Friday 24 June 2011

post-soviet footnotes

As footnotes to recent postings, here are two nice pictures. The first (thanks, Istvan Ertl) is a sign from the St Petersburg metro. It directs Russians to keep to the left, but tells foreigners… to collide with them.

The second is from Latvia, sent to me by Stephen Bryant. It relates not to Russian but to Latvian, a language strongly influenced by Russian during the days of the Soviet Union. Unlike most other languages that use the Latin alphabet, Latvian always respells loanwords from foreign languages in accordance with the usual Latvian spelling/reading rules. As we saw (blog, 2 June), Russian does this too — it’s unavoidable, of course, for languages that use a writing system other than the Latin alphabet. So cheeseburger takes on another new guise, čīzburger. Note also bekonu (bacon, with a case ending).

Latvian is one of the very few modern languages that use the symbol ī (with macron, to show the length of the vowel). Is it actually the only one, or do readers know of others? This letter is used in the name of the capital, Riga, written in Latvian as Rīga.


  1. Serbian also respells all loanwords: džip /dʒip/ for jeep, vikend /'ʋikend/ for weekend.

    Serbian's unusual though in that it uses two parallel spelling systems (Latin & Cyrillic) with a one-to-one correspondence between them. I suppose the respelling of loanwords in both otrhographies would be required to keep the two in synch.

    Does Croatian respell loanwords too?

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  2. According to Wikipedia, Hawaiian, Maori, Tongan, Samoan, Niuean and other Polynesian languages.

  3. @Pete - as far as I know, yes. However proper names are not respelled in Croatian the way they are in Serbian.
    So for example if you walked into a Croatian bookstore and picked up a copy of a Harry Potter book, you would see the main character referred to as 'Harry', whereas in the Serbian translation you would get 'Hari' throughout.
    I know I found this practice unsettling when I was a kid in Serbia reading books that had been printed in Zagreb. Largely due to the fact that I had no idea how to pronounce most of the names. :)

    Generally speaking though, when it comes to loanwords Croatian has a tendency to use calques where Serbian would just use a direct loan (this is especially the case with older loans that came from German).
    For example Sr. firma, Cr. tvrtka (tvrd = firm); Sr. geografija, Cr. zemljopis; Sr. sekretar, Cr. tajnik; Sr. univerzitet, Cr. sveučilište etc.

  4. My impression, though, is that the use of macrons in Polynesian languages is sometimes more theoretical; I've seen printed texts without them often enough.

    (I wonder whether this will change as the "proper" characters become more easily available in data processing.)

  5. Compare also this image (English-Welsh left-right difference)

  6. My wife tells me that the Russian for 'with bacon' is с бекономz bᴶe'konəm.

  7. respell[ing] loanwords from foreign languages in accordance with the usual ... spelling/reading rules [is] unavoidable, of course, for languages that use a writing system other than the Latin alphabet.

    I don't see why this is "unavoidable". There is no logical reason why a non-Roman-alphabet language could not spell loanwords according to some transliteration convention(s) that don't preserve the original pronunciation very well, just as English tends to do with its loanwords.

    However, I don't know of such a language. Hindi, for example, spells its English loanwords phonetically (according to the Indian English pronunciation, which may not always be identical to the pronunciation of native speakers).

  8. I'm sure you're familiar with Scymraeg, but just in case you're not...

  9. For Macron usage, see John Maidment's excellent 'Cedilla' system:
    It seems there are also African and Native American languages that use the macron.

  10. Actually, the 's' on the end of the Latvian word is there for a reason, something that always happens with borrowings from other languages: an 's' (pronounced /s/. Sometimes 'is', 'a', pronounced accordingly) is added so that they conform with the Latvian declensions of nouns (I, II and IV, respectively).

    So, while I understand that you have put 'čīzburger' as 'cheeseburger' reshaped via the Latvian spelling rules, I cannot help but make a comment that 'čīzburger' is not the basic form of this noun, and, in fact, is the Vocative case form.

    Also, there is no reason to believe that Russian has affected the way Latvian is spelled to any substantial degree (and the need to convert the flabby and gooey English spelling to its slim, buff and close-to-pronunciation Latvian counterpart is quite understandable and natural, to say the least).

  11. In Poland, respelling names and other words, even when written in the Latin alphabet, was the rule like deep into the twentieth century. We have e. g. Szekspir (Shakespeare), Wolter (Voltaire) and so on. Latvians and Lithuanians have preserved what we gave up.

  12. Do you mean to say, emperor-spock, that "s" is the nominative case ending for this word?

    I've also seen this for personal names when imported into Latvian, e.g. "Edwards" for somebody named "Edward".

  13. Ad Paul Clapham

    yes, -s is the nominative singular ending for most masculine nouns. Edvards. The Lithuanian counterpart is -as, e. g. Eduardas Miezelaitis, a poet.

  14. @Paul Clapham,

    There are six noun declensions in Latvian, whose endings are: I -s, II -is, III -us, IV -a, V -e, VI -s. The first three are for the masculine nouns, the last — for the feminine. There is not a single noun of Latvian origin that could be an exception to this, and all borrowings are adjusted by adding these endings so that they follow the declension they're in (the choice for a particular declension for a borrowing to take depends on a number of conditions, such as its original gender or euphony. In my previous comment, I said that borrowings were only accepted in the I, II, and IV declensions, while I've actually thought of an example for the fifth declension: 'prezidente' — president (female, male would be 'prezidents'). The III and the VI declensions do not contain any borrowings (not any recent ones, anyway)). There are a couple of words like 'radio' that don't follow this rule, and have the same form for all cases and numbers.

  15. Maladroit sign in the first picture

  16. Mandarin, written in Hanyu pinyin with tone marks, uses ī to indicate a first (high) tone.

    E.g. jī 机

  17. Having heard my wife as saying с беконом with palatalised 'soft' bᴶ, I gradually began to worry that the word was actually бэкон, with the vowel letter signalling non-palalised 'hard' b.

    My ear did not deceive. Бекон really is the transliteration of the cured pork product. However, the transliteration of the proper name (as in Francis, etc) is, indeed, Бэкон

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  19. ziliang: hang in is pronounced ˌhæŋˈɪn, with no break between the words. I would not call this 'liaison' since nothing is added: the second word just smoothly follows the first word.

  20. /e/ in loans into Russian is complicated. Traditionally it was written е but pronounced as though it were written э, e.g. in отель ʌˈtɛlʲ "hotel". As loans become more accepted into the Russian language, they start to behave like native words, and /e/ triggers palatalization of preceding consonants, and sometimes even shifts to /o/ as it does in native words, cf. шофёр ʂʌˈfʲɔr "chauffeur".

  21. I see that Francis Bacon is listed in the Latvian Vikipēdija as Frānsiss Bēkons.

  22. Better still, he's elsewhere listed as Sers Frānsiss Bēkons.

    His modern namesake, the artist, appears in the same case as the bacon on the burger:

    Google translation
    Studio: You mentioned a meeting with Francis Bacon.
    Original Latvian text:
    Studija: Jūs minējāt tikšanos ar Frānsisu Bēkonu.

  23. A very interesting article! However, I cannot see ANY influence of Russian on the Latvian language ("...a language strongly influenced by Russian") apart from the vocabulary of course.
    The ending -s does not indicate plural in Latvian but is the nominative case for masculine nouns.
    I am proud of my old and rare language!

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