Some Russian Links.

I was looking up a Russian particle I wasn’t sure of when I stumbled on William H. Girvan’s Russian Handbook of Spoken Usage, a marvelous analysis of the subtleties of usage which turns out to be available at HathiTrust (apparently only in the US — sorry!). As an example, here’s his entry for но [no] on p. 251 (not the word for ‘but’; I’ve changed his underlines to bold):

НО (as interjection)
1. Но, но, но, …! = Во, во, во…! = Вот, вот, вот…!
–А куда делись ребята?
–Она зашла за ними.
Но, но, но, теперь ясно!
  –But where have the kids gone?
  –She stopped by and picked them up.
  –Oh yeah, right, now I see!
2. Used when urging or prohibiting, with a suggestion of threatening.
Но! Но! Чего перестали? Толкайте!
  Come on. Come on! What did you stop for? Push!
Но- Но! Это мне не нравится.
  Now watch it! I don’t like that.
3. Used in questions when reacting with surprise and doubt to what has just been said.

And then I discovered it was part of a whole HathiTrust Online Books Page (Browsing subject area: Russian language) with a whole slew of books on just about every aspect of Russian!

And here are two links readers sent me:

Живы ли русские диалекты? [Are Russian dialects alive?] by Igor Isaev; Dmitry Pruss said “I liked the narration a lot.”

Я послал тебе бересту… [I sent you a birch bark…] by V. L. Yanin; Steven Lubman said:

Came upon a great book about Novgorod birch bark manuscripts. It has an excellent afterword by Zaliznyak about the Novgorod dialect – apparently it didn’t go through the second palatalization process which practically makes it a unique separate Slavic language!

Thanks to both of you!

Addendum. Avva discusses the entry for но; he finds the first and third senses odd and asks his readers if they’re familiar with them. (He thinks the book in general is excellent, so he’s readier to suppose it’s his own ignorance rather than Girvan’s error.)


  1. For those who didn’t notice right away on the HathiTrust page, make sure to click “include extended shelves” to get the full range of both topics and books.

  2. David Marjanović says

    apparently it didn’t go through the second palatalization process which practically makes it a unique separate Slavic language!

    Yes and yes, respectively; that’s been known for a few decades. It also has unique developments of two vowels, but that in particular has not made it out of the specialist literature.

  3. I have seen the language of the birch bark documents referred to as a fourth branch “North Slavic” now and then, but I don’t know how far that has already made it into the text books.

  4. The “но” in the first fragment seems strange to me, too. Almost makes me think it’s a case of “ну” having been taken for “но”. For the Moscovite Russian I grew up with “ну” (even “ну, ну, ну!!”) would have been natural in those contexts. Again, might be just my ignorance. Haven’t read avva’s entry yet.

  5. David Marjanović says

    Yeah, Но, но, но, теперь ясно! reminds me a lot of Polish (“the language where no means yes”).

  6. Denis Akhapkin says

    The first example with Но, но, но looks completely artificial. The second is ok, as for the third the majority of speakers would say Ннуу rather than Нноо

  7. The first example with Но, но, но looks completely artificial.

    It would be interesting to know where Girvan ran into it.

  8. Incidentally, I could find zero information about Girvan, and I can’t help wondering if it’s a pseudonym.

  9. PlasticPaddy says

    Girvan died in 2017 at the age of 90 and worked as a linguist for the US Government.

  10. Thanks! I knew he worked for the government, and I thought he might have published under a fake name for that reason (there have been such cases). Do you have a link with at least a basic biography?

  11. PlasticPaddy says

    Association of Former IntellXXXXce Officers. Link should show up in a search. Given the occupation, i think biography may be limited.

  12. @Maxim, @Denis Akhapkin. I can see how No works in (2) but not in (1) and (3). However, Nu would work OK both in (1) and (2). Not sure about (3). It doesn’t make sense to me, frankly. Perhaps Nu! would also fit in there – it’s a multipurpose little thing.

    By the way, Mark Zakharov included No – or Nnnno! – in Ellochka’s thirty-word vocabulary although it is missing from Ilf and Petrov’s original. (Zakharov directed a TV miniseries based on The 12 Chairs in the 1970s.)

  13. @Alex I can see “ну” (frequently in “да ну?” And “ну-ну! “) Used to express doubt or sarcasm, as in “oh yeah?”, “Oh yeah, sure, good luck doing that”, or in rejection, sometimes as “ну нет”, as in “oh no not that”, which is (3), unless I am missing something? Also the use of но as described is suspiciously like what you hear from some expatriates in North America, where – as I thought before – it was an anglicisme….

  14. I was surprised, mildly, not to see one obvious meaning: но – urging the horse to go, gee up. But perhaps that’s because the handbook was compiled (1989?) when the horsey meaning had become irrelevant? However, that meaning explains the origin of the three listed meanings with an umbrella meaning of come (on).
    @Maxim @Alex @Denis
    I grew up with a hobby-horse, and ‘но’ to me has always been what you say when urging a horse, or yourself on. But it is easily interchanged with ну (noo, as in ponukat’) or even на (naa).
    I wonder if there are entries for ну and на?

  15. Sure, there are long entries for both; на starts on p. 221 and ну on p. 252 (he begins by mentioning there is a dialectal use of ну = но ‘but’).

  16. I just had occasion to look up the very interesting particle -то (the first sense here), discussed on pp. 379-393, and thought I’d reproduce some bits of the analysis here, both to give a more extended example of his methods of analysis and to have it to refer to easily in the future — I find it convincing (if you don’t, look at his many examples before you argue), and it’s just the kind of thing that first drew me to linguistics:

    It appears that -то has a strong tendency to be used to accentuate the SECOND MOST important word or phrase in its clause. This second most important word nearly always stands in a very close relationship to the most important word of all, modifying it in one way or another, limiting the scope of its application to the instance at hand, and combining with it to form a single unified idea which is the basic point of the sentence. For example, if the most important word in a clause is the verb, then a -то may be attached to the subject or an object or an adverb, whichever is the second most important item: who the doer is, or what the thing acted upon is, or what the circumstances or intensity of the action are. But the most important word need not always be a verb; other patterns are possible and will be pointed out below.


    The second most important word, marked by a -то, can come either before or after the most important word. In practice, the second most important word seems to come before rather than after in about three cases out of four. In sentences where it comes before, the effect is often one of calling attention to what is represented by the second most important word, focussing the hearer’s thoughts on it, indicating that this is what the rest of the sentence is going to be about, AND THEN going on to say something about it, with this statement about it being centered in the most important word. This is what is sometimes called a Topic-Comment construction.


    In reply to a statement, a question containing a repetition introduces a calm and unexcited reaction to what has just been said, such as mild surprise, gentle disapproval, or good-natured disagreement.


    A -то is frequently inserted in DOUBLED-WORD CONSTRUCTIONS, all of which have the basic meaning that whatever is expressed by the doubled word is certainly true in the instance at hand.


    A natural outgrowth of the basic use of -то, emphasis of the word it follows, is the use of -то to point up a contrast:
      Вам-то вот смешно, а нам слёзы. (Мамин-Сибиряк)
      To you it’s funny, but we feel like crying.

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