Humanity On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown – Part III

Безбожный пир,
безбожные безумцы!
Вы пиршеством
и песнями разврата
Ругаетесь над мрачной тишиной,
Повсюду смертию
Средь ужаса плачевных похорон,
Средь бледных лиц
молюсь я на кладбище,
А ваши ненавистные восторги
Смущают тишину гробов —
и землю
Над мертвыми телами потрясают!
Когда бы стариков
и жен моленья
Не освятили общей,
смертной ямы, —
Подумать мог бы я, что нынче бесы
Погибший дух безбожника терзают
И в тьму кромешную тащат
со смехом.
Godless feast,
godless madmen!
With feasting
and obscene songs
You bring curses to the gloomy silence
Which Death has
spread out everywhere!
Amidst the horror of sad funerals,
Among the pale faces
I pray in the cemetery,
While your hateful celebrations
Disturb the quiet of the graves —
And shake the earth
above the dead bodies!
Were it not for the prayers
of the old men and wives
Revealing the common,
deathly pit, —
I might have thought it was demons
Tormenting the soul of a godless man
And dragging him, laughing,
into the abyss.

(Alexander Pushkin, “A Feast During Plague Time“, from the short plays)

Dear Readers:

Today concluding my review of this op-ed by pundit Petr Akopov.  And to show respect for Akopov’s religious convictions, I allowed the Priest to have the final word (in my Pushkin quotes).

Pushkin’s short play is based on a work by Scottish writer John Wilson, called City Of The Plague, which is a kind of ghost story.  Pushkin took Act I, Scene IV, which involves a group of people revelling near the cemetery.  It’s their way of dealing with the crisis, but they get scolded by an angry Priest.

People fleeing from London during the Plague

There are two basic points of view expressed here, two basic tactics for dealing with the plague:  (1) Edward Walsingham encourages people to socialize, to revel, to work through their losses via conversation and song, and to enjoy the very last moments of life; (2) versus the Priest who wants people to seclude themselves and pray.  But all he can offer the revellers is the possibility of achieving new happiness in heaven.

Terrified Seclusion versus carrying on as if nothing had happened…  Sound familiar?  People today are making such choices every day.

The Etymology Of Fear

We have been talking a lot about Fear and the various formats that it takes.  It might be interesting to do a comparison of various languages, and how many words they have for the concept.  Why have different words?  Well, everybody knows that having a large vocabulary is a good thing.  Educated people strive to have as large a vocabulary as possible, in order to most precisely and effectively express their thoughts and feelings on a given topic.  Synonyms help to elucidate the various nuances and semantic flavors of any concept that is important to a particular group, or to human beings in general.  For example, did you know that Classical Greek had six different words for “love”: agápe, éros, philía, philautia, storgē, and xenia.  They needed 6 different words, because there were 6 different flavors that they needed to distinguish.

“Fear”, by Russian painter Maria Yakunchikova, 1893.

Similarly, there are several different flavors for the concept of  “FEAR”.  In English there are a cluster of synonyms:  Terror, fright, horror, panic, dread, apprehension, phobia.  Verbs:  scared, frightened, etc.

Russian has even fewer synonyms, to my knowledge the main words are: Страх (strakh), ужас (uzhas), испуг (is-pug), and боязнь (boyazn).  All of which are ancient Indo-European words, and the last three related in a rather strange way, as I shall prove here:

Strakh:  From Proto-Baltic Slavic *strākš-, as reconstructured from Proto-Indo-European  *(s)treg-, or going back even further, when Proto-IE-Hittite had Laryngean consonants, *sterh₃-.  Classical Greek στόρνυμι, Latin strages. Most likely the same semantic root as the word for “strew”, as in “strewing fear among one’s enemies on the battlefield”.  All the Slavic languages have this same word, also shared with cousin languages Lithuanian as in stregti, and Proto-Germanic *strakaz.  The common meaning is “fear” or “terror”.  That which is sowed against enemies on the battlefield.

Now, for the next three Russian terms, I set out to prove that they all come from the same Indo-European root, but via different routes, not to mention a side-borrowing from Old Germanic.  Here is my theory:

Let’s start with the German word Angst which also was borrowed into English intact, via the works of Kierkegaard and Freud.  The Proto-Indo-European root was *anghu- (“stretch tight”) whence the English word “anger”, and I stipulate that there is a bit of a semantic stretch from “anger” to “fear” or “anxiety”, but there you have it.

Next we have to do a bit of Slavic Historical Linguistics, to prove that the 3 Russian words ispug, uzhas, and boyazn all stem from this same Proto-Indo-European root.

“The Amityville UZHAS” – “Get out of the freaking house!”

Let’s start with uzhas (“fear”, “terror”, “horror”), which is the clearest candidate for direct genealogy into Slavic.  Indo-European /an/ became Common Slavic (and Old Church Slavonic) nasal phoneme ǫ pronounced, most likely, similar to the snooty French nasal sound as in “bon”.  In East Slavic languages, including Russian, this nasal phoneme morphed into the /u/ sound as in “oooh look at that!”  So, from this we pull the first sound in /uzhas/.  But what about the rest, the /zh/ for example.  Elementary, my dear Watson.  The Slavic word must have been something like /ange-/ or /angi/ and everybody knows (at least everybody with an advanced degree in Historical Linguistics) that the /g/ sound palatalized into /zh/ before a front vowel; so there must have been a front vowel there, like /e/ or /i/.  Hence /angi-/ becomes /uzh-/ and then the rest of it, the /as/ somehow just tacked itself on, some kind of suffix or infix.  QED.

This “First Palatalization” era, by the way, is thought to have taken place starting around 300 AD, among the Slavic peoples.

Ping, Pang and Pong

Proceeding to the disputed etymology of the Russian word ispug (“fright”).  There are various speculations, but here is my theory:  It’s the same root /ang/ but with a prefix /p-/!  See, /p-ang/ or /p-ong/ would give the same result as what we saw above, just that the final /-g/ was not followed by a front vowel in this case, and so became /pug/.  Then tack on another prefix /iz/ and you have /ispug/.  QED.

Turandot’s Advisors: Ping, Pang and Pong

And now onto the most interesting word of this trio.  Same word, different route.

Boyazn:  I flatter myself that I came up with the correct etymology myself.  If somebody else figured this out first, then I retract my claim.  But I believe I was the one who figured it out, even though I’m not a practicing Linguist any more:

Russian boyazn (fear) has to be a borrowing into Slavic from Old-Germanic /be-ang-n/.  (Again, that /ang/ root!)

See, my German is not that great, nor my vocabulary so extensive, and I used to know only one German word for “fear”, namely “Furcht“, which is a different root entirely.  But then one day I was listening to the Richard Strauss opera Der Rosenkavalier, and I happened to notice that drunken Baron Ochs, in his famous aria, sings the lovesick words:

Wie ich dein alles werde sein !
Mit mir, mit mir keine Kammer dir zu klein,
ohne mich, ohne mich jeder Tag dir so bang

Which translates, roughly, as:  “If only I could be your all!  With me, with me, the room would not seem so small.  Without me, without me, the day for you would not be so frightening…”

Baron Ochs: A proponent of the Big Bang Theory!

Bang!  More like Eureka!  I had to look it up in the dictionary to make sure; but, sure enough Bang is another German synonym for FEAR!

As also on display in the famous Erlkönig (Elf-King) song by Franz Schubert:

Mein Sohn, was birgst du so bang dein Gesicht?  (“My son, why do you hide your face so fearfully?”)

Bang!  With that same root /ang/ and, who knows, maybe English “pang” (as in feeling a pang of fear) comes from the same word as well, just a different prefix /p-/ instead of /be-/.

So anyhow, Baron Ochs got me thinking about it, and in a moment of pure epiphany, I realized that this German word Bang had to be the one and same word as Russian boyazn.  Here is my theory:

Everybody knows that Common Slavic peoples came into heavy contact with Old Germanic peoples sometime around the Goth period (500 AD?).  Words that were borrowed around this time then subsquently became subject to the laws of sound changes which rippled through the Slavic dialects.  One such sound change (a movement known as the “Second Palatalization”) affected the consonant /g/, turning it into a /z/ in certain environments.  The poster-child word for this change is Germanic kuningu (“Duke”) which became Slavic knyaz’ (“prince”).  The rule here is that the consonant /g/ morphs into a /z/ after a front nasal vowel /in/, pronounced not unlike the French nasal in, for example, chemin.

Ancient Goths: “We will teach you the meaning of the word FEAR!”

Based on this, it is child’s play to deduce that Old High German bange (“fear”), (from the composite be-ange), from Proto-Indo-European *h₂enǵʰ- (“narrow”), was borrowed into Common Slavic (around Goth times).  The actual root is ange, the Germanic be- is a prefix, just like the /be-/ in the English word “be-coming”.  Slavs borrowed the whole word along with the prefix as something like bu-enge.  The syllable -en- was interpreted as the Slavic nasal vowel ę which morphed, for example, into Russian я; and following that nasal vowel, the consonant /g/ morphed into /z/.  The /bъ/ part, with a short schwa-ish /u/ sound (as in English “put”) becomes Russian /o/.  Giving Russian боязнь(“fear”).  QED.

This is my theory, by the way; and I believe that I am the first person to discover this etymology.  NOBEL PRIZE, PLEASE!

And moral of the story being, that Slavs, like the Germanic hero Siegfried, were mostly fearless people, until they learned the meaning of the word “fear” from the Goths!  With whom, most likely, they had friendly relations, inter-married, exchanged recipes, and borrowed a ton of useful vocabulary.

In Conclusion

So, I will give the final word, as promised, to Akopov as he rails against the Walsinghams of our current plague.

Akopov:  What is happening now is in fact very mild, compared to the panic to come.  Fear breaking out onto the surface will periodically morph into a panic of greater proportions.  If a virus like this, which is quite ordinary and does not even present such a great threat, can terrorize people to this extent, then one can only imagine what a real threat will do to us.

Groundless fear, which sublimates the actual threats to our existence, is the main threat to our existence!  The panic that is summoned up will infect all of humanity in a way the Coronavirus cannot.  The fear of being doomed and sentenced to death.  And there is no vaccine to cure humanity which is already prepared to perish.

On the other hand, human history goes back way more than any existing civilizations, and it is only this one civilization, which considers itself to be the most advanced, which has strayed into this dead end.

This entry was posted in Breaking News, Linguistics, Medicine and Health and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Humanity On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown – Part III

  1. Pavlo Svolochenko says:

    Stuck in my apartment with my hoarded alcohol and Indian food. All my furniture has been rearranged so my girlfriend can do her PHD research from home.

    Never imagined that the apocalypse would be so dull. How’s things with you?


    • yalensis says:

      Pretty much the same, Pavlo. Except tinned fish instead of Indian food, and no girlfriend any more — so consider yourself TRES LUCKY, my friend! And be very good to your girl, she sounds like a corker!


    • Pavlo Svolochenko says:

      I will at that. This would be a terrible time to have a falling out….

      But a very good time for some amateur opera on your part: vielleicht, ‘Liebestraum von Mensch und Kissen’?


      • yalensis says:

        My dream has always been to write an Italian classical opera. Problem: I have no musical training. Other problem: I don’t speak Italian!
        But never mind, I will somehow achieve my dream. After all, if you only dream something hard enough, you can be anything, right? Oprah taught me that.


      • Pavlo Svolochenko says:

        The second problem is (relatively) easy to remedy – there’s now plenty of vacant hours to invest in duolinguo, and no end of Italian news articles for further practice.

        As for the first…. maybe it’s not possible to acquire the musical knowledge necessary by your own solitary efforts, but this is no reason not to try.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s