Christopher Culver has a post exploring the relationship between the words for ‘kopek’ and ‘squirrel’ in languages of the Volga region: “As Ähmät’jänov’s etymological dictionary explains, ‘борынгы заманнарда тиен тиресе вак акча функциясен үтәгән [in ancient times squirrel hides functioned as a low-value monetary unit]’.” Culver adds, “Chuvash doesn’t connect its term for the kopek to ‘squirrel’. However, Cv. pus ‘kopek’ is, according to Fedotov’s etymological dictionary, derived from Persian پوست post ‘animal skin’, though used purely in the sense of currency.” He concludes with what sound to me like convincing deductions about historical sequence, and a commenter points out that “Russian belka ‘squirrel’ also had a meaning ‘kopek, monetary unit’ in the northern dialects.” I love the fact that someone is out there who can use Turkic sources to investigate these fairly obscure languages and is posting the results for all the rest of us.
While I’m at it, his previous post, “Turkic-Slavic bilingualism in Kyiv Rus,” is also interesting, though I suspect that Olzhas Suleymenov’s arguments will turn out to be based more on nationalistic fervor than convincing evidence. Of course, I may be influenced by my intense dislike for his idea (quoted here) that “some censorship… is not an entirely bad thing as it eliminates from public discussion some things that should not be discussed and forces writers to search for new ways of expressing themselves, a process that can be useful.”


  1. Roy McMillan says

    Hello – and apologies for making no reference to your excellent piece about squirrels; but I’m trying to find the correct pronunciation of ‘Casaubon’. I know that it has been stated on your site that the emphasis should be on the 2nd syllable; unortunately, that still leaves some matters unanswered: kaz-YUH-bon? kaz-YOO-ah-bon? kaz-AH-oo-bon? kaz-UH-bon? Any information more than gratefully reeived. Roy

  2. marie-lucie says

    Since Casaubon was French, his name must have been pronounced according to French sound-spelling rules. At that time, as now, the -au- must have been pronounced like -au- or -aw in English English (as in “daughter” or “law”, a higher vowel than the North American one). There would have been no need to change this vowel in English, while the first and third ones would have been closer than now to their French pronunciation.

  3. Suleimenov provides lots of linguistic evidence for his argument in his book “Аз и Я”. It is a thorough liguistic analysis of many Slavic words that have Turkic origins. Suleimenov did not try to advance any nationalistic ideas in his book, but it was perceived this way because it seemed to contradict the Soviet Union’s russification ideology. But Suleimenov’s current position is different. Now he is pro-Soviet and pro-Russian: proclaiming that Russian should be an official language of Kazakhstan.

  4. In Gombrowicz’s “Pornographia” one of the main characters first appears as a rather sketchy fellow who came to town with a few squirrel skins to trade. Perhaps Poland was still on the squirrel-skin standard.

  5. proclaiming that Russian should be an official language of Kazakhstan
    oh magog, strongly dislike the idea

  6. though it’s not my business, upon some thinking

  7. Since Casaubon was French
    But since Roy McMillan references this LH post, I assume he’s talking about the character in Middlemarch, who is English; that name is pronounced by those who appear to know such things as /kə’sɔbən/ (kuh-SAW-buhn).

  8. Read, I’m rather intrigued by the relationship between Mongolia and Kazakhstan. Historically there has been a strong relationship between the Turkic-speaking peoples and the Mongols, with lots of linguistic borrowing. If I understand correctly, the followers of Genghis Khan also included Kazakhs.
    In modern times, there are Kazakhs living in the far west of Mongolia, but I have read accounts which say that the relationship on the ground is not so good. A lot of Kazakhs from Mongolia have opted to go to Kazakhstan and adopt Kazakh citizenship (although some come back). I am not sure, but this may be more for economic than for nationalistic or ethnic reasons.
    At any rate, since Mongolia and Kazakhstan are both countries that came under Russian domination in the relatively recent past, I don’t find it at all strange or unreasonable that a Mongolian would find attempts to assert Russian as an official language of Kazakhstan distasteful.

  9. marie-lucie says

    “Casaubon” in George Eliot: Since the post dates from July 08, I was probably away from home and from my computer at the time, since I don’t remember that thread at all. I should read the book too. Perhaps George Eliot is close enough to us in time that there has been a continuous tradition of pronouncing the name as she did.

  10. Yes, Khazakhs are Chagatai’s (Chingis khaan’s son’s) people, i mean descendants, or maybe Zuchi’s, i always mix them, not very sure, should look up first
    there is a Khazakh minority in my country, with the beginning of the transition period many of them chose to go to Khazakhstan due to the economical reasons and nationalistic too, i understand that the country encourages the Khazakh diaspora’s coming back and settling there, this policy is lacking in my country i think
    my own two classmates went there but they were back after some time, once Mongolian forever Mongolian cz i guess 🙂
    but Khazakh culture seemed much more nationalistic, i guess, than ours, my friend used to talk about how she wouldn’t be able to marry a Mongolian guy she was involved with, and the women rights also seemed kinda like restricted, but it depends on the people’s education levels, i guess
    about Russian becoming their state language, if Russians are majority there, maybe it’s justified then, i don’t know very well their situation
    one welcoming thing about our good relations with Khazakhstan is it would free us from the Russian monopoly on export of oil and energy to our country, something happens and they are very quick to manipulate the prices and tend to shut down all the pipes, so to speak
    they never allowed us to buy crude oil from them for example, and with what tarmac then to built roads or something etc. there are many frictions it seems, but i’m not an economist and know even less about politics, so
    it would have been better to have our own oil and they found some in the Gobi, but all the crude oil explored there gets exported to China?
    i have no very clear idea about what is happening, the country is getting torn to patches by various foreign mining companies having the licenses to mine and a common citizen (a family) is allowed to own only 3-7 ga of land iirc or maybe less (though for what to own it more than that, for me for example, if i’m not going to do farming by myself, but i can sell it maybe, so it’s like an attempt from the state to give people property, i guess, b/c historically land was not a commodity to own and cultivate or mine, but pastures to be shared)
    but hopefully things are all getting proceeded lawfully and our people will have their fair share of what is mined, b/c it’s like very huge deposits of gold, copper, coal, uranium and whatnot, but not that much oil compared to Khazakhstan, for example
    and, hopefully, all will be beneficial for the country in the end

  11. Unless kopeika is used as generic for ‘small monetary unit’, same as грош, groat, groschen, it’s difficult to see the connection to pelts, because the word has a strong link to its design, a horseman with a spear. It appeared in Novgorod first, and then was adopted by Muscovy C.15-16. The horseman was presumed to be St.George, the patron saint of Moscow.

  12. build

  13. it’s difficult to see the connection to pelts, because the word has a strong link to its design
    Nobody’s saying the word kopeika has a connection to pelts; the point is that the words used in various Turkic languages along the Volga for the same coin have such a connection.

  14. Aha! An explanation for why Belarus put squirrels on 50 kapeek notes back in 1992.

  15. J.W. Brewer says

    If you believe the CIA, approx. 65% of the population of Kazakhstan knows Kazakh but approx. 95% knows Russian (obviously some as first language, some as second), with approx. 30% of the population being ethnic Russian and another 10%+ being something non-Turkic. Per the same source, Kazakh is the “state language” while Russian is the “language of interethnic communication.” I don’t know to what extent Kazakh nationalists take the learn-our-language-or-go-back-where-you-came-from attitude toward ethnic Russians that is common in the Baltic states — the history and context are I take it different in various sorts of ways.

  16. When I lived in Kazakhstan in the mid 90s the Kazakh elite in Almaty tended to be very proud of their Russian language ability and identified very strongly with Russian literary culture. Pro Kazakh language sentiments were much stronger in the South (Chimkent), and almost non-existent in the North of the country (rumored to be one reason for the shift of the capital to Astana). I actually tried to study Kazakh at one point, but realized quickly that finding people to speak with in Kazakh in Almaty would be almost as difficult as finding native Irish speakers in Dublin. It was also true that none of the “minority peoples” – Russians, Koreans, Poles, Chechens,(even a few German stragglers in those days) etc. spoke any Kazakh at all. The spoken language of government (but not the written) was also Russian, even among native Kazakhs – a sharp difference from Ukraine where I lived subsequently. I wouldn’t be surprised however if Kazakh nationalism is much stronger in the younger generation, and the demographics of the country seem to be tilted strongly in the direction of native Kazakhs.

  17. I tutored a HS student from Kyrgyzstan a few years back, and he identified with Russian culture (e.g. Pushkin) and said rather regretfully that his Russian was probably better than his Kyrgyz.
    His family was in export-import (rugs and curtains) and had connections in China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Thailand. My student was being groomed to be the US representative. You got a real Silk Road feeling talking to the guy.
    He mentioned that to him, Russia was not a foreign country. He also said that he disliked Turks (from Turkey), though he didn’t give a reason.
    Kyrgyzstan is a destination for Turkish nationalists, I think, because of the Manas epic, which I’d love to see a translation of.

  18. This post reminded me of the fact that the modern Belorussian ruble is widely known as “zaichik” (bunny) in Belarus. Belorussians needed a quick and convenient way to distinguish their rubles from Russian ones in speech. A picture of a hare on a Belorussian 1 ruble note allowed them to do that, giving the new currency an unofficial name.

  19. Sections of Manas in English are on this dedicated site, which also includes a video of S Karalayev, a Manas scholar, reciting the poem.

  20. For Turkish nationalists there are destinations in every direction.

  21. For Turkish nationalists there are destinations in every direction.

  22. David Marjanović says

    “The Kazakh language is the state language, while Russian is also officially used as an “equal” language (to Kazakh) in Kazakhstan’s institutions.” Says Wikipedia, which also gives the figures of the 2009 census (67 % ethnic Kazakhs, still 1.3 % ethnic Germans…).

    If I understand correctly, the followers of Genghis Khan also included Kazakhs.

    And absolutely everyone who got within his reach and preferred following over dying! 🙂

  23. Many thanks, Sashura.
    Bölüngön Jakïp baykushtun
    Bödönödöy közünön
    Bölöl-bölök jash ketip,
    Karagattay közünön
    Kamchï boyu jash ketip
    From the quail-like eyes
    Of poor Jakïp, who was torn apart,
    Drops of tears streamed down,
    From his black-currant eyes
    Streamed tears the length of a whip.
    There’s the alliteration and stock phrases. I miss the caesura in Anglo-Saxon, Spanish, French, etc. But the last four lines could be read as if they were four half-lines.

  24. Roy McMillan says

    To Marie-Lucie and Language Hat – many, many thanks. Roy

  25. David Marjanović says

    There’s the alliteration and stock phrases.

    Interesting, because a word that designates a poem with a certain rhyme pattern (I forgot which lines of each stanza rhyme) has been traced back all the way to Proto-Turkic.

  26. Chadwick and Chadwick’s The Growth of Literature develops a grand theory that all literature ultimately traces back to steppe epics. It’s somewhat in the ballpark of Lord and Parry’s studies of South Slavic epic or Dumezil’s study of Ossette epic, but more all-encompassing. I have never been able to get very far reading the book, though.

  27. It’s not surprising that kopek is associated with fur. Pelts were used as currency in the northern countries for a long time. There is a fine picture in the Cultural Atlas of Russia of a 17th century Muscovite embassy to England. Russians in the picture are carrying large bundles of pelts which they sold or traded for goods & services.
    Other examples:
    Kuna, the currency of Croatia is means marten – Marten pelts were used as currency in Slavonia in medieval times.
    The word buck for $$$$ is meant to derive from deer hides used as currency.

  28. marie-lucie says

    Beaver pelts were used as currency (as well as trading goods) in the Canadian West at the time of the fur trade. The beaver is still practically the symbol of Canada in some contexts, and there is a relief of a beaver on the Canadian 5-cent coin.
    In antiquity large bronze plaques in the shape of stretched (sheep?) skins were used as currency in the Greek (or perhaps Mycenaean) world. They probably replaced actual skins used for the same purpose earlier.

  29. This makes me wonder about the origin of the term “buck” for a dollar.

Speak Your Mind