SOFYA ENGELGARDT AND FRANCOPHILE RUSSIA.

I’ve been working my way through my latest acquisition in the Dictionary of Literary Biography series (see this LH post), Russian Literature in the Age of Realism, and I just read the entry on Sofya Engelgardt (Софья Александровна Энгельгардт, 1828-1894), which provides a telling illustration of how hard it was to make a mark as a woman writer in nineteenth-century Russia. Engelgardt published in all the important “thick journals” of the day and was friends with many of the important (male) writers, but she’s been so thoroughly forgotten there’s hardly anything online about her (and most of it is taken straight from the condescending Brockhaus and Efron entry, which says she wrote “in the manner of the second-rate female writers of the [18]40s and ’50s, almost exclusively on the themes of love and family relations,” as if those subjects were damning in and of themselves). The author of the DLB article is Mary F. Zirin, herself an admirable figure, an independent scholar who’s been working for decades to raise the profile of Russian women writers and, if necessary, rescue them from oblivion (she was responsible for the existence of the remarkably thorough Dictionary of Russian Women Writers and has had a prize named after her); she writes that Engelgardt “never took the final step toward professionalism by arranging to republish her works in collected editions. Left moldering in journals and slender volumes, her talented tales were soon forgotten, as was she: no obituaries marked her passing in 1894.” Someone should do a Selected Works and/or translate her into English; I’d love to read her, and I’ll bet others would too. At any rate, I want to quote here Zirin’s vivid description of her Francophone upbringing:

[Engelgardt and her three sisters] were educated by governesses and grew up immersed in French culture. In one of Engel’gardt’s stories the female narrator explains that “at seventeen I knew the name of Pushkin only by hearsay, and in our house Gogol was called an ‘izba [peasant-hut] writer.’ . . . Our children’s library comprised, as if selected on purpose, extremely boring books, mostly French. Particularly memorable to me is one entitled Les annales de la vertu (The Annals of Virtue). . . . Oh, virtue! how early our instructors, in all innocence, taught us to hate you.” In “Vospominaniia na dache” Engel’gardt includes an anecdote about her young narrator’s first encounter with Russian as a drawing-room language: after Iuliia sees a performance by the famous St. Petersburg-based actor Vasilii Andreevich Karatygin, she sneaks out to a neighbor’s home to attend a soirée in his honor. To her horror she discovers that “Karatygin was speaking Russian, and I couldn’t assemble two Russian phrases and, for the first time in my life, was vexed at my ignorance of my native tongue and realized that in Russia it might possibly be of use.” Engel’gardt learned the Russian language rapidly once she set her mind to the task. Although editors had to correct her grammar at first, her fiction was packed with closely described realia and aphoristic turns of phrase, and she had a keen ear for adages, idioms, and colloquial speech. She continued including French passages in her stories to indicate the prevalence of that language in Moscow society; in a couple of tales, too, she poked fun at social climbers for their bad French. In 1860 Engel’gardt put her Francophilic upbringing to journalistic use and contributed three “Zagranichnye pis’ma” (Letters from Abroad) on current events in France to a Moscow newspaper. Her translation into French of Aleksandr Sergeevich Pushkin’s dramatic works appeared in Paris in 1875.

I love “was vexed at my ignorance of my native tongue and realized that in Russia it might possibly be of use.”

Update (August 2017). Last year Erik at XIX век translated an Engelhardt story as “The Old Man,” and he’s now translating another as “It Didn’t Come Off”: introduction here, first installment here.

Comments

  1. vexed at my ignorance of my native tongue and realized that in Russia it might possibly be of use
    An example where ‘native language’ is used, at variance with general modern linguistic usage, to describe a language that one cannot actually speak. I think I’ve seen comments here at LH pointing out the difficulty of ascertaining the number of speakers of minority languages in Russia because people will identify a language as their ‘native language’ based on ethnicity and not on the ability to speak it.

  2. That’s one possible interpretation. But it also might mean that she spoke Russian peasant-style, as many aristos did because they were brought up by nannies, and her ignorance was of Standard (i.e. primarily bourgeois) Russian.

  3. Yes, I think John’s interpretation is correct.

  4. Although 30 years her junior, Sofia is not much different from Pushkin’s Tatiana:
    Она по-русски плохо знала,
    Журналов наших не читала,
    И выражалася с трудом
    На языке своём родном…
    The key is выражалася, “expressed herself.” Tatiana had no Russian idiom at hand for expressing her love for EO. While a literary Russian was being forged in the “journals,” she did not read them. Instead, Tatiana used the language of Rousseau’s Nouvelle Héloïse and Madame de Staël’s novels, and of Prévost’s renditions of Richardson.
    It seems that Sofia knew basic Russian but her vocabulary was limited to simple household subjects. But by the 1860s one would think literary Russian had developed enough to allow for all sorts of sophisticated discussions. In fact, one could argue enormous progress was made already in Catherine II’s reign.

  5. marie-lucie says:

    Sofya Engelgardt (Софья Александровна Энгельгардт, 1828-1894)
    Given the Russian identification of the /h/ of other languages as their /g/, shouldn’t the name be Engelhardt, which is well-known in Germanic countries?

  6. No, because her name is Russian, not German. You might as well say that John Cowan should be rendered Yohanan MacEoghain.

  7. Or Даль as Dahl, which happens to be your usual practice!

  8. Eoghan Mac Eoghain in Irish, or Iewan Llewan (< Iewan ffeil Iewan) in Brito-Romance.

  9. Or Даль as Dahl, which happens to be your usual practice!
    Yes, but that’s different because Dahl is famous under that spelling. Similarly, I write Tchaikovsky and not the pedantic Chaikovsky (or, even worse, Chaikovskii). It would be great if Engelgardt were famous enough under any spelling that I would be driven to use it, but such is not the case.

  10. Don’t make me bust out Emerson on consistency and hobgoblins.

  11. Interestingly, I always used “h” in “Engelhardt” for B.A. Энгельгардт, a biochemist after whom my grad school was named, and most likely a descendant of the same noble family (but also of an impeccable Red pedigree, having served as an army chief medic in Red Cavalry during the Civil War)

  12. J.W. Brewer says:

    In the latest NYC political-corruption scandal (very latest, meaning the one where the charges were announced this morning not the one where the charges were announced Tuesday morning . . .) one of the defendants alleged to have conspired to bribe various members of the state legislature is named Igor Tsimerman. I assume that surname is cognate to the standard German-American “Zimmerman,” but neither the gentleman in question nor the federal prosecutors have seen fit to standardize it that way.

  13. I think Alexei’s interpretation fits the best, the character complains that she can’t string a sentence together, not that her style of speaking is inferior. It sounds like Engelg/hardt’s (and by extention, her characters’) russian was strictly passive. I have a handful friends who never really learned their native spanish because they rarely spoke it after they started school.
    As for the g/h question – how did she write her name in French? After all, since her family was so euro-minded, she may have preferred to use the german spelling.

  14. how did she write her name in French?
    An excellent question, and if there were a way to find out, I would definitely adopt her spelling. Unfortunately, she signed all her work with pseudonyms (usually “Olga N.”).

  15. According to ЭСБЕ, all these Engelhardts descent from Livonian XIV c. baron Генрих Э, and claimed roots in Switzerland. The first Engelhardt at Russian service was Werner (Еремей Каспарович) von Engelhardt, a XVII c. Polish officer. Don’t you like how these German names are converted into Orthodox Russian ones!

  16. That one!

  17. Well, that book title calls her “Sophie Engelhardt, née de Novosiltsoff”. So she was an ethnic-Russian aristocrat by birth, and only a Russified Swiss Livonian Pole by marriage.

  18. Tatiana had no Russian idiom
    and Pushkin was very excited when Prince Vyazemsky translated Constant’s Adolphe into Russian for this very reason, he was expecting that a whole new set of terms and phrases would enter the language. Adolphe was the prototype of Onegin.

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  22. marie-lucie says:

    Another Russian Sophie wrote in French: Sophie Rostopchine, a daughter of the Russian general who burned Moscow. She married a French aristocrat and is more commonly known in France as la comtesse de Ségur, the author of books for children, especially little girls.

  23. Sophie Rostopchine … is more commonly known in France as la comtesse de Ségur, the author of books for children, especially little girls.
    Some free association:
    One of those books is Les malheurs de Sophie. The French Wipe sez:

    Vladimir Nabokov y fait allusion dans son dernier roman, Ada ou l’ardeur (1969), en imaginant Les Sophismes de Sophie d’une certaine « Mlle Stopchin », et Les Malheurs de Swann, dont le titre marie la comtesse de Ségur et Marcel Proust.

    “La comtesse de Ségur” made me think of Sagan: I just read Aimez-vous Brahms… in an edition with the biographical note that Françoise Quoirez took her pen name from a “prince de Sagan” character in Proust.

  24. Poking around the internet for background to that Brockhaus-Efron encyclopedia, I ran across this curious Germanic “mind-map” with arrows pointing from the encyclopedia to other things. I’m not sure “mind-map” is an appropriate word. The thing may be based on some “ontology”, as data organizers/miners like to call their classification systems.
    Anyway, the diagram appears to associate the encyclopedia with (some) topics on which it contains articles, (some) topics mentioned in those articles, and (some of) the authors of the articles. There are too little associations, or too many, depending on how you look at it. The problem seems to be that encyclopedias are themselves (among other things) “ontologies” or “mind-maps”. An ontology applied to an ontology reveals Too Much Information.
    I conclude that you can’t derive an epistemology from an ontology, for sort of the same reason that you can’t derive an ought from an is. Describing descriptions multiplies the descriptions, but provides no explanations. This comment is an example of that.

  25. marie-lucie says:

    Les malheurs de Sophie ‘Sophie’s misfortunes’, although located in France, is actually based on events in the comtesse’s childhood in Russia. They are mostly comedic, but her actual childhood was quite miserable, with a very harsh, puritanical mother, a religious fanatic who kept her children hungry and cold for lack of proper food, clothing and heat in the house, even though this upper-class family could well afford a more than decent standard of living. She adored her father, but he was absent most of the time. Her marriage was also unhappy, and later she started writing children’s books partly in order to shore up her financial situation. She was much happier as a widowed grandmother than she had been as a child and married woman, and although the social structure depicted in her books is now obsolete, they remain very popular as children’s classics.

  26. Stu, what can you derive an ought from?

  27. Eoghan Mac Eoghain in Irish
    Are you not perhaps confusing Eoghan (a native Irish name commonly anglicized as Eugene) with Eoin, the Irish version of Johannes used for saints and popes? The English name John is rendered in Irish as Seán (from the Norman French).

  28. empty: what can you derive an ought from?
    One ought to be able to derive one from other oughts, or noughts (“Thou shalt nought covet thy neighbor’s ass”). These are knotty matters that one ought not set at naught. We have Hume to thank for this unsatisfactory state of affairs.

  29. For aught I know, I ought to know, but I don’t.

  30. cm: Eóghan is generally equated with either Owen (a straight transcription) or John in Co. Mayo, where my people come from, and in Connaught generally. The false equivalence to Eugenius, Eugene is more of a Munster notion. (In Scotland it’s Evan or Ewan.) There is little doubt that my surname is Mac Eóghain, though no actual proof: my grandfather, who didn’t speak Irish, wrote his name John Coen and probably pronounced it Shawn a Cawn.
    As I have told before, the transition of Cowan to the current spelling pronunciation with the MOUTH vowel happened in Philadelphia in my father’s time, allegedly because his high school football coach renamed him; all his younger brothers and sisters were saying “Cow-an” by the time I was born, as were their children, my cousins. So here I am, born from the yew, living in the New Place of the Yews. (Of the Jews, too, but that’s another story.)

  31. Make that “born from the yew (Eóghan), with roots on the Plain of the Yews (Maigh Eó > Mayo), living in the New Place of the Yews (Eoforwīc > Jórvík > York), and by no means ‘well-born’ (εὐγενής > Eugenius > Eugene)!”

  32. marie-lucie says:

    JC: New Place of the Yews
    Your comment sent me back to Wiki for the origin of York, whith I think was discussed here a few years ago. I remembered the origin of the Celto-Roman place name Eboracum given as related to the word for ‘boar’, so I was surprised at “the yews”, but the article seems to have been revised to discuss the matter and instead relate Eboracum to the word for ‘yew’, which at one time resembled that for ‘boar’. “Place of the yews” makes more sense as a place name than “place of the boars”. Trees tend to be picky about where they grow, and nobody would settle in a place infested with wild boars.
    There is a cognate in French Evreux for which the French article only refers to the Eburovices Gaulish tribe, without further details, while the English article translates this name as Those who overcome by the yew, with a question mark. Perhaps the translator confused the vic- part with the Latin root vic- ([wik]) ‘to be victorious’ (as in Caesar’s veni, vidi, vici) with the Celtic (or Germanic?) wik ‘place, willage, etc’ (hence English place names in -wick).
    On the other hand, the French article on Aulerques Eburovices (the Aulerques, Lat Aulerci being a larger group) seems to be the source for the assertion, since yew wood has been used in many cultures for making bows of superior quality. But the existence of a Gaulish verb based on the root [wik] seems to be inferred from the attested tribal names ending in the suffix -vices, so this etymology might be considered doubtful.
    There is also the name Evremont as in the French abbey of Saint-Evremont. It is not clear if the name meant Yews mountain or Boar mountain, but other placenames with the same origin such as Evry and Ivry would rather suggest ‘yew’ as the original root, yew wood being a desirable commodity and therefore an asset for a settlement in ancient times.

  33. The boars got into the story when the English tried to understand the name Eboracum (most probably ‘place of the yews’, as I wrote above), and folk-etymologized it in their own language as Eoforwīc ‘Boar-town’. Indeed, it would be *Eaverwich today, except that the Danes conquered the city and folk-etymologized it again as Jórvík ‘Horse Bay’, hence York. Of course, neither the English nor the Norse name makes any sense. In any case, I should have prefixed Eboracum to Eoforwīc above.
    Quoth WP on the ‘place of the yews’ etymology:

    The word for ‘yew’ was probably something like *eburos in Celtic (cf. Old Irish ibar ‘yew-tree’, Irish: iobhar, Scottish Gaelic: iubhar, Welsh: efwr ‘alder buckthorn’, Breton: evor ‘alder buckthorn’) combined with the suffix *-āko(n) “place” (cf. Welsh -og) meaning “place of the yew trees” (cf. Efrog in Welsh, Eabhrac in Irish Gaelic and Eabhraig in Scottish Gaelic, by which names the city is known in those languages).

    It would be interesting to know if the modern Celtic names of York are inherited or are modern linguistically-informed reconstructions.

  34. David Marjanović says:

    So full of win! And yews.

    Eoforwīc ‘Boar-town’.

    German:
    Eber “male pig” (usually domestic, but clearly wild in the personal name Eberhard)
    Eibe “yew”

  35. it would be *Eaverwich today
    Pronounced, no doubt, Evridge.

  36. Hat: Not unless it was subject to irregular shortening, like bread or read (preterite). Of course that’s unpredictable. But otherwise, “eev(e)ridge”.

  37. My impression is that long vowels before consonant clusters tend to get shortened (as in Christmas? or is that something else?), but my impression is probably wrong.

  38. The false equivalence to Eugenius, Eugene is more of a Munster notion
    That “false equivalence” is an ancient one that is, like much else (synthetic verb forms, dative endings etc.), best preserved in Munster but it is not a “Munster notion” as such.
    Eóghan is generally equated with either Owen (a straight transcription) or John in Co. Mayo, where my people come from, and in Connaught generally…So here I am, born from the yew, living in the New Place of the Yews. (Of the Jews, too, but that’s another story.)
    The conceit warrants the licence perhaps but to say that Eoghan is generally equated with John in Mayo/Connaught is something of a stretch: Eoghan did get confused with Eoin in those parts (loss of the central consonant and influence of the vocative/genitive no doubt) but there are Gaeltacht families in Connaught with both an Eoghan and a Seán and it’s hard to see how both could traditionally have been rendered John.
    (There may have been a Jams O’Donnell aspect to this of course).
    And not to be a spoilsport but the Big Apple was no more named New York for a tree than it was named New Orange for a fruit. It is curious that the second element (which had previously changed with each change of rule) did not revert to Orange after a scion of that house had ousted the erstwhile Duke of York from the throne of the then ruling power.
    The decisive battle in that war of Orange and Apple was fought in your ancestral Connaught, at Aughrim.

  39. David Marjanović says:

    as in Christmas? or is that something else?

    AFAIK, that’s something else: the i is ancestrally short, and I once read it was lengthened in Christ under the influence of missionaries from Ireland.

  40. Jams O’Donnell aspect
    Without doubt. My father and grandfather were both raconteurs, and surely not above sacrificing a fact to an antithesis, and of course their view of Irish was little better than fragmentary: my grandfather’s more so than my father, who had a good education.
    named New York for a tree
    “Wouldn’t it be pretty to think so?”

  41. A milder case of Engelgardt’s language problem is possible these days in Russia. A native Russian speaker with a good enough knowledge of English will often (I’d even say should) rely on Anglophone literature in a number of fields, from news to social science to feminist thought. But when she tries to discuss her newly acquired knowledge with someone less Anglophone and less knowledgeable, she will have to either invent a new vocabulary or start checking relevant Russian literature, if available, for the right terms. Those Russian texts could be derivative and greatly inferior to the original work, but they could provide something of an established terminology (see гендер). In addition, Russian translations, even if broadly accepted, could still be extremely inelegant. How in the world do you say EBITDA in Russian? All in all, Russian remains underequipped as it were for certain types of discussions.

  42. SFReader says:

    —How in the world do you say EBITDA in Russian?
    I am pretty sure they say it in English, with heavy Russian accent and a lots of stress.
    The result ends up sounding very similar to certain Russian expletive…

  43. SFReader – that much is true, i.e. people say something like эбитдА (or, if one wants to show off, эбИтда) and кэш-фло(у) for cash flow . It doesn’t sound funny anymore. I’ve heard Germans are also using EBITDA and “cash flow” without translating. Occasionally, people say елдА (an old-fashioned folksy word for a big penis) for “yields” but доходность is a reasonably good word for “yield” and broadly accepted too. But what about “shareholder value?” Everybody understands it now (so I hope), but акционерная стоимость is still a lousy term.

  44. David Marjanović says:

    A native Russian speaker with a good enough knowledge of English will often (I’d even say should) rely on Anglophone literature in a number of fields, from news to social science to feminist thought. But when she tries to discuss her newly acquired knowledge with someone less Anglophone and less knowledgeable, she will have to either invent a new vocabulary or start checking relevant Russian literature, if available, for the right terms.

    Oh, German has reached that point now. We don’t have a widely known word for “evidence”. (A few people have, consciously or not, tried to introduce Evidenz, but it isn’t widely understood at all.)

    I’ve heard Germans are also using EBITDA and “cash flow” without translating.

    Yep. The youngest generations (and less younger ones among scientists) are familiar with English, don’t find it jarring to hear or too hard to pronounce, and use large amounts of unchanged English words when we think that’s easier. 100 years ago or more, that’s how the upper classes must have felt about French, except English words are often easier to integrate.

  45. Embedded in 169 lines of spam content:
    It’s perfect time to make some plans for the longer term and it’s time to be happy.
    Yes, it’s time to be happy.

  46. It takes a dedicated man to read 169 lines of spam content looking for the gem.

  47. It jumped out at me, just like typos and such do. Don’t you have that experience?

  48. marie-lucie says:

    JC: It’s perfect time to make some plans for the longer term and it’s time to be happy.
    Just what I need to hear!

  49. It jumped out at me, just like typos and such do. Don’t you have that experience?
    Sure, I was just cracking wise.

  50. The youngest generations (and less younger ones among scientists) are familiar with English, don’t find it jarring to hear or too hard to pronounce, and use large amounts of unchanged English words when we think that’s easier.
    It’s just as true of the business world. Or probably any educated milieu in the German world. I’ve heard German native speakers use expressions like “anyway”, “at the end of the day” or “to make a long story short” in conversations adressed to other native German speakers. C’est la vie, I suppose. But the Austrian use of the word “Kids” in contexts where “Kinder” would work perfectly well still grates on my ears. That, and the verb “chillen”, since “to chill” or “chill out” is already dated slang in American English.

  51. Vanya – your examples are of gratuitous substitution so to say. Not having the right word, or having a train wreck of an expression for a notion is different. “Value,” “due process” (to say nothing of substantial due process!), “equity”…

  52. ‘Chill out’ is dated slang? I was only just getting around to adopting it. 🙁 What am I supposed to say now?

  53. ‘Chill out’ is dated slang? I was only just getting around to adopting it. 🙁
    Yeah, I just take for granted that if I know an expression, all the cool kids have abandoned it long ago.

  54. It’s already timeless, as in “Boogie Chillen.”

  55. I love “cracking wise”. Now there’s a dated expression! The noun “wisecrack” is much better known, I think.

  56. marie-lucie says:

    “Boogie Chillen.”
    I think that “boogie” is a lot older than “chill out”. I would have thought that “Chillen” is a representation of a non-standard pronunciation of children.

  57. m-l, you’re right of course (chillen/chillun=children; “I heard papa tell mama, let that boy boogie-woogie”), but I was trying to crack a little joke.

  58. marie-lucie says:

    AK, I have been told I have no sense of humour, at least not much.

  59. Alexei, I disagree that “at the end of the day” is an example of gratuitous substitution. I would argue it is a culturally specific cliche that Germans who have been exposed to significant amounts of American business jargon find very difficult to translate into their native language. The same is true of other business cliches such as “out-of-the box thinking” or “proactive” which also seem to appear fairly frequently in German business conversations.

  60. I was under the impression that ‘at the end of the day’ was a British English expression that somehow caught on in America — not to universal approval because of its unfamiliarity and overuse.

  61. I believe that I first ran into “at the end of the day” in Scotland in 1987. At the time I experienced it as an unfortunate cliché, or at least an overworked expression. I recall one social gathering where it felt like some people were using it in every second sentence. I hadn’t heard it before. It seemed to be virtually equivalent to the familiar “when all is said and done” or “in the end”, or “The bottom line is …”
    I’m a little more mellow about superfluous imported British slang these days, so much so that I was initially quite irritated by Yagoda’s almost-crusade against “Not One-off Britishisms”. But Yagoda is good, and clichés are bad …
    It seems that certain personality types cannot become more mellow about one thing without becoming less mellow about another.

  62. One of my favorite twisted cliches is “At the end of the day, we all have to get up in the morning.”

  63. m-l: You may not always know when people who you know only from the written medium are in jest and when in earnest, and your own jokes are subtle and dry, but that does not add up to “no sense of humor”. A good example from a recent thread is “[My daughter] pulled me towards the display to attract my attention to this funny word [cadeaux], saying triumphantly: “ka-dé-ox”! Obviously she could read, since she had actually read the word!” I laughed out loud at that one.

  64. marie-lucie says:

    It was the situation which was a joke on her! If we had spoken Spanish rather than French, she might have started to read earlier, but because of the vagaries of the centuries-old French spelling which caused her to make a mistake she probably thought there was no point in her trying to read (at least in French), and she did not try again for several years. Since she was so young, I did not try to push her or teach her, and when later she decided she wanted to read Tintin she figured out French spelling on her own.

  65. So now I know who Yagoda is. (The first result was a Russian security chief).
    In a world with so many interesting things to read and learn, with an Internet that gobbles up most of our spare time if we let it, I can’t imagine why one would want to give the time of day to someone like Yagoda. Seriously.

  66. It is curious that the second element (which had previously changed with each change of rule) did not revert to Orange after a scion of that house had ousted the erstwhile Duke of York from the throne of the then ruling power.

    For some reason, I missed replying with the obvious answer, namely that while the Prince of Orange became King of England (and a fortiori King of New-York), he had only a life interest: the ruling house remained the House of Stuart until William’s successor Anne died without heirs. Indeed, the “gentleman in black velvet” put paid to the House of Orange as well.

    I note that Nassau St. in Manhattan, Nassau County, and Orange County were never renamed.

  67. Peter Schrijver has an article “The meaning of Celtic *eburos which points out that although formally *eburos is impeccable, its semantics are shaky: its Old Irish reflex ibar does mean ‘yew’, but in Welsh we have efwr ‘hogweed’, in Breton evor ‘alder buckthorns’ (collective), in German Eber(-esche) ‘rowan’ (the form eber- is isolated in German and thought to be a Celtic borrowing). It’s a meaty and complex argument with lots of excellently argued details.

  68. Yes, very nice. For those without the leisure or patience to read the whole thing, here’s the argument in a (relative) nutshell:

    With the available evidence, the following reconstruction can be attempted. What the tall perennial ‘hogweed’ and the shrub ‘buckthorn’ have in common is the fact that they have clusters of small greenish to white flowers. The rowan, indirectly attested for Continental Celtic in German Eber-esche, eber-boum, has umbel-like heads of small white flowers (superficially like the true umbels of hogweed), which are followed by red berries, while the buckthorn has red, later black berries. Since the only features that link buckthorn (Breton) and rowan (Continental Celtic) on the one hand, and yew (Irish) on the other, are that they are large plants carrying berries, that feature combination probably goes back to the semantics of Proto-Celtic *eburos. The feature of having umbel-like heads of small whitish flowers is present in hogweed (Welsh) and rowan (Continental Celtic), and with a little bit of fantasy also in buckthorn (Breton), but definitely not in yew (Irish). There are no phenotypical characteristics that link hogweed (Welsh) to yew (Irish). Hence the weight of the evidence is rather against Proto-Celtic *eburo– meaning ‘yew’ or ‘hogweed’ because on that basis it is difficult to explain the others as derived meanings. The evidence rather is in favour of it denoting a shrubby plant with umbel-like clusters of whitish flowers which are followed by berries. On the basis of the latter, the meanings ‘hogweed’ (large plant with white flowers in an umbel), ‘buckthorn’ (woody plant with berries) and ‘rowan’ (woody plant with white flowers in an umbel and berries) can all be derived. The meaning ‘yew’ is the real outlier. In the absence of other phenotypical and technological similarities, ‘yew’ can be linked to the other meanings on the basis of its red berries (technically: arils), whose flesh is edible, in contradistinction to the highly toxic seeds. In respect to fruit colour, edibility and tree-like habitus, ‘yew’ is closer to ‘rowan’ than to ‘buckthorn’.

    All this leads to the following scenario. Proto-Celtic *eburos probably denoted ‘rowan, Sorbus aucuparia’. This may be preserved in Continental Celtic on the evidence of the Germanic loan eber-boum, Eber-esche. In Insular Celtic, a new word for ‘rowan’ was adopted: Old Irish cáerthann, Middle Welsh kerddin, Modern Breton kerzhin. This set *eburos free to be used for other plants: ‘buckthorn’ in Breton because it too is woody and has berries; ‘hogweed’ in Welsh because of the similar inflorescence; and ‘yew’ in Irish because it has red edible ‘berries’. […]

    To my knowledge, it has not yet been observed that semantically and formally Celtic *eburo– links up much better with Latin ebulus, ebulum, which means ‘dwarf elder, danewort’ (attested since Cato). Danewort (Sambucus ebulus) is a close cognate of the shrubby elder (Sambucus nigra), from which it differs by being a herbaceous perennial, which dies down every winter, and in that it forms dense stands. Incidentally, those characteristics as well as the presence of divided, pinnate leaves and its preferred habitat of fertile, moist soils link it particularly with hogweed (Welsh efwr). Like most of the Celtic words, ebulus denotes a large plant with umbel-like heads of small whitish flowers which are followed by red, then black, berries. […]

    These plausible alternatives to the traditional etymology of ebulus open up the possibility of connecting ebulus with Celtic *eburo-. Both can be reconstructed as (Italo-Celtic) *ebhuro– or *eburo-. Latin –l– instead of –r– may be due to the influence of other plant names, such as populus, opulus, corulus. No further etymology is available (Albanian bërshẽn ‘stinking juniper’ allows too many possible reconstructions to be a reliable cognate). […]

    It is possible to assume that the original meaning of this item, ‘yew (berry)’, was preserved at the geographical extremes of the Indo-European world (Hittite and Celtic, Germanic), while central languages innovated by applying the term to other woody plants producing edible berries, but this can be no more than tentative.

    In light of the fact that the transition from ‘yew’ to Sorbus (or the other way round) apparently occurred twice in the history of the ancient Indo-European languages, there must have been an obvious semantic link between the two. The only link that comes to mind is the edible fruits. That leads us to surmise that eating the fleshy arils of yew fruit, in spite of the high toxicity of all other parts of the tree including the seed itself, was probably a commonplace activity in prehistoric Europe.

  69. In addition, Schrijver disposes of the claim that there was a homonymous Celtic *eburo- ‘boar’; as m-l notes above, nobody would settle in a place infested by wild boars, so Eboracum must have to do with a plant, whichever one it was.

  70. marie-lucie says:

    Nice to revisit this thread again!

    About the plant, I think yew must be the most likely, as a source of a then very useful wood unmatched by that of any other tree or shrub. The other plants, even the ones with berries, are not so unique in their usefulness.

    A question: now that bows and arrows are of little practical usefulness, yews are grown in some gardens, but is there a common modern use for yew wood?

  71. It is used for cabinetmaking and other fine woodworking, as it is very resistant to both decay and mechanical damage. At least ten yew trees in the U.K. are more than a thousand years old. Certain anti-cancer drugs (taxols) are also made from the bark of the Pacific yew. Yew hedges are extremely dense and provide shelter for small animals and birds. In addition, it is the characteristic churchyard tree of the British Isles.

  72. marie-lucie says:

    Thank you. I did hear about the medicinal use.

    As for the churchyard, I suppose that the yew is the Northern equivalent of the Mediterranean cypress.

  73. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    As for the churchyard, I suppose that the yew is the Northern equivalent of the Mediterranean cypress.

    In terms of use, possibly, but they’re very different trees. All parts of the yew are very toxic, but toxicity of the Mediterranean cypress is low to non-existent (on the other hand its pollen is highly allergenic, as I know to my cost: among lesser attacks I had a very severe one while looking for Chagall’s grave in St Paul de Vence). I suppose there were once yews on the Chateau d’If, but I don’t think there are now.

    I never met Pierre Potier, who discovered the anti-cancer value of taxols, but my wife met him several times at meetings. He was a strange man in some respects: he always paid for things with the exact amount, using virgin notes and coins that he got from the Banque de France, so that he wouldn’t have to touch money that anyone else had touched.

  74. Trond Engen says:

    For semantic shift, barlind “needle lime” replaced the cognate of ‘yew’ in Norwegian long ago. The reason quoted by No. Wikipedia is that the inner bark of the yew could be used for bast fibre ropes, as was that of the lime. Since the yew is not native to Norway, this resource must have been very limited. I would suggest similar uses in gardening and also perhaps the shape of the flowers and early fruits.

  75. All parts of the yew are very toxic

    All but the red arils or false fruit, and even then the seed inside is toxic and must be removed. Birds do eat the arils and typically pass the unchanged seed out in their droppings.

    I suppose there were once yews on the Chateau d’If

    The singular form If (the name of the island before the fortress was built on it) suggests to me rather a real or fancied resemblance between the island’s shape and a yew tree. Surely there would not be just a single yew growing there. In any case, construction of the fortress must have pretty well wrecked the island as it was before.

  76. David Marjanović says:

    Certain anti-cancer drugs (taxols) are also made from the bark of the Pacific yew.

    Not anymore: industrial chemistry has fortunately found alternatives. The Pacific yew was getting seriously endangered.

    What taxols do is they shut down cell division by removing all controls on microtubule formation so that the spindle that pulls the chromosomes apart cannot form.

  77. marie-lucie says:

    le Château d’If

    “If” here might have another, ancient etymology.

    If there was a single tree on the island, the name would probably be Château de l’if, and if many trees, Château des ifs. But I don’t think that is the meaning.

    I think the cypress and the yew are used in graveyards because of their funereal appearance and very tight “foliage” (I am not sure what the technical term for trees that don’t have leafy branches but “needles”).

  78. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    “All parts of the yew are very toxic”

    All but the red arils or false fruit, and even then the seed inside is toxic and must be removed. Birds do eat the arils and typically pass the unchanged seed out in their droppings.

    Yes. I remembered that too late to fix my post. However, the important point is that bits one doesn’t usually think of as likely sources of toxins, like wood, are very dangerous.

  79. Lars (the original one) says:

    The (English) Wikipedia article on Taxus Baccata touches on both Norse religious practice and the environmental impact of international trade in bow staves. So I learned two new things today, and it’s only 11am.

  80. Trond Engen says:

    Norse religious practice

    For a brief while yesterday I thought about the possibility of connecting Aril(lus) to ErilaR.

  81. “If” here might have another, ancient etymology.

    Yes, with a word so short it’s impossible to pin down a definite etymology.

  82. Although Brichot would definitely have one ready at hand.

  83. marie-lucie says:

    Yes, with a word so short it’s impossible to pin down a definite etymology.

    Especially since it could come from any number of languages, not all of them known. Toponyms have considerable staying power.

  84. Exactly.

  85. Sir JCass says:

    Château d’If

    I’ve always thought it’s a great shame Rudyard Kipling never went to live there.

  86. Trond Engen says:

    Yes, with a word so short it’s impossible to pin down a definite etymology.

    Å?

  87. Not “impossible under any and all circumstances” but “impossible without a clear path of descent from a longer form, in a region with a whole bunch of languages in its history, known and unknown.”

  88. marie-lucie says:

    Exactly.

  89. Trond Engen says:

    I know. But I couldn’t resist the opportunity for a one letter pun.

  90. marie-lucie says:

    Exactly again!

  91. O!

  92. U.

  93. January First-of-May says:

    Э.

  94. From January First-of-May’s link:

    “Неподалеку от этого Экса лежит другой курортный городок. Он тоже называется Экс (и даже еще проще: Э).”

    [Not far from this Aix is another spa town. It too is named Aix (and actually even more simply: /E/).]

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