Veltman’s Multilingualism II.

Reading further in Émile (see this post), I came to the following amusing passage. Natalya Dmitrievna, who has adopted little Emelyushka, or Émile as she prefers to call him, against her husband Platon’s objections, has decided now that he’s twelve or so it’s time for him to be educated. She delegates finding a Russian tutor to her husband, while she herself picks a French one; since she takes quite a while to choose one, by the time she settles on monsieur Griselle the boy has already mastered the Russian alphabet.

“Let us begin from the beginning!” And monsieur Griselle placed his finger on the first letter of the alphabet and loudly pronounced “A!”

“A,” repeated Emelyushka, “and here’s an az, and here’s an az, and here’s an az, I know.”

“Good!… bé.”

“Bé? No, that’s not be, it’s yer’; I know,” said Emelyushka.

“Don’t argue, darling, just repeat what monsieur Griselle says.”

“I can’t, mommy, he doesn’t say it right.”

“Ssh!” said Natalya Dmitrievna, and left the room.


“Sé? No, that’s not sé, it’s slovo.”

“What’s that boy muttering?” said Griselle, who didn’t understand his pupil’s objections, and continued to name the French letters; Emelyushka would repeat the letter, and then say angrily to himself, “No, it’s not dé, it’s dobro.”

“No, mommy, say what you like, but that monsieur doesn’t know the alphabet himself. He calls yer pé and cherv’ er; he wants me to call izhitsa vé and kher iks… The devil knows what he’s teaching!”

However hard monsieur Griselle and Natalya Dmitrievna tried to make Emelyushka read the French alphabet in French and not in Russian, he could never reconcile himself to one and the same letter having different names. Natalya Dmitrievna got angry not at him but at the Russian alphabet.

“What a strange language Russian is, the letters are all mangled! I never noticed that before,” said Natalya Dmitrievna.

—Начнем съ начала!—И мосье Гризель громогласно произнесъ А! поставивъ палецъ на первую букву азбуки.

—А, повторилъ Емелюшка, —и воть азъ, н вотъ азъ, и воть азъ, я знаю.

—Хорошо!… b….

—Бе, нѣтъ не бе-съ, а ерь-съ; я знаю,—сказалъ Емелюшка.

—Ты не спорь, душенька, а повторяй, что говоритъ мосьё Гризель.

—Нельзя, маменька: онъ не такъ говоритъ.

—Тсъ! произнесла Наталья Дмитріевна строго, выходя изъ комнаты.


—Се? нѣтъ, это не се-съ, а слово-съ.

—Что это мальчишка ворчитъ себѣ подъ носъ, говорилъ Гризель, не понимая возраженій ученика, и продолжая называть Французскія буквы; а Емелюшка повторитъ букву, да потомъ про себя сердито: нѣтъ, не де-съ, а добро-съ.

—Нѣтъ, маменька-съ, какъ хотите, а этотъ мусье самъ не знаетъ азбуки: еръ называетъ пе, червь называетъ еръ, ижицу велитъ называть ве, херъ иксомъ…. чортъ знаетъ чему учитъ!….

Какъ ни бились мосье Гризель и Наталья Дмитріевпа, чтобъ Емелюшка читалъ Французскую азбуку по-Французеки а не по-русски,—ни зачто онъ не могъ примириться съ различнымъ названіемъ однѣхъ и тѣхъ же буквъ. Наталья Диитріевна сердилась не на Емелюшку, а на русскую азбуку.

—Странный русскій языкъ! всѣ буквы перековерканы! я этого до-сихъ-поръ не замѣтила,—говорила Наталья Дмвтріевна.

Her husband tries to convince her it’s the French who have mangled things, but she fires the Russian tutor. I wonder if this sort of confusion was the reason Nabokov disliked the Cyrillic alphabet? (For more on the old Russian letters and their names, see this post.)


  1. еръ называетъ пе

    Shouldn’t that be “бе” (as in preceding dialog)? P/Р would be “рцы”.

  2. He’s looking at the French letter P/p, which the tutor wants him to call “pé,” and thinking of it as the Russian letter er (Р/р); hence “He calls er pé” (еръ называетъ пе). It’s true he should be thinking of it as rtsy (рцы); maybe not everyone called it that? Good point.

  3. Hmm, I was sloppy – deteriorating eyesight and no habit of reading a lot of text if pre-reform orthography. Of course “b” is confused with “ерь”, not “еръ”.

    Note that English transliteration creates additional confusion, since you use “er” for both “эр” (р) and “ер” (ъ – yer).

    I wonder if Veltman was confused by his own multilingualism :). Emelyushka consistently uses old names for Cyrillic letters (аз, буки, …) as he was taught just recently, so he would definitely called er (р) “рцы”. May be the pun on р/p r/ч with (y)er on both sides was too tempting, but its internally inconsistent.

  4. Yes, exactly. And as I was trying to translate it, I kept having to go back and forth between alphabets and make sure I understood what was going on — it’s like trying to play three-dimensional chess or something.

  5. I asked a friend of mine who was learning modern Greek if he had trouble referring to β as /vita/ instead of (AmE) /beɪtə/. “Only at first”, he said. “Then I just put them into separate categories.” Similarly, another friend distinguishes between /ʃwɑ/, the phonetic concept, and /ʃva/, the Hebrew script concept.

    But it might be sensible to change yer translation to use “yer”.

  6. Well, it introduces an inconsistency (since I don’t call the lad Yemelyushka), but it does bring a little much-needed clarity, so I did it.

  7. John Emerson says:

    Kenneth Rexroth told a story about a brilliant / crazy Russian science fiction writer who was a refugee in San Francisco during the 30s. Rexroth asked him to show him the Russian alphabet, which he did, and commented that every other alphabetic language he knew of used some approximation of the Phornician / Latin / Greek order, alpha beta cappa gamma etc. The Russian said “Oh, I can’t remember that order, I just use the order on my typewriter keys.”

  8. My understanding (and I speak, obviously, under correction from my Russian readers) is that Russians often lose track in the lower reaches of the alphabet, not being entirely sure of the order once they get down to the хцчшщъы section. This may have to do with the lack of a well-known alphabet song (at least, I don’t know of one).

  9. I would agree with the crazy guy that the order of the letters is generally unimportant. We use the first few letters of the alphabet as a proxy for numbering (in constructs such as article 1c or apartment 12d), but beyond the first half-dozen letters it becomes laughable (and it is especially quickly scuttled in Russian since there may or may not be the 7th letter “YO” Ё (as already discussed at LH))

    In the most famous Russian alphabet-ditty of Zakhoder’s, there are no letters with diacritic signs at all – no Ё or Й:

    А, Б, В, Г, Д, Е, Ж
    Прикатили на еже!
    3, И, К, Л, М, Н, О
    Дружно вылезли в окно!
    П, Р, С, Т, У, Ф, X
    Оседлали петуха, –
    Ц, Ч, Ш, Щ, Э, Ю, Я -
    Вот и все они, друзья!

  10. PS: and of course it remains to be seen if the “Emelyushka’s dilemma” is real – if it is, then perhaps it owes to the stone-age methods of reading instructions from the times when phonics weren’t heard of, and the students were expected to memorize whole alphabets before proceeding into syllables and words. We have little students adding Cyrillic to Latin or vice versa every schoolyear, and we never really experienced the Veltmanian “name-this-shape” kind of a confusion – of course “similarly shaped letters”, “mirror-image letters”, and “phonetically related letters from the other alphabet” all make appearances, but the confusion about calling the same letter shape a different name, doesn’t. And why should it? Don’t the kids know that Mommy and Daddy, night and day, cat and dog are called differently in different languages? If so, then why wouldn’t a shape of a letter be called differently as well?

  11. Not that that would be so bad either. When I was reading the Miles Vorkosigan books to my wife, too late, too late I realized that Miles’s wife’s name should be pronounced “Yekaterin”. But the author spells it with an initial E, so there we are. I know better now. (Her abominable first husband Tien Vorsoisson called her “Kat”.)

    Vorkosigan is an adaptation of the name Косыгин to non-russophone speakers, plus a nobiliary prefix. (Vor is also the name of the class; see this list of Vor names. In the Russian translations of the books, however, the prefix is spelled Фор-, because Вор- would not be merely ironic but Way Too Ironic.

    The languages of Barrayar, Miles’s planet, are English, Russian, French, and very dialectal Greek, all of which were written for centuries in Cyrillic. We are told that the English Cyrillic alphabet had forty-six letters, which is consistent with BrE phonology. It would be interesting to design it!

  12. Don’t the kids know that Mommy and Daddy, night and day, cat and dog are called differently in different languages?

    Well, this kid is not your average kid. It’s not clear whether he’s meant to be a touch feeble-minded or just extremely literal, but he’s clearly (among other things) a parody or reductio ad absurdum of Rousseau’s Emile. There’s a very funny passage where he joins the army at the behest of his mother’s cousin, an officer who thinks it will make a man of him; the officer orders him to take some time off and seduce a woman so he’ll have something to report when he joins his regiment, and in his zeal to fulfill his duty (he’s never paid much attention to women before) he throws himself at the officer’s pretty young daughter (who’s staying at his adoptive mother’s house). He gets the order to report to the officer, who immediately asks: “А исполнилъ приказъ мой? а?” And the lad responds, “Какъ же можно не исполнить приказа! Исполнилъ въ точности, какъ слѣдуетъ, по принадлежности.” Of course the officer gets quite upset when it turns out his own daughter was the object of attack, but Emelya doesn’t understand what he’s so angry about—he just did what he was told! (By the way, the phrase “по принадлежности” has been used several times, and every time it seems to be a synonym for как следует rather than, as I understand its current meaning to be, ‘to the proper party, through the proper channels.’ Is this an archaic sense, or just an unusual one?)

  13. a parody or reductio ad absurdum of Rousseau’s Emile

    Oh. Thanks LH, perhaps I should have made the connection between the two Emile’s myself, but I missed it completely (after all, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and his educator legacies played a direct role in my own grandfather’s moving, of all places, to Russia … his father, Wolf Pruss the Uhrmacher, moved from Switzerland’s German-speaking cantons to Geneva for family reasons and ended up studying professional trades teaching at Insitute Jean-Jacques Rousseau there, eventually being hired by an American educator and journalist, Anna Louise Strong to run a vocational training program in an orphanage she organized in Russia (and earning an executioner’s bullet in the Stalin’s terror which ensued) ).

  14. Wow, what a family history!

  15. прпказъ

    Typo, or is that a real-live four-consonant initial cluster?

  16. Typo. Sorry, thought I caught them all — I’ll fix it! (A приказ is an order or command.)

  17. Ha! Wonderful to read that Russians often lose track in the lower reaches of the alphabet. After thirty years I still can never remember whether it goes цч or чц.

  18. The more I read the novel, the more I’m reminded of Being There, which makes me wonder if Kosinski had Rousseau in mind.

  19. By the way, the phrase “по принадлежности” has been used several times, and every time it seems to be a synonym for как следует rather than, as I understand its current meaning to be, ‘to the proper party, through the proper channels.’ Is this an archaic sense, or just an unusual one?

    It seems like legalese misused for comic effect (what is the English for “речевая характеристика”?). You can look up examples in Google books scans of “Свод Законов Российской Империи”.

  20. the phrase “по принадлежности” has been used several times, and every time it seems to be a synonym for как следует rather than, as I understand its current meaning to be, ‘to the proper party, through the proper channels.’ Is this an archaic sense, or just an unusual one?

    The same meaning “in accordance with ownership / in accordance with the jurisdiction” is seen throughout the 1869 military codex, and, if you search Google books with a date filter, you can find numerous examples of “по принадлежности” in the Russian Legalese of the 1830s and 1840s, too. Almost without exception, it’s used when the rules list several offices or line items, one of which has proper control over the matter (e.g. “на счетъ городскихъ доходовъ или земскаго сбора, по принадлежности”, or “представляются по принадлежности Департаменту или Комитету”, or “…Одесскаго, Таганрогскаго и Керчь-Еникольскаго Коммерческихъ Судовъ, по принадлежности.”)

    Now to Veltman’s use. It’s part ridicule directed at the career military fools, part an etymological literal-meaning joke, a semantic shift. The expression is first used (clearly incorrectly) by Emelyushka’s commander’s instructing his charge about flirting. Emelyushka immediately reinterprets the semantics of the expression, on the basis of its literal meaning ~~ “by the right of ownership”. As it turns out, he, Emelyushka, is the rightful owner of the young women, and they are his rightful sexual slaves: “Он тотчас же понял, что женщины для того созданы, чтобы мужчины etc. etc. … по принадлежности” (“He instantly realized that the women must have been created for the sole reason, for the men to seek their attention & to ask to kiss their hands, and on and on, by the right of ownership“)

    BTW thanks for the Kosiniski bit, it inspired me to read more about Kresy, and there I came across the amazing tale of Prince Vasyl Vyshivannyy of the Sich’ and all Ukraine (aka Archduke Wilhelm) and the formative years of Ukrainian nationalism tugged between Austro-German-Czech supporters and Polish-French-Romanian detractors. Fascinating reading!

  21. Thanks very much for that explication of the phrase, and I’m glad I sent you in some interesting directions!

  22. David Marjanović says:

    After thirty years I still can never remember whether it goes цч or чц.

    It goes цчш, which makes phonetic sense – and the Serbian Cyrillic alphabet incidentally stops there, ending with ш.

  23. Zakhoder’s version is only 28 letters actually – it also lacks Ь Ы Ъ

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