Having reached 1841 in my Long March, I’m reading what I believe is A. K. Tolstoy‘s first published piece of prose, the novelette Упырь [The vampire]. The first surprise was finding myself not in some haunted grotto, ruined house, or other Gothic scene but at the most ordinary high-society ball, with young people dancing and older people gossiping. The second surprise was that the first bit of dialogue involved language peevery; the narrator approaches a pale young man observing the proceedings, and the latter first tells him there are upyrs at the ball, then bursts out with this explosion of word rage (Russian below the cut):

“You (God knows why) call them ‘vampires,’ but I can assure you that they have a genuine Russian name, upyr; and since they are of purely Slavic origin, even though they are met with throughout Europe and even in Asia, there is no basis for holding on to a name deformed by Hungarian monks who took it into their heads to turn everything into Latin and out of upyr made ‘vampire.’ Vampir, vampir!,” he repeated contemptuously — “we Russians might just as well say fantom or revenant instead of ‘ghost’ [prividenie ‘ghost, apparition’]!”

So it would appear that at that time вампир was the usual Russian word for ‘vampire’; I wonder what the distribution of вампир and упырь is these days?

Addendum. Another sentence of philological interest occurs later, when our hero is ensconced in a purported vampire’s old house, where a suite of rooms has been locked up for many years and Strange Things Happen: “Но он с нею разговаривал, она ему отвечала; он принуждён был внутренне сознаться, что истолкование его не совсем естественно, и решил, что всё виденное им — один из тех снов, которым на русском языке нет, кажется, приличного слова, но которые французы называют cauchemar” [But he had spoken with her, she had answered him; he was forced to admit that there was no natural explanation, and decided that everything he had seen was one of those dreams for which there is no decent word in Russian, but which the French call cauchemar]. The borrowing кошмар [koshmar] was already in occasional use (from Gogol’s 1835 Портрет [The portrait]: “и уже не мог изъяснять, что это с ним делается: давленье ли кошмара или домового, бред ли горячки или живое виденье” [and he couldn’t explain what was happening to him, stress or nightmare (кошмар) or house-spirit, delirium or fever or living apparition]), but it must have been felt to be a blatant Gallicism.

The original:

Вы их, Бог знает почему, называете вампирами, но я могу вас уверить, что им настоящее русское название: упырь; а так как они происхождения чисто славянского, хотя встречаются во всей Европе и даже в Азии, то и неосновательно придерживаться имени, исковерканного венгерскими монахами, которые вздумали было всё переворачивать на латинский лад и из упыря сделали вампира. Вампир, вампир! — повторил он с презрением, — это всё равно что если бы мы, русские, говорили вместо привидения — фантом или ревенант!


  1. narrowmargin says

    LH: Perhaps you’ve already mentioned this, but if not, then here it comes.
    Where do you get all these Russian books? (Am I wrong to assume they’re print books?)
    I mean, I’ve seen Nabokov, Tolstoy, and Dostoyevsky in Russian for sale on eBay. But the lesser-known titles/writers would seem to be difficult to obtain, especially, perhaps, those of pre-20th century Russia. On the other hand, perhaps those are, in fact, easier.
    I ask only out of curiosity: I’m not a Russian-language reader.

  2. I’m sorry to say that I never read on when I meet any of a small selection of words or phrases. “Vampire” is one, “zombie” is another, and “UK plc” a third.
    Life’s too short to read anyone who believes that there is any useful analogy to be drawn between a sovereign state and a limited liability public company.

  3. Вампир is still the usual Russian word for vampires. There’s actually a third word, also found in an A.K. Tolstoy story — вурдалак: according to Vasmer, it originally meant werewolf. According to Russian Wikipedia, it’s a neologism due to Pushkin.

  4. Am I wrong to assume they’re print books?
    You are; they’re e-books, which are much easier to obtain. My Kindle changed my life!

  5. Although in this particular case, it’s a physical book, Vol. 3 of the nice Soviet four-volume A.K. Tolstoy set jamessal sent me among many other books from his grandmother’s collection (thanks, jamessal!).

  6. @F: Cf. the Serbian vrkolak “vampire,” which must have started out as “werewolf.” A word I confess I know only from Bram Stoker.

  7. I thought we might have mentioned vurdalaks in the old LH post where we talked about cinnabar since the two go naturally together in Russian. But it looks like we didn’t.
    Тик, трак, тик, трак,
    Точит зубы вурдалак,
    Красит губы в киноварь,
    Чтоб его боялась тварь

  8. Вампир is widespread, упырь is obsolete. Google Trends confirms my perception: http://www.google.com/trends/explore#q=%D0%B2%D0%B0%D0%BC%D0%BF%D0%B8%D1%80%2C%20%D1%83%D0%BF%D1%8B%D1%80%D1%8C&cmpt=q

  9. Thanks! Tolstoy’s vampire-hunting peever would be upset.

  10. Exactly, Вампир is the most frequently used

  11. Can you help out the Cyrillically-challenged, Hat? How’s Вампир pronounced?

  12. Courtesy of Google Translate:
    Teak, truck, teak, track,
    Sharpening his teeth ghoul
    Lipstick in vermilion,
    That creature was afraid of him.
    I wonder why ‘трак’ was translated two different ways. I also wonder what the creature was.
    Вампир – vahm-peer, dearieme.

  13. Luis Alvarez Saiz in the world of steel and copper clad.

  14. Google ngrams shows упырь predominant until 1915, and then вампир shooting past it, remaining predominant until now. What I want to know is,
    1. What happened in 1915? Bram Stoker’s Dracula wasn’t translated until the 1990s, and Nosferatu came out in 1922.
    2. Even after 1915, упырь doesn’t drop off. That suggests that it’s not mere replacement. If so, what was the difference between the two?

  15. “Вампир – vahm-peer, dearieme.” Many thanks. Is it a general rule that I should be able to guess some of the letters based on on Greek and others on Latin? How many unguessable letters does a newcomer to Russian have to learn? Is there any way, in general, of knowing which letters are Greek-like and which Latin-? For example, should it be “obvious” that the final letter is a rho rather than a pee?

  16. Learn the Russian alphabet, dearie. You’ll find it remarkably easy.

  17. marie-lucie says

    dearieme: Google “Russian alphabet” and look for “Russian language lesson 1”. You will find all the explanations you need.

  18. Treesong – you can also mouse-over words in Google translate to see where Google was of two minds and picked whatever translation just seemed to be statistically more common (which often isn’t the best option for super-common words like “lipstick” or for super-rare ones like “cinnabar”).
    But the alternative choices of Google Translated are better, “Paints lips in cinnabar”

  19. “Learn the Russian alphabet, dearie.” The embarrassing thing is that I did, forty-five years ago, and now neither jot nor tittle remains. Not a sausage. Vanished as the morning dew, etc, etc.

  20. Dearieme:
    In general, the Cyrillic alphabet matches up with the Byzantine and Modern Greek pronunciation of Greek letters, to the point where when a Russian asked me, “Greek is written in Cyrillic, no?” I (weakly) replied “More or less” rather than going into detail. As an obvious example, Cyrillic В/в has the sound /v/, which is the Modern Greek pronunciation of Β/β. In order to represent the sound /b/, Cyrillic uses the modified letter Б/б.
    An extreme example is the representation of /i/. In Modern Greek, this can be spelled in any of six ways: Η/η, Ι/ι, Υ/υ, ΕΙ/ει, ΟΙ/οι, ΥΙ/υι. Cyrillic has equivalents for the first three: И/и, І/і, Ѵ/ѵ. Russian abolished І/і (which was used before vowels) in 1918, but it is used in Ukrainian to represent a different sound from И/и, and in place of И/и altogether in Belarusian. Ѵ/ѵ was never officially abolished, just progressively abandoned. As for Cyrillic У/у, it represents /u/, because it is short for the older Cyrillic digraph ОУ/оу, derived from Greek ΟΥ/ου for the same sound.
    By the way, there is a jot in this word, and here are some tittles (the ones I can type using the Moby Latin keyboard): á, à, â, ã, ä, å, ā, ă, ą, ǎ, ȁ, ȃ, ȧ, ạ, ả, ⱥ.

  21. Упырь ain’t obsolete – as a slang word for a nasty person or, in certain idiolects, a smart alec with a dark/demanding/warped sense of humor and zero tolerance for those without it. “Ну ты и упырь!”
    On Cyrillic – an older colleague, a Spaniard from a good family (as far as I could judge by his looks, manners, and background – he mentioned his dad the ambassador, for Franco’s Spain I assume), said Cyrillic wasn’t a problem at all because he had studied (ancient) Greek at school.
    I felt seriously deflated when I overheard it.

  22. Upyr has gone through quite a revival for some reason with the rise of Putin and the United Russia crowd (or maybe Russian politics in general). See here
    or here

  23. To clarify the East Slavic situation:
    In current Russian, и is /i/ and ы is /ɨ/, the high central unrounded vowel.
    In pre-1918 Russian, і was used for /i/ before vowels and in the word мір ‘peace’ (as distinct from мир ‘world’), but otherwise as in current Russian.
    In Ukrainian, и is /i/ and і is /ɨ/.
    In Belarusian, і is /i/ and ы is /ɨ/.

  24. marie-lucie says

    A vampire story: A friend of mine used to teach English to immigrants to Canadat. At one point his class included two Rumanians, a man and his mother, who sat together at the back of the class and never said a word. The man was quite striking-looking with very black hair and deathly pale skin. My friend liked to enliven the class with jokes and little stories he made up, and he once started to tell a story about a little vampire who did not like blood. The man looked agitated, stood up, and in a loud voice declared: “VAMPEER NOT STORY! VAMPEER REAL!!!”

  25. That is a wonderful story.

  26. In Ukrainian, и is /i/ and і is /ɨ/.
    Isn’t it the other way round?

  27. Yes, it is. Good catch.

  28. I can’t find it in Googling his archives, but somewhere in Dustbury‘s 10,000+ posts he tells of teaching a bunch of frat boys basic Greek transliteration in 20 minutes or so. They were complaining about not being able to figure out which train or bus would take them to Corinth, and he pointed out that they knew all the Greek letters from fraternity and sorority abbreviations, and led them Socratically to figure out what K-O-P-I-N-Θ-O-Σ would sound like.

  29. By the way, the notion that vampir was invented by Hungarian monks is of course not true, though the word probably did get into the Western languages through Hungarian. According to WP.bg, the regular Old Bulg. (= OCS) form was вѫпиръ [vɔ̃pirə] > older Mod Bulg. вапир, the regular form corresponding to Russian упырь. There is also an article there on Упир (absurdly translated by GT as “Really got any ghouls” every time it appears), the supposed malevolent counterpart of Берегини = Ukr. Berehynia.

  30. I was rereading Sheridan Le Fanu’s novella Carmilla (1872) today, and came across this passage in Chapter 4 (the setting is a small castle in Styria occupied by an Englishman formerly in Austrian service and his daughter):

    [Carmilla] and I were looking out of one of the long drawing room windows, when there entered the courtyard, over the drawbridge, a figure of a wanderer whom I knew very well. He used to visit the schloss generally twice a year.


    […] The mountebank, standing in the midst of the courtyard, raised his grotesque hat, and made us a very ceremonious bow, paying his compliments very volubly in execrable French, and German not much better.

    Then, disengaging his fiddle, he began to scrape a lively air to which he sang with a merry discord, dancing with ludicrous airs and activity, that made me laugh, in spite of [his] dog’s howling.

    Then he advanced to the window with many smiles and salutations, and his hat in his left hand, his fiddle under his arm, and with a fluency that never took breath, he gabbled a long advertisement of all his accomplishments, and the resources of the various arts which he placed at our service, and the curiosities and entertainments which it was in his power, at our bidding, to display.

    “Will your ladyships be pleased to buy an amulet against the oupire, which is going like the wolf, I hear, through these woods,” he said dropping his hat on the pavement. “They are dying of it right and left and here is a charm that never fails; only pinned to the pillow, and you may laugh in his face.”

    These charms consisted of oblong slips of vellum, with cabalistic ciphers and diagrams upon them.

    Carmilla instantly purchased one, and so did I.

    Note that the comparison between the vampire and the wolf here appears; Dracula was not published until 1897, so this story is independent of it. The vampire’s animal form is a cat rather than a dog, and though her habits are nocturnal, she can tolerate sunlight.

    The word appears a second time in Chapter 7:

    My father asked me often whether I was ill; but, with an obstinacy which now seems to me unaccountable, I persisted in assuring him that I was quite well.

    In a sense this was true. I had no pain, I could complain of no bodily derangement. My complaint seemed to be one of the imagination, or the nerves, and, horrible as my sufferings were, I kept them, with a morbid reserve, very nearly to myself.

    It could not be that terrible complaint which the peasants called the oupire, for I had now been suffering for three weeks, and they were seldom ill for much more than three days, when death put an end to their miseries.

  31. I also reread Carmilla a few months ago (prompted by this Stack Exchange question, to which my answer has a certain linguistic bent), and i also noticed the appearance of oupire. I checked, and it does not appear in the OED, in spite of Le Fanu’s stature as a significant nineteenth-century writer. (He is the source of over two hundred quotes in the OED, although there are still thousands of writers with more cites.)

Speak Your Mind