B.13 M. A. Castrén and his contemporaries – grammaticography in the 18th and 19th centuries

Organisers: Sirkka Saarinen & Ulla-Maija Forsberg

Thursday, August 25, Dept. of Slavic Studies (Slawistik), room 6

(Original symposium call)


Szymon Pawlas:

Permic sounds in Cyrillic letters 

The presentation discusses how the sounds of Permic languages were described by Russian grammaticographers of the 18th and 19th century. It also concerns the problem of adapting Cyrillic orthography to write down these non-Slavic languages. Solutions proposed and implemented by the authors of subsequent Komi and Udmurt grammars and ABC-books are evaluated for the degree of letter to sound correspondence and for the degree of their dependence upon Russian orthographical rules (e.g. that there may be only one letter <ё> [jo] in a word or that letter <ы> [ɨ] may not be placed at the beginning of any word).

The history of Komi and Udmurt attempts towards achieving ideal orthographical systems for these languages starts from the primitive stage characterized by the exclusive use of letters present in Russian alphabet of the time. In the next stage some letters, hitherto ambiguous (e.g. the letter <ч> used to denote both unvoiced affricates: [t ɕ] and [t ʃ]), are differentiated by a diacritical mark. Then, new symbols (e.g. <ԫ>) were devised for sounds not present in Russian. The most radical (but eventually withdrawn) change however concerned the way of indicating the opposition of hard and soft (palatalized) consonants. The Russian practice of using vowel letters to indicate this phenomenon was abandoned in favor of adapting special characters designed for soft consonants.

Discussed grammars and other primary sources include those written by Beniamin (1775), Mogilin (1780), Gavrilov (1882), Islentev (1889) and Vereščagin (1895) for Udmurt language and those written by Kozlov (1808), Flërov (1813), Savvaitov (1855) and Popov (1863) for Komi language.


Jack Rueter:

Gabelentz at odds with Cyrillics

When the interpretation of an unfamiliar sound is transcribed by a fieldworker, the task maybe seen as overpowering. When an astute linguist is faced with transliteration, the task can also be quite a challenge.

An analysis must be made for any divergence from the original. H.C.von der Gabelentz (1838–1839) does statistics on the use of hard and soft signs following, for example, the letter “n”. In fact he discerns that a soft n is most frequently used in a genitive function, and yet he chooses to disregard this accurate analysis.

When the letters representing two sounds in the modern written Erzya language are mistaken by him as one letter, he sets up a rule to explain when the letter is pronounced /ju/ and when /jo/.

This presentation will discuss how well Gabelentz’s calculations illustrated the situation.


Sirkka Saarinen:

Conjugation in early Mari grammars

By 1850, four Mari language grammars had been published: one in Finland, one in Estonia (both countries were under the Russian rule at the time), and two in Russia. The very first Mari grammar, Сочиненія принадлехащия къ грамматикѣ черемискаго языка was released in St. Petersburg in 1775. The second, Черемисская грамматика compiled by Andrej Al'binskij, was published in Kazan in 1837. In 1845, Matthias Alexander Castrén released his Elementa grammatices tscheremissae in Kuopio, and finally, in 1847, Ferdinand Johan Wiedemann's Versuch einer Grammatik der tscheremissischen Sprache nach dem in der Evangelienübersetzung von 1821 gebrauchten Dialekte came out in Tallinn (Reval). The aim of this paper is to examine and compare the descriptions of conjugations in these early grammars.

The 1775 grammar represents the transitional Meadow Mari dialect of Yoshkar-Ola (Ivanov 1975:16–17; cf. Sebeok & Raun 1956:13–17), while the other three describe Hill Mari. Most earlier texts translated into Mari and used by these grammarians had also been written in Hill Mari.

According to present-day conceptions regarding conjugation in Mari, there are three simple tenses (present and first and second preterite) and four compound past tenses. The past tenses are usually divided into two groups according to evidentiality (or, as in Mari grammars published in Russia, according to очевидное и неочевидное действие). Apart from the indicative, there are two moods, imperative and desiderative, and Hill Mari also displays some remnants of a conditional.

My main research questions are: 

  • What is the selection of different tenses and moods in each grammar?
  • How did the grammars conceive and name the moods?
  • Evidentiality was an unknown concept in the early 19th century, so how did the grammars describe the functions of the six past tenses?
  • The description of nominal declension in old Mari grammars follows the Russian model. Can the same pattern be seen in the grammars of 1775 and 1837?
  • Given that both Castrén and Wiedemann used the 1775 and 1837 grammars as sources for theirs, do the descriptions of conjugation in the 1845 and 1847 grammars differ from those given in the earlier ones?


Ivanov 1975 = Иванов, И. Г.: История марийского литературного языка. Марийское книжное издательство, Йошкар-Ола.

Sebeok, Thomas A. and Raun, Alo 1956: The first Cheremis grammar (1775). Studies in Cheremis 3. The Newberry Library, Chicago.