Chechens, Czechs, whatever

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"Statement of the Ambassador of the Czech Republic on the Boston terrorist attack", 4/19/2013:

As many I was deeply shocked by the tragedy that occurred in Boston earlier this month. It was a stark reminder of the fact that any of us could be a victim of senseless violence anywhere at any moment.

As more information on the origin of the alleged perpetrators is coming to light, I am concerned to note in the social media a most unfortunate misunderstanding in this respect. The Czech Republic and Chechnya are two very different entities – the Czech Republic is a Central European country; Chechnya is a part of the Russian Federation.

As the President of the Czech Republic Miloš Zeman noted in his message to President Obama, the Czech Republic is an active and reliable partner of the United States in the fight against terrorism. We are determined to stand side by side with our allies in this respect, there is no doubt about that.

Petr Gandalovič
Ambassador of the Czech Republic

Some examples of the problem:

More here.

And here are driving directions from Prague to Grozny:

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  1. Martin Coxall said,

    April 20, 2013 @ 5:49 am

    If you will pattern match only on the first phoneme, your racial profiling is not going to be that accurate.

    [(myl) In fairness, it's at least two phonemes, and if we accept the IPA's stubborn insistence on representing affricates as stop-fricative sequences, it's three: [tʃɛ]. Note that Chad and China have not been implicated. ]

    Also of disappointment to FOX News: the discovery that being in the Caucasus makes Chechens literally Caucasian.

  2. Ellen K. said,

    April 20, 2013 @ 9:47 am

    In addition to the first two phonemes being alike, there's there's the spelling similarity. "C_ech" in both, with the letter difference not marking a difference in pronunciation (except to the extent that it indicates the different pronunciation of the ch after the vowel).

    And then there's the fact that they aren't from Chechnya either. (Mixing up ethnicity and origin.)

  3. Jason said,

    April 20, 2013 @ 10:25 am

    In fairness, it's at least two phonemes, and if we accept the IPA's stubborn insistence on representing affricates as stop-fricative sequences, it's three: [tʃɛ].

    Holy mackeral. I always felt "tʃ" was wrong, somehow, and that "ch" was not simply just t + ʃ. You mean there are linguists who agree with my intuition?

    [(myl) Traditionally, American linguists have opted for the analysis of affricates (in appropriate cases at least) as single segments, typically using glyphs like [č] and [ǰ]. My uninformed impression is that the whole [tʃ] and [dʒ] thing was due to carry-over from French orthographic habits, and then was maintained by sheer stubbornness.]

  4. Victor Mair said,

    April 20, 2013 @ 11:18 am

    I am this very minute in Tokmok, where these Chechen brothers were born and grew up, their family having been sent here by Joseph Stalin, himself from Georgia (a state — like Chechnya — in the Caucasus).

  5. dw said,

    April 20, 2013 @ 11:38 am

    [(myl) In fairness, it's at least two phonemes, and if we accept the IPA's stubborn insistence on representing affricates as stop-fricative sequences, it's three: [tʃɛ]. Note that Chad and China have not been implicated. ]

    But in a __phonemic__ transcription, nothing in the IPA prevents the use of a single symbol, say /c/, to represent an affricate phoneme. Isn't your complaint here about a set of conventions for transcribing English with the IPA, rather than anything inherent to the alphabet itself?

    [(myl) The IPA won't hunt you down and punish you if you do this, it's true. You can use capital Q to mean a pre-aspirated velar stop if you want. But there's nothing in the IPA standard that authorizes any of these expedients.]

    Moreover, if the IPA were to define a new symbol for this affricate, then it would need a new symbol for every affricate found phonemically in the world's languages.

    Finally, I don't see why the use of two graphemes necessarily implies two phonemes here, any more than the use of two vowel symbols to represent a diphthong does.

  6. Cindy said,

    April 20, 2013 @ 12:17 pm

    This post actually ties into a question I was going to send along. Why is it Chechen instead of Chechnyan? And if it were Chechnyan, it would have helped avoid the Czech confusion, possibly.

    [(myl) The relationship between toponyms and ethnonyms is weird.]

  7. Vanya said,

    April 20, 2013 @ 12:26 pm

    Is there really widespread confusion in the US about this? It's pretty easy to find misunderstandings and confusion in the world of social media on almost any topic.

  8. Avinor said,

    April 20, 2013 @ 12:28 pm

    Does anyone know why English is using the *Polish* spelling of Czech?

  9. Joseph F Foster said,

    April 20, 2013 @ 12:35 pm

    The sound -singular represented orthographically by the "ch" and the borrowed "cz" digraph in words like Chechen and Czech pretty clearly in the systematic phonology of English is one phoneme — a voiceless stop with a delayed release, usually represented as [ č ]. It is not a cluster of a stop plus a fricative; it is not "two phonemes".

    If we take it as a cluster, we shall miss the overwhelmingly true generalization that English words that begin with a stop cannot have an obstruent as their second sound. And we shall have to claim that words like churck, chicken, churl, ….. are all foreign words and we would expect that English speakers would have about as much trouble pronouncing them as they do pronouncing things like Tsar, tsetse fly, …. .

  10. Ellen K. said,

    April 20, 2013 @ 1:17 pm

    Finally, I don't see why the use of two graphemes necessarily implies two phonemes here, any more than the use of two vowel symbols to represent a diphthong does.

    I don't see where anyone suggests is does. Thus the "if" in "if we accept…".

    The "at least two" refers to the affricate and the vowel.

  11. julie lee said,

    April 20, 2013 @ 1:49 pm

    I have been reading about Chechnya in Wikipedia and am intrigued by its ancient relationship to Circassia and Circassians, whose land has been historically known variously as Zigii, Zigoi, Zichia, Cherkess, Cherkessia, or Circassia. Both Circassia and Chechnya are in the Northern Caucasus. It's said the Circassian and Chechen languages both belong to an Ibero-Caucasian super language family.

  12. GeorgeW said,

    April 20, 2013 @ 2:15 pm

    From reports I have seen, the Tsarnaev brothers are ethnic Chechen. I have also seen several reports which mention them speaking Russian and a Russian interpreter being used by one of the news media to speak with the father.

    I wonder if this has been correctly reported, and if so, what it might suggest something about the families political and social identity.

    Of course, it is very possible that they are multi-lingual, including Russian, and use Russian outside the family and other Chechens.

  13. Joe said,

    April 20, 2013 @ 2:37 pm

    I think everyone agrees that if we are talking about English phonology, the consonantal sounds at the beginning and end of "church" or "judge" is one unit. The disagreement is about whether it is better to use two symbols or one for a phonetic description. I don't think there is a right answer here, as both positions have their merits.

  14. Avinor said,

    April 20, 2013 @ 2:48 pm

    GeorgeW: As I understand it, complete bilingualism with Russian is the normal situation for the ethnic minorities within Russia. If anything, it is proficiency in the ancestral languages that many are loosing or have already lost.

  15. dw said,

    April 20, 2013 @ 2:49 pm

    [(myl) The IPA won't hunt you down and punish you if you do this, it's true. You can use capital Q to mean a pre-aspirated velar stop if you want. But there's nothing in the IPA standard that authorizes any of these expedients.]

    The IPA handbook explicitly states that the explicit definitions for each symbol may be supplemented or even replaced by rules supplied by the transcriber. There is an example of this in the transcription of American English by Ladefoged in the 1999 handbook: he uses u for an unrounded vowel. In addition, it's common for transcriptions to use /r/ for the rhotic consonant of English.

  16. GeorgeW said,

    April 20, 2013 @ 3:06 pm

    @Avinor: Yes, I suspect that is the case. However, the choice of which language to use could also suggest the identity the speaker wishes to assume.

  17. bulbul said,

    April 20, 2013 @ 4:27 pm

    Folks around here caught on to this confusion early and what surprised me was that some of the tweets mentioned Czechoslovakia (which split up like 20 years ago). Some of those (like the one about Chechnya being a suburb of Czechoslovakia) were obviously jokes, but still.
    @julie lee: For extra fun, check (hehe) out the connection between Circassians and the Kingdom of Jordan.
    And speaking of ethnonym confusion: I once proofread a badly translated tourist guide on Jordan and was surprised to learn that there were over 100000 Cherokees in Jordan …

  18. GeorgeW said,

    April 20, 2013 @ 4:31 pm

    Juan Cole (Professor at U of Michigan and Middle East expert) speculates in his blog about a family dynamic as a factor in the Boston events.

    He also sees hints that the father may have worked for the Russian authorities against the interest of Chechen separatists. So, maybe the family has a more Russian than Chechen identity.

  19. David Morris said,

    April 20, 2013 @ 4:45 pm

    People sometimes confuse Australia and Austria. The principal of my high school in Korea told me that the first president of the Republic of Korean was married to an Australian women. I 'czeched'. She was actually Austrian.

  20. mollymooly said,

    April 20, 2013 @ 4:53 pm

    The Sopranos episode "The Pine Barrens":

    Tony: It's a bad connection so I'm gonna talk fast! The guy you're looking for is an ex-commando! He killed sixteen Chechen rebels single-handed! He was with the Interior Ministry.

    Paulie: I hear you. [hangs up] You're not gonna believe this. He killed sixteen Czechoslovakians. Guy was an interior decorator.

  21. naddy said,

    April 20, 2013 @ 5:10 pm

    Affricates are represented in IPA by a stop and fricative joined by a tie bar: t͜ʃ d͜ʒ or t͡ʃ d͡ʒ.

    It isn't clear to me if Czech is the Polish spelling or in fact an old Czech one. Once you realize that the caron diacritic was originally a superscript z, Polish and Czech spelling start to look much closer, i.e., cz sz rz are really the same as č š ř.

  22. Avinor said,

    April 20, 2013 @ 5:15 pm

    Sweden/Switzerland is another classic. From experience, when news of the type "Two Swedes/Swiss killed in Helicopter Crash in Africa" comes through the wire services, I estimate a 30–50% chance that the two nationalities were mixed up.

  23. Ralph Hickok said,

    April 20, 2013 @ 7:08 pm

    I don't think the misunderstanding is at all widespread. I live 60 south miles of Boston, not far from where the younger of the two brothers went to college, and very near a housing complex where his girlfriend and two other people were taken into custody yesterday. There's been a lot of talk about the brothers, and I haven't heard anybody mention a Czech connection. I did hear someone say they came from Chernobyl and almost everybody is pretty vague about what or where Chechnya is, but I haven't the word "Czech" come up at all.

  24. Rod Johnson said,

    April 20, 2013 @ 8:19 pm

    @julie lee: be very, very skeptical about those suggestions about distant relationships. In this case, even North Caucasian is best considered only a hypothesis; a relation between that putative family and Kartvelian has very little support that I'm aware of.

  25. Rod Johnson said,

    April 20, 2013 @ 8:21 pm

    Also: along with Austrian/Australian and Swiss/Swedish, it's always amazing to me how many people confuse Dutch and Danish.

  26. Andrew Grimm said,

    April 20, 2013 @ 10:03 pm

    For what it's worth, "Austria" and "Australia" are cognates, according to Wiktionary:

    I'd wondered about it before, but never got around to looking it up!

  27. AntC said,

    April 20, 2013 @ 11:31 pm

    @Victor Tokmok, where these Chechen brothers were born

    I see one of the brothers is named Tamerlan (at least in English transcription). Is this the same as Tamerlane/Tamburlaine/Timur/etc ?

  28. Michael C. Dunn said,

    April 21, 2013 @ 12:26 am

    I think it was Ambrose Bierce who said that war was God's way of teaching Americans geography.

  29. John Swindle said,

    April 21, 2013 @ 1:28 am

    Two days after after the Boston Marathon bombings, a fertilizer plant fire and explosion in Texas killed at least a dozen people and injured two hundred others. The cause is unknown. The little town of West, where the explosion occurred, is in north central Texas and is proud of its Czech immigrant heritage.

  30. Stan said,

    April 21, 2013 @ 3:25 am

    Note that Chad and China have not been implicated.

    Not phonetically, but you can be sure someone is fancifully joining the geopolitical dots, in China's case at least.

  31. Eric P Smith said,

    April 21, 2013 @ 4:43 am

    >> Sweden/Switzerland is another classic

    There is a local version here. Just outside Edinburgh there is a small town called Lasswade. In a French conversational class I attended some years ago, one member explained, "Je viens de Lasswade" which our teacher heard as "Je viens de la Suède".

  32. julie lee said,

    April 21, 2013 @ 10:25 am

    @bulbul, @Rod Johnson,
    Thanks. I first encountered mention of a Circassian in, of all places, Lawrence of Arabia's book "Seven Pillars of Wisdom". Then I was fascinated to learn that they were very white. I've always wondered why a white person (e.g., Angle-Saxon) is called a "Caucasian". Now I find from Wikipedia (sorry for being so un-learned) that the Caucasian classification took as the quintessence of whiteness the Circassians.

  33. languagehat said,

    April 21, 2013 @ 11:01 am

    I see one of the brothers is named Tamerlan (at least in English transcription). Is this the same as Tamerlane/Tamburlaine/Timur/etc ?

    I'm curious about this name too. "Tamerlane" is a Westernized version of Timur Lenk "Timur the Lame"; the Russians call him Тамерлан [Tamerlan], but you'd expect a non-Russian from the Caucasus to use Timur.

  34. GeorgeW said,

    April 21, 2013 @ 3:43 pm

    The other brother's name, Dzhokhar, maybe related to Arabic juahar jewel/essense/substance.

  35. Dworkin said,

    April 21, 2013 @ 4:29 pm

    To flip around the question of getting two nationalities confused…is there any common way to distinguish people from the two Congos? The term Congolese appears to refer to both of them. Does anyone know of any term unique to one or the other?

  36. J. Goard said,

    April 21, 2013 @ 9:24 pm

    Austria/Australia confusion also reflects the astonishing but probable semantic change in a Latin morpheme from 'east' to 'south'.

  37. Jon Lennox said,

    April 21, 2013 @ 11:32 pm

    On the topics of representation of affricates and the Boston bombers, I find it interesting that the initial phoneme of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's name is represented in English transliteration as "Dzh" rather than "J". Presumably his parents were fluent in Russian, but not familiar with English orthography when they first immigrated.

    Interviews with his high school classmates had them pronouncing his name "Johar". (I imagine expecting American high school students to produce /x/ for the middle consonant would be unlikely.)

  38. richardelguru said,

    April 22, 2013 @ 6:16 am

    "Austria/Australia confusion"
    When an Austrian restaurant (run by an Austrian immigrant) opened down here in TX the staff all wore T-shirts emblazoned with crossed out kangaroos as an indication of the owners expectations about Texan understanding of geography.

  39. Rodger C said,

    April 22, 2013 @ 7:11 am

    @J. Goard: "Oh, you know, where the sun is."

  40. J.W. Brewer said,

    April 22, 2013 @ 10:07 am

    It would be a bonus if Czech and Chechen turned out to have a distant etymological connection (no more improbable ex ante than, say, "Welsh" and "Vlach"), but I can't prove that hypothesis in a few minutes of puttering so I'll leave it to a more committed researcher. (I have learned that the old OED I have at hand doesn't know anything about "Chechen" but includdes "chechin" as an obsolete spelling variant of "chequeen" which is itself an archaic alternative for at least some senses of the word now standardly spelled "sequin," so time not completely wasted.)

    I'm not sure about the linkage of Australia to Austria. "Austria" strikes me as more along the lines of a transliteration into Latin, which like loanwords in general needn't have an etymology internal to the borrowing language (subject I suppose to the possibility of there being a folk-etymology re the "southernness" of Austria, especially since its "easternness" has become much less intuitive compared to the age of Charlemagne when the toponym was coined). "Peking" as an attempted Englishing of a Chinese toponym, for example, doesn't pick up the etymology of "king," so I don't see that "austr" as a latinization of "Oester" needs to pick up or evoke "australis" or otherwise be assigned a semantic role.

  41. Tristan Miller said,

    April 22, 2013 @ 10:56 am

    @Jon Lennox: The man himself may have spelled his name with a J, at least unofficially. His Twitter ID is "J_tsar".

  42. Robert Coren said,

    April 22, 2013 @ 11:47 am

    About the spelling of Dzhokar's name: the "dzh" spelling is consistent with what I've seen happening elsewhere with names that have been transliterated into and then out of Russian. A place I worked at some years ago had, among its many employees of Russian-Jewish origin, a man who spelled his surname "Vaynshtayn" (obviously originally German Weinstein). Many more years ago, I read an article in I. F. Stone's Weekly about the persecution of a pair of brothers in the Soviet Union, one of whom had a given name that Stone chose to spell "Jaurès", since he had been named after a Frenchman of that name (I think it must have been Jean Jaurès), rather than following other English-language sources that spelled it "Zhorez".

  43. Robert Coren said,

    April 22, 2013 @ 11:57 am

    I learned something that astonished me from the comments here. I have assumed all my adult life that the name "Austria", which sounds as if it means something "southern", was the result of a phonetic misconstruction of the German Österreich ("Eastern Realm"). I had no idea that the Latin austral- had come from Germanic and originally meant "east".

  44. J.W. Brewer said,

    April 22, 2013 @ 1:07 pm

    I believe another cognate of Germanic "east/ost/etc." is Greek "eos" (= dawn), which tends to confirm that Latin is the outlier. But I expect Rodger C. has correctly identified the unifying semantic theme. OTOH, I don't think the etymological link between "east" and "Easter" is transparent to most Anglophone Christians, even though they've likely been exposed to sermons with sunrise-as-metaphor-for-resurrection rhetoric.

  45. Ellen K. said,

    April 22, 2013 @ 1:18 pm

    @Robert Coren

    Where do you get the idea that Latin austral- comes from Germanic? If someone claimed that, I missed it. They are both Indo-European languages, so two words being cognate does not necessarily imply borrowing.

  46. The Ridger said,

    April 22, 2013 @ 1:53 pm

    I find it interesting that the initial phoneme of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's name is represented in English transliteration as "Dzh" rather than "J"

    It's spelled like that in Russian. Russians also tend to use DZh for the sound when they transliterate into Russian, eg George = Dzhordzh. If the family are Russophone they are likely to think of J as /j/ (a y-glide), and to use Dzh instead.

  47. RP said,

    April 23, 2013 @ 8:47 am


    "Why is it Chechen instead of Chechnyan?"

    I remember when it first entered the news in the early to mid-90s, there was a great deal of uncertainty (at least in the UK) over whether the place should be called "Chechnya" or "Chechenia". The former seems to have won, but at the time there were reputable publications on both sides.

  48. Robert Coren said,

    April 23, 2013 @ 11:48 am

    @Ellen K: that was my impression from the Wiktionary article linked from Andrew Grimm's comment, which says:


    From Latin Austria; a Latinization of Germanic ostar (“eastern”), from Proto-Germanic *austra (“eastern”), from the Proto-Indo-European *aus- (“to shine”) (see aurora, dawn). The Latin is short for (Marchia) austriaca (“eastern borderland”). More at eastern.

    Distantly cognate to Australia – same proto-Indo-European root, but via Latin where it came to mean “south” rather than “east”. Compare also Austrasie.

    OK. maybe I over-extrapolated from the statement that Latin "Austria" came 'from Proto-Germanic *austra (“eastern”)'. I don't pretend to understand this stuff in detail.

  49. Ellen K. said,

    April 23, 2013 @ 11:28 pm

    That Germanic ostar comes from proto-germanic, does not at all imply that the Latin word that gives us Australia comes from proto-germanic, only that it comes from the same indo-europeon root.

  50. Robert Coren said,

    April 24, 2013 @ 9:37 am

    Ellen K.: True, but the entry does say that the Latin name for *Austria* is "a Latinization of Germanic ostar ", and that in Latin at some point the root changed in meaning from "east" to "south". My main point was that, contrary to what I had always thought, "Austria" is not just a quasi-phonetic interpretation of Österreich.

  51. mirhond said,

    April 24, 2013 @ 11:30 am

    "Чехи" – literally "Czechs" is a derogative name for Chechens used by our soldiers during two Chechen wars

  52. Ellen K. said,

    April 24, 2013 @ 12:13 pm

    Robert, I was asking specifically about your claim that the Latin austral- (with the L) comes from Germanic. Which, best I can tell, has absolutely no basis in anything. That's the only thing I was asking about.

  53. Robert Coren said,

    April 24, 2013 @ 9:56 pm

    @Ellen K: Oh, OK. I guess I shouldn't have included that final "l".

  54. Hans Adler said,

    April 25, 2013 @ 11:27 pm

    I think it's worth mentioning that Czechia is an alternative word for the Czech Republic. (Wikipedia says: "In 1993, the Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs suggested the name Czechia /ˈtʃɛkiə/ […] as an official alternative in all situations other than formal official documents and the full names of government institutions; however, this has not become widespread in English.")

    I am very aware of this because in German the country's short name was changed from Tschechei to Tschechien, and both versions can be translated to English as Czechia. Both German endings (-ei and -ien) correspond to English -ia. Around 1992 there was a concerted effort by the Czech government and German-speaking linguists to make this change. The ending -ien sounds less exotic and barbaric than -ei, but Slovakia, which is Slowakei in German and gave rise to Tschechei via Tschechoslowakei, doesn't seem to care. As the change was for reasons of political correctness and seemed a change to the German language imposed by a foreign government, it got quite a bit of attention.

    Czechia and Chechnya are phonetically and orthographically so close that the confusion doesn't seem surprising to me at all.

  55. This Week’s Language Blog Roundup: Boston, Shakespeare, ‘slash’ as slang | Wordnik said,

    April 26, 2013 @ 11:07 am

    […] Ben Zimmer dissected the anatomy of the spambot, and Mark Liberman explained the difference between Chechnya and the Czech Republic. At Macmillan Dictionary blog, Michael Rundell delved into DNA as metaphor; Miles Craven and Karen […]

  56. deltab said,

    April 26, 2013 @ 5:35 pm

    It could be worse: Chechnya is just across the border from Georgia.

  57. Andrey Smirnov said,

    January 9, 2014 @ 1:42 am

    Чех = Чеченец
    Chech = Chechen (colloquial Russian usage)

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