Variations of the Name for a Fire Pit.

Elif Batuman has a story in last week’s New Yorker, “Constructed Worlds,” that appeals to me greatly. It’s an evocation of what it’s like to find yourself immersed in the college experience that is often laugh-out-loud funny (I did in fact laugh out loud, and even kept reading bits to my wife even though she had already read the story); furthermore, as you will see from the excerpts below, it might have been written expressly for me:

I got a free dictionary. The dictionary didn’t include “ratatouille” or “Tasmanian devil.” […]

“Hey—no one gave me a dictionary!”

“It doesn’t have ‘Tasmanian devil,’ ” I said.

She took the dictionary from my hands, riffling the pages. “It has plenty of words.”

I told her she could have it.
. . .

I went to Linguistics 101, to see what linguistics was about. It was about how language was a biological faculty, hardwired into the brain—infinite, regenerative, never the same twice. The highest law was “the intuition of a native speaker,” a law you couldn’t find in any grammar book or program into any computer. Maybe that was what I wanted to learn. Whenever my mother and I were talking about a book and I thought of something that she hadn’t thought of, she would look at me and say admiringly, “You really speak English.”

The linguistics professor, a gentle phonetician, specialized in Turkic tribal dialects. Sometimes he would give examples from Turkish to show how different morphology could be in non-Indo-European languages, and then he would smile at me and say, “I know we have some Turkish speakers here.” Once, in the hallway before class, he told me about his work on regional consonantal variations of the name for some kind of a fire pit that Turkic people dug somewhere.

I ended up taking a literature class, too, about the city and the novel in nineteenth-century Russia, England, and France. The professor often talked about the inadequacy of published translations, reading us passages from novels in French and Russian to show how bad the translations were. I didn’t understand anything he said in French or Russian, so I preferred the translations.
. . .

You were supposed to take only four classes, but when I found out that they didn’t charge extra for five I signed up for Beginning Russian.

The teacher, Barbara, was a graduate student from East Germany—she specifically said “East Germany.” She said that in Russian her name would be Varvara. We all had to choose Russian names, too. Greg became Grisha, Katie became Katya. There were two foreign students whose names didn’t change—Iván from Hungary and Svetlana from Yugoslavia. Svetlana asked if she could change her name to Zinaida, but Varvara said that Svetlana was already such a good Russian name. My name, on the other hand, though lovely, didn’t end with an –a or a –ya, which would cause complications when we learned cases. Varvara said I could choose any Russian name I wanted. Suddenly I couldn’t think of any. “Maybe I could be Zinaida,” I suggested.

Svetlana turned in her seat and stared into my face. “That is so unfair,” she told me. “You’re a perfect Zinaida.”

It somehow seemed to me that Varvara didn’t want anyone to be called Zinaida, and in the end my name was Sonya.

If every issue included a story with dictionaries and linguistics and literature and translations and Russian, I’d… oh, wait, I already subscribe. I guess I have nothing to bribe them with.

Comments

  1. Wouldn’t “Tasmanian devil” be more appropriately in an encyclopedia than a dictionary ?

  2. Why? It’s the name of an animal. Merriam-Webster, American Heritage, Collins.

  3. What’s the problem for finding a Russian name for Elif. Ilya would do. And as familial forms of Russian names (Ilya of course, is a full name), it would change in feminine paradigm no matter the gender of the person. talk about solving a non-problem. But a man called Zinaida or Sonya is a hoot. Unfortunately, even a teacher from East Germany wouldn’t be appropriately confused.

  4. I googled Elif Batuman. She is definitely a woman, so Ilya won’t do.

    And she does actually look like Zinaida….

  5. Ilya would do.

    As SFReader says, Elif Batuman is a woman, and so is the narrator of the story (I would think the fact that she wanted to be called Zinaida and wound up being Sonya would have been a pretty strong clue).

  6. Yeah, Elif is a Turkish woman‘s name (c.f. the novelist Elif Shafak). It’s the turkicized form of the letter alef. I suppose there may be an interesting cultural background to why Turkish families started calling their daughters Alef.

  7. Do students of Russian always get Russian names assigned by their teachers, or is this supposed to be one of Varvara’s idiosyncrasies? I had assumed Chinese was the only language where a new name was considered essential for learners. (Ignoring simple transformations of the original name, like katakanafication for Japanese, etc.)

  8. I got assigned a Russian name in Russian class years ago. At the time I was a first-semester freshman and it so happened that the people in that Russian class stuck together, and the only names for each other that we remembered were the Russian ones. Therefore, we were introducing each other to other people as “my good friend Kolya” and “my good friend Misha”.

    So now, thirty years later, I am still known as (for example) “Nina” when my given name is (for example) “Emese”, and I have to explain to everyone why my passport is in a different name from the name they know me as. (And my father, a refugee from Hungary in 1956, was not averse to me taking Russian, but calling myself a Russian name? Pah!)

    On the subject of official and assumed names… I am literally not completely sure what my legal name is due to having been married and divorced twice and married a third time, holding off on assuming my husband’s name until I was no longer traveling for business (official paperwork and visa reasons), the passport getting stolen and needing to be replaced with official documentation then on hand, the Social Security office in the US trying hamhandedly to straighten things out, an overseas move, the Irish garda who stamped my paperwork half-listening to us at the airport, and my reluctance to pay for a deed poll to change my name here in Ireland from something that matches my passport to something that doesn’t match my passport but does match my Social Security record.

  9. Do students of Russian always get Russian names assigned by their teachers, or is this supposed to be one of Varvara’s idiosyncrasies?

    I suspect it’s pretty common; it was certainly the case in my class (fortunately, there’s a ready Russian equivalent for Stephen). It’s an easy way to learn how to use names (and diminutives, in the case of Russian). In fact, I think I got localized names in all my language classes; certainly in French class I was Étienne and in Irish class I was Stiofán.

  10. In my high school German class in Virginia, the students who had translatable names used German versions, and there was some attempt to find German names for the rest of us (I was Karl).

    Unfortunately the same was not true in Spanish class later, and my teacher pronounced Keith as /keɪt/.

  11. That is funny. I have taken low-level German classes at 3 different schools, and also low,level French and Spanish classes, and in none of them were we assigned names. I had no idea it was so common.

  12. @DMT: It is pretty common for students in language classes to assume names in the language they are learning. Sometimes, the students get to choose the new names themselves; sometimes, they are assigned by the instructor. (I did not like being “Roberto” in Spanish class.) For some languages (such as Russian, as described in the article), a native name is a necessity, because of the way the grammar works. The students need to practice using names that can have case endings appropriate for the language, most obviously. In languages where humans’ proper names are not declined, like German, teachers may not require native names, since they do not add anything to the pedagogical environment.

  13. For some languages (such as Russian, as described in the article), a native name is a necessity, because of the way the grammar works.

    “A necessity” it is not. In the first place, many foreign names (male names, in particular) are fully declinable in Russian. My own certainly is. In the second place, students of Russian do, eventually, need to recognize indeclinable nouns and know how to handle them.

    When I studied Russian in Russia, I was never known by anything other than my real given name, and the same was true for almost all my fellow students. Only one or two students whose names were especially difficult for Russians to pronounce (a woman named Heather comes to mind) adopted temporary local names.

  14. “A necessity” it is not.

    True, but useful it is.

  15. Oops. I thought the problem was to find a male name that will be declined as the women ones. What an embarrassment. But Lidia is probably better for Elif.

  16. I was renamed in German class, but not (if I recall correctly) in Russian class. Another reason to do it is to avoid having to jerk in and out of English phonology in the middle of a non-English sentence, given how hard the foreign phonology is for beginning L2 speakers anyway.

  17. Von Bladet of the Desert, NM says:

    I’ve had a French name (“Guillaume”) and a Zwedish name (“Ulf”) in my time. In both cases only for the first round of courses and in both cases I was sad to see them go.

    Now I just pronounce my actual legal British name with Dutch phonology, so that I can be found on lists. It genuinely throws people off if I stick to the L1 version. My kids, unlike my wife, share my fambly name, but my wife, unlike me, pronounces it with English phonology with predictable consequences which do nothing to deter her.

  18. This is the best thing I’ve read in quite a while. I’ll definitely be going after her books. And how fascinating, to name people after letters.

    I used to enjoy spending time coming up with Japanese given names: first you investigate a name’s etymology, then you grep enamdict.utf8 for Japanese names with a roughly similar meaning. Valentine “brave+FEM+DIM” becomes 勇子 Yūko ibid. Sadly, in classes they don’t do anything of the sort; they just adapt names to be pronounceable in Japanese, so that “Carla” becomes “Karura-san”.

    My Tawainese calligraphy teacher assigned me a Chinese name, but it was based on phonetics. He also got my name wrong—”Leandro” rather than “Leonardo”; a common mistake—and wrote something like 雷案斗 léiàndǒu. I didn’t use this name, but years later I stumbled upon the archaic design of 雷 “thunder”, which I found to be fascinating. So I hand-carved it as a free-form seal for calligraphy.

  19. Элла, of course. Or potentially Алла, if the reports linking etymology of Elif with the letter Alef are correct.

  20. Эллочка! Хо-хо!

  21. J.W. Brewer says:

    We all had L2 names back in junior high school and high school for both German class and Latin class. I think the idea was to pick your own (which could be, but was not required to be, the analog to your “regular” first name if the language had one), but maybe the teacher stepped in if you didn’t have any bright ideas or had ideas she didn’t think appropriate. I find myself unable to recall my Latin-class name; I think my friend Steve was Octavian. But I don’t think the same was true for any college-level classes I took, including the further continuation of German (the others I studied were reading-knowledge-of-dead-languages only, and e.g. the Old Norse instructor didn’t feel the need for us to have authentic in-class names to facilitate his pedagogy).

    But come to think of it, I guess I don’t know if my own daughters (the 10th grader is taking Latin and the 7th grader French) are continuing this practice. I don’t think they’ve affirmatively mentioned it, but I don’t draw any strong inference from that one way or another.

  22. The narrator’s name isn’t Elif IIRC. The New Yorker’s site isn’t letting me back in right now but I recall it begins with an S.

  23. The narrator’s name isn’t Elif IIRC. The New Yorker’s site isn’t letting me back in right now but I recall it begins with an S

    Selin

    right click & open the link in an incognito window, btw, shhh!

  24. David Marjanović says:

    I suppose there may be an interesting cultural background to why Turkish families started calling their daughters Alef.

    Numbering them like Romans?

    Another reason to do it is to avoid having to jerk in and out of English phonology in the middle of a non-English sentence, given how hard the foreign phonology is for beginning L2 speakers anyway.

    That’s the reason (s/English/German) my first Russian teacher gave. We didn’t talk that much to or about each other, though, so the names didn’t get used much.

    Of course mine simply got adapted in phonetic detail. My parents actually deliberately chose it to be international (to contrast with the very parochial surname?) – outside of China it works…

    We all had L2 names back in junior high school and high school for both German class and Latin class.

    Huh. We didn’t do dialogs in Latin class at all.

  25. You just read Caesar?

  26. David Eddyshaw says:

    What I really want to know is the variant Turkic names for “fire pit.” I am saddened that this central piece of information is unaccountably omitted from the article. I blame soulless subeditors.

  27. outside of China it works

    David Moser’s Chinese name is 莫大伟 Mò Dàwěi.

  28. In my high school Latin classes, circa 1985 and with a teacher who was in her sixties at least, we didn’t speak Latin very much. The emphasis was on grammar and reading comprehension (using the Ecce Romani textbooks instead of actual Classical writings — we weren’t introduced to actual texts until the end of the third year and it was a real shock). We did have fun, though (projects, learning about Roman culture…). The teacher was gifted. Plus the rather abstract grammar-oriented way we approached the language suited my puzzle-solving instincts. If I hadn’t gone beyond the first couple of years I never would have gotten any appreciation for Latin as an actual language that could be used. (At one point I went to a gathering of other Latin students and was a bit surprised to hear them conversing, clumsily, in Latin.) I did persevere, though, and wound up majoring in it as an undergrad.

    However, we had been told that all students in my high school would be required to take Latin in order to improve their English and their ability to think logically. At this point, I give that notion the side-eye.

  29. January First-of-May says:

    On the topic of Russian names – anyone knows what’s the proper way to write “Piotr Gąsiorowski” in Russian? I’m trying to talk about his work in a linguistic-related essay.
    I’m currently using “Пётр Гонсеровский”, but I’m not sure that’s right. I think the traditional way to write the last name is Гонсёровский, but that would just invite a completely wrong pronunciation with second-syllable stress; I thought the form I gave is a sufficiently close compromise, but I’m not entirely sure. And trying to squash the IPA he gives into Russian phonetics would probably end up with something like Гоншороски, which is just silly.

    And I’m not yet sure if I’ll need that, but just in case – what’s the proper Russian for “David Marjanović”? My current best guess is “Давид Марьянович”, but I’m not sure if that’s right either.

  30. Wikipedia version is Гонсёро́вский with stress on third syllable

  31. -The narrator’s name isn’t Elif IIRC.

    Yeah, the story is listed as fiction. So we can safely dismiss it – nothing in it ever happened – they don’t give Russian names in Russian class and there are no tribal Turkic names for “fire pit”

  32. @Dmitry Pruss aka MOCKBA: “Selin

    right click & open the link in an incognito window, btw, shhh!”

    It works – many thanks. The stress must be on the first syllable, so it’s not homophonous with Céline. (How would Americans pronounce it though? Sellin’ or sailin’?). On the other hand, “Selin” has two consonants in common with “Sonya” and they share the first letter so “Sonya” kind of works in the context of the story.

    If “Elif” is the preimage of “Selin,” surely the preimage of “Sonya” must be something other than “Sonya” – perhaps it was Ella after all? Or, since Sonya is a diminutive, Elya? Neither Ella nor Elya is “classical” – you won’t find them in Tolstoyevsky – but both seem quite common today.

    If “Elif” is a variation on “Alef,” I’d say Alfa/Alpha would be the most logical Russian version if only it were in use as a first name – unfortunately, it’s not. In West Africa though, it works OK as a male name: Alpha Condé is the president of Guinea and Alpha Jallow is a Gambian football player.

  33. David Marjanović says:

    You just read Caesar?

    We read the textbook with its contrived little stories, learning vocabulary and grammar along the way. When we were officially done with the grammar after two years, we read Caesar, then other literature and poetry, for the other four years.

    In the beginning, some of the exercises were to translate short German sentences into Latin. That stopped soon.

    We were told very little about pronunciation. Although we were supposed to read each sentence aloud in class before translating it, we were hardly even told about vowel length, so our attempts to read verse were mostly guesswork.

    The tests consisted of translating a passage – often a single very long sentence – and answering a question about its cultural background.

    Dead language.

    Марьянович

    That is indeed how my grandfather was transcribed when he visited the Soviet Union once. The pronunciation is -ръя-, though; that’s a regional oddity of some place – you’d really expect -rij- instead of -rj-.

    The Serbian Cyrillic is Марјановић, stress on the third-to-last syllable as usual.

  34. I think the traditional way to write the last name is Гонсёровский, but that would just invite a completely wrong pronunciation with second-syllable stress

    No, the Russians are used to unstressed ё in non-Russian names.

  35. We did Caesar in second year. We never actually got to Virgil, but I read ahead in the book and, of course, got the first impression that Latin poetic syntax was deliberately designed to flummox people.

    If I were starting Latin today, I’d of course call myself Chrothagaisus.

  36. LH: “No, the Russians are used to unstressed ё in non-Russian names.”

    It works OK with non-Slavic names, e. g., Пéтёфи (Petőfi). Polish -ski surnames get slightly Russified by the added final й so Russian speakers treat them as virtually Russian. Besides, that -сёр- jumping out at the reader isn’t particularly euphonious. The old-fashioned way would be to use ио instead of ё: Гонсиоровский. One example is the Odessa architect Feliks Gąsiorowski (Гонсиоровский).

    Likewise, Piotrovsky tends to become Пиотровский rather that simply Петровский or the impossible Пётровский. E.g., Adrian Piotrowski, Адриан Пиотровский, the talented translator of Roman and Greek poets into Russian, executed in 1937.

    There’s a certain nobility and foreignness to this ио in Russian.

  37. Thanks, I wasn’t aware of that!

  38. January First-of-May says:

    If I do end up writing Гонсиоровский, though, should I keep the first name Пётр, or also change it to Пиотр?

  39. in old times, Russian writers tended to add “pan” before the surname to make clear that “pan Petrovsky” is Polish, not Russian.

  40. Trond Engen says:

    I think that’s Pan-Slavic.

  41. That reminds me.

    Паневежис берет свое название от имени небольшой речки Невежис (Nevėžys). Существует легенда о том, как получилось такое имя. Жил-был местный пан (понас). Очень уж он любил раков покушать. И собрался он со своим слугой на реку наловить раков. Но как-то так получилось, что не знал пан, как рак выглядит. И поймав что-то все время спрашивал своего слугу, что он поймал. А “рак” по-литовски – это “vėžys”, вежис (вяжис). И слуга все время отвечал, что не рак это. “Пан, не вежис” =) Так и получилось – Паневежис.

    Panevėžys

  42. I too used a textbook in the first year, a textbook plus Caesar in the second, Cicero in the third, and Virgil in the fourth. In college I took a one-semester course in Catullus and Horace, and then stopped.

    Sellin’ or sailin’?

    I’d say neither of these, but FACE-FLEECE, which is the same way I pronounce saline (but not everyone does) and Céline (disregarding the stress). Of course, I am not ignorant enough to be typical.

  43. @Vasha: “It’s the turkicized form of the letter alef.”

    I guess you could say that, but one can also say that “elif” is the first letter of the Ottoman Turkish alphabet, the same letter as “alif” in Arabic.

    @John Cowan: Agreed, the long –ee– is more appropriate. BTW, the name Selin apparently means “torrent” or, at least, is derived from sel, “torrent, stream, flood.” It’s of Arabic origin; compare Russian сель, “wet landslide, mudflow.”

  44. David Marjanović says:

    “Пан, не вежис”

    😀

  45. In my high school Latin classes, circa 1985 and with a teacher who was in her sixties at least, we didn’t speak Latin very much. The emphasis was on grammar and reading comprehension

    That was to some extent the case in my freshman Latin classes, but the instructor would try to do most of the routine class management tasks in Latin, and so assigned us Latin names so she could address in the proper vocative case.

    IIRC, she took them from Martial’s Epigrams, which formed a significant part of our reading; I was Olus (from 4.36; I did not discover 7.10 until much later).

    I think it was a pretty unique choice (certainly none of my other Latin or Greek instructors did the same), but then she was a pretty unique character; her hobby was translating tangos into Latin, using vulgar forms for lunfardo and classical ones for standard Spanish.

  46. David Marjanović says:

    Oh, now I remember that the first of the two teachers did go through the traditional ritual of Salvete, discipuli! Salve, magistra!, but that was all.

  47. We read the textbook with its contrived little stories, learning vocabulary and grammar along the way. When we were officially done with the grammar after two years, we read Caesar, then other literature and poetry, for the other four years.

    In the beginning, some of the exercises were to translate short German sentences into Latin. That stopped soon.
    My Latin instruction was exactly the same. But our teachers made us pay attention to vowel length when reading out texts or repeating vocabulary.

  48. Owlmirror says:

    @David Eddyshaw:

    What I really want to know is the variant Turkic names for “fire pit.” I am saddened that this central piece of information is unaccountably omitted from the article. I blame soulless subeditors.

    Alas, Google Scholar unaccountably fails to disclose anything that has that information, although perhaps my Google-fu is weak. Or the relevant works are using Cyrillic or other non-Latin characters.

    The closest I came was a hit on a single book:

    Languages and Prehistory of Central Siberia, 2004

    Which has the line:

      fire pit (for cooking) — Xakas čooxa, Kalmyk zuux

    (Xakas (also spelled Khakas) is the Turkic language; Kalmyk is a Mongolic language. — per Ethnologue)

    (I did find a PDF of a work in English called “Turkic Toponyms of Eurasia”, and another one on Tuvan throat-singers)

  49. David Eddyshaw says:

    A thousand blessings upon you, Owlmirror. I was beginning to lose hope.

    The book also divulges both the Xakas and the Mongol for “pouch made from a ram’s scrotum.” I have always wondered about that.

  50. ə de vivre says:

    Khakas ‘čooxa’ must be cognate with Turkish ‘çukur’, which means ‘pit’ or ‘hollow’. It’s also an element in Çukurova, the contemporary Turkish name for Cilicia. Nişanayan has ‘çukur’ going back to the Old Turkish verb ‘çok-/çokı-‘, meaning to drill or bore (and also ‘to peck’).

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