January 6 in Russian history


(25 December 1864 Old Style)

Birthday of Nikolay Yakovlevich Marr. An extravagant and a bit frightening figure in the Soviet science. Wikipedia writes:

Marr earned a reputation of the maverick genius with his Japhetic theory, postulating the common origin of Caucasian, Semitic-Hamitic, and Basque languages. In 1924, he went even further and proclaimed that all the languages of the world descend from a single proto-language which had consisted of four "diffused exclamations": sal, ber, yon, rosh. Although the languages undergo certain stages of development, the linguistic paleontology makes it possible to discern elements of primordial exclamations in any given language. To draw support for his speculative doctrine, Marr elaborated a Marxist footing for it. He hypothesized that modern languages tend to fuse into a single language of communist society. This theory was a base of the mass campaign in 1920-30s in the Soviet Union of introduction of Latin alphabets for smaller ethnicities of the country, including replacement of the existing Cyrillic alphabets, e.g., for the Moldovan language.

His father, James Montague-Marr, was a Scot and his mother, Agafya Magulariya, was Georgian. Nikolay was one of the most strange pupils in the Kutaisi gymnasium. After a disease, when he couldn't attend the lessons for half a year, he decided to leave the school and become a telegraphist. His mother hardly managed to convince him to continue his studies. He was spending so much time studyihg foreign languages that he rarely visited the school, but his grades were always good. He was so interested in ancient Greek that he asked the principal for permission to stay in the eighth form for the second year, but the principal decided that Marr was mentally ill and almost sent him down. Marr was the editor of the school newspaper. He wrote revolutionary verses, welcoming the assassination of Alexander II and calling to the arms to "liberate" Georgia from Russians. However, he was not a revolutionary. During elections to the university council he always associated with the far right candidates.

When Marr entered the St.Petersburg university, he chose the faculty of Oriental languages. Students had to choose the languages they planned to learn and join the corresponding groups. Marr joined ALL groups that studied the languages of Near East and Caucasus! And he did learn all these languages. He became a great polyglot and could have become a great linguist, had it not been for the passion and obsession with his own unsubstantiated theories. He never even completed a single course in theoretical linguistics. He was a brilliant dilettante, a bit like Schliemann in archaeology. Unlike Schliemann, though, Marr was not successful. He was so deeply fascinated with his home Caucasus that he maniacally exaggerated the role of the peoples of Caucasus in history. Still a student, Marr introduced the term "Japhetic languages" — first to denote the unity of Georgian, Svan, Mingrelian and some other languages of Georgia and Semitic and Hamitic languages. This was an arguable, but more or less scientific theory. Later Marr began to include all dead languages of Mediterranean and Near East into this Japhetic group. His method is exemplified by his hypothesis that the Greeks originated in Caucasus. One of the earliest tribes of ancient Greece is called Pelasgians. This name is so similar to the name of Lezgins (an ethnic group in Northern Caucasus, Dagestan), Marr said, that these must be the same people. So, Pelasgians are from Caucasus. Or another example: we know of the two groups of Romans, the plebs and the patricians. In Marr's opinion, the sounds -eb- in plebs which remind the plural ending in Georgian language, prove that the plebs belonged to the Japhetic peoples who were conquered by Indo-European patricians.

However, Marr was also an archaeologist, and a good one. He began the explorations of Ani, the ancient Armenian capital, founded the Ani museum and published a number of works in Armenian history. The Armenians then even called all archaeologists "marrs". He found an ancient Georgian Christian treatise. His ideas about the close ties between the languages and the material culture are still interesting.

In 1917, Marr heartily welcomed the October revolution. He organized the Academy of the history of the material culture, participated in the foundation of many linguistic institutions, wrote the grammars for many languages of the USSR which hadn't had writing systems, including the Veps and the Karelian languages. In 1933 he opposed the the attempts to replace the Georgian and Armenian alphabets with Cyrillic. Instead, he spent many years developing the overcomplicated Latin-based "analytic alphabet" that would be suitable for all languages. He proposed to use it for the Abkhazian language, one of the most complicated languages from the phonetic point of view, but was not successful. Some people told that Marr saved them from Cheka.

On the other hand, Marr very rude and impudent. When he read lectures in Armenia and explained some features in the Armenian language, and Armenian raised his hand and said that he, as a native Armenian speaker, cannot agree with the Marr's examples. Marr immediately replied: "A fish wants to become and ichtyologist!" He often called his opponents fascists or compared them to Chamberlaine, Poincare and other "bourgeois politicians".

In 1921 or 1922 Marr, the only member of the Imperial Academy of Sciences who joined the Communist party, founded the Japhetic Institute. His outstanding personality, which reminded of the recent scientific revolution of Einstein, Roentgen and Bohr, attracted many scientists to the institute. Marr continues to enhance his theories. It was then when he deduced the four syllables of his "proto-language". Any word of any language may be reconstructed to these four syllables, he argued. "There are things which need not be proven, they can only be demonstrated," replied Marr when his opponents asked for proofs. Since 1928, Marr used the Marxist demagoguery to make his theory the official Marxist linguistics. When his opponents shrugged: "I don't understand you," Marr replied: "You'll never understand me till you change your class thinking!"

To be just, we have to note that the worst persecutions of the Marr's opponents began only after his death in 1934. He became the icon of the "proletarian linguistics". And then, suddenly, in 1950, Pravda published a whole page of criticism of Marr by A.S. Chikobava, who accused Marr of "misinterpretation of the national". For two months, Pravda continued the discussion of the Japhetic theory till finally, on 20 June, the article titled "Marxism and problems of linguistics" was published: "N. Y. Marr introduced into linguistics incorrect and non-Marxist formula, regarding the "class character" of language, and got himself into a muddle and put linguistics into a muddle. Soviet linguistics cannot be advanced on the basis of an incorrect formula which is contrary to the whole course of the history of peoples and languages.". The author was someone "J.Stalin". Marr, like modern linguists, told that there are no primitive languages, that the complexity of languages has nothing to do with the maturity of the civilization. Stalin, on the other hand, argued that more complicated languages are signs of a more mature society. Academic Vinogradov supported Stalin: "Josef Vissarionovich, Pushkin's vocabulary contains 21,000 words and the Shakespeare's vocabulary is only 20,000 words!" Basically, Stalin proclaimed the national minorities of the USSR the people of the second class. As the result, a huge number of national, non-Russian, schools and newspapers were closed.

After this article, all Marr's achievements, both mythical and real, became non-science. Two weeks later Marr's disciples wrote: "We see the fallaciousness of the theoretical way we used to follow."

A good article about Nikolay Marr in Russian by V. Alpatov: Marr, Marrism and Stalinism.


Nika said...

thanks so much for this! very, very interesting. and fits my current mood perfectly, since i've just spent an evening with the family of dear friends, listening to/speaking these languages: turkish, german, english, serbian, russian, ukrainian - and my 2-year-old daughter's version of russian... :)

с праздниками, всех благ!

Anonymous said...

Ditto. Time and again, I can't help but wonder why would Hollywood need writers, next to events and people from the history...
And now, let me wish everyone a merry Christmas in my mother tongue :)
"Мир Божији – Христос се роди!"

Dimitri said...

I'm glad you liked this, Neeka! I was enchanted by languages since childhood. I read language coursebooks and dictionaries like science fiction -- Japanese, Hindi, Czech, Polish, Latvian, Finnish... However, I never learned a single language to the degree when I would really be able to speak it (besides English). One of my recent addictions is Latin. BTW, one of the accounts I often use at various web-sites is 'cremor' -- the Latin rendition of your 'smetanka' blog :)

Dimitri said...

Voja, thank you! Merry Christmas to you!