Friday, July 31, 2009

Languages, dialects, armies, navies

Occasional reader SM emailed last night to report on the new novel by Robert Littell, The Stalin Epigram:
It is a fictional account of the time of the Russian purges in the 1930s, and it focuses on what happened to Osip Emilievich Mandelstam. Littell says: "The publication of his first book of poetry in 1913, entitled Stone, established him in the eyes of many as "the" great Russian poet of the twentieth century, a view that Stalin clearly shared." Of course, Mandelstam dies in a prison camp. He is on a train, taking him to Siberia. Also in the cattle car with Mandelstam is a professor who organizes their car and thus gets its passengers to the first major stop without any loss of life. Then on p. 265:

"I overheard a lady mention what the professor was a professor of. It turned out to be something called linguistics. The lady said that he was famous for figuring out the difference between languages and dialects -- languages were spoken by people with armies, dialects by people without."
For those not familiar with the history of this quip, you can start here.

The image is of Mandelstam.


John Cowan said...

Wikipedia has an excellent article on the vitz. In short, Max Weinreich first published it (in Yiddish) in 1945, but he says he heard it the year before from a high-school teacher who remains unidentified. Needless to say, Weinreich was not on a train to Siberia in 1938 -- he was in fact in Vilnius, Lithuania, not then part of the Soviet Union.

Mr. Verb said...

Thanks -- the wikipedia article is good. Of course the great Max Weinreich did not get famous for the quip either!

Anonymous said...

You ought to offer a poll to see which famous linguist is believed to have first said the quote (no one is allowed to think about this for more than 1 minute). My vote has always been for Einar Haugen.

Mr. Verb said...

I'm happy to do that, Anon, but who are the best candidates? Weinreich and Haugen are good, and Meillet is in there, I think. Fishman is out by the earliest known attestation.

Anonymous said...

I bet some obvious non-contenders could garner some votes, e.g., Bloomfield, Sapir, Jakobson, Joos, ... pick a bunch and add in some lesser known (to American generativists) Europeans and you'd have a field. Even throw in ones that are probably from the wrong century: Schliecher, Bleek, J Grimm, .... You name 'em, we vote 'em.