Tuesday, September 29, 2009


Most of you probably know this painting by Ilya Repin and the (most likely apocryphal) story behind it: the Turkish Sultan Mehmed IV wrote a letter to the Zaporozhian Cossacks in which he commanded them to cease and desist any and all attacks on his army and territory and furthermore to submit to his rule. Uncharacteristically, the cossacks responded with a letter of their own. Quite characteristically, the letter is filled with profanities and denigrating comments on the Sultan, his character, combat abilities and personal hygiene and the only thing missing is an obligatory reference to his mother.
Some time ago, I stumbled upon a paper (archived PDF) by Victor Friedman of University of Chicago where he analyzes the textual history of the legend and the linguistic peculiarities of its most popular recension. Now that it's cited on Wikipedia, it's too late for me to brag about the discovery, so just go and read the whole thing. And after you do, you might want to know this: it turns out that the incident was recreated for the 2009 Russian movie "Тарас Бульба". Watching the YouTube clip of the scene in question, you will note that while the imagery is quite faithful to Repin's painting, the language is not what you would expect from a bunch of Ukrainian cossacks. For one, the movie version replaces the Arabic/Turkish loan шайтан by чёрт and omits the reference to Devil's excrements the Sultan's army is allegedly in the habit of consuming ("... чорт сере/викидае, а твое військо пожирае..."). But most importantly, the language is - with some exceptions - quite obviously Modern Russian: Russian такой instead of Ukrainian такий, чёртово [t͡ʃortava] instead of чорта [t͡ʃorta], самого pronounced as [samova] instead of [samoho], ёжа (hedgehog-ACC) instead of їжака and so on. Even though, as Friedman notes, the language of the letter is not exactly pure Ukrainian, but rather a "Late East South South East Slavic" dialect heavily influenced by Russian, it still somewhat grinds my ears to hear sons of the steppe speak Russian. Ah well, it's still a pretty cool scene.

Friday, September 11, 2009


On Monday at Steiner's, I picked up a biography of Ján Stanislav, one of the greatest Slovak linguists of the 20th century. When I finally got to reading it earlier today, I stumbled across an anecdote from Stanislav's student years. It perfectly illustrates languagehat's observations on the influence of German learning on Russian intelectual history and shows that's it's not just the Russians who owe German scholars a great deal:

Keď raz študent povedal Milošovi Weingartovi, že nevie dobre po nemecky - dostal nemeckú knihu do referátu - profesor povedal: "Němčina jest najdůležitejší [sic] slovanský jazyk" a boli sme odzbrojení ...

When on one occasion, one of the students told Miloš Weingart that his German wasn't so good - he had just been assigned a book in German - the professor said: "German is the most important Slavic language" and there was no more excuse for us ...