Birch Bark Letters, part 3

Sep 12, 2011 by

In the previous posting, I brought up an example of a short crime report known as the combined birch bark document #607/562. It’s diagram, transliterated text and translation are repeated below for ease of reference. Let’s now look at some of the linguistic features of the Old Novgorod dialect.

A combined diagram of the birch bark letter #607 and 562, Novgorod

Literal translation:
Zhiznobud [pre-Christian name] murdered by Sychevich [patronymic of a group]
Novgorod freeman and to them inheritance
‘Zhiznobud, a Novgorod freeman, has been murdered by the Sycheviches, and they took his inheritance.’

One of the most obvious morphological differences between the Old Novgorod dialect and the “standard” (or supradialectal) variety of Old Russian is in the different form of the nominative singular ending for masculine nouns, modifying adjectives and predicative participles: in Old Novgorod texts, including this one, we find that such words end in -e, whereas in supradialectal Old Russian the relevant form of the ending is -ъ. (Recall from our earlier discussion that the letter “ъ” (back yer) stands for a very short back vowel [ŭ] (similar to the vowel in the English put, but shorter). For example, in the text above we find that the proper name ŽIZNOBOUDE and the common noun SMЬRDE, the modifying adjective NOVGORODSKE and predicative participle POGOUBLENE all end in -e. In “standard” Old Russian these words would have been ŽIZNOBOUDЪ, SMЬRDЪ, NOVGORODSKЪ and POGOUBLENЪ, respectively.

In a different birch bark letter, dating from the first quarter of the 12th century, a Novgorod man named Georgij wrote: DEŠEVE TI XLEBE? (literally ‘cheap here bread?’, or ‘Is the bread cheap here?’); in this missive he advises his parents to sell their household and to move to Smolensk or Kiev because of the famine that happened in Novgorod at the time. Note again the two -e endings, on the noun XLEBE ‘bread’ and the adjective DEŠEVE ‘cheap’.

Note also that even though Old Novgorod vernacular writing system used a slightly different convention for some of the letters from that employed by the more “bookish” texts, here we are not dealing just with a different spelling, but with a really different ending. Even in the Old Novgorod vernacular writing, the letter “ъ” could only be written as such. While the letter “o” could also be represented by “ъ”, the reverse is not true: the back yer could not stand for “o”, let alone for “e”.

In phonetic terms, the Old Novgorod nominative singular masculine ending was fronter, lower and longer than that in “standard” Old Russian.

Two other morphological contrasts between the Old Novgorod and “standard” Old Russian include the differing forms of feminine nouns, specifically of the genitive singular and the nominative plural forms. Both of these ended in Old Novgorod in the letter “ѣ” (yat) pronounced /æ/ (like vowel in the English pat) rather than in “ы”, which is usually transliterated into English as “y” and pronounced as a high back unrounded vowel. For instance, the genitive singular of the noun ŽENA ‘woman, wife’ (used with a preposition “ou”, more on which below) in “standard” Old Russian is OU ŽENY, whereas in Old Novgorod it is OU ŽENѢ (pronounced /u ženæ/). Similarly, the nominative plural of the feminine noun KOROVA ‘cow’ in “standard” Old Russian is KOROVY, whereas in Old Novgorod it is KOROVѢ (pronounced /korovæ/). Once again, this is not a mere difference in spelling since the letter “ѣ” (yat) in Old Novgorod vernacular writing could stand only for the same letter of the more bookish style (or it could also be rendered as “e” or as a “ь”).

Note that rather than change forms in this or that slot of the morphological paradigm at random, Old Novgorod dialect presents a more systematic change, retaining the syncretism (i.e., same form) of the genitive singular and nominative plural; compare with the Modern Russian: genitive singular knigi ‘of a book’ and nominative plural knigi ‘books’ (both pronounced with the stress on the first syllable).

As far as syntax is concerned, Old Novgorod dialect also differed from what we find in “standard” Old Russian documents, as well as from Modern Russian, of course. One peculiarity that we can see in the birch bark document #607/562 is the passive construction using the preposition OU (cf. OU SYČEVIČЬ). In Modern Russian, this preposition is still used but in a different way; for example, it can indicate possession, as in У меня есть брат (U menja est’ brat = literally ‘to me there is brother.’, or in more colloquial English ‘I have a brother.’), or nearness, as in Я стою у окна (Ja stoju u okna = literally ‘I stand near window.’, or in more colloquial English ‘I am standing next to a window.’). In contrast, the demoted agent in passives in Modern Russian is expressed by a noun in the instrumental case, without a preposition at all. Note that English does use a preposition for a passive agent, as in This book was written by Dickens.

Whether it is a feature of Old Novgorod syntax or simply an epistolary convention, another peculiarity that we encounter in the birch bark document 607/562 is the word order: the appositive phrase (=extra description) NOVGORODSKE SMЬRDE appears not immediately following the proper name which it modifies (ŽIZNOBOUDE), but after the predicate (POGOUBLENE) and the passive agent (OU SYČEVIČЬ). The birch bark letter expert Andrey Zaliznjak describes this Old Novgorod rule thus: the most important part of the message comes first, with details coming later. Thus, in this example the core message is that Zhiznobud is murdered by the Sycheviches, and the fact that he is also a Novgorod freeman is a extra piece of information that is less important to the communicative goal of the letter.

This relative freedom of word order does not challenge the understanding of the text since the structure of the sentence (who did what to whom and which words modify which ones) can be understood from the case endings: recall from our discussion above that NOVGORODSKE SMЬRDE bears the same nominative singular masculine ending -e (peculiar for the Old Novgorod dialect) as in ŽIZNOBOUDE.

In Modern Russian, the word order is relatively free too, although appositives tend to come right after the nouns they modify. But still, the focused element tends to come in the beginning of the sentence; it can be further emphasized by intonation (in spoken language) or by a special construction, the èto-cleft, as in the following examples (capital letters represent emphatic intonation):

SAŠU ljubit Valja.
SASHA[accusative] loves Valya[nominative]

Èto Sašu ljubit Valja.
This Sasha[accusative] loves Valya[nominative]

Both: ‘It is SASHA that Valya loves.’ (or ‘Valya loves Sasha, of all people.’)

In my next (and perhaps final) posting on the birch bark letters, I will discuss another interesting peculiarity of the Old Novgorod dialect, this time from the realm of phonology (sounds).

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