Veltman’s Multilingualism.

We interrupt our series of posts drawn from the Hodgson book on Butkov (1, 2) to return for a moment to my man Veltman. I’ve been reading Boris Bukhshtab’s 1926 article “Первые романы Вельтмана” [Veltman’s earliest novels], thanks to the generosity of Erik McDonald of XIX век (see this post of his for more on Bukhshtab’s article), and I naturally found this passage on Veltman’s 1836 novel Aleksandr Filippovich Makedonskii [Alexander, son of Philip of Macedon], in which the narrator rides to ancient Greece on a hippogriff, of great interest:

Veltman, who considered the Macedonians to have been Slavs, humorously stylizes them as having Russian ways. This involves an obvious element of parody both of his own views and of the historical novel (a genre by that time thoroughly discredited). […] On the basis of such notions of origins, Veltman has the Phoenicians talk and sing in an artificial language of Scandinavian type, the Scythians in a somewhat altered English, and so on.

But then again, multilingualism is characteristic of all Veltman’s work.

Считая македонцев славянами, Вельтман комически стилизует их на русский лад. Здесь есть очевидный элемент пародии и на собственные воззрения, и на исторический роман (жанр к тому времени окончательно дискредитированный). […] На основании тех же соображений о происхождении Вельтман заставляет финикиян говорить и петь на условном языке скандинавского типа, скифов — на несколько измененном английском и т. д. Разноязычность получается невероятная.

Разноязычность, впрочем, характерна для всего творчества Вельтмана.

By happy synchronicity, I had just started reading Veltman’s 1845 novel Емеля, или Превращения [Émile, or Metamorphoses] when I hit the following passage (a married couple is being described; he’s playing solitaire):

All this was back in the days when the tone of old France, émigré France, prevailed in Russia, at the end of the happy century of toupets, farthingales, and hoop skirts; when in high society everything was thought, said, and done completely in French, while in the middling circles the Russian language was merely touched up with French words, and instead of “my dear” they said mon âme, instead of “my love” ma chère; when everyone, young and old, learned how to dexterously click their heels and bow, which, to tell the truth, did not suit the Russian figure, which mother Nature minted rather than molded out of wax; but such was the age.

After a long silence, Platon Andreevich, shuffled the cards and said, appropriately for the occasion, in Russian:

“Confound it, it just won’t come out!”

Then Natalya Dmitrievna said tenderly, in French: “Mon ami!”

“What can I do for you, my dear?” asked Platon Andreevich in Russian, and in a fit of tenderness forked his fingers and tried to tickle his wife.

“Please stop it!” said Natalya Dmitrievna.

Все это было еще въ то время, когда въ России преобладалъ тонъ старой Франции, Франции-эмнгрантки, въ исходѣ счастливаго вѣка тупеевъ, фижмъ и роброновъ; когда въ высшемъ обществѣ все мыслило, говорило и дѣлало чисто по-французски; а въ среднемъ кругу русскій языкъ только еще подкрашивался Французскими словами, и вмѣсто «душа моя» говорили—монъ амъ, вмѣсто «моя драгая»—ма шеръ; когда всѣ, отъ мала до велика, учились ловко шаркать и гнуться, что, правду сказать, не шло къ русскому стану, который мать-природа чеканила, а не изъ воску лѣпила; но ужъ таковъ былъ вѣкъ.

Послѣ долгаго молчанія, Платонъ Андреевич, смѣшавъ карты, сказалъ, прилично случаю, по-русски:

—Фу, ты, пропасть! никакъ не выходит….

Тогда Наталья Дмитріевна сказала нѣжно, по-Французски: —Mon ami!

—Что прикажешь, мой другъ? спросилъ Платонъ Андреевичъ по-русски, и, въ припадкѣ нѣжности, сдѣлавъ рогульку изъ пальцевъ, хотѣлъ пощекотать жену.

—Перестань, пожалуйста! сказала Наталья Дмитріевна.

It’s not as wild as Scandinavian Phoenicians, of course, but it’s interesting in its own right.

And by further happy synchronicity, while working on this post I took a break, turned to the next article in the LRB I’m reading, and found this opening paragraph of Marina Warner’s review of Je parle toutes les langues, mais en arabe by Abdelfattah Kilito:

‘I speak all languages but in Yiddish,’ Kafka remarks in his Diaries; and when it came to writing, he might have chosen any one of them, besides German. We now read him in all languages, receiving glimpses, like faraway signals at sea, of the original German, and beyond the German of the other languages that made up Kafka’s mindscape, with Yiddish beating out a bass line, familiar ground. Echoing Kafka, the Moroccan writer and scholar of Arabic literature Abdelfattah Kilito declares ‘I speak all languages but in Arabic,’ in the title of his recent collection of essays. Kilito is a writer who reads (not all do) – and widely, in several languages. He’s an amphibian creature, living in Arabic and French with equal agility, and ambidextrous with it, continuing to use one language or other at will for his critical studies or his ‘récits’ – his gnomic, often poignant memoirs and fictions.

Multilingualism all over!


  1. I had trouble parsing the Kafka quote for a minute (my eye skipped over the “in” and I read it as “I speak all languages but Yiddish”), and I realized that a comma after “languages” would have helped. It seems there was one in the original German.

    Wonder why it got nixed in the English translation. And I only skimmed through the paragraph quickly just now (as you can see, slow and patient reading is not my strong suit today), but is it even clear that Kafka “said” that, or is it just someone’s party joke that he’s retelling?

  2. Because BrE is comma-light compared to AmE, which in turn is comma-light compared to German. Contemporary BrE pretty much never puts in a comma unless it’s absolutely necessary to comprehension.

  3. @ John:

    I think that that comma ratio is something I’ve been subconsciously picking up on for years but never actually figured out.

    That, plus a few other British tendencies to omit words or punctuation I’d expect (like “in hospital”), plus a few other oddities like “it’s hotting up” or “I was sat there”, often combine to make reading contemporary British English full of tiny mental double-takes and brief moments of brain-baffling confusion for me.

    (I’m really not trying to start a nationalistic battle here – obviously, this is just my perspective and I’m sure there are Americanisms that confuse Brits just as much).

  4. The Tumbleweed Farm says

    A propos Alexander Philippovich Makedonski: today’s (Slavic) Macedonians, although (usually) don’t exactly consider him a Slavic speaker, do very much view him as a national hero. Here’s a cool patriotic song,
    Александар Цар Македонски (Alexander the Emperor of Macedonia – ), in which the victory of Philip of Macedon over the Greeks at Chaeronea in 338 BC is very much viewed as an event of Macedonian national glory.

    Naturally, modern Greeks are quite amused (and, often, are *not* amused)…

  5. “Kilito is a writer who reads (not all do) – and widely, in several languages.”

    So, some writers do not read? Or some writers read in only 1, or at least less than several languages? I can’t say I find the revelation of the existence of monolingual writers much of a surprise. Nor is a bilingual French/Arabic writer particularly astounding. But I would be very puzzled to learn that there are writers who do not read.

  6. Oh, and almost forgot: It was my impression that modern Greece is so unamused by the existence of an independent Macedonia immediately to its north that it still insists that said Macedonia go by the rather clumsy name Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia in polite society.

  7. David Marjanović says

    Argh. 😀 That’s pretty much the worst of contemporary Balkan nationalism: project your national origins into the deepest, most glorious past you can dig up – while sounding thoroughly Turkish.

    It was my impression that modern Greece is so unamused […]


    The song will greatly amuse my dad, though.

  8. David Marjanović says

    Oh man. In the comments to this one, the Greeks and the Macedonians curse each other in each other’s languages! 😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

  9. David Marjanović says

    LOL. So, there’s this patriotic song which says “We are not Greeks, Bulgarians or Serbs”. In come the Bulgarians and say “actually, you’re totes Bulgarians”. And then one of them takes the songs, replaces “Macedonia” by “Bulgaria, “Bulgarians” by “Ottomans” and “Alexander” by “Asparukh“, and puts the result on YouTube as a Bulgarian patriotic song!

    Pronunciation-wise it differs from the original less than two randomly chosen accents of Standard German. Probably about the same is true for the vocabulary – whole verses are identical down to phonetic detail like the Czech-style fronted [ʃ].

  10. So, some writers do not read?

    It’s clear from context that what is meant is “do not read other people’s books,” which I’m sure is true. Some writers need a lot of varied input to rev up their inspiration, others need to burrow into themselves and shut out other people’s words and ideas.

  11. The belief that the ancient Macedonians were Slavic-speaking continues today among the supporters of the Paleocontinuity school of linguistic pseudoscience, as well as among fringe figures like Florin Curta in his historical-archaeological study The Making of the Slavs.

    I don’t really get the Greek nationalist claim that Alexander cannot be an illustrious ancestor of today’s Macedonians because the former spoke a different language than the Slavic tongue of the latter. People don’t grasp that population movements in antiquity rarely replaced one group of people with another as opposed to an indigenous group adopting the language of more prestigious foreigners. Thus the people of “FYROM” are as Macedonian today as they went then.

    The Greek passion about this is unreal. When I cycled the Balkans last summer, just after crossing the Macedonian-Greek border, I went into a shop and quietly remarked to my wife, “Wow, the prices here are higher than they were in Macedonia”, to which everyone in the shop shouted at once, “You mean in FYROM [/ˈfirom/]. Macedonia is a part of Greece!”

  12. everyone in the shop shouted at once, “You mean in FYROM [/ˈfirom/].

    and the inhabitants thereof, Fyromaniacs, as I’ve been told on many occasions. But it least there is a gradual disentanglement of the notions of “rightly claimed physical ancestry” vs. “rightly claimed cultural symbols”. Ever since the Book of Genesis catalogued the philogeny of all the peoples of the known world by their who-begat-whom family-tree linkup to Noah, it was important for every Christian ruler of note to display a family pedigree with the right historical and prehistorical ancestors (for an extreme example, the ascendant medieval Lithuanians found the ancestral root of their dukes in the lines of Virgil’s Aeneid).

    But there is growing understanding that modern genetics and ancient-DNA studies will pinpoint the actual, multiple, often unexpected genetic roots of the modern population groups. The patterns of ancient migration, displacement, and metization are gradually emerging from the most of times. (In fact there is a lively discussion of a study of Iron-Age DNAs from Bulgaria and their affinities across Europe right now)

    So the argument inevitable shifts from “we are of the good genetic stock, and you are not” to the less-amenable-to-quantitative scrutiny argument of “we are the rightful heirs to the glorious symbols of the past, and you are not”. From the old-fashioned racism to a more vague cultural suprematism. So they aren’t arguing whose blood is contaminated by Turkic or Slavic “impurity” so much. Mostly just indignant about alleged misappropriation of the symbols such as Alexander the Great or the Start of Vergina. It’s like Russians and Ukrainian crazies are still arguing about Central Asian and Finnic genetic admixtures, but the more mainstream superiority argument shifted into the cultural matters, like who properly owns the Rus’ dukes or the Orthodox faith or Gogol’s books.

  13. PS: in the cited study, one set of ancient bones predated Alexander the Great by a century, the other by about 500 years

  14. for an extreme example, the ascendant medieval Lithuanians found the ancestral root of their dukes in the lines of Virgil’s Aeneid

    So did the Brits.

  15. Trond Engen says

    Boris Bukhshtab

    I recognize a great philologer’s name when I see it.

  16. Jeffry House says

    100 true story:

    In 1990, the unveiling of a bust of Alexander the Great here in Toronto led to a riot in a local parkette. The bust included a plinth, which mentioned that Alexander was born Macedonian. A number of sixty-ish Greek residents began to overturn tables and rip down festive crepe hangings. The Mayor was knocked down. A chair was tossed at the bust, doing no damage, but knocking a leg off the chair.

    Seated at a nearby cafe with me, my Russian friend recognized that all the stars were aligned, and so pronounced: “канечно Александр македонский герой, но зачем же стулья ломать? “

  17. Heh. For the benefit of non-Russians, that’s a well-known quote from Gogol’s Revizor (The Government Inspector): “Of course Alexander of Macedon was a hero, but why break chairs?”

  18. des von bladet says

    I speak all languages, but only in Etruscan. If you lot would kindly stop bickering about Alexander (whose sole legitimate spiritual heir I also happen to be) and get on with deciphering Etruscan, that would be a great help. Thanks in advance.

  19. David Marjanović says

    study of Iron-Age DNAs from Bulgaria and their affinities across Europe

    That’s a fascinating paper!

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