On Sunday’s NY Times Op-Ed page, there was an essay on Putin and Russia by Simon Sebag Montefiore that’s somewhat muddled in general (he says we shouldn’t be upset that Russia is run by the KGB because it always has been and that’s the way the Russians like it); what I want to foreground here, though, is a particular sentence that gave me a merry laugh: “There are few words in Russian for the Western concept of ‘law,’ but there are legions of words for connections, helping people from one’s neck of the woods.” Geoff Pullum has been trying for decades to stamp out the myth of the Eskimo words for snow, and he’ll get even more of a laugh out of this. But this is a lot easier to rip apart than the classic model (how many of us, after all, have access to an Inuit dictionary?). For one thing, Russian, like most European languages, has two words for “the Western concept of law”: one for ‘a law’ (a binding rule of society, enforced by a controlling authority), in this case zakon, and one for law as the whole body of such rules and that body as an object of study, in this case pravo, which is… let’s see… one more word than English itself has, meaning Russia must be twice as legal a culture as any English-speaking one. For another, there are indeed a number of words for connections… or influence… or “pull”… or string-pulling… or protection… or contacts… well, you get the idea. That poor meme is panting and sweating, but it just can’t drag the load up the Hill of Significance.


  1. Someone should leak out to the NYT the variety of lexical entries Russians have to denote motion. They’ll have a field day!

  2. Last time this issue came up, I asserted that I was pretty sure that the Nuer have over a hundred terms for types of cattle. Discuss.

  3. Lately, we’ve been indulging in a bit of bedtime reading from the book of Russian fairy tales collected by Aleksandr Afanas’ev. What a bizarre, bleak and depressing collection of surreal and grim fairy tales they are. True, the Grimm brothers’ collection is no bed of roses, but every odd-numbered one doesn’t end, “…and then they all died” or were eaten…or their wives died and the remains were eaten by foxes. It’s unrelenting. The happy ones end with the victor returning hime juggling the bad guy’s head on a spear-point. Now, whether that’s an expression of a desire for autocracy and arbitrary and capricious rule, or a reflection of a history rife with it, I don’t know. But it sure is disturbing stuff.
    By the way, American has at least a hundred words for “hamburger”.

  4. Yes, it’s a muddled and overall poor article, Montefiori coming through as too underinformed for the author of a treatise on Stalin’s court. He gets the power of connections in politics and business right, and most of the rest wrong. Apparently, anyone who has been to Moscow archives is now considered an expert on Russia.
    Afanasiev probably dug deeper than the Grimms, excavating tales that go back to pagan times and would have meant something within a pre-Christian context. A non-Romantic, non-ideological collector of German lore would have unearthed much scarier stuff that the good brothers did.

  5. jack lasky says

    As a former Russian but not yet future Australian(even though published in this journal on 2003 J.M.Coetzee Nobel Lecture)let me say this:cannylinguist may be translatable legally but can not be enforced lawfully.Do you SEE what I MEAN?

  6. By the way, “pravo” and “pravda” are the original ORus. words for law, compare “Russkaia Pravda” (the Yaroslav Law codex), “Merilo Pravednoe” etc. Zakon is an Old Church Slavic word that was used in Medieval Rus’ solely in translations. Remind me to write an entry on how this changed. If you are interested at all; I remember the last time we talked about laws you said they were boring.

  7. Laws may be boring; words for ‘law’ are not! I look forward to your post.

  8. What an interesting blog I’ve stumbled on this evening! A new bookmark for me.
    I am currently studying basic Russian, and our (very small) class had a good laugh the other day when our teacher (a Russian emigre) flatly stated that there isn’t really a good Russian word for “fun”.

  9. Well, aside from the exact semantic peculiarities that make it hard to translate any words beyond the most basic from one language to another, what’s going on with ‘fun’ is that English makes a noun out of what really isn’t a nouny concept (so to speak). Russian uses the root vesel- for the idea: mne veselo ‘I’m having fun’; Kak veselo! ‘What fun!’; veselit’sya ‘to have fun.’ There are also the nouns zabava and potekha, which can express similar concepts although their ranges are not identical. Trust me, Russians are capable of having fun! (But you probably knew that.)

  10. Indeed, “linguistics is fun” doesn’t translate well into Russian. The real problem, though, is not with fun but with “value”. “Great value”, as seen in hypermarts, is a dead end for the translator.
    I suppose Recht–right–droit–pravo would be a valid parallel. Also, note that Lex Salica corresponds to Russkaya Pravda in some way, and law codes of early medieval Germans are referred to as “varvarskie pravdy” in Russian.

  11. Anna Weetabix has a most interesting article on Russian _pravda_ (pred.) ‘is true’, _pravda_ (n.) ‘truth’, and _istina_ ‘truth’, and their contrast with the English uses of _right_ and _wrong_, which have expanded far beyond their original meanings of ‘straight’ and ‘injurious’ respectively.
    I can’t find an abstract of the article, but it was published as: Wierzbicka, Anna. 2002. “Russian cultural scripts: The theory of cultural
    scripts and its applications”. Ethos 30(4), 401-432. It’s available in full online at

  12. Lars Mathiesen says

    Danish and Swedish both maintain unrelated words for the noun and the verb.
    Danish: more sig v, (have) sjov n/adj. (TILD: more is based on dialectal(?) Nw/Sw moro n which was loaned before 1800).
    Swedish: roa sig v, (ha) kul n/adj. (Reputedly roa sig ~ ‘take a rest’ is an old euphemism for a debauched weekend in the country house, but ‘rest’ > ‘peace of mind’ > ‘happiness’ is also attested for Da ro).

    Tangentially related: The Danish word for ‘cheap’ (billig) originally meant ‘fair’.

  13. Now I just want to know why John Cowan called Anna Wierczbicka “Anna Weetabix” sixteen years ago.

    As I know, Wierczbicka means in Polish “of willow” and it’s a very banal and common surname (presumably given to women from a village where lots of willows grow nearby).

    What’s up with Weetabix?

    I googled that it’s a British brand of breakfast cereal, but what’s the joke?

  14. PlasticPaddy says

    I think it is not a joke but an admission that English speakers are consonantally challenged and give up when confronted by a sequence like rczb. The closest thing in English is the surname Marchbanks. But jc will tell you if he meant something else.

  15. David Marjanović says

    Fun fact: later in the same comment, he correctly cited her as Wierzbicka… no cz anywhere.

    The Danish word for ‘cheap’ (billig) originally meant ‘fair’.

    Exactly parallel to German, where the “fair” meaning survives only in the literary expression das ist nur recht und billig “that’s only fair” and in likewise literary derivatives (billigen “approve”, zubilligen “to metaphorically grant”).

  16. Lars Mathiesen says

    I’m pretty sure we got the word from the Lübeckers at a fair price. Billige v, though dated, still means ‘approve of’, so they probably gave us two senses for the price of one.

  17. Wierzbicka… no cz anywhere

    Crazy Polish spelling. I pity Polish schoolchildren, how do they remember to spell correctly every weird consonant?

  18. John Cowan says

    Aw, come on. Polish orthography is nothing compared to English, with its N ways to spell /i/ and its tetragraph ough, which despite appearing in only 30 words or so has eight different pronunciations. In Polish there are 12 digraphs and one trigraph to learn, and three real cases where there has been a merger and you have to remember the spelling. There are four possible ways to spell chuj, and it would be (we are told) wrong to spell it correctly in graffiti. As for Anna, all I have to do is to remember that her name is Верьбицка and it’s easy to respell it in Latin.

    In fact, Polish works very well in Cyrillic, though a Russian might be a little shocked by the surname of Hattic Пётр Гѫсёровски with its big yus and its unstressed ё. Polish needs the four Church Slavonic letters ѧ, ѩ, ѫ, ѭ for its nasal vowels (put in that order at the end of the alphabet), plus all the Russian letters. Likewise радъио and тъиара need their hard signs, because like many foreign words they have unpalatalized consonants before и.

    It would still be necessary for Polish children to remember when to write рь and when to write ж. Likewise the cities of Кракув and Вроцлавь must be spelled differently even though в is always pronounced hard finally, because of the genitives Краков and Вроцлавя. Though at least Latin ó/u and h/ch become Cyrillic у and х respectively, which disposes of the remaining two mergers.

    As for Weetabix, I heard that joke from a moderate and sensible Chomskyan (unsurprising, since any kind of Chomskyan syntax is about as far from NSM as can be). Though the name is easy to pronounce from the spelling, it’s pretty un-English: in its original Australian version it’s Weet-bix, which exposes the etymology ‘wheat biscuits’ a bit better. The joke obviously owes something (if only ironically so) to poor old Bill Safire, who when confronted with the name Mickiewicz, called on the world’s scholars for a better system of romanizing Polish. Of course Мицкевич would have been a different story.

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