Ask Language Log: Iowa mystery image

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David Donnell:

A friend in Ames, Iowa, sent me this photo of a small framed picture she purchased at a garage sale in her town. She is curious what the language is, and what it says…in English.

She added, “I got the impression from the other items at this woman's sale that she had done some traveling and picked up souvenirs from all over the world. (I could be wrong, though!)”

Myself, I am clueless about what language it is, and clueless how to even google it! (I tried a Google image search and got nothing useful, and googling the word “Capamoba” also didn’t help.)

The letters are clearly cyrillic, and the top line is clearly

с любовью = "with love" in Russian

The second line is

из <PlaceName> = "from <PlaceName>"

I'm less certain about what the place name is, but  the -a at the end is the genitive case, and the apparent 'm' with a stroke over it is probably a semi-cursive 't', in which case the place might be Saratov, and the whole text would be

с любовью из Саратова = "with love from Saratov".

It's slightly puzzling how a woman from Ames, Iowa, would have picked up a souvenir from Saratov, though, since as Wikipedia explains

Until the end of the Soviet Union in 1991, Saratov was designated a "closed city", that is, strictly off limits to all foreigners due to its military importance. This was due to the presence of a vital military aircraft manufacturing facility in the city.

Maybe the woman was actually a Russian emigrée? Or someone picked it up on a trip before WW I or after 1991? I guess a post-1991 cruise on the Volga would be the most likely source.

Unless I've interpreted the m-ish letter wrong, and it's a different place name?





  1. FM said,

    June 7, 2015 @ 11:08 pm

    Yes, it says "With love from Saratov."

  2. Michael Sullivan said,

    June 8, 2015 @ 12:23 am

    Yes, "With love/From Saratov." Perhaps the closed city wasn't totally de-existenced effectively enough. Or the city was closed, but its existence wasn't totally censored. Or, on the other hand, maybe someone smuggled something through….

  3. Oop said,

    June 8, 2015 @ 12:29 am

    Actually, it was not forbidden in U.S.S.R. to sell post cards mentioning one place in other areas, so that might explain some of the mystery. But by the look of it, I'd also say the card was made later than 1991.

    I'm rather a little surprised the "m-ish letter" has been marked with the stroke, as most people won't do it even in handwriting. Then again, perhaps it makes the card look a little more "hand-made".

  4. January First-of-May said,

    June 8, 2015 @ 1:43 am

    Definitely Saratov. Reminds me of that one puzzle on Omniglot a few years ago (at least that's what my memory is telling me – couldn't find it anymore) where someone posted an old Soviet knife with a price marking and asked the people there to read the inscription… the replies he got were pretty darned silly.

    On the date… the font looks awfully modern to me, to be honest. Not sure why. I suspect it's from the 1990s or later; twenty years is more than enough time for its travels to happen (though I suppose it could still be Soviet – maybe it comes from some Russian person who visited Saratov and then emigrated later).

  5. VanyaJosefstadt said,

    June 8, 2015 @ 1:51 am

    It's been 24 years since Saratov was a closed city. It is a fairly major Russian city, and one of the nicer ones. It got a lot of attention from NGO and business types once the USSR fell apart. I visited it in the mid 90s for a USAID sponsored conference on agricultural privatization. In fact, I am fairly sure there were some American farmer types from Iowa at that conference, but that is probably a coincidence. I don't find it that surprising that some souvenir flotsam could have floated to Iowa during the decades. I don't see anything that indicates the framed picture is particularly old, looks like typical modern Russian kitsch to me.

  6. John Swindle said,

    June 8, 2015 @ 1:52 am

    Saratov may have been a closed city for a while, but its existence wasn't any kind of secret. It had already been an administrative and commercial center and Volga River port under the czars. American descendants of Volga Germans from the Saratov area were among those who took (and still take) Volga River cruises to visit an ancestral homeland. The photograph found in Iowa was probably from such a cruise. Wouldn't cruise boats always have stopped at Saratov, or else across the river at Engels, even if tourists couldn't roam the city of Saratov?

  7. John Swindle said,

    June 8, 2015 @ 1:54 am

    And I don't know why I called it a "photograph."

  8. Keith said,

    June 8, 2015 @ 2:19 am

    I also confirm what the others said. That form of the lower case Cyrillic letter "т" does look somewhat like a Latin "m" with a bar, but this is perfectly normal for handwriting (and it's the way I was taught in university). Moreover, if you put that letter into italic in a web browser, you'll probably find that the font has a shape like that in the picture. Let's try that "Саратов" .

  9. Keith said,

    June 8, 2015 @ 2:22 am

    I also confirm what the others said. That form of the lower case Cyrillic letter "т" does look somewhat like a Latin "m" with a bar, but this is perfectly normal for handwriting (and it's the way I was taught in university). Moreover, if you put that letter into italic in a web browser, you'll probably find that the font has a shape like that in the picture. Let's try that "Саратов" .

  10. Keith said,

    June 8, 2015 @ 2:50 am

    Oops… typing from my cellphone had the unexpected effect of double posting my comment. And now that I see it on a computer, I see that the font used to display the page for me has the same shape for upright as for oblique "т", rather than displaying the italic shape that looks like a Latin "m"

  11. Pflaumbaum said,

    June 8, 2015 @ 5:49 am

    Does anyone know why the /v/ of любовъю stays hard, even though it is palatalised in the genitive, dative and locative?

    Also – I hope this isn't too off-topic – what is the history behind Russian labials getting an epenthetic /l/ when palatalised before /u/, as in люблю?

  12. austimatt said,

    June 8, 2015 @ 6:54 am

    @Pflaumbaum – this is actually the instrumental case after с (with) and it's the soft sign ь rather than the hard sign ъ.

  13. HomerM said,

    June 8, 2015 @ 9:14 am

    nn = m, uu = Ш, — in Cyrillic handwriting, the "T" looks like an 'n' with a second vertical loop, while the letter for "Sh" looks like a 'u' with a second vertical loop. For clarity, if the loop is on top, the horizonal bar is above the letter for 'm'. The bar is below if the loop is on the bottom for 'Sh'. For those whose handwritten forms are mostly vertical zigzags, the bars are essential for clarity, and sometimes used to clarify 'и' and 'п' ['i' and 'p'] as well.

  14. shubert said,

    June 8, 2015 @ 10:16 am

    The word epenthetic leads me to: enwrap and envy, about which I am writing an article.

  15. Lane said,

    June 8, 2015 @ 10:27 am

    Seems like a good few European handwriting styles have so many letters with near-identical strokes that certain letters are distinguished with bars above them, especially as they may come in a row and so be impossible to distinguish otherwise. Cyrillic cursive "p" (as in the sound that begins "pie") looks like an American cursive "n", so words with both a p and a t next to each other might be a confusing mess without the bar over the "t". I was also taught to put a bar over the letter ш, transliterated as "sh", since it could otherwise get mixed up with the writing of the letters m, i and others… I hated writing in cursive. Confusing.

    Here in Germany, in a traditional old handwriting, the letter "u" looks pretty identical to "n" in cursive, so "u" was written with a bar over it. Which is slightly confusing, since "u" can also take an umlaut", and the unwary novice can mistake the bar for an umlaut. Here's a picture of it. (In old fashioned signs of the "Ye Olde" type here, "u" often still has a bar over it.)

  16. Pat Barrett said,

    June 8, 2015 @ 3:27 pm

    The comments on the Russian are accurate, from my knowledge, except the letter sh is underlined and the t has a bar over the top. The upright strokes of letters are called minims in English are that's why we spell 'love' with an o: because a u and a v and an l all in a row would look like a stockade (chastokol in Russ.): /////e.

  17. Taira said,

    June 8, 2015 @ 4:54 pm

    As some people have noted here, the font is from the 90s. It doesn't look like modern Russian kitsch to me (I live in Russia), but it does look like a piece of the 90s kitsch, with one of these early Cyrillic fonts that arrived with the first PCs.
    @Pflaumbaum – austimatt is absolutely right: this is the soft sign (ь).

  18. Frank Y. Gladney said,

    June 9, 2015 @ 12:35 am

    @ Pat Barrat. С любовью is spelled with an o because that’s how it’s pronounced. It’s pronounced that way because the stem of this noun is любъв-, where ъ is a fleeting vowel, pronounced o when the next syllable has another fleeting vowel, as in nominative любовь and instrumental любовью, but not when it’s a regular vowel, as in genitive любви.

  19. John Ohno said,

    June 9, 2015 @ 9:31 am

    It seems strange to me that a closed city would produce tourist kitsch. However, it doesn't seem strange at all that a russian-speaking american with a dark sense of humor and a knowledge of closed cities might him-or-her-self produce a piece of ersatz russian kitsch as a joke, reveling in the irony of having a tourist item supposedly from a closed city.

  20. Ben Hemmens said,

    June 9, 2015 @ 10:09 am


    »u can also take an umlaut", and the unwary novice can mistake the bar for an umlaut.«

    Not only that, but most people I know write the umlaut as a bar, at least when writing quickly.

  21. Vanya said,

    June 9, 2015 @ 4:58 pm

    @Taira – To my mind early 1990s Russian kitsch is "modern", I am getting old I guess.

  22. January First-of-May said,

    June 9, 2015 @ 6:29 pm

    @ Pat Barrett: Once, in a children's book, I encoutered the word лишит ("will deprive" 3sg) that, like the rest of the passage, was in a connected cursive font – it basically came out as a long sequence of vertical strokes that changed direction slightly near the end. Took me a few seconds to figure out that this bunch of strokes was even a word (which specific word it was supposed to be was, fortunately, fairly obvious from the context).
    At least it wasn't лишишь ("will deprive" 2sg), which would've been a much longer unbroken sequence of identical vertical strokes…

    @ Frank Y. Gladney: To clarify a bit, the "fleeting vowel" used to be a kind of very short vowel, which during the development of Old East Slavic changed differently in different environments (mainly based on stress) – producing the modern "fleeting vowel" effect.
    IIRC, in this particular word (and many other words ending in -овь), the nominative form is a back-formation from the genitive, but that doesn't really matter for the result anyway.

    On the picture:
    I agree with VanyaJosefstadt that this definitely looks modern (post-1990), not Soviet.
    Taira about hit the mark on dating IMHO (mid to late 1990s), but I'd base it on the picture itself (which looks like it's from the early 1990s, just after the Soviet period ended and everyone tried to embrace their traditional roots), not the text font (which by itself I would've dated a few years later – perhaps early to mid 2000s).
    It's all just my own impression, however; it's probably impossible to seriously date stuff like that so precisely.

    As for tourist items from closed cities, there were, in fact, Saratov postcards during the Soviet era (one of them is pictured here).
    That said, even today it is still hardly forbidden to sell tourist items referring to different nearby places, particularly if these different places are larger towns and/or administrative centers; this gave me quite some trouble when I tried to pick up an item for whatever actual town I've been to – turned out that stuff sold in Karmiel/Byala is much more likely to mention the nearby larger towns of Akko and Haifa/Obzor and Nesebar. (And don't even get me started about Kem…)
    For that matter, Saratov was likely not particularly "closed" as far as local Soviet tourists (from, say, Moscow, Kiev or Samara) were concerned; after all, it was a major administrative center, and its mention in a well-known 1950s song didn't really hurt either. It's not unlikely that some of them would've taken local postcards, and then emigrated to the West with all of that stuff later. However, this is again beside the point, as the framed picture in question is clearly not of Soviet style (as had been mentioned above, it is probably from the late 1990s).

  23. Frank Y. Gladney said,

    June 10, 2015 @ 12:03 am

    To clarify January First-of-May’s clarification: vowels in Old East Slavic weren’t “very short”, only short enough to differ from long vowels. And ъ lowering to o was not based on stress; the unstressed ъ in the stem of лапъкъ (paws, genitive) also shifts to o (лапок). Nominative любовь is not a back formation from genitive любви; it’s the accusative любовь replacing the old nominative любы

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