Smorgon Student.

Reading Veltman’s last novel, I got to the unintelligible phrase сморгонский студент ‘smorgonskii student.’ I guessed it was a student from someplace called “Smorgon” (or Smorgona?), and that turned out to be sort of true, except that the students involved were bears: the Lithuanian/Russian/Polish/Belarusian town of Smorgon (Сморгонь/Smurgainys/Smorgonie/סמאָרגאָן‎) once housed a school for training bears, and so in the nineteenth century “Smorgon student” was a clever way to refer to a mammal of the ursine persuasion (Dahl adds the parallel phrase сергачский барин ‘nobleman from Sergach,” which apparently also had such an academy). This is just one example of the sort of odd fact the internet is a great help in unearthing.


  1. By the way, the faculty members (including the President) were Lithuanian Romani, protégés of Karol Stanisław Radziwiłł, the founder of Smorgon Academy. During its heyday, the school had about ten ursine students (recruited from the nearby forests) plus some simian ones (on a foreign exchange). The graduates were employed by the itinerant performers known as skomorochy (Russ. скоморохи). I’ve read that this mysterious word (etymology disputed) often served as a surname in Smorgon.

    When Smorgonie, together with the rest of what is now Belarus, was incorporated into the Russian Empire, the Academy fell into decline.

  2. It’s kind of shameful that Smorgon is so totally forgotten nowadays.

    It was the Verdun or Somme of Eastern Front during the First World War. Fighting for little town of Smorgon in 1915-1917 took hundreds of thousands of Russian and German lives.

    Кто под Сморгонью не бывал, тот войны не видал

  3. January First-of-May says

    Smorgon is familiar to me as the last big station in Belarus (before Lithuania) on the Kaliningrad train. Each travel to Kaliningrad and back by train put a lot of assorted border stamps in our passports; the Belarussian ones said Smorgon.

    I do not believe that I was previously familiar with that particular town in any other way.

  4. The coat of arms of the town of Smarhoń still features a bear rampant holding a shield with Trąby ‘the Horns’, the arms of the House of Radziwiłł.

    One modern member of that ancient family is our current Minister of Health. If he were made responsible for bear training instead, animal rights activists might object, but many humans would be thankful.

  5. Oh, that’s the subject which interests me greatly!

    What is the role of Polish aristocracy in modern Poland? Did the exiled aristocrats return from Paris/London/Chicago in any numbers? Were their confiscated estates returned to them? How ordinary Poles view them?

  6. There are still plenty of Radziwiłłs around. Of course they are no longer landed magnates, just ordinary citizens with interesting family traditions. Anna Radziwiłł (d. 2009), a historian and educator, was a Solidarity advisor in the 1980s and became Deputy Minister of Education under two governments, as well as a senator, after the fall of communism. By contrast, her father, Krzysztof Mikołaj Radziwiłł, had been a communist party supporter, which earned him the nickname of “The Red Prince”. Also other ex-aristocrats with surnames like Potocki, Czartoryski or Lubomirski pop up in public life. No special glamour surrounds them any longer, and no, they can’t have their family estates back. Marcin Zamoyski, whose ancestors founded the beautiful Renaissance town of Zamość (hence the surname) in the 16th century, is a popular local politician and has been elected Mayor of Zamość four times.

    Most of the people mentioned above never emigrated from Poland. Those who did at the start of WW2 and who managed to take their fortunes with them, have joined the international club of upper-class émigrés. They or their children have various links with the old country, but prefer to remain in exile. Here is a typical case.

    One interesting example of sentimental return was Maria Krystyna Immaculata Elżbieta Renata Alicja Gabriela Habsburg-Lothringen, Princess of Altenburg — a charming lady, by the way, devoted to social work. Her father was an Austrian archduke and a Polish patriot at the same time. Defining your identity may be very difficult if you are an aristocrat.

  7. It’ so unfair!

    So Poland is not much better than Belarus which refuses to give our Princess Svyatopolk-Mirsky her castle!

    Shame on Polish goverment!

  8. I had classmate with surname Savitskiy. He used to claim that he was a descendant of Polish nobleman exiled to Siberia. We all were very impressed, especially girls who I suspect were secretly dreaming of becoming countess Savicka and enjoying aristocratic life in Europe.

  9. One of the Princesses Światopełk-Czetwertyński was my mother’s classmate in secondary school, back in the 1950s. Her family used to own a small palace on the so-called Royal Route in Warsaw. After the war the residence was seized by the state, and in 1956 it was leased for 80 years to the US government to serve as the American embassy. The Americans negotiated for a right to pull it down. The helpful communist authorities “persuaded” the municipal chief architect to change the palace’s status from “protected heritage” to “non-heritage”. The Americans demolished it and erected a much larger, modern-looking embassy in its place. A few years ago the Światopełk-Czetwertyńskis sued both the USA and Poland for compensation (the Stalin-era regulations under which such urban properties were confiscated had earlier been found to be unlawful). The American court rejected their claims, but they did get about 2 million dollars from the Polish state.

  10. Piotr: All those family names of the old Lithuanian nobility, the Radziwiłłs and the Jagiełło’s, look quite difficult to pronounce. Do Poles really manage the double ł just right? And why were they originally there ? – the corresponding Lithuanian-language forms seem always to have single l’s.

  11. The singular Radziwiłł is pronounced [raˈdʑiviw]. In inflected forms like Radziwiłłowie both [-iwɔ-] and [-iwːɔ-] can be heard (the former sounds more natural to me). Jagiełło is normally [jaˈɡʲɛwːɔ], but the adjective jagielloński (as in Uniwersytet Jagielloński) and the dynastic family name Jagiellończyk have a long (“double”) [-lː-] only in very “careful” (read: pedantic) pronunciation. The letter ł stands for [w] in mainstream Modern Polish, but it was formerly pronounced as a dark dentialveolar lateral [ɫ̪]), practically identical with the normal Lithuanian pronunciation of non-palatalised /l/. The lengthened pronunciation in Polish looks artificial. It may be a mere spelling-pronunciation (orthographic gemination of intervocalic consonants was common in early Polish texts). But since it is also found in Skirgiełło (Lith. Skirgaila, Jogaila’s brother), it might also reflect an attempt to preserve the weight of the penultimate syllable of the -gaila part (heavy in Lithuanian).

  12. The Smorgoners were apparently looked down upon by the big city Minsk residents. Gullible and silly rustic people. One Minsk joke I remember is how a Smorgoner is riding a train with a polished gentleman, and can’t resist asking about a better’off guy’s destination. “I’m going to Baden Baden”. “Then I am going to Smorgon-Smorgon”.
    My relatives fought there in WWI, in the lake country of Naroch, after the frontlines stabilized following the German Vilejka Offensive. Their division was thrown into the gap from central Poland. They famously arranged for conjugal visitation from hometown, but alas, it caused my gr aunt her health. Naroch marshland wasn’t a place to stay healthy in cold season…

  13. David Marjanović says

    this mysterious word (etymology disputed)

    Scaramouche, obviously.

  14. It seems obvious at first glance, but ORuss. скоморохъ is attested much earlier than scaramuccia and/or scaramouche. We also have (Serbian and Russian) Church Slavic skomraxъ and Old Polish skomroch (+ derivatives), all with the expected local reflexes of Proto-Slavic *-orC-. It seems we really need to posit a common ancestor like *skomorxъ.

  15. As far as I can make out, final geminated consonants only occur in Polish in foreign words, and then are pronounced single, so Radziwiłł is pronounced /-iw/. Jagiełło, though, really is geminated.

  16. David Marjanović says

    Sorry, I was trying to deadpan a joke.

  17. Geminates are possible word-finally in Polish. For example, the past tense of mleć ‘grind’ (< *mel-ti) is mełł (originally an active past participle, *mьl-lъ). The /w+w/ sequence surfaces as a long consonant before personal endings (mełłem ‘I ground’, mełła ‘she ground’), but mełł ‘he ground’ can also be realised as [mɛwː] at least in lento speech. To be sure, these root-verb forms are rather conservative (though I have them in my native variety of Polish); many speakers use the innovation mielić (preterite mielił), shifting the paradigm to a more regular conjugational class (Slavic i-stems).

  18. David, sorry for taking it seriously, but the Scaramouche etymology has often been proposed in earnest.

  19. marie-lucie says

    Piotr: ORuss. скоморохъ is attested much earlier than scaramuccia and/or scaramouche. We also have (Serbian and Russian) Church Slavic skomraxъ and Old Polish skomroch (+ derivatives), all with the expected local reflexes of Proto-Slavic *-orC-. It seems we really need to posit a common ancestor like *skomorxъ.

    Forgive my ignorance, but what is the meaning of the Slavic words?

  20. It’s a Slavic clown.

    A skomorokh (скоморох in Russian, скоморохъ in Old East Slavic, скоморaхъ in Church Slavonic) was a medieval East Slavic harlequin, or actor, who could also sing, dance, play musical instruments and compose for oral/musical and dramatic performances. The etymology of the word is not completely clear.[1] There are hypotheses that the word is derived from the Greek σκώμμαρχος (cf. σκῶμμα, “joke”); from the Italian scaramuccia (“joker”, cf. English scaramouch); from the Arabic masẋara; and many others.

  21. Piotr, for the [w] corresponding to ł, is the tongue in an entirely neutral position, as, in, say, English wide? Or is there still a bit of tongue raising or velarization?

  22. Is it in a neutral position in English? All phonetic descriptions (as well as X-ray images and MRI recordings) make English /w/ a labial-velar approximant [w] rather than a labial [β̞]. I am not aware of any significant articulatory difference between Polish and English /w/. They differ in terms of distribution, though. English /w/ can only be prevocalic (unless one analyses English back-gliding dipthongs as biphonemic). Polish /w/ may occur even word-initially before a consonant, word-finally after a consonants, and medially between consonants, as in jabłko ‘apple’, which may be pronounced [ˈjapkɔ] (casual), [ˈjapʍkɔ] (careful) or [ˈjabwkɔ] (hyperexplicit, schoolmarm style).

  23. Church Slavonic “скоморaхъ” is a typo for скомрaхъ. It seems the misspelt form has been copied from Wikipedia into several other online sources.

  24. Trond Engen says

    There are hypotheses that the word is derived from the Greek σκώμμαρχος (cf. σκῶμμα, “joke”); from the Italian scaramuccia (“joker”, cf. English scaramouch); from the Arabic masẋara; and many others.

    Italian scaramuccio is explained as “skirmisher”, eventually from Germanic *skirmijan- “protect”. To me it looks like a folk-etymological mashup of Greek. Except that σκῶμμα, “joke” doesn’t look particularly Greek.

  25. Why not? It’s a *-m(e)n- derivative of σκώπτω ‘mock, jeer; have fun’.

  26. Trond Engen says

    Because I have no idea of Greek, obviously, and the combination of long vowel and germinate seemed strange.

  27. The …μμ… comes from *…p-m… by assimilation, compare γράφω ‘scratch, draw, write’ and γράμμα ‘drawing, letter, piece of writing’ (as in graph and grammar).

    The long vowel of σκώπτω looks odd. Beekes calls it “an unexplained formation that must be recent in the prehistory of Greek”, but I’m less sceptical than Beekes about the possibility of its denominal origin from σκώψ ‘scops owl (Otus scops)’ (with the long vowel of the generalised across the paradigm), and about deriving the latter from σκέπτομαι ‘look about, watch, spy’. Proto-Greek carried out an irregular distant metathesis in its reflexes of PIE *speḱ-, the root which underlies also Lat. speciō ‘watch, look at’, speculum ‘mirror’ etc., Germanic *spexō- (Ger. spähen, Eng. spy [from Frankish via Old French espier]). We see here some intriguing links connecting jesters with mirrors and owls. The character of Till Eulenspiegel inevitably springs to mind.

  28. The contact point may be “scarecrow”. There are some messy but interesting things going on in Germanic in the etymological complex around Eng. spook.

  29. Piotr: We see here some intriguing links connecting jesters with mirrors and owls. The character of Till Eulenspiegel inevitably springs to mind.

    Just as I was starting to think about his name!

    There is a French phrase un miroir aux alouettes ‘a mirror for larks’, which seems like the equivalent of the name Eulenspiegel, just with a different bird. The TLFI cites a technique of catching birds, especially larks, using a mirror (plain or made of several small mirrors) to attract and confuse them so they get caught by a net they didn’t notice. The phrase is used to refer to the “too good to be true” promises of a fraudster.

  30. “All smoke and mirrors.”

    Yes, catching birds with mirrors is another connection. In Norwegian the word narrespill “jester’s game” (or “game of trickery”) is used similarly as un miroir aux alouettes in French.

  31. “All smoke and mirrors.”

    That’s from stage magic, but cf. the Aztec god Tezcatlipōca ‘Smoking Mirror’, who was connected with obsidian among many other things.

  32. David Marjanović says

    Oh, σκώμμαρχος makes a lot of sense.

    It seems to me that the Polish ł is often a velar approximant with little or no rounding. Or perhaps I underestimate the potential of endolabial rounding…

  33. Trond Engen says

    That’s from stage magic.

    Right, but it’s an expression of the same idea. And stage magic is also built on an older tradition.

  34. It seems to me that the Polish ł is often a velar approximant with little or no rounding.

    It may be variably weakened (or even lost) intervocalically in allegro speech (pałac ‘palace’ → [paːʦ], not unlike “triphthong smoothing” in somewhat conservative RP). In some regional accents there’s a strong tendency to drop /w/ between a consonant and /u/ (sometimes leading to embarrassing homophony, as between główna ‘main’ [f.] and gówna ‘shit’ []). Also, most rural dialects have strongly prelabialised realisations of /ɔ/ and /u/; and since this feature is stigmatised as rustic, speakers of nonstandard accents may hypercorrectively drop /w/ in words with ło or łu/łó (needless to say, the result is stigmatised and ridiculed as well).

    Still, the mainstream realisation is as in English.

  35. David Marjanović says

    I’ve encountered the reductions (indeed the whole spectrum of widziałam [vʲiˈd͡ʑaɰam] ~ [vʲiˈd͡ʑaam] ~ [vʲiˈd͡ʑaːm] ~ [ˈvʲid͡ʑam]), but I think that’s a separate phenomenon.

  36. Common scops owls sing in duet during courtship. The female and the male each produce a long sequence of whistled hoots (kyoo… kyoo… kyoo… kyoo… — those of the female are higher-pitched and a little softer) at intervals of 2-3 seconds. They alternate them with such clockwork regularity that they may appear to mock each other. This may have inspired the formation of σκώπτω. Of course it’s just a speculative conjecture to tease the sceptics.

  37. As far as I can tell, what’s happening in the realization of English [w], in the video and in my own speech, is that the jaw moves up as the lips are rounded, moving the tongue up with it, but without any muscular effort shaping the tongue.

  38. The MRI recording shows that the tongue is quite strongly retracted and bunched up. It assumes more or less the same shape as for the vowel [ʊ]:

    Compare that with the image of [β] (no visible retraction):

  39. David Marjanović says

    the jaw moves up as the lips are rounded

    It’s the opposite for me – I have to move the lower jaw down and forward to be able to produce enough lip rounding for [w]. I also strongly retract my tongue (far enough for a retroflex) and probably bunch it.

    The Japanese /w/ is said to be purely labial. I haven’t heard enough Japanese to comment on that, but my attempts to articulate such a thing don’t quite sound like an English (or Putonghua) /w/.

  40. Piotr, you’re right. I hadn’t looked at the video carefully enough. In this video the bunching is not as pronounced, though the retraction is. In Esling’s collection of MRI illustrations of the IPA, the bunching and retraction are very clear.

  41. I haven’t heard enough Japanese to comment on that‘s some Japanese audio.

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