The Abkhaz Sneeze.

I’m rereading Mandelstam’s 1933 Путешествие в Армению (Journey to Armenia) in preparation for reading Andrei Bitov’s 1969 Уроки Армении (Lessons of Armenia), and I keep the Clarence Brown translation handy in case of emergency (Mandelstam’s prose is not easy reading). Just now I got to the fourth section, Сухум (Sukhumi), which opens with a passage on the local language:

В начале апреля я приехал в Сухум — город траура, табака и душистых растительных масел. Отсюда следует начинать изучение азбуки Кавказа — здесь каждое слово начинается на “а”. Язык абхазцев мощен и полногласен, но изобилует верхне- и нижнегортанными слитными звуками, затрудняющими произношение; можно сказать, что он вырывается из гортани, заросшей волосами.

Боюсь, еще не родился добрый медведь Балу, который обучит меня, как мальчика Маугли из джунгей Киплинга, прекрасному языку “апсны” — хотя в отдаленном будущем академии для изучения группы кавказских языков рисуются мне разбросанными по всему земному шару.

My translation:

At the start of April I arrived in Sukhumi, a city of mourning, tobacco, and fragrant vegetable oils. This is where one should begin the study of the alphabets of the Caucasus — every word here begins with “a.” The language of the Abkhazians is mighty and full-voweled, but it abounds in fused sounds of the upper and lower larynx, making pronunciation more difficult; you could say that it is ripped out of a larynx covered with hairs.

I’m afraid the kindly bear Baloo has not yet been born who would teach me, like the boy Mowgli from Kipling’s jungle, the lovely language of “Apsny” [Abkhaz Аԥсны ‘Abkhazia’] — although in the distant future I foresee academies for the study of the Caucasian languages scattered over the entire globe.

When I looked at Brown’s translation, I discovered that the poor guy, not knowing what to make of “апсны,” had identified it with апчхи [apchkhi], the Russian conventional representation of sneezing, and translated the phrase as “the splendid language of ‘ahchoo.’” I, an aficionado of languages and endonyms, knew immediately what апсны was, but you have to pity Brown in the mid-1960s with no knowledge of Abkhaz and no search engines — how was he to know what the devil it meant?

Comments

  1. Most of the Russians knew the word from the taste of Апсны Абукет, yes, that’s Apsny a-bouquet, a sweet red concoction reportedly made from Moldavian table wine and sugar these days. My vague memories suggest that a visitor to Sukhumi must gave been blind not to notice that there are Abkhazian nouns not starting from “a”, since every street was an иулица.

  2. Stu Clayton says:

    апчхи [apchkhi], the Russian conventional representation of sneezing

    Is it only that, or is it also what Russians sneeze like ? Germans not only write “hatschi” for the conv. rep. sne., but they also sneeze with that sound (stress on second syllable). In America I learned to sneeze with “ah-choo”, and still do. That’s not something I would try to unlearn. Wozu denn auch ?

    My point is that the sound is culturally shaped. I wonder now whether burping is too. Farting probably isn’t, but we’ll never know because research into the matter is not likely to attract adequate funding. We’ll never know whether an analogy of proto-laryngeals might be found: proto-anemoi I suppose.

  3. stress on second syllable

    In Russian too, as you would expect. (I wonder what the Abkhaz for ‘ah-choo’ is?)

  4. Stu Clayton says:

    And the French and Spanish for it ?

  5. абхазо-русский словарь в 2-х томах

    http://alashara.org/books/18.pdf

  6. Peter Maydell says:

    “In America I learned to sneeze with “ah-choo”, and still do. That’s not something I would try to unlearn.”

    It is possible to do so if you want to, though. Some while back I acquired the habit of saying “cthulu” as I sneeze, which I commend to you as much more satisfying-sounding than a mere “achoo”.

  7. every word here begins with “a.”

    I had the same acoustic impression twenty-five years ago when I sat in on a field methods course in graduate school and worked with a speaker of the Cwyzhy dialect of Abkhaz! I used the data we collected for my term paper in my phonological theory course. I tried to determine which schwas among the formidable consonant clusters were underlying and which were epenthetic and predictable. I couldn’t develop a successful account of the data at all, but the frustration and failure was one of the best learning experiences of my graduate career. I had finally started doing real research and getting real results—inconclusive, open-ended, and full of exceptions and perplexities.

    I remember we always collected and cited nouns and adjectives and verb infinitives with the preceding article a- to learn information about the stress: the article would be stressed if there was no lexical stress on the word it was prefixed to. And then there was another a-, the 3rd person singular, non-human possessive pronominal prefix, which—if I recall correctly—had different stress effects…

    https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/%D0%B0-#Abkhaz

    And a lot of the stems just happened to begin with a-, too, it seemed. What are you going to do when you only have two phonemic vowels?

  8. A very appropriate example sentence from that link:

    ашəҟəыҩҩцәа Аҟәаҟа ицеит ― āšəq̇əəʿ°ʿ°c°ā Āq̇°āq̇ā iceiṭ ― the writers went to Sukhumi

  9. David Eddyshaw says:

    In fact, the custom of saying “bless you” when someone sneezes arose because of fears that in sneezing one might accidentally pronounce the name of Cthulhu – which can be produced by human vocal apparatus, but not voluntarily (only by dire, mind-destroying, mischance.)

    Peter Maydell’s attempt to say the Calamitous Name deliberately when sneezing is of course another tried and trusted method of avoidance.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paradoxical_intention

  10. Attempts at apotropaic sneezing underwater have had unfortunate results as well.

  11. David Marjanović says:

    Germans not only write “hatschi” for the conv. rep. sne., but they also sneeze with that sound (stress on second syllable).

    Some people say the culturally appropriate pseudo-word when they sneeze, some don’t. I think that’s the same everywhere. Likewise, some people laugh with [a], [ɛ], [i] or [o], and some with [ə] even when that’s not in the local sound system.

    I sneeze through my nose when it isn’t clogged. Yay narial fricative. My dad transitions seamlessly into a curse instead, because having to sneeze unplanned greatly upsets him.

    BTW, haptschi is pretty well attested in German, but apparently extinct.

  12. Cthulhu is known to be very hard on the nose.

    There was a bursting as of an exploding bladder, a slushy nastiness as of a cloven sunfish, a stench as of a thousand opened graves, and a sound that the chronicler would not put on paper. For an instant the ship was befouled by an acrid and blinding green cloud, and then there was only a venomous seething astern….

  13. Stu Clayton says:

    I sneeze through my nose when it isn’t clogged. Yay narial fricative.

    Non-smokers can do that demure thing. Manual counter-measures are necessary when only mucosal ejectives are available in the local sound system.

  14. By the way: I Googled for the text of “The Call of Cthulhu” (having, for some reason, forgotten the correct URL for https://www.hplovecraft.com/) by entering the first phrase from the story that popped into my mind: “A mountain walked or stumbled.” That led me directly to the story, but also to this article, which revealed that back issues of The Lovecraft Annual are all available through JSTOR. Most of the articles in The Lovecraft Annual seem to be of somewhat marginal quality, but the one that linked to—a comparison of Cthulhu and Polyphemus, following on from a direct analogy made in Lovecraft’s original text—is brief and (I thought) rather interesting.

    Its appearance on JSTOR gives a certain imprimatur of academic legitimacy to The Lovecraft Annual—although I presume that the only reviewing is done by S. T. Joshi himself, with no external peer review. Still, I am tempted now to contribute to the journal—both because I would like to support serious literary studies of Lovecraft (and high-quality “genre” fiction more generally), and because I would find it amusing to include a publication in The Lovecraft Annual on my academic curriculum vitae.

  15. “in the distant future I foresee academies for the study of the Caucasian languages scattered over the entire globe”

    Another vain prediction 🙁

  16. I think “distant” envisions more than a mere ninety years.

  17. I grew up with /aptʃi/ in Israel, but I don’t know if it’s still currrent.

  18. Another vain prediction 🙁

    Maybe this qualifies as “academies scattered over the entire globe”
    http://www.academia.edu/Documents/in/Abkhazo-Adyghean_Languages

    Particularly enlightening article
    https://www.academia.edu/43423319/How_to_give_a_f_ck_Defining_obscenities_in_the_languages_of_the_Caucasus

    Chechen obscenities are apparently based on cleanliness (or lack of it):
    Mollin k’eag sanna can-vealla ħo
    ‘You’re as clean as a mullah’s ass’

  19. “In the year 2525, if Caucasian languages are still alive…”

  20. Cthulhu and Polyphemus, following on from a direct analogy made in Lovecraft’s original text

    Cyclopean!

  21. The article even mentions* the characteristic, Polyphemus-like rock-throwing of the Harryhausen cyclopes in The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, although the giants in that film are definitely not builders.

    * In a footnote.

Speak Your Mind

*