Unknown language #10, part 2

« previous post | next post »

[This is a guest post by Martin Schwartz.]

"Unknown language #10" (12/1/17) left all stumped, including a broad range of superb scholars of many languages.  I have no Rosetta Stone for it, but have something that may be called a Russetta or Rusetta (as in ruse) Bone.

First, the mystery text, which was the focus of Language Log Unknown Language #10,  I reproduce it here as was transmitted there:

Ukhant karapet qulkt kirlerek
Iqat ighun chapuq sireleq,
Poghtu Paghytei Piereleq
Azlayn qoghular eliut karapet.

Now, to the above I give a set of verse found in Aleksandr Kuprin's Russian novel Jama ('The Pit'), 1909-1915:

U Karapeta est' bufet
Na bufete est' konfet,
Na konfete est' portret
Ètot samyj Karapet.

'Karapet has a buffet
On the buffet is a bonbon (vel sim.)
On the bonbon is a portrait,
It's the very same Karapet.'

In both texts we have four rhyming lines, in which KARAPET (k/K) is the second word of the first line and next-to-last word of the last line. 

I see three possibilities: 

1) A purely random correspondence between the two texts; this I very much doubt. 

2) The "mystery text" is some kind of imitation of the Russian in some real language (whose original form seems compromised by an inadequate transcription; cf. the commentary on the original post); possibly, then, -ek, -eq represent a past-tense morpheme;

3) An imitation of the Russian, but  in a fake language.  I'm inclined toward the last possibilty.  In any event, the imitation, unlike the Russian, does not repeat words from one line to another, so that a translation or paraphrase from the Russian seems ruled out.

I remembered the Russian verses from an e-letter to me by the very learned ethnomusicological researcher Ilya Saitanov (Oct. 2021); it was sent during the course of an exchange about a melody apparently originating among Terek Cossacks in Nauri Chechen territory, whence the tune spread among various Caucasian groups, importantly Georgians and Armenians, becoming popular in Russia, the Ukraine, Yiddishland, and the Greek world.  The name Karapet figured in Russia as a typical Armenian name, folklorically and literarily sometimes taking on traits of pathos and diminution. The name is from Classical Armentian karapet, an equivalent of Greek Pródromos, Russ. Predteča, 'Forerunner' = John the Baptist; the Armenian is now known to derive from an early West Middle Iranian (Parthian or Middle Persian) reflex of Old Persian *kāra-pati- 'head of a work-team (< OPers. kāra-'group of people', -pati- 'chief') attested in Persepolis Elamite transcription and later paralleled by Sogdian, perhaps as a word of Achaemenian origin.

While Karapet as John the Baptist had some pagan accretions in Arm. folklore, he is not found as a pre-Christian god, despite Wikipedia, "Karapet". The West Armenian form is Garabed.

In conclusion, Kuprin's verses seem very relevant to L.L.Unknowm Language #10, whose focal  text remains mysterious. I'm curious to see what my comparison stirs up.

Addendum on immigrant names

Immigrants to the US take equivalents of their original names, usually by partial phonic similarity.  Thus German Hans (< Johannes) > Henry; Greek Dimitios via diminutive Dimis > Jimmy > James; Italian Salvatore > Sam alongside Sal (whence among Greeks Sotiris *'salvational' > Sam), Yiddish Itsik > Isidore, and now Persian Keyvān (*Saturn) > Kevin; West Armenian Dikran *Eastern Tigran ('Tigranes') > Dic > Richard, and Garabed/Karapet via Karl/Carl > Charles.  For the West Arm.-American kid in my grade-school locker room, "Garabed meant Charlie". He was just a kid, not a linguist, and I found his remark charming,

Selected reading


  1. Jason M said,

    June 9, 2024 @ 10:34 am

    The meter and rhyme and Karapet repetition seem somewhat similar but wouldn’t “bufet” and “konfet” have to have equivalent repetition across lines of verse somewhere?

    On another point, the end of the Russian verse is a bit unexpected. Этот самый Карапет means literally “This same Karapet” — all in nominative case whereas I would have expected genitive: “of this same Karapet”. Either that or a Russian version of the way it was translated above into English: “ Этo самый Карапет” (ie Это, “it is” vs Этот “this”). FWIW, ChatGPT says a common version of this school-kid verse does end in the genitive: Самого Карапета, though the Этот самый Карапет version does seem to be common, and, admittedly, the genitive version breaks the perfect end rhymes.

  2. cameron said,

    June 9, 2024 @ 11:03 am

    The Russian Futurists were interested in invented languages. Aleksei Kruchenykh invented what he called "Zaum" ( за́умь ). "Zaum" could be translated literally as "beyondsense" or "beyonsense", or more colloquially as "nonsense".

    Velimir Khlebnikov also wrote in Zaum.

    There have been revivals of interest in Zaum periodically since its heyday during the period of the Great War.

    Could this bit of nonsense doggerel be a fragment of Zaum?

  3. Coby said,

    June 9, 2024 @ 11:34 am

    About immigrant names: the Jewish adaptation was typically based on a first-letter correspondence, so that Abraham (in any form, like Avrom) became Alan or Arthur, Mendel became Melvin or Marvin, and so on, carrying on the East European tradition, where, for example, Meyer Weinreich became Max and Ze'ev (= Wolf) Chomsky became William. This was not the case in Mitteleuropa: Franz Kafka's Jewish name was Amschel, and Theodor Herzl's was Benjamin.

  4. Philip Taylor said,

    June 9, 2024 @ 12:03 pm

    Martin, how should one interpret "Immigrants to the US take equivalents of their original names" ? Does it mean "Immigrants to the US [are required to] take equivalents of their original names" or "Immigrants to the US [frequently elect to] take equivalents of their original names" or what ? And if not "are required to", then why ? Why, given the choice, would one not elect to retain one's birth name, and thereby one's association with one's mother country ?

  5. Martin Schwartz said,

    June 9, 2024 @ 5:22 pm

    @cameron: A brilliant and satisfying idea!!! As a Russian or cultural Russophile, a Zaumist could well know Kuprin's Jama.The deatils of the transcription of the putative original of the mystery text are still unclear.
    In any event, The verse in Kuprin would have served as a stimulus
    for the Zaumist, who need not have desired to give a close replication.
    @Jason M: Thus (cf. the last part of my possibility 3)) bufet: konfet
    need not have a parallel. @Coby: Well, yes and no. Yes: I knew an Itsik who was "officially" Isidore, but was also called Irving. My uncle Is(s)er's name became Irving. But many would use
    a close phonic equivalent, if one were at hand. Yiddish Avrom would readily become Abraham, unless one wanted a less Jewish-sounding name, like Alan or Arthur. The phonic similarity principle did hold for
    medieval Europe. Mendel, a gentile name, was applied to Menakh(e)m;
    Yikhl ( Mehr>
    Magis/Maximus>Max), but he did give his son a Jewish name, Uriel. as for Kafka maybe Amschel was a name in his family as designating, like kafka, a black bird. Or not. On the phonic similarity side are Wolf (Volf)
    > William (so too the late UC professor Ze('e)v William Brinner,
    but I know a Zev Walter Feldman, again w-l. @Philip Taylor: Philip, What I meant is that immigrants tend to take phonic equivalents of their
    original names, because of the desire to "fit into" thir new country, and not seem to stand out. In many instancea the motivation was avoiding
    discriminations by "Anglos" against some ethnic groups. They would remain associated with their ethnic group by others of the same background, where they could use their original names, but the urge to assimilate outweighted show of pride in their background.
    And as for England, a story: Ashley Montagu, after a lecture at UC
    Berkeley, was invited toa reception at the Department of Linguistics.
    Some of the lingusits knew Yiddish, and were speaking Yiddish among themselves until A.M. approached, and out of politeness they translated what they were saying. Montagu stopped them as he said in perfect Yiddish, No need to explain, I speak Yiddish Born Israel Ehrenberg
    in the East End, he had experienced enough anti-Jewish sentiment
    to change his name to Montague Francis Ashley-Montagu (sic),
    later shortening that to Asley Montagu. Clearly he saw fit to avoid
    the compromise of phonic similarity to which another fellow from England whom I met did: He introdued himself as St. Cavage.
    I remarked that I hadn't know of such a saint. He explained:
    Originally Sienkiewicz. Ah, some typos in my posting: Dimitrios, not Dimitios; Dick, not Dic; and my Armenian-American gym mate
    said, in present tense, "Garabed means Charlie"
    (he could have been Gary, but the Charles option had become traditional). And Philip, imagine if he were Garabed at school in New York, the other kids might call him "Queer-in-bed" vel sim.
    Martin (né *Mordkhe) Schwartz

  6. /df said,

    June 9, 2024 @ 7:12 pm

    And the presumably apocryphal Yiddish-speaking immigrant who, having forgotten the prepared alias that he should have provided to the Ellis Island officials, was admitted to the US as "Sean Ferguson" …

  7. Martin Schwartz said,

    June 10, 2024 @ 2:50 am

    Prof. Garnik Asatrian of the Russian-Armenian University in Yerevan now
    indicates to me as follows: "it seems to be written in an Armenain dialect
    of Arawelic' kolmanc', i.e the eastern part of Eastern Armenia (Arc'ax
    [Nagorno-Karabakh M.S.], Utik', etc. Because of the impoper transcription I could not decipher the whole text, but the verbal formscan easily be explained:kirlerek (wrong for kirelek , 'you have
    eaten', cf. Class. Arm. ker-, suppletive stem of ut-; chapuq sirelek
    'you have promptly loved, cf. Class. Arm sir- and, via Turkish, Pers. čābuk; pierelek 'you have brought', cf. Class. Arm. ber-."
    Given the obscurity of the rest of the text, despite the apparent faulty transcription, in light of Prof. Asatrian's expert remarks (cf. Stefan Georg
    and Andy in the comments to the original posting of 2017, who
    suspected Armenian), I nnow wonder whether we don't have here an
    an armeno-zaumification by an Armenian who knows/knew Kuprin's
    Russian verses; the Karapets (still in the position following Kuprin's verses) could have been an inducement for a favorable spin on the figure, with pseudo-turkicisms: qoghular and perhaps chapuq.
    I note,to make things even more complex, that Azlayn is a computer-game monicker; it may be too much to suggest an computerized pseudo-armeno-zaumification of the Kuprin verses, so I won't.
    @/ df: I met Sean Ferguson in my late 'teens; he was no longer young, and was already white-bearded; nice to to know he's stll around, tho quite older and no doubt with a longer beard. I can hardly say, "Ikh hob im shoyn fargesn", 'I've already forgotten him', tho I wish I could.
    Martin Schwartz

  8. Philip Taylor said,

    June 10, 2024 @ 7:24 am

    Well, as one who has never sought to live in a land other than that in which he was born, I feel obliged to defer to the views of those who have so sought, and who have felt (or found) it beneficial to adopt a less foreign-sounding name — my wife is one of those, having been born Âu Dương Lệ Khanh but nonetheless choosing to be known as "Le", pronounced / liː/, in the U.K. But I also respect the views of (for example) my aunt-by-marriage (also Vietnamese) who is very much in favour of integration but opposed to the idea of assimilation and who retains her original birth name Vân, pronounced /vʌn/. I also remember how pleased a Singaporean girl was when I addressed by her (Chinese) birth name when she had introduced herself using her Anglicised name — "How did you know my name ?", she asked, clearly delighted that I did — "I read it from your passport", I truthfully replied.

  9. martin schwartz said,

    June 10, 2024 @ 6:02 pm

    Hmm,in my response@Coby, somehow Weinreich's name dropped out of my facetious explanation of how he came by his later first name.
    I see now that he had a Germanophone, not Yiddish, background. A fine and very learned gentleman he wasHoping to recruit me as a Yiddishist when I eas an undergraduate at CCNY, he once took me to a Chinese restaurant for lunch. I became an Iranologist, but have remained a passive fan of Yiddish studies and Chinese food.
    It seems that the "unknown language" speculation which started this thread has reached its end.
    Martin Schwartz

RSS feed for comments on this post

Leave a Comment