The Harmony of Languages.

Yet another long, dense essay of which I can only quote a few appetizing bits; this one, The Harmony of Languages, is by old LH favorite Justin Erik Halldór Smith (see this post). It starts with the “so-called Muscovy duck,” which “is so called not in view of its homeland in the vicinity of Moscow –for in fact it is native to Central and South America– but rather in mistranslation of its Latin designation, Anas moschata, the ‘musky duck'”:

We may wonder, then, what led Daniel Gottlieb Messerchmidt, in his Forschungreise durch Sibirien [Research Voyage through Siberia], to suppose that he had seen such a bird, or that such birds could be seen, on his arrival in the far eastern region of the Siberian Governorate known as “Yakutia”. In his list of vocabulary items recorded in the Yakut or Sakha language of on February 4, 1724 –thus, following the Dutch traveller Nicolaes Witsen’s Noord en Oost Tartarye [Northern and Eastern Tartary] of 1692, the second oldest attempt in the history of Sakha to record the spoken language in writing–, the German explorer gives the word Turpàn as the equivalent of “the Moscowy duck Willughbeji”, referring, as contemporary readers would have known, to Francis Willughby and John Ray’s 1676 Ornithologia. But turpan is not a Sakha word; it is a Russian word, and it designates not the Anas moschata, but rather the Melanitta fusca, commonly known in English as a “velvet duck” or “velvet scoter”, whose habitat centers around the Yenisey River basin in Siberia, and whose feathers are an iridescent black.

Messerschmidt’s mistake is noteworthy, as it is the largest one in a list of forty-two Sakha vocabulary items, which includes forty-one names of different sorts of animal, plus the word for snow (Chár in Messerchmidt’s orthography, хаар in modern Sakha). Fifteen mammals are identified, seven species of fish, and nineteen of birds. Most of Messerschmidt’s mistakes make at least some sense. He correctly gives the name of the domesticated reindeer (Taba/таба), but wrongly infers that the generic term for any wild beast (Kýll/кыыл) is the specific term for the wild reindeer, as he presumable heard the term being used adjectivally (Kýll Taba/кыыл таба) but failed to notice that the noun it was modifying was the same as the name for domestic deer. For the Canis marinus or Seehund, which is presumably the name he uses for the so-called ringed seal or Phoca hispida common in Kamchatka and the far north of the Pacific Rim, Messerschmidt again gives the Russian name (Nérpa/нерпа), evidently unaware that the Sakha people of the Lena River basin with whom he was in contact had no native words for marine or littoral fauna.

Messerschmidt gives signs of only a cursory familiarity with the phonology of the languages he records. Thus he combines vowels that cannot occur together in Sakha according to the strict laws, common to all Turkic languages, governing vowel harmony. For example, he writes the word for “red” as Kysil rather than kyhyl/кыһыл: the s where we today write an h is comprehensible within the rules of Sakha phonetics and dialectal variation; the i where there should be a y is simply a result of imperfect hearing. One might be tempted to say that Messerchmidt is not searching for harmonies, and so does not detect them.

The same cannot be said of Messerchmidt’s contemporary and sometimes rival, the Swedish explorer and naturalist Philipp Johann von Strahlenberg. […] If we move back to the Turkic section, grouping together a variety of Tatar, as well as Sakha (the northeasternmost Turkic language, with heavy syntactic, grammatical, and lexical borrowings from Mongolian and from Tungusic languages), and, finally, Chuvash (the only living member of the so-called Oghur branch of Turkic), we see that indeed they do share a significant amount of vocabulary, and Strahlenberg was correct to assume their relatedness. The numerals in particular plainly announce a shared ancestry: thus, lining up the Chuvash, Tatar, and Sakha words for “one” (with the equivalent modern Sakha term in parentheses), we have Pärr, Birr, Byrr (биир); for “two”, Ycki, Icke, Icki (икки), and so on. Strahlenberg had difficulty finding Chuvash words other than those for numbers though he does offer words for “day” (Kann) and “hair” (Ssys) which evidently correspond to the Siberian Tatar and the Sakha terms. For these latter two languages, without Chuvash, the degree of similarity is surprising. Thus: “horse” in Tatar is given as Ath and in Sakha as Att (ат); for “fire”, Ott and Oth (уот) respectively; for “water”, Ssu and U (уу).

What now about “God”? The Tatar word that Strahlenberg gives is Chudai, which seems to be a corruption of icatçi/иҗатчи, a term that may be translated as “creator”. The Sakha term given is Tangara. This is the word that will later be most commonly used for the Christian God in translations of the Bible beginning in the late 19th century, translations which, as the first major written texts in the history of Sakha, contributed significantly to its development as a literary language. It is also the name of the pre-Islamic Turkish divinity tengri or tanrı, who is the focus of sundry neopagan revivalist movements throughout the Turkic-speaking world today. This divinity is generally understood as a heavenly paternal figure, who may or may not be identical to the sky itself, but is at the very least associated with it symbolically. […]

Strahlenberg is not a particularly ingenious etymologist, and throughout his work he makes several false conjectures about the origins of words. He takes for granted that the ethnonym “Slav”, or “Sclavi” or “Sclavonian”, may be traced back to the root slava, meaning “glory” (it is more likely connected to slovo, “word”). He claims that the Sakha word for “Russian” is Lutschae or Ludzae (in fact it is nuuchcha/нуучча), and asserts that it is derived from the Russian word luchshe/лучше, meaning “better”. He explains that “when the Russians first brought [the Sakha] under their yoke, they adopted this manner of speaking, when they wished to make known their superiority of the Yakuts, and that they were of a better and more noble lineage, saying: mi Lutzae or Ludtschi kacwy, that is: We are a better, higher, more noble, and more renowned people than you.” It is more likely however that the Russian word from which the Sakha derive nuuchcha is not luchshe/лучше but liudi/люди, which means “people”. Strahlenberg believes in fact that appellations such as “the better” or “the eminent” serve across Eurasia as a way of marking out certain ethnic groups. He even attempts to show, citing Tacitus, that the endonym for Germans, Deutsch, has its ultimate origin in the word Teutones (which is true), a term that in turn may be traced back to Teutobogh or Tolistobogi (which is not true). The latter of these variants is a Slavic word that may be analyzed as “massive [or fat] gods”. On another approach to the origin of the Germans’ self-designation as Deutsch, he suggests that it may be traced back to Thiud or Tziut, early Germanic terms for soldiers, and thus, like the “Ar-teugon” of the Yakuts, glorious warriors who are subsequently divinized. Most surprisingly of all, he also suggests that the Sakha Teugon or Tuigon may have the same root as Teut or Deutsch, and that in both variants are traced back to the name of one and the same ancient Eurasiatic warrior people: the Scythians.

And I haven’t even gotten to Leibniz and his Otium Hanoveranum, “a largely contextless presentation of a number of Leibniz’s correspondences on various topics […]. Considerable space is given over to what we might call ‘ethnolinguistics’ and ‘ethnohistory’, the project of reconstructing the migration and evolution of the various ethnonational groups of Europe and Asia”; Leibniz asked Giovanni Battista Podesta about “the languages that are particular to Siberia and to the people furthest toward the Ob’, the Irtysh, and other rivers flowing there,” and Strahlenberg wound up trying to fulfill his request. The last half of the essay is a detailed discussion of the implications of Leibniz’s ideas, and I recommend it to all and sundry. Thanks, Trevor!

Comments

  1. David Eddyshaw says:

    The word in New Guinean Tok Pisin for “God” is “God”

    I think it’s a bit much to read into this that the colonialists simply gave up trying to translate the alien concept to New Guineans: after all, the word for “man” is “man”, and the word for “foot” is “fut.” Now, the word for “God” in Iñupiaq is, as it happens, also “God” …

    Pettifogging point, though. It’s an interesting article indeed. The question has long interested me, not only of how to translate Christian terminology in cultures with radically different outlooks from ours, but what exactly people suppose themselves to be doing when translating. In a better world there would be a dialectic, not an attempted one-way transfer. The evangelised will have insights into the missionary’s message that the missionary himself lacks, and would never have discovered. (And never will, if he doesn’t shut up and listen.)

  2. Charles Perry says:

    Chudai looks to me like the Persian word for God, Khuda.

  3. January First-of-May says:

    It is more likely however that the Russian word from which the Sakha derive nuuchcha is not luchshe/лучше but liudi/люди, which means “people”.

    In fact it is probably neither, but cognate to Russian itself – essentially, each next tribe encountering the Russian advance asked their western neighbors who those guys are, and the result looked a bit like a game of telephone.

    (Apparently some western Yakut dialects did have luucha instead of the standard nuucha, so it’s possible that Strahlenberg recorded the word in question from one of those.)

    On another approach to the origin of the Germans’ self-designation as Deutsch, he suggests that it may be traced back to Thiud or Tziut, early Germanic terms for soldiers

    This, on the other hand, is probably true, but extremely misleading.

    a term [Teutones] that in turn may be traced back to Teutobogh or Tolistobogi (which is not true). The latter of these variants is a Slavic word that may be analyzed as “massive [or fat] gods”.

    I’m surprised to discover that both Teutobogh (a supposed ancient giant) and Tolistobogi (a Celtic tribe mentioned by Livy) are actual (though indeed irrelevant) references and not just made up by Strahlenberg.

    (Teutobochus/Teutobogh was probably made up in 1613; as for the Tolistobogi, apparently nobody is quite sure what “Tolisto” means. I’m not sure whether a Slavic origin can be ruled out, though “fat, thick” doesn’t seem to be a particularly plausible name element.)

  4. horse in Tatar is given as Ath and in Sakha as Att (ат)

    At is also for horses in Serbo-Croatian, having gotten there via Turkish (I assume?). A marked poetic/old-fashioned variant but frequently encountered as “Cigo svoga ata hvali” – meaning “the Gypsy singing the praises of his horse” to describe especially exaggrerated boasting.

  5. John Cowan says:

    Now, the word for “God” in Iñupiaq is, as it happens, also “God” …

    And the word for “dog” in Mbabaram is, as it happens, also “dog” …

  6. Chudai looks to me like the Persian word for God, Khuda.
    That word was also loaned into the Turkic languages of Central Asia, e.g. the Kazakh word for “god” is quday. So Strahlenberg probably correctly noted a word then used in Siberian Tatar, and Smith’s conjecture about chuday being a corruption of an icatçi/иҗатчи “creator” is wrong.

  7. The question has long interested me, not only of how to translate Christian terminology in cultures with radically different outlooks from ours, but what exactly people suppose themselves to be doing when translating.

    Indeed. And it seems to be the Old Testament vocabulary which is most problematic, for which you’d think Christians wouldn’t need to bother. We had here the other day a made-up Anglo-Saxon word for ‘Pelican’, which was to translate some bird unknown (and quite probably not a pelican).

    Case in point would be New Testament ‘virgin’ Mary. As I understand it, the Greek original is closer to ‘maiden’/young girl; not necessarily a virgin. How was the Aramaic original (if it survives)? I guess Christianity (after St Paul) would have turned out to be misogynistic and generally oppressive to sexuality irrespective of a more accurate translation.

  8. @AntC: The main issue with “virgin” is with a passage from Isiah, which Christian writers took as a propjecy of a virgin birth. However, עַלְמָה, the word translated as “virgin,” really meant a young, sexually mature, but unmarried woman. (The unmarried part may not have been literally required, but it most instances of the word, it appears to be the pragmatic implication.)

  9. nemanja says: At is also for horses in Serbo-Croatian

    Don’t know about “Serbo-Croatian”, but in Croatian, the usual, normal word for horse is “konj”. The Turkish word for horse “at” or “hat” is only ever used in epic oral folk poetry, and in constructions like “dorat” (red / chestnut horse), “đogat” (white horse), and “alat” (red horse).

    Just like in the Hurrian / Mitanni situation, much of Croatian horse terminology has been borrowed from another language – in this case, Turkish.

  10. the strict laws, common to all Turkic languages, governing vowel harmony

    Uzbek has lost VH, under the influence of Persian, I guess.

  11. David Marjanović says:

    In case anyone’s wondering about the random variation between Messerschmidt and Messerchmidt: the former is correct, the latter not even possible. Means “knife smith”, northern enough to have final fortition spelled out and to lack the vowel lengthening of monosyllabic words (Schmied).

    Chudai, which seems to be a corruption of icatçi/иҗатчи

    That would require… multiple layers of corruptions of corruptions. Not a parsimonious hypothesis.

    (Teutobochus/Teutobogh was probably made up in 1613; as for the Tolistobogi, apparently nobody is quite sure what “Tolisto” means. I’m not sure whether a Slavic origin can be ruled out, though “fat, thick” doesn’t seem to be a particularly plausible name element.)

    I think a Slavic origin can be ruled out, first, by geography, and second by the fact that the Great Slavic Vowel Shift hadn’t happened yet (it dates to the 8th or 9th century or so). Before it, Slavic sounded a lot more like Latvian and lacked any kind of [o ~ ɔ ~ ɒ] (short or long, unlike Latvian).

    We had here the other day a made-up Anglo-Saxon word for ‘Pelican’, which was to translate some bird unknown (and quite probably not a pelican).

    Definitely intended as an actual pelican, because the Christian symbolism comes from places with actual pelicans. Of course that doesn’t mean anyone in England knew more about pelicans than that story and “some kind of waterbird”.

    And the word for “dog” in Mbabaram is, as it happens, also “dog” …

    Yeah, but Iñupiaq doesn’t have any kind of [o ~ ɔ] except when a uvular consonant is close by.

  12. PlasticPaddy says:

    Re talistobogii, I think continental Celtic in general and Galatian (or Pannonian Celtic) are too poorly attested to do more than guess the meaning of a name like this. Even the name Thales, which is in a better attested ancient language, has an uncertain etymology. I would also suppose this name was recorded (and perhaps inadvertently twisted) by non-native speakers

  13. AJP Crown says:

    the random variation between Messerschmidt and Messerchmidt

    I believe they’re alternated and I count four of each. I think it’s a WW2 encoded message.

  14. Watch out, the OSS may come after you.

  15. AJP Crown says:

    No good deed goes unpunished (see Alan Turing).

  16. J.W. Brewer says:

    Treating the Hebrew עַלְמָה as equivalent to the Greek παρθενος was not an innovation of the New Testament writers. It comes straight out of the Septuagint. It is the height of arrogance for moderns to think they understand the meaning of particular ancient Hebrew lexemes in Isaiah better than the Jews who first translated it into Greek before the birth of Christ. And it would be rather more suspicious if the NT writers, writing in Greek, deliberately used different Greek lexemes than the LXX when quoting OT passages.

    One might also note that claims that a particular word means X and therefore does not mean Y should not be accepted uncritically. The English word “maiden” in some contexts specifically means “virgin” but in others simply means “unmarried young woman, whether or not a virgin” and Anglophones generally don’t find that alternation between a narrower scope and a broader scope confusing or incongruous. (Outside of fixed phrases it may be a bit archaic in both scopes these days.) And there might be instances in English where it’s ambiguous and different readers (possibly with different worldviews and default assumptions) will interpret it differently. For the same varying scope to exist in other languages spoken in traditional societies where the default assumption (even if to some extent a polite social fiction) is that unmarried young women are presumed to be virgins absent a specific statement to the contrary should not be particularly surprising.

  17. That would require… multiple layers of corruptions of corruptions. Not a parsimonious hypothesis.
    It’s ironic how Smith lists Strahlenberg’s wrong conjectures and then succumbs to one himself. A bit of due diligence (what words for “god” are used in the major languages of the region, and what’s their etymology) would have prevented that mistake.

  18. Whatever almah meant in Hebrew (it’s a rare word in the Bible), Greek ‘parthenos’ did not always mean virgin in the Septuagint – Gen 34:3, where it translates na’arah, “girl”, is a case where it really can’t given what has just happened to Dinah.

  19. It’s ironic how Smith lists Strahlenberg’s wrong conjectures and then succumbs to one himself. A bit of due diligence (what words for “god” are used in the major languages of the region, and what’s their etymology) would have prevented that mistake.

    To be fair, it’s impossible to investigate everything about everything; those already familiar with Persian khuda will notice the obvious resemblance, but if you’re not, you won’t. I know a fair amount about a lot of languages and still miss lots of things that are obvious to people who know things I don’t.

  20. In some Catholic thinking, a raped virgin remains a virgin.

  21. January First-of-May says:

    The English word “maiden” in some contexts specifically means “virgin” but in others simply means “unmarried young woman, whether or not a virgin”

    The same, IIRC, is true of Russian дева (or девица, and less archaically девушка). Certainly the word for “virginity” is transparently related.

  22. David Eddyshaw says:

    In Kusaal, pu’asadir is “young sexually mature woman who has not yet been pregnant.” You can express the concept “virgin”, of course, but there’s no snappy single word for it.

  23. Justin E. H. Smith says:

    Thanks very much to those of you who have offered helpful and charitable corrective comments (thus, excluding Hans), particularly those regarding ‘Chudai’ and ‘Tolistobogi’. I take it that we now have a definitive solution to the question of the origin of the first (thanks especially, Charles Perry), while the second is still uncertain, but probably not Slavic in origin, as I had supposed. I’ll change the original post to incorporate this new information, with a note indicating the change.

    I am familiar with the Persian word for ‘God’, but thought it was fixed as ‘khoda’ and didn’t recognize it with the vowel changed to ‘u’.

  24. It’s historically short u, but that’s pronounced /o/ in modern Persian.

  25. Every commenter on this blog post, so far, seems to assume that the English word “virgin” has the same meaning, one that is that is shared by all involved in the discussion; one that is the same in their own (the commenter’s) mental (not mental as a slur, but as psychological) vocabulary.

  26. That’s an odd word to pick on for (as you imply) inherent ambiguity we’re somehow ignoring. Virgin: “A person who has not experienced sexual intercourse.” What am I missing?

  27. The fact that what “sexual intercourse” means is itself quite arbitrary.

  28. No, I didn’t think you were being confrontational, just puzzling. Thanks for explaining.

  29. @anhweol: There are definitely some oddities of diction in the Septuagint. Without really thinking about it, I had previously assumed that any errors were probably the result of the translators having an imperfect knowledge of koine Greek. However, I’m not actually sure whether the translators would be likely to have better fluency with Greek or Hebrew, not likely being native speakers of either.

  30. David Eddyshaw says:

    @Justin:

    I may not have explained my nitpick in the first post very well (or I may very possibly have misconstrued your point.)

    How does the use of the word God for “God” in an English-lexifier creole provide evidence that someone gave up on trying to find an equivalency? If the English word were adopted into a language like Iñupiaq which doesn’t in any case draw its core vocabulary from English, sure …

    No doubt Tok Pisin God does not altogether match English “God” in actual meaning for many speakers. But that doesn’t seem to be the same point, exactly.

  31. David Eddyshaw says:

    @Brett:

    The quality of the translation in the LXX is (I’m told) very variable in different portions, veering from very idiomatic to painfully overliteral to pretty rudimentary. The translators presumably varied among themselves in their knowledge of Greek and Hebrew, and likely also in what they were trying to achieve in translation.

  32. J.W. Brewer says:

    By the standards of the current dominant consensus (in the Anglophone world, at least) of how Bible translations should be done, the LXX is in many places a lousy translation. The oft-overlooked question is whether that should make us feel superior to the long-dead incompetent losers who produced it or should instead make us question our level of confidence in our current conventional wisdom about what they should have been doing instead. Could be some of both, of course (i.e. even if their rather different philosophy and goals re translation are accepted as equally legitimate, they might have incompetently executed it with respect to particular passages).

  33. Justin E. H. Smith says:

    @David Eddyshaw

    I appreciate your point, and agree with you that a better example of evidence for “someone giving up somewhere” could have been found than the one I drew from an English-lexifier creole such as Tok Pisin. I’m fairly sure we could find other examples of non-creole languages where key theological concepts and entities, imported into new territories along with new hegemonic languages, are left untranslated. (Perhaps the Siberian Tatar use of ‘khoda/chudai’ could serve as an example, if Messerschmidt is not mistaken about the use of this word.)

  34. David Marjanović says:

    God has been imported into Navajo, and no doubt many others.

  35. David Eddyshaw says:

    @Justin:

    Thanks for the reply (and once again for the article.)
    Foley’s remarkable Yimas grammar has e.g. (p393):

    tia-ka-na-aykapiŋa-n God na anti papk-t-wal.
    “I know how God made the world.”

    … in this case, I guess, in fact borrowed from hegemonic Tok Pisin, rather than English directly.

    A rather different case from a language that comes rather more readily to mind for me is the Hausa allà “god”, absolutely homophonous with the (irregularly) graphically distinguished Allàh “God.”
    Though most Hausa are entirely orthodox Sunni Muslims, the borrowed Arabic word for (the one) God has displaced the original word for pre-Islamic non-monotheistic “god” and actually adopted its meaning: allà has the plural alloli “gods.”

  36. We got the translation Christos in Greek, the language of another Mediterranean culture where anointing with olive oil was practiced. That was not going to translate directly into something like Norwegian.

  37. David Eddyshaw says:

    In Kusaal, the strategy has not been incorporation of unassimilated loanwords but a sort of forcing of the fairly alien semantics of the English or French onto words of more-or-less similar meaning which have been chosen to translate them. An example I mentioned elsewhere is siig, used for “spirit”; in the traditional understanding of human nature, this is really “life force”, and is conceptualised as consisting of three (for a man) or four (for a woman) distinct tutelary kikiris (usually rendered “fairies” in local English.) In the most recent Bible translation kikiris is used to mean “demons” (a change from older Bible versions, in which “demons” were at least always specifically called “bad” kikiris.)

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