October 19, 2006

Vaslav Tchitcherine, call your office

For deep background on the orthographic imbroglio in the news from central Asia ("Kazakh central bank misspells 'bank' on money", Reuters 10/18/2006; "Kazakh bank gets own name wrong", BBC News 10/19/2006), see chapter 34 of Gravity's Rainbow (pp. 338-359 in the 1995 Penguin edition). If you don't have a copy at hand, a convenient summary is available from Language Log ("How alphabetic is the nature of molecules", 9/27/2004; "Birlashdirilmish yangi Turk alifbesi", 9/27/2004; "Ask, and ye shall receive", 9/29/2004).

Let me point you in particular to a passage that describes an analogous controversy about the treatment of velar consonants in loanwords:

Most distressing of all is the power struggle he has somehow been suckered into with one Igor Blobadjian, a party representative on the prestigious G Committee. Blobadjian is fanatically attempting to steal ƣs from Tchitcherine's Committee, and change them to Gs, using loan-words as an entering wedge. In the sunlit, sweltering commissary the two men sneer at each other across trays of zapekanka and Georgian fruit soup.

There is a crisis over which kind of g to use in the word "stenography." There is a lot of emotional attachment to the word around here. Tchitcherine one morning finds all the pencils in his conference room have mysteriously vanished. In revenge, he and Radnichny sneak in Blobadjian's conference room next night with hacksaws, files and torches, and reform the alphabet on his typewriter. It is some fun in the morning. Blobadjian runs around in a prolonged screaming fit. Tchitcherine's in conference, meeting's called to order, CRASH! two dozen linguists and bureaucrats go toppling over on their ass. ... Could Radnichny be a double agent?

I haven't been able to find any news reports that explain which letters the current controversy over bank actually deals with: 'k' vs. 'q', or perhaps 'x'? If you know, please tell me and I'll tell the world.

[Several readers have written to suggest that the error might be the substitution of Қ for K, where the one in red is Unicode U+049A "CYRILLIC LETTER KA WITH DESCENDER", representing a uvular stop (IPA /q/), rather than Unicode U+041A "CYRILLIC CAPITAL LETTER KA", representing a velar stop (IPA /k/).

The site for the Kazakh Central Bank suggests that their name should be rendered as ҚАЗАҚСТАН ҰЛТТЫҚ БАНКІ:

So based on the Reuters story, which says that "On the new note, the word was written with an alternate Kazakh form of the letter K", you might guess that the mistake was to write БАНҚІ instead of БАНКІ.

However, according to Michele Berdy

Russian sources say that the letter "i" is missing from the end of the word; looks like both the Western sources got the story wrong. [...] The news reports in Russian state that the computer program at the mint dropped the letter.

I have to say that I find this a little depressing, and not just because it's one more embarrassment for the poor Kazakhs.

There's a simple matter of fact here. Did the banknote use the wrong form of "K" (and if so, what are the different forms of K, and which one should have been used)? Or did the banknote drop the final "I"?

It's not like you need a PhD in physics or neurophysiology to get that straight. You'd think that Reuters, "the world's largest international multimedia news agency", could afford to hire reporters and editors who would take the trouble to figure this out and communicate it to their readers, if they're going to bother to report it in the first place. ]

[Update -- a couple of minutes of poking around on the Kazakh Central Bank's web site turned up a picture of (what I think is) one of the bills in question:

If that's it, then the offense was to use Х U+0425 CYRILLIC CAPITAL LETTER KHA in place of the K, and the Russian news sources are wrong, whereas Reuters was merely vague (or wrong, if you don't believe that X is "an alternate Kazakh form of the letter K").

I suspect Radnichny, myself.]

[Update -- the mystery deepens... Michele Berdy writes:

Well, I was right when I thought my trust in the Russian media was misplaced.  Now the question is: can we trust Russian speaking Kazakhstani blogs?

The bloggers say that:

при написании "Казақстаң Республикасың Ұлтық Банкі" была допущена ошибка "Банқі", хотя должно быть написано "Банкі" согласно правил казахского языка.

(In writing "Kazakhstan Republic Central Bank" there was a mistake in "Bank" [written banҚi] although [sic] it should have been written "BanКi," according to the rules of the Kazakh language.)

Another Russian-speaking blogger on another Kazakh blog notes the "K with a tail" that should have been a K "without a tail."

Neither matches the picture on the Central Bank site.


Қ, K, Х, final vowel or not -- what is the truth about the Kazakh currency miscue?

Somehow these alternatives are all interconnected, because (I conjecture):

1. Kazakh has front-back harmony, in which velar consonants [k], [ɡ] and [ŋ] pattern with front vowels, while uvulars [q], [ʁ] and [ɴ] occur with back vowels.

2. Between vowels, the uvular stop [q] becomes the corresponding fricative [χ].

3. Therefore, if the borrowed word "bank" were construed to have front harmony (as the vowels А and İ rather than Ә and И in the National Bank's banner, above, seem to indicate), then the correct consonant should be K. But if the Kazakh version of "bank" were taken to have back harmony, then the uvular Қ would become (at least in pronunciation) Х -- if there is a final vowel!

4. On the other hand, there may be some question about whether this borrowed word participates in the native harmony system or not.

I emphasize that this is a guess, based on what (little) I know about general Turkic morphophonology.

In any case, Reuters, the BBC and Pravda apparently are not going to tell you what's actually going on here, so keep checking Language Log to find out.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at October 19, 2006 09:26 AM