September 27, 2004

How alphabetic is the nature of molecules

The business about Kumiss-whisk, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, reminded me of Thomas Pynchon's treatment of Soviet linguistic imperialism in Central Asia. This is in Gravity's Rainbow (chapter 34, p. 338-359 in the 1995 Penguin edition). It's a long, typically strange mixture of obscure facts and wild inventions. I'll share some of it with you now, because mixed in with mentions of Pishpek, kumiss, an oil man from Midland, Texas with a curious relationship to Saudi Arabia, and the development of a new alphabet for Turkic languages, there's an interesting meditation on the similarity between linguistics and the oil business.

Here's how it starts:

During the early Stalin days, Tchitcherine was stationed in a remote "bear's corner" (medvezhy ugolok), out in Seven Rivers country. In the summer, irrigation canals sweated a blurry fretwork across the green oasis. In the winter, sticky teaglasses ranked the windowsills, soldiers played preference and stepped outside only to piss, or to shoot down the street at surprised wolves with a lately retooled version of the Moisin. It was a land of drunken nostalgia for the cities, silent Kirghiz riding, endless tremors of the earth ...

He had come to give the tribesmen out here, this far out, an alphabet: it was purely speech, gesture, touch among them, not even an Arabic script to replace. Tchitcherine coordinated with the local Likbez center, one of a string known back in Moscow as the "red džurts." Young and old Kirghiz came in from the plains, smelling of horses, sour milk and weed-smoke, inside to stare at slates filled with chalk marks. The stiff Latin symbols were almost as strange to the Russian cadre -- tall Galina in her cast-off Army trousers and gray Cossack shirts . . . marcelled and soft-faced Luba, her dear friend . . . Vaslav Tchitcherine, the political eye . . . all agents -- though none thought of it this way -- representing the NTA (New Turkic Alphabet) in uncommonly alien country.

After some more description, we meet Džaqyp Qulan:

Light pulses behind the clouds. Tchitcherine tracks mud off the street into the Center, gets a blush from Luba, a kind of kowtow and mopflourish from the comical Chinese swamper Chu Piang, unreadable stares from an early pupil or two. The traveling "native" schoolteacher Džaqyp Qulan looks up from a clutter of pastel survey maps, black theodolites, bootlaces, tractor gaskets, plugs, greasy tierod ends, steel mapcases, 7.62 mm rounds, crumbs and chunks of lepeshka, about to ask for a cigarette which is already out of Tchitcherine's pocket and on route.

He smiles thank you. He'd better. He's not sure of Tchitcherine's intentions, much less the Russian's friendship. Džaqyp Qulan's father was killed during the 1916 rising, trying to get away from Kuropatkin's troops and over the border into China -- one of about 100 fleeing Kirghiz massacred one evening beside a drying trickle of river that might be traceable somehow north to the zero at the top of the world. Russian settlers, in full vigilante panic, surrounded and killed the darker refugees with shovels, pitchforks, old rifles, any weapon to hand. A common occurrence in Semirechie then, even that far from the railroad. They hunted Sarts, Kazakhs, Kirghiz, and Dungans that terrible summer like wild game. Daily scores were kept. It was a competition, good-natured but more than play. ... This native uprising was supposed to the be the doing of foreigners, an international conspiracy to open a new front in the war. More Western paranoia, based solidly on the European balance of power. How could there be Kazakh, Kirghiz -- Eastern -- reasons? Hadn't the nationalities been happy? Hadn't fifty years of Russian rule brought progress? enrichment?

Well, for now, under the current dispensation in Moscow, Džaqyp Qulan is the son of a national martyr. The Georgian has come to power, power in Russia, ancient and absolute, proclaiming Be Kind To The Nationalities. ...

A little later,

Out into the bones of the backlands ride Tchitcherine and his faithful Kirghiz companion Džaqyp Qulan. Tchitcherine's horse is a version of himself -- an Appaloosa from the United States named Snake. Snake used to be some kind of remittance horse. Year before last he was in Saudi Arabia, being sent a check each month by a zany (or, if you enjoy paranoid systems, a horribly rational) Midland, Texas oil man to stay off of the U.S. rodeo circuits, where in those days the famous bucking bronco Midnight was flinging young men right and left into the sun-beat fences. But Snake is not so much Midnight-wild as methodically homicidal. ...

Strange, strange are the dynamics of oil and the ways of oilmen. Snake has seen a lot of changes since Arabia, on route to Tchitcherine, who may be his other half -- lot of horse thieves, hard riding, confiscation by this government and that, escapes into ever more remote country. This time ... Snake is going out into what could be the last adventure of all...

The story works back through Tchitcherine's father's voyage with Admiral Rozhdestvenski in 1904 to the South-West African port of Lüderitzbucht, and Tchitcherine's own researches in the Krasnyy Arkhiv to learn about it, which is what originally caused his posting to central Asia:

And so it transpired, no more than a month or two later, that somebody equally anonymous had cut Tchitcherine's orders for Baku, and he was grimly off to attend the first plenary session of the VTsK NTA (Vsesoynznyy Tsentral'nyy Komitet Novogo Tyurkskogo Alfavita), where he was promptly assigned to the ƣ Committee.

ƣ seems to be a kind of G, a voiced uvular plosive. The distinction between it and your ordinary G is one Tchitcherine will never learn to appreciate. Come to find out, all the Weird Letter Assignments have been reserved for ne'er-do-wells like himself. Shatsk, the notorious Leningrad nose-fetishist, who carries a black satin handkerchief to Party congresses and yes, more than once has been unable to refrain from reaching out and actually stroking the noses of powerful officials, is here -- banished to the Θ Committee,where he keeps forgetting that Θ, in the NTA, is œ, not Russian F, thus retarding progress and sowing confusion at every working session. Most of his time is taken up with trying to hustle himself a transfer to the Ņ Committee, "Or actually," sidling closer, breathing heavily, "just a plain, N, or even an M, will, do. . . ." The impetuous and unstable practical joker Radnichny has pulled the ə Committee, ə being a schwa or neutral uh, where he has set out on a megalomaniac project to replace every spoken vowel in Central Asia -- and why stop there, why not even a consonant or two? with these schwas here . . . not unusual considering his record of impersonations and dummy resolutions, and a brilliant but doomed conspiracy to hit Stalin in the face with a grape chiffon pie, in which he was implicated only enough to get him Baku instead of worse.

Naturally Tchitcherine gravitates into this crew of irredeemables. Before long, if it isn't some scheme of Radnichny's to infiltrate an oil-field and disguise a derrick as a giant penis, it's lurking down in Arab quarters of the city, waiting with the infamous Ukrainian doper Bugnogorkov of the glottal K Committee (ordinary K being represented by Q, whereas C is pronounced with a sort of tch sound) for a hashish connection, or fending off the nasal advances of Shatsk. ...

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?

Here's where it gets serious, or at least seriously fantastic:

The time for lighthearted practical jokes is past. Tchitcherine must go it alone. Painstakingly, by midwatch lantern light, when the manipulations of letters are most apt to produce other kinds of illumination, Tchitcherine transliterates the opening sura of the holy Koran into the proposed NTA, and causes it to be circulated among the Arabists at the session, over the name of Igor Blobadjian.

[...] Does Tchitcherine know what he's doing with this forgery of his? It is more than blasphemy, it is an invitation to holy war. Blobadjian, accordingly, is pursued through the back end of Baku by a passel of screaming Arabists waving scimitars and grinning horribly. The oil towers stand sentinel, bone-empty, in the dark. [...]

"In here, Blobadjian -- quickly". Close behind, Arabists are ululating, shrill, merciless, among the red-orange stars over the crowds of derricks.

Slam. The last hatch is dogged. "Wait -- what is this?"

"But I don't want --"

"You don't want to be another slaughtered infidel. Too late, Blobadjian. Here we go. . . ."

The first thing he learns is how to vary his index of refraction. He can choose anything between transparent and opaque. After the thrill of experimenting has worn off, he settles on a pale, banded onyx effect.

"It suits you," murmur his guides. "Now hurry."

"No, I want to pay Tchitcherine what he's got coming."

"Too late. You're no part of what he's got coming. Not any more."

"But he -- "

"He's a blasphemer. Islam has its own machineries for that. Angels and sanctions, and careful interrogating. Leave him. He has a different way to go."

How alphabetic is the nature of molecules. One grows aware of it down here: one finds Committees on molecular structure which are very similar to those back at the NTA plenary session. "See: how they are taken out from the coarse flow -- shaped, cleaned, rectified, just as you once redeemed your letters from the lawless, the mortal streaming of human speech. . . These are our letters, our words: they too can be modulated, broken, recoupled, redefined, co-polymerized one to the other in worldwide chains that will surface now and then over long molecular silences, like the seen parts of a tapestry."

Blobadjian comes to see that the New Turkic Alphabet is only one version of a process really much older -- and less unaware of itself -- than he has ever had cause to dream. [...]

And print just goes marching on without him. Copy boys go running down the rows of desks trailing smeared galleys in the air. Native printers get crash courses from experts airlifted in from Tiflis on how to set up that NTA. Printed posters go up in the cities, in Samarkand and Pishpek, Verney and Tashkent. On sidewalks and walls the very first printed slogans start to show up, the first Central Asian fuck you signs, the first kill-the-police-commissioner signs (and somebody does! this alphabet is really something!) and so the magic that the shamans, out in the wind, have always known, begins to operate now in a political way, and Džaqyp Qulan hears the ghost of his own lynched father with a scratchy pen in the night, practicing As and Bs.

Back to the ride into the Kyrgyz backlands:

But right about now, here come Tchitcherine and Džaqyp Qulan riding up over some low hills and down into the village they've been looking for. The people are gathered in a circle: there's been a feast all day. Fires are smoldering. In the middle of the crowd a small space has been cleared, and two young voices can be heard even at this distance.

It is an ajtys -- a singing-duel. The boy and girl stand in the eye of the village carrying on a mocking well-I-sort-of-like-you-even-if-there's-one-or-two-weird-things-about-you-for-instance kind of game while the tune darts in and out of qobyz and dombra strummed and plucked. The people laugh at the good lines. You have to be on your toes for this: you trade four-line stanzas, first, second and last lines all have to rhyme though the lines don't have to be any special length, just breathable. Still, it's tricky. It gets insulting too. There are villages where some partners haven't spoken to each other for years after an ajtys. As Tchitcherine and Džaqyp Qulan ride, the girls is making fun of her opponent's horse, who is just a little -- nothing serious, but kind of heavy-set . . . well, fat, really. Really fat. And it's getting to the kid. He's annoyed. He zips back a fast one about bringing all his friends around and demolishing her and her family too. Everybody sort of goes hmm. No laughs. She smiles, tightly, and sings:

You've been drinking a lot of qumys,
I must be hearing the words of qumys--
For where were you the night my brother
Came looking for his stolen qumys?

Oh-oh. The brother she mentioned is laughing fit to bust. The kid singing is not so happy.


They sit down and are passed cups of the fermented mare's milk, with a bit of lamb, lepeshka, a few strawberries. . . The boy and girl go on battling with their voices -- and Tchitcherine understands, abruptly, that soon someone will come out and begin to write some of these down in the New Turkic Alphabet he helped frame . . . and this is how they will be lost.

[Note: Pynchon indicates that the "New Turkic Alphabet" was based on Latin characters:

...nobody is really too keen on a Cyrillic NTA. Old Czarist albatrosses still hang around the Soviet neck. There is strong native resistance in Central Asia these days to anything suggesting Russification, and that goes even for the look of a printed language. The objections to an Arabic alphabet have to do with the absence of vowel symbols, and no strict one-to-one relation betwen sounds and characters. So this has left Latin, by default.

but whatever the fate of the "New Turkic Alphabet" in "early Stalin times" (and Pynchon usually seems to give a fairly accurate picture of concrete historical details), Ethnologue indicates that eventual outcome was for Kirghiz to be written in Cyrillic. ]

[Update: See my next post for the historical details. ]

[Update 9/28/2004: Busted. Tim May emailed to point out that my cursory scan through the Unicode code charts failed to find the correct Unicode code point for the letter whose Committee Tchitcherine was assigned to. The appropriate mapping to Unicode is undoubtedly Ƣ - U+01A2 LATIN CAPITAL LETTER OI and ƣ - U+01A3 LATIN SMALL LETTER OI, about which the code chart for Latin Extended B adds the note "= gha [in] Pan-Turkic Alphabets". Tim also points to this chart of the "Kirghiz (Kyrgyz) Latin alphabet (1928 - 1940) which shows that Ƣ and ƣ were definitely in there, ordered right after G.

I had found and used ଗ U+0B17 ORIYA LETTER GA, which is vaguely similar in appearance and also in phonetic value, but comes from what Tim calls "one of the more obscure Indic scripts in Unicode". What with the silk road and the spread of Buddhism and all, I guess it's conceivable that there's some historical connection, but in this case it was just an unscholarly expedient on my part. Now, if I was the president of CBS News, I guess this would be my cue to say that "Language Log cannot prove that this code point is authentic". But I'm not, so I'll just say that I made a mistake. I knew it was a mistake at the time, and considered adding a note about it, but thought that would be piling pedantry on top of pedantry, so... Hell, I didn't think anyone would notice. Isn't it incredible that there is someone who knows enough, and cares enough, to look at the page source of a post like this, track down the Unicode code point involved, and send a helpful email to correct it?

Unicode Latin Extended B also includes a clue about the letter whose committee Shatsk is assigned to, which I mistakenly rendered as the html character entity Θ. The correct value is almost certainlyƟ U+019F LATIN CAPITAL LETTER O WITH MIDDLE TILDE, which the code chart notes as "= barred o, o bar" and also as "→ 004E8 cyrillic capital letter barred o".


Posted by Mark Liberman at September 27, 2004 01:08 PM