I’ve started reading War and Peace in Russian (something I’ve been wanting to do for many years), prompted by reaching that point in Henri Troyat’s biography, and in the very first section I’ve noticed several items of linguistic interest. The first thing, of course, is the fact that the first paragraph of the Great Russian Novel is almost entirely in French; Tolstoy goes on to talk about “том изысканном французском языке, на котором не только говорили, но и думали наши деды” [‘that recherché/distingué/refined/exquisite French in which our grandfathers not only spoke but thought’]. The second paragraph includes this bit of language history: “у нее был грипп, как она говорила (грипп был тогда новое слово, употреблявшееся только редкими)” [‘she had the grippe, as she said (grippe was then [July 1805] a new word, used only by the few)’].

But it’s at the end of the section that the linguistic interest intensifies to the point that it grippes me by the throat and won’t let go. Prince Vasilii has arrived early at Anna Scherer’s soirée in order to propose his son as first secretary in Vienna (at the Russian embassy, I presume), Anna having influence at court, but she shoots the idea down (with “an expression of devotion and respect, joined with sadness”). She then makes a counterproposal: he should marry off his “prodigal son” Anatolii to the daughter of the “rich and miserly” Prince Bolkonskii (modeled on Tolstoy’s own maternal grandfather, Prince Volkonskii). The prince perks up immediately and says:

Ecoutez, chère Annette. Arrangez-moi cette affaire et je suis votre вернейший раб à tout jamais (рап — comme mon староста m’écrit des донесенья: покой-ер-п).

The first part of this, before the parenthesis, is unproblematic: “Listen, dear Annette, arrange this affair for me and I am your most faithful slave forever.” The parenthesis, though, involves some kind of wordplay I can only partially penetrate: “rap, as my starosta [village headman] writes in his reports: pokoi-yer-p.” Evidently the starosta was not strong on spelling and wrote раб [rab]—in prerevolutionary spelling рабъ, with a silent hard sign (“yer”) at the end—the way it sounds, /rap/ (with final devoicing), i.e., рапъ (with Cyrillic p instead of b). Now, pokoi is the archaic name for the Cyrillic letter п (=Latin p) and yer is the hard sign ъ, but I can’t make out what the collocation pokoi-yer-p is supposed to mean. (Of the translators I have at hand, Ann Dunnigan says “‘slafe,’ as my village elder writes,” and Constance Garnett simply omits the parenthesis.) If anybody can explicate this, je suis votre вернейший раб à tout jamais.

Update. Commenter Ransom very kindly sent me scans of the relevant pages of B. A. Uspenskii’s “Старинная система чтения по складам,” which explains the old system of reading Russian by syllables, and all is now clear. The practice was to “spell” a word by breaking it up into syllables and reading each with the old names of the Cyrillic letters, so that, e.g., великъ [velikъ] would be read “веди езь, ве; люди иже, ли, вели; како еркъ, великъ” [vedi + ez’ = ve; lyudi + izhe = li > veli; kako + yerkъ > velikъ], where vedi, ez’, lyudi, izhe, kako are the names of the Cyrillic letters v, e, l, i, and k, but the hard sign, called yer, is read with the preceding consonant following it: yerkъ, pronounced “yerk.” Now we can see what’s going on in the Tolstoy passage: the Prince is giving only the end of the word рабъ, spelled рапъ by the starosta, because that’s the part that’s different; thus pokoi-yer-p is exactly parallel to kako-yer-k above. Furthermore, this also explains the peculiar word slovo-er-s, which I wrote about here; I’ll have to emend that entry after I’ve had some sleep.


  1. That is tantalizing! Here‘s the direct link.

  2. Also, I keep wanting to read the sequence from right to left, with pokoi and er as Cyrillic letters, and п as Latin p(=Cyrillic р)(=Latin r) for “pъп” which could almost sound like “рабъ”…

  3. The покой-еръ [kind of] пъ?
    “Your slafe — eff-ee-fe.”

  4. It looks to me like “(the sequence) pokoi-yer (pronounced) ‘p'”, which reminds me of the way Tibetan is spelled aloud, as a sequence of named elements followed by the resulting pronunciation.

  5. You’re both right: Ransom sent me a scan of the relevant pages in Uspensky, and I’ll add the explanation to the post.

  6. That method of cumulative spelling of the syllables in a word and repeating after each syllable’s spelling first the syllable just spelled and then all the syllables spelled up to that point is also used in Rossini’s Barber of Seville. I wonder if it was used everywhere in Europe at that time, and where and when it originated.

  7. mollymooly says

    “the first paragraph of the Great Russian Novel is almost entirely in French”
    IIRC the Maudes preserve the French and give the English in footnotes.

  8. Yes, it’s always interesting to see how translators deal with that.

  9. I’ve started reading War and Peace in Russian
    You are the man. Hats off to the hat!

  10. michael farris says

    I had no idea that the French in War and Peace was actually …. in French orthography. I’d always assumed it was phoneticised Cyrillic.

  11. Bill Walderman says

    It’s interesting that the “6th edition” of W&P (Moscow 1886), which is in the Google database, prints the French dialogue in Russian. I wonder whether Tolstoy himself supplied the Russian translations. What edition are you reading? I’ve been reading it in Russian myself, in an edition published in 2007 by Eksmo, with useful explanatory notes that seem to date from the Soviet era (the historical notes reflect a Marxist analysis). I’m at p. 600 of the second part. One of the downsides to the end of the Soviet era is that books in Russian now have typographical errors. My experience is that they were extremely rare in Soviet publications.

  12. John Emerson says

    Margaret Thatcher degraded the copy-editing of Oxford and Cambridge U.P. too. It’s just horrible.
    Copyeditors are all Communists? Who knew?

  13. John Emerson says

    Margaret Thatcher degraded the copy-editing of Oxford and Cambridge U.P. too. It’s just horrible.
    Copyeditors are all Communists? Who knew?

  14. What edition are you reading?
    Moskva: Khudozhestvennaya literatura, 1978, in two volumes (handy for carrying around). Alas, the only notes are translations of the French. Do your notes explicate the покой-ер-п thing?
    One of the downsides to the end of the Soviet era is that books in Russian now have typographical errors. My experience is that they were extremely rare in Soviet publications.
    Indeed. And ’60s-era Soviet books were better-looking, too; design was one thing they tended to do well.

  15. John Emerson says


  16. Bill Walderman says

    My Eksmo edition of W&P is actually dated 2008. (My earlier comment was in error.) The notes don’t explain the “pokoi-er-p” remark (I remember being puzzled by it when I read it). The notes are quite thorough and very helpful on historical matters, however. It seems as if every historical character is identified, with dates supplied (and there are quite a few real people mentioned throughout the book–not just the major figures such as Kutuzov, Napoleon and Alexander, but lots of second- and third-ranking generals and colonels and even some company-grade officers and others who distinguished themselves in one way or another during the Napoleonic period). The notes are attributed to G. Krasnov and N. Fortunatov (these are listed with the -a ending and it’s not entirely clear to me whether they are masc. gen. or fem. nom.). The typeface is definitely post-Soviet (listed as “N’iu Baskervil’,” “New Baskerville”) and, as I mentioned, there are some typos–not many, but enough to remind me that the book was reset by computer in the post-Soviet era. The interesting thing is that the word “bog” is not spelled with an initial capital, which suggests that the publisher didn’t go to any great efforts in transferring a Soviet edition to the computer. Personally I’m not a believer but I’d prefer to respect Tolstoy’s usage. I have a nice edition of Dostoevsky’s “Besy” from the late perestroika era that uses a capital. The fact that you could buy a copy of Besy at the end of the Soviet era without purchasing the multi-volume complete works of D. is remarkable enough in itself.

  17. I envy you; I was just thinking how great it would be to have an online W&P with each proper name linked to an identification. That sounds like a great edition (barring the typos). I have a similar edition of Moskva-Petushki (one of my favorite Soviet novels).

  18. Delighted to discover a Russian-reading member of Librarything, also one who is venturing on reading “Voina i mir” po-russki . . .obviously I need to figure out how to download then get a handle on typing in Cyrillic font on my computer: I just had my in-house “tech support” [a.k.a. spouse] download Cornell’s “accented Cyrillic” but how to use it other than typing in symbol by symbol in Word? Any advice from you would be gratefully received, as I’ve yet to tackle my large collection of Russian books re: Librarything catalogue entries. I did begin reading V & M several years ago, encouraged by having at that time my now-passed-on Russian friend and tutor to discuss it with, then no one to speak to in Russian save the annual visit of our Polish piano tuner whose second wife was Russian and now he too has vanished. Most difficult to be polyglot in this culture . . . .Anyway, my Russian-language version of Tolstoy is the 12-volume set from Khudozhestvennaya Literatura (1974) with vol. 4-7 being V & M, which will suffice despite NO notes. I have recently bought the Pevear & Volokhonsky translation, yet to begin it. My first reading was the Maude translation, one Christmas holiday retreating to bed and immersing myself utterly.
    Sorry for the lengthy details; in brief, suggestions needed for typing Cyrillic font. It’s one thing to have the links and URLs for sites using the font, and the very good Russian bookstore here where I can buy what I want . . .but composing online (let alone getting to speak it and use the language . . .) another matter.
    Now to get back to cataloguing books — I’ve barely begun — huge collection, not enough time, vast number of poetry books, which distract me by the reading of them and I’ve scarcely begun the fiction (or the art, or the nonfiction . . .) and also get back to reading your blog —-> website. Many thanks for all your wwriting. Norma

  19. Hi, Norma! This is the site I use for my Cyrillic needs; just type in the box and the Cyrillic equivalents appear. (Note the row of equivalents at the top; it saves a lot of time to type w for щ.)

  20. Молодетз! Спасибо болшой.

  21. David Marjanović says

    Молодетз! Спасибо болшой.

    Don’t mix German into it (where z is [ts] and tz is the version written behind a short vowel — compare Italian zz). So…
    Молодец! Большое спасибо.
    (This line brought to you by the Windows Character Table, BTW.)

  22. Gosaca Menacle says

    Based on your reading of the original Russian, how would you describe the cries of the soldier being punished for stealing in chapter XV, as witnessed by Prince Andrei as he tours Bagration’s forces? Maude says the man’s screams are “desperate but unnatural”, Pevear & V. also say “unnatural” and then “desperate but feigned”. I’m wondering if this scene is any less confusing as read in Russian, or if Tolstoy intended it to be an example of a random, bizarre event of the type that only war can produce.

  23. I don’t find it especially confusing, but at any rate, the Russian says the same thing, first “Наказываемый неестественно кричал” [‘The man being punished cried out unnaturally’], later “отчаянный, но притворный крик” [‘despairing/desperate but feigned/affected cry’]. You have to remember that Russian soldiers, like British schoolboys, were accustomed to being beaten on a regular basis, so the genuine pain was intermingled with a “here we go again” attitude, and I imagine each soldier had his own repertoire of cries with which he responded to the inevitable, and over time they would take on a certain stylized, “affected” quality, without ceasing to be a genuine response to pain.

  24. Thanks, this was really interesting! I knew about reading by syllables but didn’t know the names of old russian letters, so would never have been able to work that out for myself.

  25. Before Webster came out with his blue-backed spelling book, American children learned to spell from a British book by one Thomas Dilworth with the curious nickname of Aby-sel-pha, though its actual title was A New Guide to the English Tongue. I don’t know when it was first published in the UK, but the first American edition was printed by Benjamin Franklin in 1747. Indeed, Webster reused a great deal of Dilworth’s text.

    It turns out that Dilworth taught the same system for of spelling words out loud that you describe for Russian, spelling “Boston” as “bee oh ess boss, tee oh en ton, Boston”. If a syllable had only one letter, it was pronounced as “X by itself X”, and so “A by itself A” > “Aby-sel-pha”. This is similar to the etymology of ampersand < and per se and.

  26. That’s great!

  27. Wow, cool, anyhow I never paid attention to the closing little “п” in “покой-ер-п”. Life to learn. Of course Prince Vassilii had to spell out the word because it’s impossible to tell раб from рап in spoken Russian – and he needed it misspelled to underscore his subjugated, serf-like position one more time.

    I distinctly remember a pre-spelling reform story where a young, literate character is paid to teach a rich commoners’ daughter how to read, and how they go syllable by syllable building up the word сапоги … but since it’s a picture book, her final answer, after all the syllable suffering, is валенки. I thought it was from Maxim Gorky’s “В людях” but I can’t find this passage now ….

  28. I guess this syllabic spelling method is where the French word “béaba” (ie B-A-ba), meaning “the basics of a subject”, comes from.

  29. One of my grandparents taught me to say a siger a-, b-r-a siger bra, siger a, siger bra, siger abra-, k-a siger ka, siger a, siger bra, siger ka, siger abraka-, d-a siger da, siger a, siger bra, siger ka, siger da, siger abrakada-, b-r-a siger bra, siger a, siger bra, siger ka, siger da, siger bra, siger abrakadabra at breakneck speed — ostensibly the way long words were to be spelled out in class when they were little (late noughts).

    siger is something like [siɪ˞] in allegro speech, so it’s not as longwinded as it looks.

  30. When did Russians abandon the old az, buky, veve, glagoli, dobro … i zhitsa letter names in favor of the modern ones? 1917, or earlier?

  31. This is a good one! Actually, it was Catherine the Great who introduced the modern names in 1788 to make it easier to learn the alphabet. Though in popular memory the changes are strongly associated with the ‘bolshevik’ reform of orthography, disregarding the fact that it was being prepared by academics since 1904 and introduced by the Provisional government in May 1917. It took a bolshevik decree early in 1918 and various additional directives to make it happen. There was more on the fate of the hard mark and the ё. Some used the apostrophe instead of ъ in the divisional role and O instead of Ё after the hissing consonants all through the 1920s.

  32. Of course, it took a while for the new names to trickle down to the population, because people were still using the az-buki names in the 19th century.

  33. Supposedly ‘ came into use because overenthusiastic comrades sent to print shops to confiscate the iota, theta, yat’, and upsilon sorts also confiscated the hard signs, ignoring the fact that a tiny minority of words still required them.

  34. David Marjanović says

    Ukrainian uses the apostrophe instead of the hard sign to this day.

  35. Thank you so much for this article! I am translating that book into portuguese and I get stuck in that part. Thanks a lot!

  36. That’s great! I’m glad this blog is occasionally of some practical value.

  37. Also, congratulations on doing some research to figure it out rather than just omitting it and hoping no one will notice (which seems to be lamentably common practice).

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