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Mariupolitan transcribed through Russian ears
Challenging people on what phonemes they’re hearing, when they’re analysing a language: that’s thankless stuff. There are subtle continua of phonetics, and if you’re actually doing this kind of thing for a living, you rely on spectrograms and electropalatograms, with chocolate paste to tell where your tongue is actually moving. One’s ears? They hear what they’re used to hearing, and fail to hear what they’re not used to hearing.
I’m biased in saying so, I have to admit, because I have a tin ear. My experiences of trusting my ear have gone badly. I did a phonetics assignment as an undergrad on establishing the phonology of a random language. I picked Cantonese. Easy choice given the demographics of Melbourne University Engineering (as opposed to Arts); insane choice for linguistics. Has anyone settled on how many tones Cantonese has? I checked, and the model of Cantonese I came up with had very little to do with any reality; my model was still exhaustively enough argued to get a good mark, regardless.
Which is how science works.
Even worse was the beginning lecture of of Field Methods, when I had to transcribe unreleased stops. Unreleased stops. Cantonese had them too. I mean, what’s the point of unreleased stops when the release is the only way to hear the difference. What a daft thing to do to the listener.
I should… come to the subject at hand though, shouldn’t I. My topic is the phonetics of Mariupolitan, and how it is reflected in its orthography.
There is scattered work on Mariupolitan: Solokov’s and Sergievskij’s 1930s studies, work by Chernyshova and Beletskij in the ’50s and ’60s, which I can’t check halfway across the Pacific from my library; Zhuravliova’s 1982 thesis and work in the early ’90s, published in the Studies in Greek Linguistics series; and finally the grammar by Symeonidis and Tombaidis, the first time linguists from Greece worked on the language. My bibliography is on my web site, search for “Mariupolitan [MRP]”.
- Συμεωνίδης, Χ. ϗ Τομπαΐδης, Δ. 1999. Η Σημερινή Ελληνική Διάλεκτος της Ουκρανίας (περιοχής Μαριούπολης). Αθήνα: Επιτροπή Ποντιακών Μελετών.
Zhuravliova and Symeonidis & Tombaidis disagree on two allophones of Mariupolitan.
- Zh reports that Mariupolitan has a central allophone for /i/, [ɨ], which is said to occur “before hard consonants”. S&T aren’t clear what a hard consonant is meant to be (in a Slavic linguistic context, it’s pretty obvious, but I’ll argue that here it ended up circular). At any rate, they did not find the distribution that systematic in her own transcriptions: it’s frequent word-finally. But S&T did not hear [ɨ] when they were surveying Mariupolitan; in fact, they could not hear it in the recordings Zh provided, where she had already transcribed [ɨ].
- Zh reports that /k/ palatalises to [tʲ]: so /kifali/ comes out as [tʲifaʎ]. Again, S&T note the change is not systematic in the transcriptions, and S&T did not hear this in the field or on the tapes: all they heard was /k/. S&T consider whether this is because of Standard Greek influence, but reject it as unrealistic: Standard Greek influence has been limited, especially with the elderly villagers they’ve been dealing with. S&T also call the posited change “peculiar”, and remark that “it is not the purpose of this study to determine the reasons for Zhuravliova’s mishearing.”
That’s an uncollegial thing for them to say, but it’s allowed if it’s what the data says. Still, I’m going to be uncollegial in turn:
- The standard Greek palatalisation of /k/ is to [c], which means that what S&T are hearing is [cifaʎ]. If it was [kifaʎ], they would have mentioned the deviation from Standard Greek as noteworthy: it gets mentioned in studies of Cappadocian Greek.
- There’s not a lot of difference between [tʲ] and [c]. There may be less, since Zh had described her [tʲ] as palatal, not palatalised alveolar—but she does distinguish [tʲ] from [kʲ], so maybe not.
- S&T don’t mention [c] as an alternative to [tʲ]: they dismiss Zh’s phonetics, but aren’t showing the required awareness of phonetics in this case themselves. Talking about just <κ> to refute [tʲ] is lazy.
- The change of /k/ to [c] to [tʲ] is not absurd, and in fact there is a parallel within Greek, in Tsakonian. Tsakonian /k/ has palatalised to [tɕ] while Tsakonian /t/ has palatalised to [c]. So “weather” καιρός /keros/ is in Tsakonian τχαιρέ [tɕere], while “I honour” τιμώ /timo/ is κιμού [cimu]. That means that palatalised /t/ and /k/ have actually swapped places in the palate, with [tɕ] further front than [c].
- And if there is a [ɨ] in Mariupolitan, Greek linguists don’t have a good track record hearing central vowels in their dialects. We only found out Samothrace has [ɨ, ə] in the ’90s, and that only because Katsanis, who discovered it, is a native speaker of Aromanian—a language which unlike Standard Greek has those central vowels.
- Κατσάνης, Ν.Α. 1996. Το γλωσσικό ιδίωμα της Σαμοθράκης. Θεσσαλονίκη: Δήμος Σαμοθράκης.
Two more things. First, why Zh “misheard” (if that’s what’s happened) may not have been of interest to S&T, but it is of interest to me. Second, Zh is not the only person to hear those allophones in Mariupolitan. From the Shevchenko poem I posted before, Kir’jakov writes скутъеты ратлых виглызу /skuθetɨ ratlɨx viɣlɨzu/. He has the palatalisation of /k/ to [tʃ], which S&T noted as occasional (прощину /prostʃinu/), but he also has тен тъэос /tʲen θeos/ (“there is no God”, Pontic ‘κ έν Θεός [kʰ en θeos], Early Modern Greek οὐκ ἔνι Θεός), and тюнурю /tʲunurʲu/ for “new” (Standard Greek καινούργιος [cenurʝos].)
The Mariupolitan of the ’30s, written in phonetic Greek, does not have a distinct letter for [ɨ]: it’s an allophone, and alphabets aren’t normally in the allophone business. But Kostoprav clearly thought he heard [tʲ] too, at least some of the time: from Φλογομινίτρες Σπίθες p. 92, κε ντρυπιαχτικά κρέμαςιν τυ τιφάλτς /ke drupiaxtika kremasin tu tifalts/ “and she hung her head in shame”, Standard Greek και ντροπιασμένα κρέμασε το κεφάλι της /ke dropiasmena kremase to kefali tis/.
As /ke/ “and” shows, the change is hardly systematic; as in Pontic, Mariupolitan has an unfortunate homophony of /ki/ < /ke/ (more frequent for “and”) and /ki/ < /uki/ “not”. Pontic deals with it by aspirating “not” as [kʰi] (and writing it as ‘κι); Mariupolitan seems to deal with it by writing them as ки and ти.
Do they sound different? Is there a distinction made between [ci] or [ki] and [tʲi]? I can’t check Zh’s thesis at the moment, and S&T’s phonology doesn’t tell me, but the transcriptions don’t differentiate them. The orthographic distinction Kir’jakov makes of ки and ти could be artificial of course, but I don’t think they made their <т> up completely.
Assuming that S&T are right, and there is just [c] in Mariupolitan, we should remember that the Mariupolitans are bilingual in Russian now, and many of them already were in the ’30s. A Cyrillic alphabet for Mariupolitan is going to bring with it Russian notions of phonetics, and of palatalisation in particular: Kir’jakov’s Cyrillic alternates between е and э [je, e] and I don’t see a consistent pattern for it—especially when the distinction is carried across to Cyrillic publications of Kostoprav, who originally wrote in phonetic Greek.
So the act of writing down Mariupolitan in the Ukraine filters Mariupolitan phonology though Russian—certainly in Cyrillic, maybe even in Kostoprav’s Greek script, which was after all phonetic. All it takes for the “mishearing” is for Mariupolitan [c] to sound closer to Russian /tʲ/ than to Russian /kʲ/. And I wouldn’t be too harsh on the “mishearing”: S&T didn’t exactly highlight that [k] and [c] are not the same either.
About [ɨ], I’m less certain. Kostoprav doesn’t have it, and wouldn’t have been in a hurry to write down as an allophone (and how would he write it anyway, <η>?) Kir’jakov has it, but S&T can’t hear it though they tried. I suspect this is influence somehow from Russian, with some Mariupolitan dialects picking up the Russian vowel, and applying it haphazardly to their Greek. Zh’s “hard consonants” don’t tell us why, because they’re only hard (unpalatalised) if there’s no [i, j] next to them to begin with in Russian.
Filtering your orthography through the majority language’s ears is nothing now. It’s an uncomfortable fact for linguists working on minority languages. Alphabets normally code just phonemes and not allophones: that’s why Greek dropped its koppa. Linguists work out the phonemic inventory of a language, reuse the spare letters for phonemes not in English, and present coherent well-thought out alphabets to their communities.
But the communities’ priority is not literacy in the minority language: it’s literacy. If the proposed orthography for their language looks confusingly different to the orthography of the majority language they actually need access to, they’ll reject it. Papua New Guinea communities for instance can reject reusing <q> for [ɣ], because that’s not what <q> means in English; and learning to write their tokples shouldn’t be getting in the way of learning to write English (or Tok Pisin).
At any rate, if Kir’jakov thinks Mariupolitan has [ɨ] and [tʲ], then that’s how his texts should be transcribed. [tʲ] is a particular problem for Standard Greek speakers, because it’s so far from their expectation; in transliterating Kostoprav’s poems into Greek, Ioakimidis silently emended them back to <κ>. I didn’t help by transliterating тен тъэос as τ’ έν Θεός; following Pontic ‘κι, I should have written ʼτʼ έν Θεός, but I doubt that would have been clearer.
Oh, and Kir’jakov writing тен “isn’t” as one word? Never trust native speakers on word segmentation. There’s confusion already in his text between н та “with the” and н та “when”.
- (S&T record /min/ > /mi tun/ for “with”, but not /n/; and they record “when” as /an, anda/. So /nda/ for “when” is not “with the”, but a variant of Greek dialectal /onde/ “when”. But native speakers aren’t historical linguists, so they can’t tell when something historically was a single word.
You should see what Tsakonians do to their clitics when they write in the dialect…)