Saturday, May 31, 2008


The bulk of the various advertisements, billboards and promotional signs which adorn our lovely city consists of the usual fare of telecommunication products, financial services and real estate done in the usual bland unremarkable style of the two or three ad agencies which control our small advertising market. But once in a while, an ad comes along - or, rather, is put up - which truly boggles the mind. Like this one, from last October:

When I first noticed it, I actually stopped dead in my tracks and stared at it for about a minute. I was stunned at the fact that I immediately understood what the ad was all about. Once I got over that and back to work, I found myself once confounded once again, this time by the question of just who the makers of the ad had in mind as their target group. Why? Let's break it down:

The text says "To the Winter Palace!" and then "New Fall/Winter Collections 2007", the latter part we can ignore. As for semantic content of the rest of the ad and its context:

- we're in Slovakia;
- it's October;
- the ad is for a Winter sale taking place at a shopping mall called Shopping Palace Zlaté Piesky ("Zlaté Piesky" is the name of the neighborhood and the word "Palace" is, naturally, English, the Slovak equivalent would be "palác"); combined with
- the preposition "na" which is used in wishes ("Na zdravie!"), exhortations ("Poďme na to!") and for other similar purposes, such as a call to attack (readers of Hašek will recall his famous "Na Bělehrad!")
- the young man's raised fist is a well known gesture of defiance, a symbol of resistance etc.; and finally (and most interestingly);
- the couple's faces.

October. Winter Palace. Defiance, resistance, revolution. A call to arms. Son of a bitch - the advertisers in '00s Slovakia are using the Great October Socialist Revolution to hawk their products. When the girls and me discussed this at the office, we all agreed that the semiotic content of the ad was immediately clear to anyone of from our generation and older. All of us at the office are Husák's kids, i.e. we were born in the baby boom of late 70's and early 80's Czechoslovakia. All of us also spent at least a few years in communist-era elementary schools where the teachers were addressed "súdruh učiteľ/súdružka učiteľka" (lit. "comrade teacher"), the official form of greeting was - I shit you not - "Česť práci!" (lit. "Honor to work!"), the October Revolution was the biggest thing in history evah, especially in October and November (it was officially celebrated on November 7th with compulsory parades and stuff), and pictures of people looking exactly like the couple in this ad lined the walls of every school's hallways. Those pictures and the whole art movement which was to referred to as "socialist realism" is the main reason I was stunned upon seeing the ad for the first time. You see, when I think of iconic images representing communism and the communist era in Central European history, I think of potraits of Lenin, Stalin, perhaps even Marx (but, oddly enough, not Che Guevara). Or I think of Kremlin, hammer and sickle, red flag, red stars, May Day parades. But all of those would have too obvious. And so the creators of the ad dug a little deeper into our public subconscious and came up with this very subtle, yet unambiguous reference to the former era and it's icons. Kudoz Kudos to them for hitting a nerve most of us probably didn't even know they had, which is - after all - the purpose of every advertisement. I, for one, am still shocked at how firmly entrenched the indoctrination I received in my early years still is in my mind. And I wonder if I'll ever be able to get rid of it and if not, what would that mean...

And this brings me to my original question: just who is the target group for this ad? Is it people who still remember the previous era, like my generation, people in their mid-twenties to early thirties, or even people older than that? Most of us do have the disposable income, but are we really likely to be persuaded by a billboard to visit a shopping mall located at the outskirts of the city (like this one is) in the notoriously bad traffic? And are we really the group of people who is most likely to spend any amount of time in malls? Not so much. Here just like anywhere else, it's teenagers who hang out in malls. But will they get the ad? Based on a number of surveys in regard to history the Ministry of Education conducted, I doubt that very much. The kids today are barely aware of the pre-1989 period in our history and - thankfully - know little of its mythology. So the ad probably missed its target by a lot. But still, it is a great piece of advertising art.

Another interesting ad came along a few weeks ago. I don't have a good action shot, so a picture taken from the advertiser's website must suffice:

Translation: "May is all about ..." and then there's the L-word. Even those inhabitants of Bratislava (and, I imagine, all other cities, towns and villages) with minimal command of English recognize the word "love" and nod in agreement. After all, in our culture, May is commonly - if somewhat clichedly - referred to as the month of love or the time for love ("máj - lásky čas"). Come to think of it, back in the day (see the trip down the memory lane above), every month was a month of something. March, for example, was the month of books. April was the month of forrests. And four weeks between late October and early November were officially designated the month of Soviet-Czechoslovak friendship - in fact, there are couple of good jokes about that one, but you kind of had to be there to get them. As for the ad, it's all pretty straightforward until now - the connection between May and love is a transparent one for every Slovak, even if the word for love is English. But that can't be all, can it?

Of course it's not. And that's where the second layer of meaning comes in. First, this is an ad for a bank, more specifically a particular investment product. Then there's the pile of silver coins and the gold coins which make out the L-word. And finally, there is that one more word that is spelt "love". It's a Romani word pronounced ['lɔvɛ] or ['lɔːvɛ] which means - "money". So what we have here is a trilingual pun. Pretty neat, wouldn't you say?

And once again I have to ask myself, just who the target group for this ad is? It is true that Romani borrowings are quite common in some dialects of Slovak, especially in those regions with large Roma population, but they are hardly ubiquitous. My native dialect (which is more or less the dialect of Košice) is probably the best example of Romani influence. The Romani word čaja and the interjection dig are widely recognized as shibbolets of our dialect and, needless to say, routinely feature in parodies thereof. What's more, with the growth of the Roma community, their (admittedly very slow) integration into the mainstream society and various government programs designed to promote Romani language and culture, the number of these borrowings may even increase.

I came across one just the other day, when my baby sister described something as "totally mište". "Totally what?" I said, perplexed. "Mište," she said. "What?" she went on noticing my blank look, "Mr. Big-shot Linguist just heard a word he doesn't understand?" I said "Well, yeah." and then the little brat proceeded to laugh her butt off. Only when I threatened to revoke her access to my bank account did she stop mocking my ignorance (at least outwardly) and explained that mište means "great, cool, awesome". When I asked where she got the word from, she gave me a "well duh!" look and said that her and her friends got the word from a Roma classmate and liked it so much that for some time, it even replaced the ubiquitous Hungarian derived "fasa". Somewhat surprised, I checked the authoritative Romani-Czech dictionary and sure enough, there it was: "mištes = right, correct, proper." The variant mište (though neither in my dictionary, nor any of the others) is even commonly used in Slovak Romani meaning "good, well":

O dad but mište bašavelas pre cimbalma, bašavelas andre banda mire papuha, no le pandže čhavendar ča jekh phral bašavel.

My father played cymbal cimbalom very well, he played in a band with my grandfather, but of the five children, only one brother plays [an instrument].

A few more questions and one brief Google search revealed that this word is far from the local (read: our village) phenomenon my sister made it out to be and has in fact made it into most Eastern dialects. My favorite example is one from a chat room where while discussing music sharing someone asked "Nemáte dakto nejaké mište bootlegy?". Mište, ain't it?

With my sister's help, I then compiled the following list of Romani words in Eastern Slovak, words/meanings marked with an asterisk are the ones that appear to be new:

čávo [noun, masculine] = 1. boy, young man; 2. boyfriend; 3. a flashy macho-type young man (see chav); 4. *douchebag (cf.) (o čhavo)
čaja [noun, feminine] = 1. girl; 2. a good looking girl; 3. girlfriend (e čhaj)
dig (alt.: dik, dyk) [interjection] = 1. lo!, behold! (originally dikh, the imperative of dikhel = to see)
gádžo [noun, masculine] = 1. a Gentile (non-Roma); 2. a person of low intelligence and/or education, a person with no manners (see redneck) (origin unknown, the Sanskrit word gṛhastha is sometimes cited as one possible etymology)
love [noun, masculine, plural] = money (o love, e love)
*mište [adjective] = great, cool, awesome (mištes = right, correct).
more [interjection] = 1. a familiar way to address a man (see "dude!"); 2. a general-purpose interjection, often preceded by ci.
*mulo [noun, masculine] = dumbass (o mulo = revenant)
*piraňa = 1.a good-looking girl; 2. a female equivalent of čávo 3 (e piraňi = a young woman)
*temerav = an oath: "May I die!" (te merav)

That last one is particularly interesting. My sister was only able to identify it as "some sort of a curse". I figured out that it's a first person singular present tense form of "merel" = "to die" and "te" is a conjunctive particle, but it's pragmatic properties eluded me. It wasn't until a buddy of mine visited a casino where he found himself at a table with some Vlax Roma (or, as he put it, "a bunch of Klingons") who kept using the phrase. Once he got back, he inquired about it in a forum I'm a member of and other participants were quick to point out that the term is also used by a fellow who calls himself Rytmus and is apparently a rapper. His music isn't exactly my cup of tea, but he seems pretty successful and very controversial, both by virtue of his language and as a result of a number of (most likely manufactured) feuds with other rappers and mainstream pop musicians. And, most importantly, he is a Roma and very proud of his Roma heritage. He has made it his trademark and he claims it is the inspiration for his anger and his music. Here is a video of track 3 "Temerav" (also spelt "Temeraf") from his album Bengoro ("The Devil" in Romani) which is also a very good sample of his style. Judging by the views on YouTube, the amount of Google hits he gets and my sister's iPod, Rytmus is quite popular among the young generation and it is thus not inconceivable that "temerav" is not the only Romani word his fans learned from him. A case in point is the second Google search hit on "mište" I quoted, which is, as the address bar of your browser immediately reveals, from a hip-hop forum. And more to the point, consider one of his most popular bits, the uncharacteristically sentimental "Mama" ("mother" in Slovak) which features a chorus in Romani and the phrase "potrebujem lóve" = "I need money" between 00:42 and 00:44.

So perhaps I'm wrong and the distribution of the Romani word "love" is much wider than I thought. The Slovak National Corpus isn't of much help here and there is not much other research on the subject, so I'll leave it at that. And perhaps I'm wrong entirely and it's not dialect distribution the makers of the L-word ad rely on to deliver their message. Instead, they are using popular culture to sell their products. And if popular culture takes Romani to the national level, even if it's in tiny bits and pieces, I certainly won't complain. Especially with a trilingual pun like this one.

Friday, May 09, 2008


In every field of research, there is a number of terms which are often misunderstood and/or used incorrectly not just by laymen (the people call the staff of Language Log and languagehat as expert witnesses), but quite often by knowledgeable experts as well. Karšūnī is one of the terms which just beg for such treatment and often receive it. Having recently waded through a number of documents looking for texts in karšūnī, the whole thing gives me a real a headache. Here is why.

First, there's the many ways of spelling it. Karshuni, carshuni, carchouni, carschouni, karschuni, karšūnī, karshūnī, karschūnī, garshuni, garschuni, garšūnī, gerschuni, gershuni, geršūnī or even akaršūnī and akarschūnī - you name it, it's somewhere out there. Which is the correct one is anybody's guess. According to Julius Assfalg's brief yet exhaustive and even after 26 years unsurpassed overview of the subject (3:297-298), this is a much debated question among eastern Christians. Eminent scholars like G.S. Assemani and Alphonse Mingana believed it should be garshuni/garšūnī and considered the form karšūnī a Maronite corruption. On the other hand, many believe the correct form is gershuni, as it derives from Geršūn, the Syriac form of the name Gershon / Gershom, Moses' firstborn son, who is supposed to have invented this practice. The form with initial k- is firmly established in French and German traditions, while the English-speaking scholars seem to prefer garshuni and its derivations. To each his own, I would normally say, but in this digital age, a line has to be drawn somewhere. Searching for the same term with small variations over and over again just isn't fun. I'm taking this up with the European Commission, they should be able to settle the matter in no time at all.

Then there's the many meanings of the term - especially when it comes to manuscript catalogues. In the strictest sense, karšūnī is a term for manuscripts or printed works in Arabic language in Syriac script. Simple enough: language - Arabic; script - Syriac. Makes sense, right? Well, no, not really. It does not refer to a different variety of Arabic language the way the term Judeo-Arabic does - moreover, Arabic-speaking Christians used both Arabic script and Syriac script when writing Arabic. Nor does it describe a variety of the Syriac script adapted for writing Arabic (as is the case with the term bosančica, Cyrillic and Bosnian/Croatian) or a ductus used more or less exclusively for writing Arabic (as with nastaʿlīq and Persian/Urdu). The best way of defining karšūnī would be saying it's a practice of writing Arabic texts in Syriac script. This practice did not require any modification of the script (the way Cyrillic used for Turkic or Uralic languages did) nor did a separate ductus develop for writing Arabic. And thus in many manuscript volumes written in Syriac script, a text in Syriac is often followed by a karšūnī text written by the same hand in the exactly same serṭō. Add to that the formerly standard practice of Western libraries to catalogue manuscripts by script and not by language and it's 'Hello, Mr. Aspirin' every time you consult one of the older ones.

The Judas apocryphon mentioned recently at the Apocryphicity blog and the respective entry in the Cambridge Syriac collection catalogue is a classic example of the mess this can create. The physical description of the volume in question (Add. 2881) includes the following:

The writing is usually an unsightly cursive Karshuni, but some pages are written in a better Egyptian Arabic hand (e.g. ff. 175 b, 176 a, 245 a, 247 b —249 a, 258 b, 281 b, 282 a, 290 b, 291 a, 299 a— 301 a).

First off, "unsightly cursive" is definitely out of place here. "Unsightly cursive serṭō / jacobite " would be fine and so would "unsightly cursive madnḥāyā / nestorian". Even "unsightly cursive esṭrangelā" would be perfectly OK, though somewhat remarkable, since karšūnī texts were very rarely written in esṭrangelā. But "unsightly cursive Karshuni" just isn't right - "cursive" is an adjective used almost exclusively of writing and as I pointed out earlier, karšūnī is not a type of script. But never mind, I can live with that. The author of this particular entry apparently thought Karshuni was a designation of a type of Syriac script, which is why they also included the bit about "better Egyptian Arabic hand". We can thus assume that ff. 175b, 176a, 245a etc. are written in Arabic language in Arabic script while the rest is written in Arabic language in Syriac script, right? Well, no. According to the catalogue, folios 2b through 298b are written in Arabic language and Syriac script. This also includes ff. 175b, 176a, 245a, 247b —249a, 258b, 281b, 282a, 290b, 291a - all of which are supposed to be written in that "better Egyptian Arabic hand". Only ff. 299a — 301a are, as expected, written in the Arabic script, as are some notes on f. 307b. The rest seems to employ serṭō. At this point I'd like a glass of water with my medication, please. And I can consider myself lucky not dealing with texts in languages other than Syriac or Arabic written in Syriac script, such as Turkish, Armenian, Persian or even Malayalam (although to be fair, writing in Malayalam required some adapting and the script itself is legitimately referred to as "gerisoni"). Once we include those, karšūnī takes on a new meaning very similar to ajami.

And finally, there is the issue of the original meaning and the etymology of the term - though unlike the previous ones, this one is more theoretical than practical. We've already seen one attempt at an explanation (derived from Gershon / Gershom) and if you did not find it very convincing, I can't blame you. Other alternative etymologies proposed do not fare any better with regard to credibility:

- karḵūnē (a diminutive plural of ܟܰܪܟܐ [karḵā] = "rolled", also "codex") meaning "small round (i.e. letters)" - which, again, refers to a type of script or a ductus
- Syriac verb ܓܪܰܫ [graš] meaning "to draw away", hence "foreign, imported writing"
- Persian kār + Šūnī, i.e. "the work of Šūnī" (why Persian?)
- a diminutive form of Syriac ܟܰܪܣܐ [karsā] = "belly", i.e. "(letters) with small bellies" (again with the type of script)
- and finally, the trusted option of a derivation from a personal name.

As you can see, we're drawing a blank so far. It would help a lot if we knew where the practice was started and who first used the term, but we don't. All that can be said for certain is that the Wikipedia entry is quite wrong: there is no evidence that Eastern Christians wrote in Arabic before the end of the 8th century AD when (according to Graf) Maronites took the point and Nestorians and Copts followed suit. Nor is there evidence that Syriac script was used to write Arabic when "Arabic script was not yet fully developed and widely read". Such use of Syriac script cannot be ruled out, of course, but it simply doesn't matter: when Eastern Christians adopted Arabic language, they also adopted Arabic script. Up until the 13th century, karšūnī was reserved for titles, chapter names, notes and such, while most of what was written was written in Arabic script (such as the production of the Palestinian Melkites analyzed by Joshua Blau [1]). Karšūnī manuscripts grew in number in the 14th century and the next century marked the beginning of karšūnī's golden era which lasted well until the 19th century and survived even the introduction of printing machines. This is what we know for a fact. The rest, like the origin of the practice and the meaning and the origin of the term - not so much.

And so we are left with Assfalg's (3:298) observation to that effect and his brief remark that the earliest recorded usage of the term in European sources is the preface to Gabriel Sionita's and Faustus Naironius' edition of Novum Testamentum Syriace et Latine printed in Rome in 1703. Well, we were, until 1991. This was when Hartmut Bobzin published a brief yet fascinating article [2] antedating the term by at least 146 years. It was found in a manuscript by Johann Albrecht Widmanstetter who prepared the first European printed edition of the Syriac New Testament. The manuscript in question contains, among other things, a fragment of a Latin translation of Kitāb al-ādžurrūmīja, a famous compendium of Arabic grammar (original here). A translation of one of the first lines of Kitāb al-ādžurrūmīja ("Partes orationis sunt tres...") is followed by a brief excursus into comparative Semitology which includes these comments on the Aramaic language (pardon my very bad translation):

... Aliter syros scribere, babilonios aliter, et differentes ab utrisque hebreos qui e babilone in patriam redierunt. Deinde aliam esse scribendi rationem Jonathe, Onkelo, aliam Danielj et Jobis historie authori Mosj, aliam postremo Christianis quos Maronitas vocant, qui Chaldaico sermone in sacris utuntur, arabico vulgo passim, hunc ipsi vocant קרשוני illum chaldaicum quem Syrum adpellant.

... The Syrians use a different writing, so do the Babylonians, and the Hebrews who returned from Babylonia to their homeland use a writing different from both those. And thus one should mention first [targum of] Jonathan and [targum of] Onkelos, then the story of Daniel and Job written by Moses and finally the Christians who are called Maronites who use the Chaldaic language in their services and colloquial Arabic elsewhere, and this they themselves call קרשוני in that Chaldaic which they term Syriac.

As Bobzin points out, it is interesting to note that Widmanstetter speaks of language and not writing. It is also interesting to note that his version of karšūnī (I lost count, sorry) begins with a qoph and not a gimel, which may rehabilitate the form with initial k-. Or not, as it depends on where the form originated. Unfortunately, Widmanstetter's notes are not helpful in this regard and so the etymology and the origin of the term karšūnī are still lost in the mists of time. Ah well, maybe I'll find something. And while I search, remember: Arabic language, Syriac script. Like this:

[1] BLAU, Joshua: A Grammar Of Christian Arabic (Fasc. I-III). - Louvain : Secretariat du CorpusSCO, 1966-1968
[2] BOBZIN, Hartmut: Über eine bisher unbekannte Europäische Bezeichnung des Terminus 'Karšūnī' . - Journal of Semitic Studies, 1991, XXXVI/2, pp. 259-261
[3] FISCHER, Wolfdietrich (Hrsg.): Grundriss der Arabischen Philologie. Band 1: Sprachwissenschaft. - Wiesbaden : Harrassowitz, 1982, xiii., 362 p.