Another quote from A History of Russian Literature by Victor Terras (see the previous post):

The Igor Tale has some epic traits, though it is in prose. In fact, the preamble prepares the reader for an epic, as it invokes the memory of an ancient bard, Boyan. But the many lyric digressions, the absence of continuous action, and the density of the text are not epic […]. The Igor Tale is called a slovo by its author (or by the scribe who copied it). A slovo (literally, “word”) is in Old Russian usage any discourse, pamphlet, orison, sermon, or speech — a rhetorical work addressing itself to a specific topic.

I found that last sentence very helpful; I’ve never been sure what exactly slovo meant in that title, usually translated “The Tale of Igor’s Campaign” or “The Lay of the Host of Igor” (though Nabokov, who always had to be different, called it “The Song of Igor’s Campaign,” and the long-forgotten Leonard A. Magnus rendered it “The Tale of the Armament of Igor“). We discussed the work itself here, and while I’m on the topic of slovo, the journal of that name is still online free and still publishing new issues (see this LH post).


  1. Slovo is one of those words that exists in every Slavic language but with different meanings, or at least diffferent primary meanings. BCS also has this use of slovo in an archaic way to mean “narrative” or “tale”, and it’s nowadays often used in a slightly poetic (or cheeky) way to refer to a (postal) letter, but the primary meaning is “letter of the alphabet”.

    In Slovenian it means “farewell”, In Czech and Slovak, it means “word”. Im sure there’s at least a few other meanings.

  2. Interesting!

  3. John Cowan says

    Sure it’s an epic. There are many epics in prose, as an epic is a form of literature in which (ideally) we are told the story, rather than overhearing it (lyric), seeing it acted (dramatic) or reading it for ourselves, for which Aristotle naturally did not have a name. Cervantes called The Trials of Persiles and Sigismunda an epic in prose, and Gogol said the same about Dead Souls.

    The Odyssey certainly does not have continuous action: indeed it runs on two tracks for quite a while, common enough today: examples would be superfluous.

    As for lyric digressions, Eugene Onegin is full of them, as is Don Juan, to say nothing of Scott and Tolkien. Indeed, whenever a modern novelist stops to describe the scenery in “unnecessary” detail, that is a lyric digression.

  4. Isn’t there слово in the opening line of St Johns, translating λόγος? How do various Slavic languages handle it? In contemporary Russian it could be anything related to oral speech, i think. Слово предоставляется etc. It may be informed by Slavonic in origin, but it never stopped having a meaning of speech, sermon, or discourse, and I can’t help remembering how very recently, in discussing Karamazov brothers, LH was upset about someone calling high register Russian Slavonic. Here the same higher register is called Old Russian, old as in pre- Mongol, and I think that it’s just as big a stretch

  5. David Eddyshaw says

    whenever a modern novelist stops to describe the scenery in “unnecessary” detail, that is a lyric digression

    Proper languages have separate tenses for carrying the narrative forward and branching out in lyrical efflorescences.

    O patrii sermonis egestas! (and matrii, come to that.)

    I’d forgotten that it was Homer who invented that irritating device of cranking up the tension by switching narrative threads. The old devil.

  6. Re: Gospel of John, I checked both Serbian and Croatian and logos is translated as “riječ/reč”, and in Slovenian “beseda”, ie the common everyday word for “word”. Slovo does not work as a translation here because it sounds like in the beginning there was only one letter.

    I think there’s a great deal of confusion about what’s an older version of the current vernacular, what’s OCS, and what’s proto-Slavic, and with linguistics devoted (at least in the forner Yugoslavia) primarily to shoring up nationalist myths, that state of affairs is likely to persist.

  7. David Eddyshaw says

    Idly googling patrii sermonis egestas (as we all do from time to time) I came across Eleanor Dickey’s largely positive review of Thorsten Fögen’s Patrii sermonis egestas: Einstellungen lateinischer Autoren zu ihrer Muttersprache. Ein Beitrag zum Sprachbewußtsein in der römischen Antike, in which she remarks:

    Fögen writes in a particularly challenging form of academic German, making his book largely impenetrable to those without unusually good German skills.

    We’ve all been there. I just admire her for actually saying it.

  8. I think there’s a great deal of confusion about what’s an older version of the current vernacular, what’s OCS, and what’s proto-Slavic

    I agree, and have never been sure how to deal with this.

    We’ve all been there. I just admire her for actually saying it.

    Amen, brother! How I loved Szemerényi for his clear, easily parsed German.

  9. The usual title has “word” in it, probably given by a copyist. The text itself uses “story” (Не лѣполи ны бяшетъ, братiе, начяти старыми словесы трудныхъ повѣстiй о пълку Игоревѣ…; Почнемъ же, братiе, повѣсть сiю отъ стараго Владимера…) and “song” (начати же ся тъй пѣсни по былинамь сего времени…).

    In Russian, “slovo” is not any old letter, but letter эс

  10. What I understood (after reading it several times);

    Wouldn’t it be nice, brother, to begin with the old words of (difficult?) stories about Igor’s (squadron?). Let’s begin, brother, with the sotry about old Vladimir. All these songs begin with the (facts?) of their times.

    Povijest means “history” in Croatian, whereas tale is “pripovijest” so close enough in context. I can’t figure out трудныхъ, trud in BCS is “effort” and I know it’s just “work” in Russian but here i’m stumped. пълk is tough, the obvious cognate is puk which is a military unit but apparently here it means more like campaign. былинамь is also opaque so i took a guess.

    Also the bard is named Bojan, a very common name in the entire former Yugoslavia but from what I can tell not in Russia, or at least not anymore? Feels somehow too contemporary in this context.

  11. I always took “polk” to mean regiment.

    “The Report of the Novgorod-Seversky Regiment of Colonel Prince Igor Svyatoslavich”

  12. I copied a few part-sentences which are really impossible to translate without context. I decline the chance to try my hand in translation. I don’t know why the story is “difficult”. Maybe because it ended badly, that’s the only reasonable interpretation I can see. The only thing I am reasonably certain about is that братiе means “brothers” like “brothers-in-arms” or “friends”.

  13. It is my pleasure, comrades, to start in an old-fashioned manner the report of the difficult campaign of the Novgorod-Seversky Regiment of Colonel Prince Igor Svyatoslavich…

  14. Well, each prince used to have a “druzhina”, his own military band. Permanent regiments didn’t exist. Means the difference between a “regiment” and a “campaign” is not that clear cut. It’s like the modern American presidential campaigns, which means both an activity undertaken to put your man in the White House and the group of people who are going to be indicted for that activity.

    Addendum: to start in an old-fashioned manner No! He says that he doesn’t want to do it in an old-fashioned manner, but will rap instead.

  15. the report of the difficult campaign
    No, трудныхъ is genitive plural and clearly refers to повѣстiй. So, “difficult/laborious tales”.

  16. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    Is it correct that both Slovenia and Slovakia owe their names to the conviction that whereas they communicate by means of words their neighbours just make animal noises.

  17. PlasticPaddy says

    Old English dryht has the same sense as druzhina but is derived from *dher “to hold together”; Russian drug derives from a different root meaning “to mislead” (if drug really belongs here, I think this should be “to inspire”, which covers misleading). But why is it impossible to derive drug from *dher?

  18. “Druj” is the Zoroastrian term for Lie, Evil Falsehood, as important in their scheme as Sin for many Christian sects.

  19. Russian drug derives from a different root meaning “to mislead”

    There is etymology 2:ʰrewgʰ-#Etymology_2

  20. David Marjanović says

    So, “difficult/laborious tales”.

    Or “tales about efforts & suffering”, with an adjective instead of a compound noun? Travail tales? von grôzer arebeit?

  21. Yes, that makes more sense.

  22. In my opinion word drug (friend) comes from word “drugi” which means second (2nd). Drugiti (infinite form of verb) which became druzhiti means socializing or spending time with other/second people. In that sense druzhina means a band of seconds, or “drugs”. In Russian tovarish also means friend, vtori or utori is also old slavic word for second.
    i.e. In Serbian if there are 2 persons and you know only one by name, common way some people would say is “John i jos jedan drugi” which literary means “John and one more second”.
    What you guys think?

  23. January First-of-May says

    In my opinion word drug (friend) comes from word “drugi” which means second (2nd).

    …Oh, as in другой (which actually means “other” rather than “second” in current Russian). Not sure how much sense that makes, but it’s at least plausible.

    (English) Wiktionary says that the words for “friend” and “second, other” were homonymous in Proto-Slavic, but isn’t very clear as to how that could have happened (and, as far as I can tell, technically doesn’t even say explicitly whether they were related).

    In Russian tovarish also means friend, vtori or utori is also old slavic word for second.

    No relation; товарищ is related to товар “goods”, both apparently of Turkic origin.

  24. Vasmer says друг and другой are ultimately from the same root.

  25. The Croatian Enc. Dictionary derives “drug” from PIE dhrowhos, with cognates in Lithuanian, and in Gothic gadrauhts “soldier”.

    “Slovo” in Croatian is defined as 1 letter of the alphabet; 2 (rhetor.) occasional speech, short text, esp. introductory.

    “Slovo” is also the journal of the Old Slavic Institute in Croatia – also available for free online.

    The Serbian Matica dictionary has 1 letter of the alphabet, 2 (archaic) word.

  26. If we have to really simplify things, with regards to what these words mean in Bulgarian: а “слово” is a speech. A “реч” is also a speech.

    A “слово” is something a school principal would perform on the first day of the school year.

    A “реч” is something a politician would perform when he is up for an election.

    But it’s a very thin distinction.

  27. John Cowan says

    which actually means “other” rather than “second” in current Russian

    This happens all the time: English other was partially replaced by second < Latin, and Latin secundus means ‘following’ as well as ‘second’; the Vulgate gospel called Secundum Marcum is the gospel ‘according to Mark’ (accusative), not the gospel of ‘the Second Mark’.

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