SLOVO-ER-S.

I will have to look for a copy of Chto neponyatno u klassikov, ili Entsiklopediya russkogo byta XIX veka [What you don't understand in the classics, or Encyclopedia of daily life in the 19th century] (Moscow, 1998), a few excerpts of which are online here, dealing with the ways people addressed one another. As anyone at all familiar with prerevolutionary Russian society knows, inferiors called superiors by resounding titles while superiors used the equivalent of “my good man,” or simply a name, to them. The most interesting of the excerpts concerns the suffix -s, a contracted form of sudar’ ‘sir,’ omnipresent in prerevolutionary literature as an indication of politeness or servility, depending on the situation. It was known as слово-ер-с [slovo-er-s], from the old name of the letter s (slovo, literally ‘word’) and er (pronounced “yer”), the name of the hard sign formerly used after all words ending in a consonant. In The Brothers Karamazov the disgraced Staff Captain Snegirev says to call him Captain Slovoyersov, since in the second half of his life he has had to begin humbly using the -s ending. And there’s a wonderful quote from Pushkin’s Pikovaya dama [Queen of spades] (the beginning of Chapter 6):


—Atande!
—Kak vy smeli mne skazat’ atande?
—Vashe prevoskhoditel’stvo, ya skazal atande-s!
["Wait!"
"How dare you say 'Wait' to me?"
"Your Excellency, i said 'Wait, sir'!"]
(Via Avva.)
Addendum. I finally found slovo-erik in Dahl, hiding two-thirds of the way down column 256 of Volume 4 (of the third edition, 1903-1909, edited and corrected by Jan Baudouin de Courtenay, the only one worth getting from a linguistic point of view); the definition reads: “-s, added to words v znak osoboi vezhlivosti prezhnikh vremen ['as a mark of special politeness of former times,' an odd phrasing that leaves it unclear whether it is the politeness or the suffix that is obsolete].” This implies that even before the revolution the slovo-er-s or slovo-erik was considered a relic.
Update. When I wrote this entry, I had no idea why the final -s of slovo-er-s was there, but I suppose I figured it was too picky a detail to get into. Now, thanks to a commenter on this post, I know: in the old system of reading Russian by syllables, using the old names of the Cyrillic letters, a final hard sign was read with the preceding consonant following it, 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 yerkъ is yer (hard sign) plus the preceding k (called kako). In exactly the same way, the suffix -съ (in the old spelling) was read “слово-ер-съ.” Mystery solved!

Comments

  1. Tatyana says:

    Reading Chukovsky’s diaries (still am; I believe in pace relative to the text), I recall an example of how offended one of the Turgenev’s private correspondents was by his manner of addressing equals as “My dear”. (Chukovsky was talking to that person while collecting materials/eye wittnesses for his book on Nekrasov)
    “What am I to him, “polovoi v traktire” (waiter at the inn)?!

  2. Maybe this is the place to ask a question that has been on my mind. My grandparents were Russian (and Yiddish-speaking) Jewish immigrants who left what they called the Old Country during the time of the pogroms of 1905 for New York City, with millions of others. None of our relatives have first names that are Russian. All have names that are typically Jewish, be they Biblical names like Isaac or Yiddish names like Fageleh, Gitel, etc. When did Russian-speaking Jews begin to get Russian names? By the way, these relatives came from large cities and not villages in Russia or Ukraine. Any ideas?

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  4. I’m undecided whether to delete the above comment as excessively long spam or keep it for amusement value. Opinions?
    And does anybody know the answer to Toby’s question?

  5. I’d like to thank Ransom for solving the -s problem, and renew my call for an answer to Toby’s question: When did Russian Jews begin to get Russian names?

  6. I would guess mostly starting in the 1930s when Jews were under pressure to assimilate.

  7. Makes sense to me.

  8. A historian working in the archive of the Jewish population of Lodz in the decades around the turn of the century writes:
    “Jews living in the Pale began taking Russian names in the early 19th century, if not earlier, especially in large cities, although more religious Jews kept Hebrew names…so I don’t think the time period matters as much as individual religious practice.
    “There is definitely dual usage. In the records, some people are mentioned by their Polish/Russian names in official documents, but in memoirs are referred to by their Yiddish names. So, in Poland, Jews might have 3 names: Yiddish, Russian, and Polish. I think it really depends on the level of observance of the particular family.”

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