A while back, Michele Berdy, who comments here as mab, sent me a copy of her book The Russian Word’s Worth: A Humorous and Informative Guide to Russian Language, Culture, and Translation, thinking I would probably enjoy it—a pretty safe bet, considering that it’s a collection of her Moscow Times columns, which I’ve been plugging here since 2003. I haven’t finished it yet (each column sends me running to the dictionary and the internet), but I thought I’d better post about it in case anyone was looking for a last-minute present for a lover of Russian; I can’t think of a better one. It’s divided into sections called “Life Maintenance,” “Politics as Usual,” “Higher Matters,” “Slang,” etc., and is chock-full of useful information presented stylishly and with a sense of humor. Her modus operandi is to start off with a topic (like goofing off) or a question about how to express a certain idea (like frustration), and then give a bunch of possibilities and examples. Here’s the start of one column:

Time for a pop quiz. For ten points in the category, “Fun Facts About Language,” what do the words complain, pity, grant, salary, pathetic, and welcome have in common? In English—not much. But look at them in Russian: жаловаться, жалость, жаловать, жалование, жалкий, добро пожаловать. Don’t worry if you missed that one—the next question is worth 25 points: how are love and pity related? Answer: in old Russian, and one must presume in old Russia (на старой Руси), they were one and the same.

She goes on to give a history of the word cluster and its associations. On just about every page, I learn something new, even though I’ve been splashing around in the language for quite a while now. I think I can safely say satisfaction is guaranteed.


  1. I second your enthusiastic recommendation, Languagehat! I have a copy of the book, too, (thanks to the publisher, Glas) and enjoy picking it up and reading a topic or two or three at a time. It’s a lot of fun.

  2. My oh my. This morning I was finally able to put my head up and out of a time-suck project and decided to check out my favorite blogs. Thanks, Hat! We aim to please — and entertain.

  3. Cool, love and pity were equated in old Japan too. Say Childs: « Romantic love [in Heian literature] is frequently associated with the impulse to nurture someone who is weak or frail or in distress in some way. Both men and women often inspire love by first arouse someone’s compassion or pity. »
    For example, in the Ruiju Myōgishō, an early-11th-century dictionary, the Japanese verb aisu (the current verb for “to love”) was given as a gloss for Chinese characters such as 惠 (benevolence, graciousness), 恩 (favor, kindness) and 寬 (tolerance, lenience), suggesting something of an asymmetric relationship.

  4. This actually would be a plausible last-minute present for someone on my list, except that amazon indicates delivery is not feasible by 12/25 and will actually take 1 to 3 months (from Moscow by mule?). I mean, if it would arrive by 1/7 I could play the you-get-your-Russian-themed-gift-on-the-Old-Calendar stratagem, but this won’t even make that deadline.

  5. JW, you might want to try Amazon uk, I just ordered it there. It says Dispatch Estimate: 20 Dec 2011. Delivery Estimate: 23 Dec 2011 – 30 Dec 2011 (that’s to Norway).
    Or try this different link at where it’s in stock, (only 5 left, more on the way). I think the original link may be screwed up, it spells mab’s name wrong.
    I can’t wait to read this; any foreigner with a curiosity about Russia should read mab. It’s probably not in the book, but one of my personal favorites is from a couple of springs ago, when she showed some photos of the ten-foot-long icicles melting from the parapet of the 15-odd-storey apartment building opposite her studio in Moscow, and crashing to the sidewalk below (nobody died, yet). Other mab stories are about her summers at an old dacha in the woods. Her vivid descriptions are always in the back of my mind now when I read something about Russia.

  6. J.W. Brewer says

    Thanks so much for the alternative amazon link, AJPC – I should have it in hand on Wednesday.

  7. Arrgh. I defenestrate mab and/or her publisher. (Not a commentary on the worth of the book, I hasten to add!)

  8. Despite a close resemblance, жаловаться, жалость, жаловать, жалование, жалкий, добро пожаловать, etc., have no apparent relation to жало/жалить.

  9. John Emerson says

    In Chinese love (愛)is associated with possessiveness (stinginess). It’s the same line of metaphors as dear / cher — something valued / precious / expensive.

  10. Arrgh. I defenestrate mab and/or her publisher. (Not a commentary on the worth of the book, I hasten to add!)
    Er, what is it a commentary on?

  11. I think he means the punning title.

  12. Hm. The Amazon pages are kind of a mess, aren’t they? I wonder if I can contact them or if the publisher or US distributor should.
    Please don’t defenstrate me or my wonderful publisher, Natasha Perova. She’s done more to bring contemporary Russian literature to non-Russian speakers than just about anyone on the planet, and she does it on a shoestring. She’s amazing.
    Wimbrel, not sure what you don’t like.
    Thanks Mr Crown. My door to my dacha is always open to you. Hell, to everyone. We don’t really close our doors at the dacha.

  13. There is nothing I didn’t like. I was just remarking that there are some other, very similar-looking Russian words that are not actually etymologically related.

  14. There is nothing I didn’t like.
    I don’t believe she meant you; she wrote “Wimbrel” but meant the author of the comment above yours, John Cowan, who wrote “I defenestrate mab and/or her publisher.”

  15. Mab, I meant no hostility: threats of defenestration are the traditional response among my people (viz. the hackers) to a really good pun. Of course titles aren’t always the author’s choice, so I’m not sure quite who deserved it.

  16. Ah, a vital piece of missing cultural context!

  17. Thanks for the book recommendation!
    On жал-/zhal-, can I throw in another one – жало – sting, жалить – to sting, жалиться – arch. to complain, i.e. to sting oneself.

  18. Trond Engen says

    A pun won’t open the window unless it’s properly framed.
    Cool, love and pity were equated in old Japan too.
    The Germanic frijon- “set free; save; love” seems to fit here.

  19. My copy arrived today, JW. I hadn’t realised it’s nearly 500 pages – well, 495 – not a little something you read on the train between, say, Munich & Cologne. Not me, anyway.

  20. Of course titles aren’t always the author’s choice, so I’m not sure quite who deserved it.
    She says in the book that the column in the Moscow Times had the title Word’s Worth before she took over writing it.

  21. No doubt a learned allusion to the Motorhead album titled “What’s Words Worth?”

  22. The Germanic frijon- “set free; save; love”
    I’m not so sure above the “love” bit – that sounds like an anachronistic, Romantic graft. Even in current, everyday, big-picture German (barring possible regional survivals for 1, in south Germany), descendents of frijon- still have only procedural connotations, not emotional ones:
    1. obsolete: freien = to court or marry
    2. ditto: Freier = suitor
    3. sole meaning now: Freier = john [prostitute’s customer]
    4. befreien = to release, get rid of, exempt
    There doesn’t seem to be any pity or love left, if there ever was any – just soteric self-congratulation. What might have been the thinking behind a semantic field linking rescue and marriage ? Rescue from what – the parents ? Could there have been something else involved apart from conquering-male chauvinist porquerías, almost the only interpretation freely available nowadays ?

  23. Grumbly, that’s a very Russian word, too. Generally “a clueless non-criminal” (maybe the one who needs to be freed of one’s money?)

  24. Ah, I just remembered there was a comment thread here, last year I think, in which фраер came up. As you indicate, perhaps the connection between rescue and marriage is that the фраер wants to be rescued from his cluelessness, and his money is his ransom !

  25. We discussed it here (and Grumbly had much to say on the topic).

  26. Yes, it does seem that way, but thank God marie-lucie and JC had more to say that has linguistic hands and feets.

  27. On freien – the Proto-Indo-European root *priH- is normally reconstructed as meaning “love”. That meaning is still there in the words “friend”, German “Freund”, which originally was a participle meaning “loving”. It’s the same root and semantics as in Russian (literary) приятель “friend”. The semantic connection with “free” seems to go via something like “dear, close” -> “belonging to the same group, peer” (at least that’s what I’ve seen argued in the literature).

  28. That’s very interesting, Hans. It is just the kind of semantic field I was wondering about. But then “save”, “rescue”, “free”, (be)frei(en) would belong to a different field.

  29. I’ve been thinking, and now I think, or at least I think that I think, that the etymological connection is more fundamental and the semantic rather banal. The meanings could well have been derived at several independent occasions, in Germanic as well as in other families, from the root *pr- “for; fore, front; etc.”. A friend or lover is someone setting you before others; vreien as in ask for marriage is to put forward a — there you are — proposition; to be free is to stand out from those who aren’t; etc.

  30. to be free is to stand out from those who aren’t
    That’s stretching the matter a bit too far, I think, Trond. Any kind of thing stands out from what is not that kind of thing. That provides no help on the etymology of “kind”.

  31. Trond Engen says

    Yeah, I know, I found the self-referentiality pleasing. What I meant is that if the natural state is to be bound, then (being allowed) to stand out equates to be free. I’ll add the semantic similarity to Lat. pri:vus “one’s own; each”, pri:va:tus “private, personally, on behalf of oneself”, etc.

  32. “A little more than kin and less than kind” is in fact an etymological remark: the noun kin, the adjective kind, and the noun kind have a common origin.

  33. As far as I understand, the verbs “freien, befreien, to free” with their semantics are secondary to the adjective – the adjective is found in Sanscrit as well (priya- “dear”), while the verbs are clearly denominal; only Indo-Iranian seems to have an old verbal formation (Sancrit pri:-na- “to delight”). Germanic shares the semantic shift from “dear, beloved” to “free” with Celtic (Welsh rhydd); as there is a layer of words in the socio-political sphere that Germanic has loaned from Celtic, I’d asume that the semantic development in Germanic has happened under Celtic influence. BTW, the “Lexikon der Indogermanischen Verben” (2nd ed.) reconstructs the root as *preiH- (H being an undetermined laryngeal). It is certainly possible that this is some extension of the root *per- Trond Engen is referring to.

  34. Trond Engen says

    Thanks, Hans! Nice with someone who’s both knowledgeable and bothering to do the homework. “Dear”=”free” as a loan-translation from Celtic seems plausible enough — though semantically it just moves the equation of the concepts sideways. And I’ll readily admit that there may be correspondences among derived words beyond the root-etymologies. E.g. the near-correspondence between Sanskrit priya and ON Frigg(a) and/or Freya is intriguing. But for many derived IE words I wish the semantics of the different extensions were better understood. Then one might better discern between derivations inherited wholesale and words derived independently by inherited mechanisms.
    Anyway, I think the core meaning I was looking for may be rendered as “preference”. Whether or not it’s derived from *per- might be what Bjorvand & Lindeman dub “worthless root-etymology” or it might say something profound about the nature of IE derivation. When I do it, it’s the former.

  35. Trond: Then one might better discern between derivations inherited wholesale and words derived independently by inherited mechanisms.
    That sounds like a genetics argument transposed to the field of words. But it couldn’t be describing the evolution of words, since words are not life-forms – they don’t inherit or derive things.
    It must be suggesting how etymologists evolve. Some just repeat with small variations what older etymologists wrote, others develop eyes of their own, and can see word relationships that their predecessors were blind to.

  36. Stu: I have no doubt that among etymologists (as among practitioners of any field) there are even groups in whom some powers of discernment are completely atrophied.

  37. empty, that may be all for the best, if the atrophied faculties (!) no longer serve any purpose. We may be seeing the hand of the Creator in the progress of etymological science.
    However, once we start explaining even word development by analogy with genetics, why not science itself as well ? Perhaps it too is just one damn thing after another, i.e. adequate variety of theory tempered by selection in the form of peer review.

  38. Of course the same applies to what I just wrote. It is a mutation of received knowledge, striving for a place in the sun and on the look-out for reproductive opportunities.

  39. Thus it appears that the sexual drive of deviants is the primary mechanism of adaptive evolution.

  40. @ Grumbly Stu: I can’t say for other fields of linguistics, but for historical and especially Indo-European lnguistics the high time of using genetic metaphors was actually in the 19th / early 20th century, whence the family tree model of language development and the talk of “genetically related” languages, “daughter languages” etc. That kind of analogy is of course only of limited value – it kind of works as far as a main vector of language transfer is that from parents to children. As language is a cultural and social phenomenon, there are of course many other influencing factors that cannot be captured by a simple family tree model.

  41. Hans, I was just having a bit of fun. My point was that the various kinds of linguistics are also cultural and social phenomena. Their interrelationships cannot be captured by a simple family tree model either, but family trees don’t exist in isolation anyway. They are part of family forests that influence each other, like schools of linguistic thought do.
    The principles used in generative grammars should be applicable to generations of linguists as well. Has anyone studied the computational dynamics of linguistic theories over time ?

  42. 1-Grumbly Stu: on the historical dynamics of linguistic thought I heartily recommend Esa Itkonen’s 1991 book, UNIVERSAL HISTORY OF LINGUISTICS (John Benjamins). It’s a comparative history of linguistic thought in India, China, Arabia and Europe, which I found very illuminating.
    2-Hans: yes, family trees only convey part of the overall history of a language. But no serious scholar in the nineteenth century would ever have denied that contact with other languages played a role in the history of languages, and thus that a family tree did not convey all of the information on the history of a language.
    And the role played by contact cannot be evaluated unless the genetic affiliation of a language is known: because we know that Modern English descends from Old English, for instance, we can identify such things as vocabulary items (from Latin, French or Old Norse) which must be due to contact. So family trees are as relevant as ever: one must simply not see them as the alpha and omega of the history of a language. Not that serious scholars ever did.

  43. Trond Engen says

    Stu: That sounds like a genetics argument transposed to the field of words. But it couldn’t be describing the evolution of words, since words are not life-forms – they don’t inherit or derive things.
    Inheritence is a powerful metaphor even for single words. When a word has (among its meanings) the same meaning today as its etymological origin had (among its meanings) two, or ten, or fifty, generations ago, that’s an inherited meaning.
    But here I used it on languages; languages inherit single words and whole grammars; to the latter belongs mechanisms for deriving words. Thus, when derived words in two related languages show regular correspondence, this can be due to either
    (1) that the word was present in the derived form in the common ancestor language, or
    (2) that the mechanism for deriving the words was present so that the derivation could happen independently, or, even,
    (3) that whatever led to the grammaticalization of a certain process was present so that identical mechanisms were developed independently.
    This is to say: With inheritence there’s continuity, and hence there’s inertia. When languages split, they don’t just pull off randomly in their own direction; mostly they seem to develop along roughly the same path independently. Crimean Gothic, without contact with the rest of Germanic for almost two millennia, looks almost average Germanic when it reappears — so average that some suspected a hoax or a recent settlement (and some still do). In IE there’s evidence that laryngeals were well alive in several branches for a long time after the split, almost into written history, likewise with reduplication and nasalization in the verb paradigms. The eventual loss of features have been due to parallel development, and one might suggest that (some of) the causes for these losses were inherited, slowly eroding other inherited features in each branch.
    This makes it difficult to sort out exactly how closely different branches are related or to estimate the age of a split based on shared features. To sort out these questions many historical linguists work not primarily on etymologies of words but on syntax and morphology.
    But I’m out of my depth.

  44. When languages split, they don’t just pull off randomly in their own direction; mostly they seem to develop along roughly the same path independently.
    How can that be? Dialects influence each other, and so do languages in close contact (anything up to and including a Sprachbund), but to suppose that languages that are no longer in contact will change in parallel ways over long periods of time seems unreasonable — “spooky actions at a distance”. That losses might happen in the same way, particularly of fairly unproductive features like reduplication, is all right, but not that new features could be created or transformed in exactly the same way. That seems too much like loopy substrate theories (search locally for “loopy”). I’d rather think that Crimean Gothic looks “normal” because it was part of the modern European Sprachbund, which includes at least the Balkan Sprachbund + Romance + Germanic + Balto-Slavic + Hungarian.

  45. @ Etienne – I’m not someone to throw out babies with the bath water; I’m not saying that the genetic analogy is useless. I’m also aware that 19th century Indeo-Europeanists didn’t ignore other influences, but they concentrated on the genetic part. Again, that concentration probably was necessary at that time.
    @ Joh Cowan – there are some things which seem to be internally triggered common development tendencies in the Germanic languages, like the reduction of suffixional inflection – it happens everywhere (to differnt degrees) except for Icelandic and even seems to have happened in Crimean Gothic (at least the material I have seen looks like that), where it probably cannot be areal influence – the surrounding languages (Eastern Slavic, Turkic, Greek) all have rich inflectional ending systems. I’m certainly not the first one to propose that this has something to do with the Germanic initial/root-based accent. IIRC, Crimean Gothic also shows umlaut, which again would fit into the general Germanic pattern.

  46. John Cowan, Trond, Hans: Sapir actually used Germanic as an example of what he called “drift”: the tendency for genetically related languages to change in parallel fashion, without influencing one another. The example he gave was of umlauted noun plurals, of the “man/men” type, which arose in English and other Germanic languages after their separation.
    His explanation for this phenomenon was that structures do not change randonly, so that genetically related languages which have inherited similar structures would be expected to transform them in similar fashion. Hence as the two languages come to differ more and more “drift” becomes increasingly irrelevant.
    John Cowan: actually, Crimean Gothic, areally, was most definitely NOT Western European (along with the influences listed by Hans I might add that the Crimean Gothic words for “hundred” and “thousand” were both Iranian loans). So similarities between it and Germanic languages other than (Wulfila) Gothic must be explained as being due to drift. A pity we don’t have more data on the language.

  47. Etienne: Esa Itkonen’s 1991 book, UNIVERSAL HISTORY OF LINGUISTICS
    Thanks for the tip, I’ve noted it down. The table of contents makes it seem generally intelligible, but I myself probably wouldn’t be able to squeeze sufficient Halbwissen out of it to counterbalance the $125 price.
    Unfortunately it seems to be a historical survey. What I wanted to know was whether anyone had written a linguistic analysis of linguistic analyses, in which things like sense drift, front unrounded arguments, unacknowledged borrowings, morpheosyntax etc are identified.
    WARNING: This comment contains traces of nuts.

  48. Trond Engen says

    Me: When languages split, they don’t just pull off randomly in their own direction; mostly they seem to develop along roughly the same path independently.
    John C: How can that be?
    Reading it now, I think I overstated it. I don’t mean that they keep developing in completely parallel fashions through some mystical telephonetic connection, just that there are shared imbalances for the forces of analogy, grammaticalization and phonological wear and tear to work with. The continued development of the IE case system for some time after the split is a case in point: The results are not at all identical, but similar enough to have people off in the wrong direction before the discovery of Anatolian.

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