I’m following up my Caucasus books by reading Henri Troyat’s biography Tolstoy; normally I’m suspicious of biographies that “read like novels,” but this one works for me so far, and it’s now brought me to the Caucasus with the eager but hopelessly unfocused twentysomething Lev Nikolaevich, who’s escaping the social whirl and gambling debts of his Moscow life by hanging out with his beloved older brother Nicholas, serving with a regiment stationed in Chechnya. The future passionate antiwar activist (who helped inspire me to become a conscientious objector almost forty years ago) decided he wanted to be a soldier too and “set off with his brother for Tiflis, where he could take the induction examination.” But when he got to the capital of Georgia (now Tbilisi), he discovered he was missing a necessary certificate and would have to wait for it to arrive from far-off Tula. There follows a description of the town:

Disappointed, he decided to wait for the document there and, letting his brother return to Starogladkovskaya alone, he rented a room in a modest house in the suburbs—the favorite haunt of the German colony, among the vineyards and gardens on the left bank of the Kura.

South of the German settlement, on the same side of the river, the native quarter spread along the mountainside: steep narrow streets, houses with overhanging balconies, a languid sibilant throng in which veiled Moslem women brushed against Persians with scarlet-painted fingernails and high hairdresses, Tatar mollahs in loose gowns and green or white turbans, hillsmen from the conquered tribes wearing Cherkesska belted at the waist. The hieratic camels’ heads swayed above the crowd. It was hot, even in November. The air smelled of dirt, honey, incense and leather. On the right bank of the Kura lay the Russian town, clean, neat and administrative, exhaling the tedium of a provincial capital beneath the sun.

Your basic local color, but what struck me was that odd adjective “sibilant.” It’s not clear what language he’s trying to describe, if indeed he had a particular one in mind—Armenian, Georgian, Persian, Russian, and German, among others, were all heard, and it’s true that they all have sibilants, but how many languages don’t? I imagine if you’d asked Troyat (born Lev Aslanovich Tarasov in Moscow), he’d have given a languid Armeno-Russian-French shrug and waved the question off, but I’ll tell you what I think: I think writers who want to describe the people of some exotic locale and their language throw a dart at a board with labels like “guttural,” “sibilant,” “nasal,” and the like, and use whichever the dart finds its way to. (There’s an amusing discussion of guttural at Language Log, where Ben Zimmer says “it’s one of those words that gets thrown around whenever a speaker finds an alien speech pattern somehow displeasing. … A quick Web search turns up such examples as ‘a guttural English/Chinese mishmash,’ ‘a guttural Yorkshire accent,’ ‘a guttural Southern drawl,’ ‘guttural Ebonics, and countless others.”)

Update. I have decided, based on the comments, that “sibilant” isn’t actually an attempt to describe a language after all, which strictly speaking renders this post superfluous. Good thing I’m lax about staying on topic!

If you’re curious about Tbilisi/Tiflis, there’s a map of the prerevolutionary city (based on the 1914 Baedeker, which I’ve been unable to find except as a small-scale teaser) here, and you can see some old photographs here.


  1. rootlesscosmo says

    Starogladkovskaya reminds me of the name Gladkov, the author of an early Soviet novel called “Chocolate” (a dedicated Chekist is led astray by a temptress who offers, among other lures, the confection in the title.) Any connection? What would “old Gladkov’s” mean?

  2. rootlesscosmo says

    Argh–not “Chocolate,” “Cement,” a heroic tale of Socialist construction. I got my Proletkult writers mixed…

  3. This all raises the question of how speakers of Language A perceive the sounds of Language B– there’s lots of anecdotal evidence, but…

  4. Any connection? What would “old Gladkov’s” mean?
    I assume it was originally just Gladkovskoe (named for some pioneer/officer called Gladkov) until they built a new town/fort/whatever nearby that was called Novogladkovskoe, whereupon the old one became Staro-. There are a bunch of situations like that in Russia. The family name Gladkov is a straightforward derivative of the adjective gladkii ‘smooth.’
    I too had to read Cement as a Russian major; I’d never heard of Chocolate, but looking it up in Brown’s Russian Literature Since the Revolution, I see it came out in 1922 and is by Alexander Tarasov-Rodionov—Tarasov being the same fairly uncommon name that Henri Troyat was born with! Diegogarcity strikes again. (Sounds like a good book, too; Brown says it “has a feature that most Soviet novels lack: an interesting and suspenseful intrigue.”)

  5. Oh, and if you’re wondering, Tarasov is from the given name Taras (as in Taras Bulba), which is from the Greek Ταράσιος (as in the Patriarch).

  6. robert berger says

    The languages of the Caucasus, with their
    enormous number of consonant phonemes,can certainly sound strange to people.
    Some time ago I heard radio broadcasts in
    Circassian; the announcers sounded to me as if
    they were talking with their mouths full of food !

  7. I’ll just mention a book I recently read which is of related interest: “Where Two Worlds Met” by Michael Khodarkovsky. The book is about the last days of the Kalmyk Oirat Mongols as an independent people loosely allied to Russia. It’s interesting to to me because the Kalmyks were the last westward extension of the steppe nomads (and of Buddhism), but also because during the XVIIIc, the Circassians (Kabardians), Mari (Cheremiss), Kazakhs, Nogai, Chuvash, and various Tatar and Cossack groups all also remained independent or semi-independent in that general area.
    The Kalmyks were literate and were in direct diplomatic contact with Istanbul, Baghdad, Beijing, and Lhasa, besides Moscow. (To my knowledge they had no relations with Western Europe, though during the early part of this period the Swedes invaded (or perhaps fled to) the Ukraine.
    At my link I have something I wrote about the Torgut Kalmyks and their heroic and tragic trek to China after they decided to break with Russia. It’s somewhat outdated by Khodarkovsky’s book, but still interesting. (Trivia: Thomas DeQuincey wroite a garbled account of the Torgut exodus).

  8. Sounds interesting! Full citation (from the invaluable Library of Congress catalog): Michael Khodarkovsky, Where two worlds met: the Russian state and the Kalmyk nomads, 1600-1771. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1992.

  9. rootlesscosmo says

    God, I love this blog.
    I read Chocolate long ago but I think the description you quote matches my memory of it. Of Cement I remember only a scene, no doubt meant to inspire admiration but blood-curdling from my (irredeemably petty-bourgeois individualist) perspective, in which the hero waches a huge crew of dam-builders and is thrilled by the way each worker’s individuality is submerged in the anonymous struggling collective.

  10. “A dedicated Chekist is led astray by a temptress who offers, among other lures, cement.” Now that would be a great Soviet novel.
    “Mmmm, Blue Circle. Drool…” Gomer Simpsonov.

  11. This is probably completely off the mark, but is it at all possible that the author could have meant something different by the use of the word sibilant there? Could he be referring to the sound of the people swishing by, (as in, “Making a hissing or whistling sound”, OED) rather than their speech?

  12. rootlesscosmo says

    “Grab the tube of Quikrete, honey, because [nudge nudge] there are no forrtesses a Bolshevik cannot [wink wink] storm.”

  13. I have to agree with Yana. I’ve read and reread this passage numerous times, and all that the word “sibilant” conjures for me is an image of the wonderfully soft “swish” of fabric against fabric as the individuals in this diverse group of people go about their business in the crowded and narrow streets. This seems to make sense relative to the rest of the description. To me, the word “languid” implies movement quiet enough for the dress of the crowd to be an audible sound, or at least to seem that way.
    I am a language fan, so I looked for a way to connect that “sibilant” to a specific tongue, much as you did . . . but the interpretation above still makes a lot more sense, I think.

  14. I doubt that my contribution is worth 2 cents, or even 2 kopeks, but I have to agree with those who think that “a languid sibilant throng in which veiled Moslem women brushed against Persians ” refers to the noise of the throng, rather than the sound of their speech.
    Part of the reason I think this is based on my own reaction to sibilant-heavy speech. I find it unpleasant and far from restful to listen to, and so would never describe suc speech as “languid”.
    In a more general sense, if the writer were using “sibilant” in the “furriners talk funny” pejorative fashion à la “guttural”, would he have used “languid”, with its generally positive connotations?

  15. …a languid sibilant throng in which veiled Moslem women brushed against Persians with scarlet-painted fingernails and high hairdresses …
    I join Dee and others in agreeing with Yana’s take on “sibilant”.
    If you read the sentence out loud, or even just imagine doing so, it’s clear Troyat has put in as many s’s and sh’s as he could. It’s a bit of poetry reinforcing the image of, as Dee says, the swish of fabric against fabric, of human beings interacting with each other.
    Contrast this with the very last sentence about the Russian town, whose adjectives are curt, chopped, and abrupt. No softness there, no people interacting, either. In fact, no people at all. Just tedium.
    To go off on yet another tangent, the Troyat passage reminds me of another great use of sibilation: the point in Milton’s Paradise Lost when all the devils are turned into serpents and Satan hears, instead of applause for his success in corrupting Adam and Eve, “on all sides from innumerable tongues, a dismal universal hiss, the sound of public scorn…” (PL 10.507-509)
    Thanks, LH for sharing the Troyat. I’ve actually been to Tblisi. You’ve made me want to read the book now.

  16. On the other hand, I think Chechen can be acurately described as “languidly sybillant” — my sample size is not huge but we had some chechen neighbors while living in grad student housing at Cambridge…

  17. I agree with Yana too—once she said it, it made complete sense. Obviously my linguistic training (déformation professionelle) blinded me to the truth!

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