Saturday, February 11, 2017

Language History

I recently wrote here about the Cambridge Histories. I ended up choosing to read the New Cambridge History of Islam first. I'm now about 58% through its first volume, and will post a review here once I get to the end. It's fascinating.

Since I wrote that post I became aware of the existence of a 6-volume Cambridge History of the English Language. I love linguistics and will likely read that whole thing eventually. That made me want to look at histories of other languages.

It turned out that the largest history of French contains 26 volumes which appeared between 1905 and 2000. However, the great majority of these were published before 1938. They were republished between 1966 and 1979, but I'm under the impression that only the bibliographies were updated then, not the main text. A lot of research must have gone on since then, so much of this stuff is probably obsolete.

The biggest modern history of French seems to be the 2-volume effort by Alain Rey. I bought its first volume through iBooks and browsed it a bit. It's much more pop-sci than the Cambridge History of English. So I don't know what I'll do with French yet.

I also looked for histories of Russian. I haven't found anything huge and thorough yet, but while searching I came upon this great video of professor Andrey Zaliznyak talking about the history of Russian for an hour. I already knew a lot of this, but it was fascinating to watch one of the biggest minds in that field express these things in his own words in real time. And some of what he said I didn't know until now.


During the middle ages the two main forms of Russian were the Novgorodian dialect and "all the rest". The differences between the speech of Vladimir, Moscow, Tver', Kiev, Chernigov, Polotsk etc. were minor, even though this huge area is now divided between three official state languages: Russian, Ukrainian and Belorussian. But the difference between the language of this huge area on the one hand, and the Novgorodian dialect on the other, were considerable. The latter covered all of northeastern Russia, the area where original-Slavs mixed with Estonian-like Finnic speakers.

Zaliznyak implied that the Novgorodian dialect was the most divergent member of the Slavic branch in general and that it must have split from the original Slavic core very early, perhaps before all the others. He said that in the earliest available birch bark letters, ones written in the 11th century, the differences between the Novgorodian dialect and the rest of Russian were largest, and that during the 12th, 13th and 14th centuries Novgorodian speech gradually moved towards the dialect of the rest of Rus'. The dialect of Pskov, situated at the north-western edge of both medieval Rus' and modern Russia, was even more divergent than the Novgorodian one.

Zaliznyak said that this last bit of info - the greater divergence of the Novgorodian dialect at the start of Russian history than in the later Middle Ages - was only established in the last 25 years through the study of birch bark letters.

He also said that up through the 13th century the Novgorodians did not apply the word Rus' to themselves. In the 9th and 10th centuries this word only described Varangians, in the early 11th century it began to describe all of the people in the area around Kiev, including Preyaslavl and Chernigov. Then the definition widened to all of the Rurikid principalities except for Novgorod. And by the 14th century even Novgorodians started calling themselves Rus'. But there are birch bark letters from the 13th century where Novgorodians talk about Rus' as some other land that one could visit. By the way, in this interview Zaliznyak cautiously supported the theory that the original source of the word Rus' is the Norse word meaning "rowers".

Why did Zaliznyak talk so much about the Novgorodian dialect? First because he's the chief authority on birch bark letters, most of which were unearthed in Novgorod. Second, because the medieval Novgorodian dialect ended up greatly affecting modern standard Russian in which this interview was conducted.

In the late 15th century Novgorod lost an epic power struggle with Moscow. It's plausible to me that this might have had something to do with the beginning of the Little Ice Age. The agricultural productivity and population size of the far north would have probably gone down then. But this wasn't discussed in this interview because it was about language instead.

In the aftermath of Moscow's victory Ivan III ordered a series of population transfers. A lot of Novgorodians were resettled in the Muscovite heartland. The Novgorodian merchant elite was settled in the city of Moscow. And a lot of peasants from central Russia were settled in Novgorodian lands. I guess the logic was "if we disperse them, mixing them with others, they're not going to revolt." The Assyrian Empire did this in antiquity, as did many other states throughout the ages.

How large was the Novgorodian contribution to the later Muscovite language? Zaliznyak kind of implied that it was about half. I was surprised by that. And he gave some examples.

By the way, in the discussion that I linked to in this post someone theorized that Novgorodian influence is the reason why Russian is the most archaic modern Slavic language. The Novgorodian dialect split from the Slavic core early on and then moved towards the edge of the earth, touching on the Arctic Ocean. So for a while (we're talking 7th through 10th centuries) it was probably insulated from general Slavic trends, preserving some archaic features.

Anyway, this was all very interesting for me to listen to. If you got this far in this post, you might be a language nerd.

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