Choosing a Language.

I’ve started Sasha Sokolov’s Палисандрия (translated as Astrophobia, though for some reason Russian Wikipedia says there are no translations); I haven’t gotten very far, but I can already see I’m not going to enjoy it as much as Школа для дураков (A School for Fools; post) and Между собакой и волком (Between Dog and Wolf; post) — it’s heavy-handed and full of political satire, which does not much appeal to me. But of course it’s still Sokolov, with lots of the wordplay he’s so generous with, and there’s plenty to enjoy, like the following passage in which the hero, Palisandr Dalberg (a nephew of Beria, brought up in a phantasmagorical Kremlin where the secret services are called the Order of Watchmakers), is trying to decide what language to write in (my translation is followed by the Russian):

The featureless file of tutors, governors, maids, summoned thence on a private basis for my upbringing, had long since passed by. But before merging into the far-off type-image of a mentor-Esperantist in the neuter singular, in the most tedious of cases, the accusative, these modal creatures succeeded in giving the pupil a certain polish and roused him to the knowledge of a whole row of dialects, from which he had to choose: by means of which of them to express himself.

Ancient Greek and Latin fell away with no need of discussion; lapidary and scanty, they would only constrain my imagination. Tosk, on the other hand, manifested an excess of grandiloquence. The use of my native Russian or Georgian could create in my addressees the false impression that their future grandson was a lout, an ignoramus, not on friendly terms with foreign languages, ​​and that, shirking his education, he was leading a life of idle pleasure. Should I write in Etruscan? Why, to write in Etruscan to Etruscans — would that not mean to condescend to them obligingly, to oblige them condescendingly? Basque, I must admit, was not one of my strong points, Sanskrit seemed too dead, French too lively, German rough, English prissy, and my Berber needed a thorough freshening. The Gypsy language also demanded practice, since the motley tents of its restless bearers had not brightened our walls for a long time; lengthy spells of inclement weather had compelled these heat-loving merry fellows to migrate closer to the south. Paradox! Two or three squeaky and crunchy, like a cabbage leaf, winters in a row and you start to mix up conjugations. On the other hand, the frost freed up additional hours for communication with interlocutors of a more Nordic nature.

Worried about being observed from the adjoining bathroom by the Mongolian serving-woman Eos, he settles on a course of action:

I then took special measures. I ordered the laying down of three layers of paint on the glass in the toilet and began to write in Chuvash. As the poorly educated Eos tried to read my texts, her lips moved helplessly and in vain. I myself almost pointed out that for all their curiosity, our serving class is lazy, incurious and far from linguistics.

A few pages back he had been reading the newspaper “«Албанское Танго» (Орган тоскских сепаратистов в Новой Этрурии, ратующих за провозглашение северной ее половины анклавом Албании)” [Albanian Tango (Organ of the Tosk separatists in New Etruria, fighting for the proclamation of an Albanian enclave in its northern half)], so he’s acquainted with the Tosk dialect. Here’s the Russian:

Безликая вереница наставников, гувернеров, бонн, призванных оттуда на частных началах к моему воспитанию, давно миновала. Но перед тем, как слиться вдали в типизированный образ ментора-эсперантиста среднего рода единственного числа, взятого в нуднейшем из падежей – винительном, эти модальные существа сумели придать воспитаннику известный лоск и подвигли к познанию целого ряда наречий, из коих и предстояло выбрать: на коем же изъясняться.

Древнегреческий и латынь отпадали без разговоров. Лапидарные, куцые, они бы только стеснили воображение. Тоскский, наоборот, казался излишне велеречивым. Использование родного мне русского или грузинского могло бы создать у моих адресатов ложное впечатление, будто будущий внук их – невежа, неуч, не дружен с иностранными языками и, манкируя образованием, жуирует жизнь. Писать на этрусском? Да ведь писать на этрусском этрускам – не значит ли одолжительно снисходить к ним, снисходительно их обязывать? В баскском, признаться, я был не слишком силен, санскрит рисовался слишком уж мертвым, французский – слишком живым, немецкий – черствым, английский – чопорным, а берберский нуждался в основательном освежении. Практики требовал и цыганский, поскольку шатры его непосед-носителей давно не пестрели у наших стен. Тягучие непогоды принудили этих теплолюбивых весельчаков откочевать ближе к югу. Парадоксально! Две-три скрипучих и хрустких, словно капустный лист, зимы кряду – и Вы начинаете путать спряженья. С другой стороны, морозы высвободили дополнительные часы для общения с более нордическими собеседниками.

* * *

Я взял тогда специальные меры. Велел покрасить стекло в туалете в три слоя и начал писать по-чувашски. Беспомощно и вотще шевелились уста малообразованной Эос, пытавшейся прочитать мои тексты. Еще чуть ли не сам я указывал, что при всем своем любопытстве прислуга наша ленива, нелюбознательна и далека от лингвистики.

Incidentally, when I started working on this passage I looked up the first word in my three-volume Russian-English dictionary, which has a generous sprinkling of typos, and found безликая толпа ‘featureless crowd’ defined as “rubble” (for “rabble”). It gave me a chuckle.


  1. David Eddyshaw says

    the most tedious of cases, the accusative

    So true …

  2. David Marjanović says

    Should I write in Etruscan?

    If you can, please do.

    “Always be yourself.
    Unless you can be Batman.
    Always be Batman.”

    her lips moved helplessly and in vain.

    Yeah, I’ve never seen a non-circular explanation of what the letters ӑ and ӗ stand for either.

  3. “…English prissy…”
    If only this character had been exposed to! No prissy disingenuousness on these pages!

  4. David Eddyshaw says

    That is only because a majority of participants are actually thinking in Russian.

  5. >actually thinking in Russian.

    Maybe you are, lautni.

  6. Everyone thinks in Russian, but most people undergo a transformational process that produces other languages before the words reach their consciousness and tongue. I mean, look at the name Chomsky itself.

  7. jack morava says

    Does this ring a bell?:

    And so it transpired, no more than a month or two later, that somebody equally anonymous had cut Tchitcherine’s orders for Baku, and he was grimly off to attend the first plenary session of the VTsK NTA (Vsesoynznyy Tsentral’nyy Komitet Novogo Tyurkskogo Alfavita), where he was promptly assigned to the ƣ Committee.

    ƣ seems to be a kind of G, a voiced uvular plosive. The distinction between it and your ordinary G is one Tchitcherine will never learn to appreciate. Come to find out, all the Weird Letter Assignments have been reserved for ne’er-do-wells like himself. Shatsk, the notorious Leningrad nose-fetishist, who carries a black satin handkerchief to Party congresses and yes, more than once has been unable to refrain from reaching out and actually stroking the noses of powerful officials, is here — banished to the Θ Committee,where he keeps forgetting that Θ, in the NTA, is œ, not Russian F, thus retarding progress and sowing confusion at every working session. Most of his time is taken up with trying to hustle himself a transfer to the Ņ Committee, “Or actually,” sidling closer, breathing heavily, “just a plain, N, or even an M, will, do. . . .” The impetuous and unstable practical joker Radnichny has pulled the ə Committee, ə being a schwa or neutral uh, where he has set out on a megalomaniac project to replace every spoken vowel in Central Asia — and why stop there, why not even a consonant or two? with these schwas here . . . not unusual considering his record of impersonations and dummy resolutions, and a brilliant but doomed conspiracy to hit Stalin in the face with a grape chiffon pie, in which he was implicated only enough to get him Baku instead of worse.

  8. David Marjanović says

    Ah, Early Soviet Latin letters. Ƣƣ is the voiced counterpart to Qq, so mostly [ʁ], corresponding to Ğğ in Turkish. Ɵɵ, carried over into the Cyrillic alphabets a decade or two later, was meant to look different from Θ, but evidently that didn’t always work; it’s mostly [œ], but also such things as [we] in Kazakh and, wait for it, [ɵ] in Mongolian. Ŋ is uppercase ŋ; its shape was generally rendered more N-like than n-like. Əǝ is not a schwa (it’s even coded separately in Unicode), but /æ/; it, too, was carried over into Cyrillic, and then (after half a year) into the modern Azerbaijani Latin alphabet because people got tired of putting six dots on every word (/æ/ is the most common phoneme there, and in many other Turkic languages).

    While I’m at it, the Ossetic Cyrillic Ӕӕ isn’t [æ] either, it’s [ɐ] or thereabouts.

  9. >maybe you are, lautni,

    By the way, this was an effort to address David E. in my native Etruscan.

  10. Very obliging of you!

  11. David Eddyshaw says

    I thought Lars was our only resident Etruscan. Just goes to show, those Etruscans are everywhere once you start looking.

  12. January First-of-May says

    was meant to look different from Θ

    Perhaps, but not necessarily from Ѳ, the corresponding Cyrillic letter, which does, in fact, look exactly like an O with middle tilde.

    (Ɵ doesn’t, of course, even if Unicode for some reason insists it should; in any case the central line is connected on both, unlike the theta.)

  13. John Emerson says

    Has it been decided whether Etruscans were really Lydians or not?

  14. David Eddyshaw says

    You can learn a lot from Lydia.

  15. The Etruscans are the tiny minority who aren’t named David.

  16. Has it been decided whether Etruscans were really Lydians or not?
    If your question is whether they spoke an Anatolian lE language, the current consensus is that they didn’t.

  17. David Eddyshaw says

    The Etruscans are the tiny minority who aren’t named David

    Makes sense, in view of the fact that Goliath was evidently a Lydian too:

  18. The idea of the Philistine’s being Indo-European speakers comes, in part, from the fact that they don’t really enter the Biblical narrative until relatively late, probably not long before the time of Saul and David. In the early stories of the wars fought against the Canaanites, the Philistines do not appear.* They only become the major enemies of the Hebrews in the stories about Samson** near the end of Judges. The Philistines are also listed pretty unambiguously among the Sea Peoples that invaded Egypt amidst the chaos of the late Bronze Age collapse; they were repelled by Ramesses III in the early twelfth century B. C. E., but (some of) the Sea People did eventually conquer the Nile Delta, founding the Fifteenth Dynasty in Lower Egypt.

    So if the Philistines were actually a seafaring people who appeared on the scene in Canaan around the twelfth century, taking up residence along the coast, it is reasonable to suppose that they may have come from somewhere else in the eastern Mediterranean. This would certainly suggest that they may have been Indo-European speakers, although direct linguistic evidence is very scant. Most writing associated with the Philistines appears to be Semitic, although there are a number of proper names (including the most famous of all Philistine names, Goliath) that pretty clearly are not. Since most of the surviving Philistine writing comes from relatively late in the Philistine period, it may be that the group’s original Indo-European language was replaced (at least for elite functions) with a local Canaanite dialect.

    * A couple appearances of supposedly Philistine kings during the time of the patriarchs are generally taken to be later, anachronistic interpolations.

    ** The story of Samson is really three separate tales, probably originally about at least two separate heroes, which were presumably tied together later—perhaps in Deuteronomist times.

  19. Pretty sure the 15th dynasty was sending colonists to the central Sahel under a leader named Chadi back in the 16th century bce, where they founded a new language group. Or maybe that’s not quite right but they definitely ruled Egypt well before Ramesses.

  20. The Philistines were part of the Sea Peoples who devastated much of the Middle East around 1177 BC (the date is the title of a book by American archaeologist Eric H. Cline), but were conclusively defeated by the Egyptians. After their defeat, the Philistines drifted up to Gaza and settled in. They founded five (I believe) major cities there. A large part of their subsequent economic activity was providing mercenaries for the Egyptian army.

    In the Bible the Jews complain that they can’t fight the Philistines because the Philistines have iron weapons and they don’t. The Sea Peoples had acquired iron weapons when they sacked the Hittite empire.

    Tradition has it that the Philistines originated in Crete (I believe this is said somewhere else in the Bible). Modern archaeology has excavated Philistine graves, and the results partially support this theory. Early graves tend to yield DNA similar to Greek populations, but as time goes by they gradually merge into the other peoples living around there (Canaanites, or Syrians, I suppose they would be called).

    The Egyptian records give a list of the constituent groups in the Sea Peoples, but it is far from clear how to interpret what they said, although the Philistines were in there. Given their seafaring skills, and the Greeks being a prominent seafaring culture, it would not be unlikely that there would be a Greek component.

    The Sea Peoples story is not well understood. Mycenaean Greece was based on slave-raiding and slave-trading. Their whole economic system was based on slavery. I rather wonder whether some other event, perhaps some climate change, touched off a massive slave revolt that just snowballed. Just my own theory.

  21. January First-of-May says

    Or maybe that’s not quite right but they definitely ruled Egypt well before Ramesses.

    IIRC, Ramesses the First (and original) was the founder of the 19th dynasty; he was a near-contemporary of Tutankhamun, one of the last pharaohs of the 18th (to be slightly more precise, when Tutankhamun reigned, Ramesses I was (still) a teenager, but so was Tutankhamun; it took a few more decades before Ramesses I got his chance to rule).

    I don’t know much about the 15th dynasty, but it would surely have been far earlier than that.

  22. David Eddyshaw says

    This is far too late to have anything to do with the origin of the Chadic languages.

  23. You doubt the historicity of Chadi, the eponymous founder of the Chadic languages?

    I can see it’s going to be tough to sell you on the story of the hero-twins Atha and Baska, who crossed the Bering Strait…

    My only real point was that the Hyksos 15th dynasty had nothing to do with the Sea Peoples. I like Aren Meir’s theory that the Sea Peoples are best understood by considering something like the Barbary Pirates.

  24. David Marjanović says

    The latest idea about the Etruscans is that they came from northwestern Anatolia, where IE languages are not known to have been spoken at the time. (Neither is anything else. IIRC, one Luwian tablet has been found in Troy, and no writing is known otherwise.)

    1177 BC (the date is the title of a book by American archaeologist Eric H. Cline)

    In an hour-long presentation on YouTube, he regrets that and says he promptly reverted to the more widely accepted date of 1186 BC.

    including the most famous of all Philistine names, Goliath

    That one has been compared to Latin galeatus, “helmeted”.

    a massive slave revolt

    I prefer Zangger’s concept of the Trojan War as part of a series of contemporaneous wars all over the region, lasting long enough to destabilize regimes even apart from all the barbarian invasions and other armed movements.

  25. @Ryan, January First-of-May: Whoops! For some reason, I had gotten the Sea Peoples confused with the Hyskos from centuries earlier. I must have been really tired last night.

  26. No worries, Brett. It’s the only one of approximately 740,000 facts you’ve related here since Trump took office that I’ve ever had reason to challenge. Your photographic memories of books I’ve never heard of from 27 different genres always check out. So I had to jump at my one chance.

  27. @Ryan: I have a professional teacher’s natural desire not to mislead anyone, compounded with my own youthful memories of how intensely I disliked it when my instructors were bombastically wrong about various things. Therefore, when I do foul up my information, I feel embarrassed—almost mortified—and extremely contrite.

    And if I my diction sound like a Brontë sister’s, it is because I have been reading Jane Eyre all afternoon. Now, having just reached the natural midpoint of the book, I have set it aside, and I am about to watch an adventure movie with my sons.

  28. One of the puzzles of Bible dating is that if the adventures of Moses took place during the Hyskos period, which would be one explanation of why they leave no trace in Egyptian records, it would have taken the Israelites an awfully long time to get up to Canaan, where they eventually tangle with the Philistines, as described in Judges. Whereas the Bible says it was just one generation to get to Canaan.

    Also, archaeology suggests that all those Canaanite cities were sacked by the Sea Peoples.

  29. David Marjanović says

    The simplest hypothesis remains that they didn’t take place. Never mind leaving no trace in Egyptian records, there’s also no trace in the archaeological record of the Sinai, which is apparently quite well known and where quite small Palaeolithic groups passing through have left traces. The whole story is also stuffed with etiological & etymological myths, featuring the destruction of a series of cities that were actually destroyed centuries apart from each other, and a city named Ai – “ruins”.

    The compromise hypothesis is that they took place, just not in any recognizable form. Compare one of America’s founding myths: almost nobody had ancestors on the Mayflower, yet everybody celebrates Thanksgiving.

  30. January First-of-May says

    IIRC the evidence from the Amarna letters implied that the invading Hebrews came down from the local mountains.

    “Israel is laid waste; its seed is not” – Merneptah Stele, ca. 1208 BC, the second oldest known reference to Israel (the first oldest is far more fragmentary but seems to be in a similar context)

  31. It is plausible that a tribal group of Canaanites returned from Egypt to Canaan at some point in the later half of the second millennium B. C. E., eventually becoming (or joining) the tribes of Efraim, Manasseh, and maybe Benjamin. As I have noted, many of the supernatural events of Exodus match the description of a volcanic eruption in the Mediterranean, but if that was the Minoan eruption, it doesn’t necessarily have to have anything to do with the purported later migration back to Canaan. The rest of Exodus, Numbers, and Joshua are pretty clearly fictional in their entirety (or nearly). Judges is a mixture; there are a fair number of plausible stories there, but also clearly a lot of fiction and retrojection. Moreover, there are a number of wars among the tribes of Israel recounted in Judges, suggesting that the “Hebrews” of the time were not a coherent whole, and the tribes fought each other just as much as they fought the other, supposedly foreign, Canaanite peoples.

  32. Lars Mathiesen says

    It’s a FACT that the Porsennas went back to Alpha Centauri and my name is very officially not connected with anything Etruscan. Just ask the grey in your TV cabinet.

  33. Ramtha the Etruscan went back 33,000 years to become a warrior something or other, then came back to our age through a channeler who, natch, was born in Roswell, NM.
    (The Etruscan Ramtha is not officially acknowledged by the modern one.)

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