insert themselves elsewhere, and multiply in the process? 🙂

  27. Yes, you got the allusion right. This kind of pervasive nasality was the result of several rounds of analogical reshaping, which caused the nasal to be multiplied and inserted in the “wrong” places.

  28. People often insert their nasals in the wrong places. Nosey parkers are an anthropological constant.

  29. Og, Son of Fire. New evidence for the PCT….

  30. PCT (I had to look it up).

  31. Ian Press says:

    This all makes my day, every day (practically – ‘life’ sometimes gets in the way). I got Michele Berdy’s book – so far read a few pages. It’s very good and entertaining. I wish her Russian examples were stressed (Unicode!). As the author of ‘What’s in a Russian Word…’ (Duckworth, Bloomsbury), I think they complement each other rather well. I prefer hers. Makes me want to get back to Russian, which I dropped somewhat when I took the early retirement I’d always promised myself so as to get back to my love for all languages. I could say my Slav(on)ic languages are now so rusty (can’t be true) I daren’t offer any opinions, but that’s nonsense. Thank you, LH!

  32. You’re welcome, and by all means get back to Russian — I picked it up again after years in abeyance, and now I’m gobbling it like popcorn!

  33. David Marjanović says:

    The sequel is called “Og, son of Og” in all seriousness. My day is saved.

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