Uwe Bläsing, the Scholar.

Stefan Georg’s “Uwe Bläsing, the Scholar” (Iran and the Caucasus 19 [2015] 3-7) describes a remarkable man; the first paragraph nearly made me run around the house cackling with joy:

Uwe Bläsing’s scholarly work can easily be described as spanning more academic fields than most of us are following as regular readers, let alone are able to contribute to. First of all, he is, of course, an Altaicist, in the best (and true) sense of this word ― a scholar who is perfectly at home in all three traditional branches of this grouping, Turkic, Mongolian, and Tungusic (and, which does not go without saying these days, a scholar who actually learned the profession from scratch). Being a true Altaicist, he has always been and continues to be doing, what Altaicists actually should be doing ― reading original texts, from all geographical corners of the vast territory occupied by these languages, and from all periods of their written attestation. Turning the pages of dictionaries alone, and basing far-reaching hypotheses on the possible pre-historic connections of these languages on lengthy lists of (cognate or simply similar looking) words, is something he would certainly refer to as putting the horse be-fore the cart. After all, he knows too well, how much work remains to be done in this field, before the comparative study of Altaic (be it a language family or not) may be regarded as a mature field. This does, of course, not mean that Uwe Bläsing is not interested in questions of (Lautgesetz-based) comparative linguistics ― he most positively is, but he certainly prefers the, often tedious, work on the intricate semantic history of words, including loan-words, the investigation of which not only fosters a better understanding of the history of the languages they are parts of, but also, what is (much) more, of the cultures these languages have been shaping (and were shaped by) throughout the history of their usage by real human beings.

Not only is that my ideal of what linguistic scholarship should be like, it’s delightfully written, and continues so: “And, of course, he is a Tungusologist as well, as if he could not be (whose favourite language from this realm is, if I may reveal this here, Nanai)!” Oh, all right, just one more paragraph:

Does it have to be mentioned that he is a true polyglot (the original meaning of the word linguist)? You bet he is: he reads all languages, which might be remotely relevant for his work (including Georgian, Armenian, Arabic, Persian, Kurdish, all Turkic languages, and so on and on), and speaks some of them; he is also admired for his beautiful command of spoken Turkish (which is also one of his publishing languages), and, of course, he is thoroughly on top of all the older written languages he needs to consult in the search for the answers to his etymological questions ― as a reader of texts, not only, as so many of us, as a user of dictionaries (and, as he would say on more than one occasion: if you don’t read texts in a language, you know nothing about it).

And one more parenthetical obiter dictum: “(there is no reason, why any wall, in any lived-in room, which is not absolutely needed for something else [say, a door], should not be covered with books from floor to ceiling, at least two rows deep ― I have no doubts that Uwe would be more than willing to subscribe to this statement).” Has he seen my office, I wonder?

And for those of you who were interested in this recent LH post, here‘s an ugly-ass (but readable) copy of Georg’s “Japanese, the Altaic Theory, and the Limits of Language Classification,” which John Cowan, in sending both links to me, called “a delightful paper on the history of the Altaic theory.” Thanks, JC!


  1. marie-lucie says

    Both links sound like what I would want to read, but in each case clicking brings up Academia and a short message saying “Something went wrong” and they are trying to fix it. Is there another way to access the articles?

    In any case, I too very much enjoyed the first paragraph and what it says about Bläsing’s comprehensive approach. This is one thing that makes comparative/historical linguists so fascinating, you need to know not only the languages themselves, through actual texts if available, but as much as possible of the history and culture of the forgotten speakers.

  2. Well, I at one time had bookcases specially made to fit into my front and rear windows, which doubled as security gates: they were installed on hinges and held closed with latches during the night, and opened during the daytime to let light in. There are about eight shelves designed for a single layer of mass-market paperbacks.

    When I moved, the cases did not fit into the new apartment’s windows, so I have one bolted to the wall between two windows and still containing books, and the other leaned up against my kitchen wall containing non-perishable (and non-fragile) food.

  3. I looked at Bläsing’s own academia.edu page, which is full of delightful material. As Georg says, Bläsing is a wonderfully legible writer. Charles Aznavour’s name, I learn, came to Armenian from Georgian from an Iranian language. But that’s like summarizing a Jane Austen novel by saying that they got married at the end.

  4. Those interested in the recent LH post might also be interested in this: Proto-Korean-Japanese: A New Reconstruction of the Common Origin of the Japanese and Korean Languages, a dissertation by Alexander Takenobu Francis-Ratte (advised by Unger among others). This is presumably the work that Unger and Francis-Ratte teased a year or two ago, which I think was also mentioned here on LH. Interested parties are invited to impartially and without betraying a shred of emotion in word or deed recalculate their probability estimates accordingly!

  5. marie-lucie says

    Things are now fixed at Academia, both articles can be read!

  6. Excerpt from Alexander Takenobu Francis-Ratte’s dissertation:

    Hypothesis #1 (importation, no inheritance) states that all OJ-MK lexical similarities are borrowings from Korean into Japanese or chance resemblances. This explanation is proposed by Vovin (2010). Hypothesis #1 predicts a lack of systematic sound correspondences between shared OJ and MK lexical material, and no systematic difference between culturally specific and non-specific vocabulary.

    This is clearly wrong. Borrowings from one language into another should and do show systematic sound correspondences. For example, ŋ syllable ending in borrowings from Chinese corresponds to “ō” and “yō” in Japanese, hence, 東京 Dōngjīng became Tōkyō.

    Similarly, one should expect that borrowings from Korean into Japanese also should show systematic sound correspondences even if the two languages are not related. (Chinese is not related to Japanese, but phonetic correspondences for borrowings are there)

    But chance resemblances don’t and shouldn’t show systematic sound correspondences, so it’s a great mistake to group both cases into one hypothesis.

  7. marie-lucie says


  8. David Marjanović says

    Different layers of loans may also show different sound correspondences; but within each layer, once it’s been identified, the correspondences will still be regular, unless the “layer” is very small.

  9. marie-lucie says

    David M: Indeed. There is a “stratigraphy” in linguistic history as well as in geological history.

  10. Some doorways are really superfluous. In that case they make ideal niches for bookshelves, framed by the door trim and with the book spines flush with the adjacent wall surface. If necessary, you can climb into the room through the windows.

  11. Man, AJP, you have totes changed my view of architects forever. (Not just from one comment.)

  12. Likewise on many subjects, John!

  13. Everything by S. Georg is delight to read. He knows much more than I ever could dream.

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