When I was recently at the NYPL’s Russia Engages the World exhibit, I noticed a book by Dimitrie Cantemir (Kantemir), Voivode of Moldavia (1673–1723), identified on the label (and in the catalog) as Kniga sistema, ili Sostoianie mukhammedanskiia religii [A Book of Rules; or, The System of the Muhammedan Religion], St. Petersburg: Sanktpiterburgskaia Tipografiia, 1722. But the title page of the book itself didn’t say sistema (the modern Russian word) but systima. Now, it’s reasonable to represent the first vowel, the old Slavic letter izhitsa (the last item on this page), by i, which is its sound, but the second vowel was clearly i and not e, and the whole word was just as clearly borrowed directly from Greek σύστημα (pronounced sístima since the early Byzantine period). So what I’m hoping one of my learned Russian readers can tell me is: was Cantemir’s usage unique to him, or was the word first borrowed as sístima and then reborrowed (presumably from French) as sistéma? If the latter, when did the change take place? Dahl and Vasmer only give the modern version.


  1. “Sanktpiterburg”: Peter the Great was quite the Westernizer, wasn’t he? The new name is Petrograd, IIRC. Sort of like Stalingrad or Leningrad. The authentic, non-despotic Russian name would be what?

  2. The new name is Petrograd
    Only if you’re writing from either 80-90 years in the past or an alternate reality in which the city was never renamed for Lenin (which in this reality happened in 1924). Since the fall of Communism, the name has once again become Sankt-Peterburg, which is certainly authentic if not non-despotic. (Its inhabitants have referred to it as “Piter” throughout.)

  3. Actually, it is back now to Sankt Peterburg, or, habitually, St.Peterburg. It was changed to Petrograd when Russia got involved into WWI and all German names were banned; and changed to Leningrad after Lenin’s death.
    LH, if I find my etymological dictionary (my books are in boxes w/o the labels), I’ll look it up.

  4. languagehat: it may be Sanktpeterburg officially, but if you ask someone like the renowned Piter-based Yurij Shevchuk of the rock group DDT, you may hear either just “Peterburg” (e.g. Chernyj Pes Peterburg) or “Petrograd.”

  5. Really? They say Petrograd these days? (Of course I’m familiar with the shortened “Peterburg.”)

  6. well, i am Moscow-born, so i’m pretty ignorant when it comes to everyday language of Piter. but yes, i do hear “Petrograd” from the natives, at least those of the emigrant variety. it’s coming into fashion, i guess, like all things vintage are bound to.
    and i’m only half joking abut “Yu-Yu” Shevchyuk being the driving force behind the rehabilitation of “Petrograd” as the name for the city.

  7. Golly, if Yuri Shevchuk is doing it, I’d better start!

  8. Noway, Anna –
    if you read your own link, Petrograd appears only in the name of the concert, and in exagerated ly mocking form; nowhere in the text of the interview YS ever say that word. On the contrary, being as proud as all locals of their heroic city, he’s using Piter every time. I am not a local either, but have a number of friends (and now neighbors) from overthere, and no one – but not one- would ever use that hypocritical term. Piter concieved it, Piter built it, he dragged medieval peasant Russia into the European circle and his city will remain named after him in the way he wanted. Not one sane inhabitant of the city would call it in ‘slavyanski’ fashion, however bad Moscow natives wish it.

  9. Or, and LH – I couldn’t find my dictionary but I think I too have Vasmer, so it’s of no use anyway. On the other hand, I digged up a dusty book on “krylatye vyrazheniya” (not quite ‘idioms’don’t know how to translate correctly), published in 1955 (by Ashukin’s), and it’s a wonderful read. I’ll show it to you one day – if you promise never call Piter a “Petrograd”.
    Really, now. Petrograd? Fi.

  10. Tatyana: the link was there just as a general reference tying him to the term. i didn’t even read the interview. but i was at his concert a few days ago; he is currently on tour in Germany. and i did NOT get the impression that he was mocking the term “Petrogradische” when he exclaimed it on stage.
    i ne nado perehodit’ na lichnosti, ladno? i have no idea what Moscow natives wish or do not wish for St. Petersburg people. no offense, but your words make it sound as if there’s a conspiracy of “slavyanophilov” against all things european in general and St.P. in particular, which is a tad silly.
    PF: you know the expression “a poet in Russia is more than a poet?” well, a rock star of his magnitude in Russia is also more than a rock star. you personally may not take after him, and why would you, but i’m willing to bet a lot of young St. Petersburg people are.

  11. Anna, what – a catfight?
    I live in NY: bring it on, baby.
    And there isn’t and never was a conspiracy, right?
    Please, give me a break.
    However silly you think it sounds, this fact could be doubtful only to the foreign audience.
    And from somebody saying: “i am Moscow-born, so i’m pretty ignorant when it comes to everyday language of Piter”!
    Natives (being an emigrant doesn’t make you less Piter-native, btw)only use Petrograd in a way Politdiktat’s using “komrads” and “komissars”
    Pity, it’s lost on you.
    (Yeah, I respond personally to personal insults)

  12. Anna – It’s difficult to be clear in a text-only medium, but I have nothing but respect for Yuri Shevchuk. I’m sorry if it seemed otherwise.

  13. *throws bucket of water on everyone, guilty and innocent alike*
    Chill out, y’all!
          …kakaya rana
    Moei Tat’yany serdtse zhgla!

    My ne budem bol’she drat’sya,
    Budem tol’ko celovat’sya…

  14. Can I say “I love you, LH” without being sued for sexual harrassment?

  15. But of course! This is a non-PC website.

  16. Reviving this in the hopes that someone can answer the question nobody addressed in 2004: was Cantemir’s usage unique to him, or was the word first borrowed as sístima and then reborrowed (presumably from French) as sistéma?

  17. Reviving it again in 2019…

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