An Attestation of Meshcheran

Slowly poking around digitized back issues of Studia Orientalia, I recently ran into Kecskeméti (1968), an article indexing PallasZoographie (1811). This is a notable early source of animal names from several languages of Russia, collected since the late 1700s. Some of these languages would not be otherwise substantially attested until the 1900s, and for a few it is just about the last source available before extinction. (Pallas’ consistency in transcription and coverage are both poor, but we’ll take what we can get.)

During a closer look, for checking some Samoyedic data, I however had to do a double-take upon reaching the heading Mᴇsᴛsᴄʜᴇʀᴀᴇᴄɪs. This is obviously Meshcheran, one of the extinct more western Uralic languages. (Interestingly also with /-sč-/ and not the evidently Russified /-šč-/?) Except, all sources I have seen so far have claimed that Meshcheran went extinct already somewhere around the 1500s…

OK, Pallas only records four “Mestscheraic” words, and a distinct Meshcheran ethnicity is reported to have lingered long after Russification — in at least one case even into the current century! [1] So fairly likely we are dealing here not with a living language, only with substrate loan vocabulary, a natural enough fate for animal names. Yet this is still interesting due to being an attestation securely flagged as Meshcheran. There are two competing theories on the affinity of this language within Uralic — one sees it as a branch or sister of Mordvinic, the other, Permic. To my knowledge both of these build mainly on evidence such as toponymy found in the traditionally Meshcheran region, which is susceptible to errors from pre-Russification population movements.

The list comprises bird names entirely, all given with obsolete binomials:

  • Büdaenae ‘Tetrao coturnix’ (= hazelhen, Coturnix coturnix)
  • Kagau ‘Accipiter milvus’ (= red kite, Milvus milvus)
  • Kuki ‘Cuculus borealis’ (= a cuckoo sp., probably the common cuckoo Cuculus canoris)
  • Schibirtschik ‘Motacilla albeola’ (= common wagtail, Motacilla alba)

The third is obviously undiagnostic of anything, but the others may be worth something.

I cannot make much of the first on a quick lookaround: it would be a hard match for the common Mordvinic term for the hazelhen (Erzya /povo/, Moksha /pova/ < PU *püŋə) and even poorer for the common Permic term (Udmurt /śala/, Komi /śɤla/) — at most it has some very vague similarity to Komi /bajdɤg/ ‘partridge, tarmigan’. [2] The second is however a good match with Mordvinic /kaval/ ‘kite’ (? < *kaɣal), though the implied vocalization of final *-l meanwhile looks amusingly Permic. The last has vague and probably insufficient similarity with Moksha /šäjgiča/ ‘wagtail’ (← /šäj/ ‘valley’ + /kiča/ ‘gull’) on one hand, Russian шибать ‘to hit’ (< Proto-Slavic ‘to whip’) on the other.

I do not feel like rooting around for possibly related names of similar birds; but per ‘kite’ I would at this point lean cautiously towards a Mordvinic-ish affiliation for Meshcheran.

[0] In a blog post this short you’ll probably manage without me doing hyperlinks for the footnotes.
[1] Thus per V. Patrušev apud Rahkonen (2009) in a single village “in a Mordvin area”.
[2] This is probably a loan from early Hungarian or some common source though — cf. Hu. fajd ‘grouse’, from earlier #paďt- per Mansi *paľta ‘black grouse’. If this really were a common Uralic root, I would expect instead **poľt- in Permic (and the cluster *-ďt- would be also unprecedented). OTOH Komi seems to show *p-d > /b-d/, which may allow dating the word to the common Permic era regardless.

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Posted in Etymology
9 comments on “An Attestation of Meshcheran
  1. Y says:

    Is there an indication, based on well-attested languages, as to how accurately Pallas’s materials were typeset? If typos are suspected, do his manuscript notes still exist?

    • j. says:

      I have not seen any general review, but the well-attested Uralic languages seem to be not doing much that is obviously completely out of order, mostly just vowels being wonky here and there. E.g. the Khanty for ‘mouse’ (Obdorsk /loŋkər/, Kazym /ɬeŋkər/, Southern /teŋkər/, Surgut /ɬœ̆ŋkər/, Vakh /löŋkər/, Vasjugan /jöŋkər/) gets transcribed varyingly as leger, lenger, ljungir, longker, lungkir (unlabeled “Ostiacis”), junker (“Ostiacis Wassuganis”) — transcriptions with u instead of oe perhaps due to Eastern /ö/ still having been more like [ɵː] at this point. Or, from Mordvin he records e.g. kawal ‘red kite’, kraansch ‘raven’ (Paasonen: Moksha /krańč/), numalà ‘hare’ (Mk /numəl/ < *numələ, cf. Erzya /numolo/), ofta ‘bear’ (Mk /ofta/), schekschi ‘woodpecker’ (? Mk /ćiľ̥ći/), urnae ‘squirrel’ (Mk /ur/, deminutive /urńä/).

    • For the Uralic languages, Pallas did not go out there and collect data himself. He simply drew on manuscript wordlists that had been compiled from people in those regions, some at the order of Catherine the Great. Several of the Mari wordlists that fed into Pallas have survived in Russia’s various archives and they have been examined by Oleg Sergeev in a series of publications. See also my own paper “On Some Hitherto Unidentified Mari Items in the ‘Vocabularia Comparativa’ of P. S. Pallas”, Linguistica Uralica 2016 (3), pp. 195-203.

      In Pallas’s book it often occurs that a word from one language is erroneously listed under another language. I suspect that may be the case here with <Schibirtschik> – this may represent Mari šə̑γə̑rč́ə̑k ‘starling, Sternus’. The -čə̑k suffix in Mari, though now productive in native words, has been claimed to be a Turkic borrowing, so even if this “Mescheran” word existed, we would be dealing with a fairly recent Wanderwort in the area and not some ancient Uralic heritage.

      • j. says:

        Right, this is a recurring issue, though it seems to be more thru duplication of data (e.g. he gives maimè ‘red deer’ for both Koibal and Kamass, down to the accent, so probably from a single source) or conflation of language varieties (some of his various “Ostiacis” ‘lects are Ket or Selkup instead of Khanty), not by single words jumping into the wrong language.

        And indeed! on checking nearby languages other than just Uralic, he gives büdaenae and schibirtschik from Bashkir as well. (There’s moreover schebertschik from “Tataris casaniensibus”.)

  2. Crom Daba says:

    Wow, that’s great, gotta mine those Studia Orientalia issues now.

  3. Alexander Savelyev says:

    Pallas’s Meshcheran must be Mishar Tatar. Other words are not very specific, although occur in different Turkic languages, but кагау ‘kite’ is used specifically in Mishar Tatar. The Mishars were often associated with the extinct Meshchera tribe by earlier researchers.

    • j. says:

      Ah of course, thanks for noting, that should have been obvious in retrospect. I now wonder if it was ever Мещерский rather than the modern Мишарский in Russian; I’ve only seen the latter, but terminology circa 1800 would be a different question.

      • Alexander Savelyev says:

        Yes, as far as I can see, (at least some) Russian sources called the Mishars мещеряки as late as ca. 1900. I suspect the (ultimate) replacement of this term by the modern мишари (< the endonym mišär) might have happened during the early Soviet period within the policy of "korenization" (I don't know the details, though).

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