Sunday, March 17, 2013

Russian Word Origins: Professional and Amateur Etymology

Some Russians, when talking about the Russian language, like to use examples of amateur linguistics or amateur etymologyAmateur etymology refers to the derivation of words using methods that are not based on the foundations of historical linguistics, but based instead on coincidences and personal, subjective interpretation (which may be subconsciously influenced by nationalism, political/religious views, etc). Amateur linguistics is essentially the same thing, but on a broader scale - that is, it deals with not only the origins of words (which is a very specific part of historical linguistics), but other areas of linguistics as well. 

Now, why am I writing about all this in my blog?  If you interact with Russians, you will notice that some of them are interested in telling you the "secret" or "mystical" origins of Russian words - origins that are based on amateur linguistics.  If you're a novice at Russian, you may be convinced that these are actually the true origins, and they might even help you remember the meaning of words.  But if you are planning to teach Russian or write a paper on Slavic linguistics, these "mystical" etymologies will not hold up, and you will not be taken seriously, because they have not been verified in the field of professional linguistics.  A little bit later in this post, I will talk about the word любовь (love) and an interesting etymology that I was told about.

First, a few links.  If you can read Russian, you should check out A. A. Zaliznyak's lecture from 2009 on the differences between professional and amateur linguistics - he also explains why amateur research is more prevalent in the fields of linguistics and foreign language learning than in other fields such as physics, chemistry, or biology.  The full text of the lecture is available on this site

Also take a look at Mikhail Zadornov's monologue about the Russian language, where he brings up a lot of examples of amateur etymology (I get the feeling that it is being done in a tongue-in-cheek sort of way).

I also want to mention a post that should be interesting even to people who don't study/understand Russian - it is a satirical post made by Mark Rosenfelder called "Deriving Proto-World with tools you probably have at home."  Rosenfelder's post makes it clear how easy it is to take a bunch of words and make it look like groups of linguistically unrelated words are actually related.

Back to Zaliznyak:  I am not going to provide an English translation for the entire lecture, but I do want to translate/paraphrase the very last section, where he gives some examples of how to recognize instances of amateur linguistics.

Excerpt from A. A. Zaliznyak, "About Professional and Amateur Linguistics"

I will finish by pointing out some simple signs, according to which any reader will be able to immediately tell that the information presented is not an essay about language on the academic level, but on the amateur level. 

An essay about the Russian language is on the amateur level if at least one of the following occurs:
  • The author explains that one word came from another word by claiming that "Sound A can turn into Sound B."  (That is, with no restrictions on the languages or time periods involved.)
  • The author claims that "vowels bear no meaning, and only the "consonant skeleton" carries any importance."
  • The author claims that "Word A came about as a result of reading Word B backwards."
  • The author tries to prove etymology by taking an ancient inscription from another country and reading the letters as if they were Russian (Cyrillic) letters.
  • The author claims that Name A of a city or river of a distant country is simply a distorted version of Russian Word B.  (When the country, on the contrary, was never populated or controlled by Russians).
  • The author claims that an ancient language derives from Russian (specifically the modern version of Russian as it is used in the present day).
  • The author claims that 3,000/5,000/10,000/70,000/ years ago, Russians (specifically Russians, not their biological ancestors), did so-and-so.

Of course, these are not the only ways one can recognize instances of amateur linguistics.  If you have a background in linguistics or have access to dictionaries with etymological information (such as Wiktionary of Vasmer's Online Dictionary, which I will be linking to below), you will have the tools to determine whether a given statement about a Russian word is based on amateur linguistics or professional linguistics. 

Now, on to the word любовь (love).  In amateur linguistics, there exists an idea that любовь is actually an abbreviation of three words - люди Бога ведают.  Sometimes I wonder who thought it up, and how it became popular.

I think there are a few factors that influenced the popularity of this particular etymology.  The first factor is that the word спасибо, one of the most important words in Russian, has an etymology that actually does derive from an abbreviation (спаси тебя Бог), and this etymology is attested in official sources.  The second factor is that since 1917, the Russian language has been filled with terms (many of them related to political bodies or official institutions) that are derived from abbreviations.  Many of these kinds of words are most closely associated with communism and/or the Soviet Union (e.g. колхоз, совхоз, политбюро), but many of these are still in use today (универмаг, филфак).

These factors show that this syllable-based form of derivation is not alien to the Russian language.  But some people take this information and jump to the conclusion that all Russian words must be derived this way.  Even after being shown academic sources like Vasmer's Etymological Dictionary, some (not all) Russians believe that the etymologies provided by Vasmer are not the "true" or "real" etymologies of these words, and that the "true" etymology of all Russian words is found by looking at the letters and syllables themselves.

So, beware of these etymologies!  Here is some information on the word's true origins.  Here are other Russian words that derive from the same root (this comes from George Z. Patrick's Roots of the Russian Language, the hyphens are there just to show the separation of the lexical root люб from other morphological parts).

люб-езность - kindness, courtesy
люб-итель - lover, amateur, layman
люб-ительский - amateur, amateurish
люб-ить - to love, like
люб-оваться - to admire
люб-ой - any, whichever one likes
раз-люб-ить - to become indifferent, to cease to love

The Wiktionary entry on любовь (which takes its etymology information from Vasmer) lists the etymology as follows:
Происходит от праслав. формы, от которой в числе прочего произошли: др.-русск., ст.-слав. любъ (др.-греч. ποθεινός), русск. любо, любой, любый «дорогой», укр. любий, словенск. ljȗb, ljúbа ж., чешск. libý «милый, любимый, приятный», стар. ľubý, польск., в.-луж., н.-луж. luby. Отсюда любовь ж., укр. любов, др.-русск., ст.-слав. любы (род. п. любъве, др.-греч. ἀγάπη), сербохорв. љуби, љубав, словенск. ljubȃv ж. «любовь». Родственно лит. liaupsė̃ «почет; хвалебная песнь», liáupsinti «восхвалять», др.-инд. lúbhyati «желает», lōbhas «желание, жажда», lōbháyati «возбуждает желание», готск. liufs, др.-в.-нем. liob «дорогой, милый»; с другим вокализмом: др.-в.-нем. lоb ср. р. «хвала», готск. lubains ж. «надежда», galaubjan «верить», оск. loufir «vel», лат. lubet, libet «угодно», lubīdō, libīdō «(страстное) желание», алб. lарs «желаю, жажду». Русск. любодей, прелюбодей заимств. из церк.-слав.: ст.-слав. любы дѣІАти, прѣлюбы дѣІАти — стар. вин. п. ед. ч. от любы.
 And now let's look at the etymology of the English word love, also shown on Wiktionary:
From Middle English love, luve, from Old English lufu ("love, affection, desire"), from Proto-Germanic *lubō (love), from Proto-Indo-European *lewbʰ-, *leubʰ- (love, care, desire). Cognate with Old Frisian luve ("love"), Old High German luba ("love"). Related to Old English lēof ("dear, beloved"), līefan ("to allow, approve of"), Latin libet, lubō ("to please") and Albanian lyp ("to beg, ask insistently"), lips ("to be demanded, needed"), Serbo-Croatian ljubiti, ljubav, Russian любовь, любить.

The truth of the matter is that любовь is etymologically related to English love, German Liebe (love), and Latin libīdō (pleasure, inclination, fancy, longing - which is where the English term libido comes from).  There is nothing here about "люди Бога ведают".

Monday, March 4, 2013

The Inspirational Story of Dr. Mary Hobson, Who Received Her Ph.D in Russian When She Was 74 Years Old

One of the most common misconceptions about language learning is that you need to be very young in order to reach a high level of proficiency/fluency in a language.  While it may be advantageous to have many years ahead of you, it is not an absolute necessity.  Dr. Mary Hobson took on the task of learning Russian at 56 years old.  She not only managed to achieve a high level of proficiency in Russian, but she also finished her Ph.D at the age of 74 and received the Pushkin Gold Medal for translation.  When one looks at the achievements of Dr. Hobson, one can understand that older language learners can be very successful if they have a high level of motivation and interest.  So, if you are older and are having second thoughts about taking up a new language simply because of your age, take a closer look at Dr. Hobson's story and think again!

There are already numerous articles written about Dr. Hobson in English and Russian, and a small number of videos have also been released.  In this video, for example, Dr. Hobson reads aloud her own English translation of the opening to Pushkin's Eugene Onegin, then talks in Russian about how she started to learn Russian and how she first came across Tolstoy's War and Peace.

An interview with Dr. Hobson in Moscow was recently filmed and uploaded to YouTube.  The interview lasts an hour and twenty minutes, and I have provided a short summary of the Russian-language portion of the video (this is for those who are interested in the content but don't understand Russian; everyone else can get the information directly from the video).  It's not meant to be a word-for-word translation; just a general idea. 

Dr. Hobson sharing her translation work with staff in Moscow.

The first half of the interview was mostly in Russian, then the interview shifted to Dr. Hobson reading the English translations of Pushkin's works while a native Russian speaker read aloud the Russian version.  A Q&A session occurred afterwards - it began in Russian but continued in English (this was done so that students who don't speak Russian would still be able to understand her thoughts while watching the video).

According to the interviewer, Vladimir Nabokov said that it was impossible for one to translate the verses of Pushkin into English-language verses without distorting the literal meaning.  The interviewer remarked that Dr. Hobson was able to not only render Pushkin's verses into literally accurate English verses, but she was able to do the same with those of Griboedov's, which are full of metaphors. 

Dr. Hobson said that she was in the hospital for two weeks, and her daughter, Emma, came to her with a copy of Tolstoy's War and Peace, saying "Here, Mom!  There won't ever be a better time to read War and Peace."  She mentioned that this was the first time in her life that she had read Russian literature, and the impression was enormous; when she had arrived at the last page, she asked herself, "Where have Pierre and all of these characters gone off to?"  Dr. Hobson realized that she had not read War and Peace, but simply a translation of the work.  Her first thought was a sad one - "I am never going to read War and Peace in the original!", but her second thought was an inspirational one - "I need to learn Russian so that I can read it!". 

Dr. Hobson originally started learning Russian when she was 56, but at age 62 she decided to take a more serious approach to her Russian studies, and she enrolled at the University of London, where she studied for four years (including one year spent in Moscow, studying at the Moscow State Linguistic University).   A professor in Moscow told her that there was a great comedy written by Griboedov called Woe from Wit (Горе от ума) that was impossible to translate into English.  Dr. Hobson thought, "Maybe it is possible, who knows!".  She went to the university library, took a copy of Woe from Wit, and started working on an English translation, noting that the text was full of witty characters and colorful personalities. 

Dr. Hobson started looking at the works of Pushkin only after she had already done a lot of reading in Russian.  An old immigrant had given her a copy of The Bronze Horseman (Медный всадник) as a gift.   This was the very first poem that Dr. Hobson had translated.  A little more than a year ago, Dr. Hobson re-read the translation that she had made during that time (this was circa 1990), and she thought to herself, "Oh, the horror!  It's so bad, I need to do it all over!".  Dr. Hobson re-translated it, of course. 

Dr. Hobson's favorite work of Pushkin's is Eugene Onegin.  She reads aloud sections of her English translation of Eugene Onegin, noting that she now knows the translation by heart as a result of having worked so hard on it.  Dr. Hobson said that when had gotten to the end of her translation, she felt almost in tears and started to wonder how Pushkin felt when he had finished his masterpiece.

In 1991, Dr. Hobson bought around 200 books while she was still in Russia.  Her favorite literary period is the 19th century, and her favorite author of that period is Jane Austen.  She sees the same kind of "surprising simplicity" in the works of Austen as she sees in the works of Pushkin. 

Further in the video, Dr. Hobson read aloud some of her English translations of Pushkin's works while a native Russian speaker read aloud the original Russian. 

From the questions:
Dr. Hobson noted that English sentences often are in the meter of the iamb.  What she searches for in her translations are places where there is a shared rhythm in both the original Russian and the English.  She thinks this is the reason why it may be easier to translate poetry from Russian to English than, for example, from Russian to German.  (The rest of the Q&A was in English - you can listen to the remaining questions by following the link.)

Anyway, I think the entire interview is worth watching!  For those interested in more information, here are some additional links:

Friday, March 1, 2013

Book Review - Streetwise Russian (Jack Franke, Ph.D)

No one can claim to have a complete knowledge of Russian slang.  Experts believe that every hour 50 new slang terms appear in the Russian language, just like in English.  Nevertheless, it is important to study slang because it is organic and, most likely, a necessary part of the language.  Streetwise Russian

I have mentioned in previous blog posts that slang is an important part of any language, and becoming highly proficient in a foreign language involves not only being able to understand formal speech, but also being able to work your way through situations where informal language is more prevalent - such as dealing with younger generations.  

It has been difficult to find high-quality English-language resources for Russian slang - some are simply outdated, while others devote too much attention to русский мат (the most offensive Russian obscenities).  Streetwise Russian, by Jack Franke, Ph.D., is an exception - it is full of dialogues, cultural notes, commentary on word formation, practice exercises, and even a CD full of .mp3 files so that the reader can listen to all of the dialogues and vocabulary words from the glossary.  I would say that this is the best English-language resource I've seen so far for Russian slang.

Book Structure


The book starts off with a short introduction and then proceeds to the main section of the book.  There are 11 chapters in total, and they are divided into the following sections:

Section I:  Guy Talk - "Guy Talk", "Military Service", "Drinking"
Section II: Girl Talk - "Girl Talk", "The New Russians", "At the Club", "In the Groove", "Boutique Shopping"
Section III: Teenager Talk - "Don't Play Dumb", "Hot Bodies", "Stay Cool"

Each chapter contains 1-3 dialogues.  The conversation in Russian is given first, then its translation in English.  Following that is a vocabulary section (each slang Russian word is provided in the left column, while the English translation and equivalent literary Russian words are provided in the right column).  After that are exercises to practice your knowledge (matching columns, sentence translations, crossword puzzles) and a page or two of cultural notes regarding whatever topic the dialogues focus on. 
Following this section is the answer key to all of the exercises and crossword puzzles, and then an English/Russian and Russian/English index for all of the vocabulary words.

Audio Material

There is a large amount of audio material for this course.  For each chapter, separate audio files in .mp3 format are given for each of the conversations, the vocabulary words introduced in each chapter, and any Russian words or sentences that appear in the "Cultural Notes" section.  A separate .mp3 file is also given for each individual Russian word/phrase in the glossary.  All of this can be accessed by browsing the folders on the CD.

Positive Aspects

This book was released in 2010, which automatically gives this book an edge over other slang-related materials I've used which were released in the 1990s and 2000s.  As I have mentioned in other posts, the year of publication carries a lot of weight when it comes to slang-related materials, since slang expressions tend to change at a faster rate than standard forms of speech.  When looking through other books of slang expressions, such as Topol's Dermo! or even the Dirty Russian book (which Viktoriya of gave a great review of), I noticed that there were many phrases in those books that I had never heard, despite having spent a lot of time around young people in Russia.  As I looked through Streetwise Russian, on the other hand, I constantly saw phrases that I remembered hearing on a day-to-day basis in Russia. 

The intro to the book was well-written.  It was very brief and only lasted a couple of pages, but it gave a clear indication of who should and shouldn't use this book, and how the book should be used.

Going a little deeper, I saw that the "Vocabulary" section included not only English translations of each of the slang words, but also synonyms in standard literary Russian for each word.  I think that this is very important.  Ideally, when one learns a foreign language, one should have a strong foundation in standard expressions that can be used with all audiences before delving into slang words that are only acceptable when you are having a very informal conversation with friends.  This book does a good job of providing different ways, both slang and literary, to express a given situation.  The only thing that bothers me about that section is that sometimes other slang terms are given along with the "neutral" literary forms, though according to the intro, the book is geared more towards those who already know the standard forms.

Another thing that stood out - and I'm going to consider this a positive aspect - is that there is no мат at all (despite having a fair share of words that are very rude nevertheless).  There are some euphemisms here and there, but most of the slang words in this book have no connection to мат.  It is nice to see a comprehensive book on slang that shows that there is more to colloquial Russian speech than spouting obscenities, especially considering that мат tends to get a disproportionate amount of coverage.

Last but not least, I want to mention how great it is that this course came with audio.  Many books, especially those dealing with slang, lack audio, so this is a big plus!

Negative Aspects

I want to preface this by saying that this is an extremely good book - the things I am pointing out are for the most part just nitpicks and probably shouldn't dissuade you from getting this book.

The first negative thing that stood out to me was that none of the Russian dialogues or vocabulary words have stress marks.  Now, the presence of audio material does partially make up for this flaw, but it would still be good to have the stress marks in case one loses the CD or mp3 files.  Given the amount of hard work that went into making this book, I can't imagine that it would ahve been that difficult to put stress marks above all of the Russian words.

Now for some specifics.  The lesson discussing the Russian army hazing (дедовщина) contains a short list of links to Internet videos on the subject.  I have a number problems with this.  First, whether you own the hard copy of the book or the .PDF file, you are going to have to type in the URLs yourself (one is a YouTube URL, one is to a video hosted on, and one is a RuTube URL that was shortened with Tinyurl).  I don't think most people would have the patience to meticulously type in each URL, especially given the fact that the book doesn't tell what each video is about (other than the fact that they all are related to Russian army hazing).  The second problem is that these videos are all hosted on public video hosting sites.  I checked them out and the links do work, but it is a well-known fact that videos on YouTube and other places have a habit of disappearing; the channel owner may close his channel, YouTube may shut down the channel, or the owner might decide he doesn't want the videos up anymore.  Lastly, I think URL shorteners like Tinyurl should be avoided in all professional publications.  You can't tell what address a Tinyurl will lead you to, and URL shorteners have been used in the past to direct unsuspecting users to sites that have viruses.  Now, how could this problem have been solved?  I think that this book should have included all video material on the CD itself (with acknowledgments as to where the videos originally came from).  The тусовка chapter also suffers from this problem - some of the URLs contain long sequences of letters and numbers - most people wouldn't have the patience to type all that out. 

There is a sentence that reads "Whereas in English there are usually feminine names for weapons and military equipment, Russian uses both male and female names."  There are two things wrong with this statement - first, "male" and "female" refer to biological sex, never to the gender of a word.  "Masculine and feminine" should be used instead.  Also, Russian not only uses masculine and feminine names, but neuter ones too (the word бревно is given as one of the examples.)

I mentioned that the lack of мат is a positive aspect, but since this book contains euphemisms for the мат expressions, I think an asterisk or some other symbol should have been included to indicate that it is a мат-derived euphemism, just to be safe. 

Who should use this book?

This book has a lot of practical value and it would be a good idea to look through it before going on a trip to Russia (or any Russian-speaking country).  Aside from the slang, there is some good information in the cultural notes of each chapter, such as a list of toasts for men and women on different occasions, common Russian superstitions, rules on forming Russian words with prefixes and suffixes (actually pretty thorough!).

There is also a nice discussion of Russian slang in general, how it is used, how certain words have shifted in and out of slang over time, etc.

Because this book contains exercises, it could probably be used in a classroom too if they wanted to do a unit on Russian slang.

So if you're interested in Russian slang, definitely pick up this book along with Barron's Dictionary of Russian Slang!