Excitement in Slavistics

30.6.10 § 2 commentarii

While of course one assumes that you all subscribe to Palaeographica Slavonica, I don't know if any of you have been following the particularly rancourous debate currently being conducted in the journal's Notae Brevissimae section. The debate, of course, concerns the linguistic provenance of the so-called "Sirmiensis Marginalium". This fragment of an unknown language occurs at the end of the Gospel according to Mark in the Codex Sirmiensis, and has been the subject of dispute ever since the Archimandrite Arsenie Sokolović discovered the manuscript in 1879.

It goes without saying that the Codex Sirmiensis has an interesting history all of its own, and is at the root of not a little controversy itself. A fragmentary aprakos running to some twenty-nine folios, and probably written in the late 13th century, this codex poses a number of linguistic and palaeographic problems. Although discovered in a monastery at Sremska Mitrovica in the 19th century, the language used through most of the text appears to be a Kievan recension of Old Church Slavonic: pace Danilović's assertion that the language used is typical of the Serbian recension, the hesitation between jat and malyj jus clearly demonstrates Kievan provenance.

Piffling details such as the above aside, the main difficulty of the manuscript has always been the fragment of unknown language. A facsimile of the passage in question is shown below:

While I have no doubt that you, dear readers, will read that with ease, it remains that this is a public blog and knowledge of the older forms of Cyrillic is not, alas, what it once was. As such, below is a normalised transliteration, with punctuation added for the reader's convenience:

Ovĭ, dŭ pezyj vlana nesa, dedroče jepy. Jěnŭ toje stręgetŭ trumą korą, jěnŭ beretŭje marą boštę, etĭ jěnŭ beretŭje aky donję. Ovĭ sape dŭ jepobĭ: oštĭ jestĭ menĭ križdij, ję draky donję, ožetĭ-je jepy. Jepi sapątrŭ: kleve, ovĭ! Oštĭ jestĭ ąsą križdebĭ ję drakomezĭ sozę: donje, judŭ, svě ovi vlani vrežetĭ liną vorętą, etĭ nestĭ dŭ ovi vlana. Sodezi kluti, ovĭ tape ę laną.

Now, as will be immediately apparent, the language of this passage is not a form of Old Church Slavonic. While one would think that this is obvious, some have suggested that we are seeing here an obscure dialect of OCS, basing this assertion on characteristic consonant clusters such as žd and št and the lack of palatalised dental stops. However, the complete lack of intelligibility with any Slavonic language renders this suggestion somewhat fatuous.

Still others have assumed that the passage is written in some kind of code: most frequently a simple substitution cipher has been suggested. A considerable amount of work by cryptologists, however, has failed to result in any kind of meaningful text.

It was Georgiy Shevelov who first suggested that the language of the Sirmiensis Marginalium is actually a hitherto unattested Indo-European language. Certainly, there are features of the text which look highly diagnostic for IE, such as дєдрочє dedroče, which looks suspiciously like a reflex of PIE *dedorḱe, the 3sg perfect of *derḱ- "to see". Shevelov's theory of an unattested "Sirmian" language has since remained the majority position, until it was recently challenged by a young chap from Bangor.

This Dr Gethin Evans has suggested that in fact the language of the Sirmiensis Marginalium is a descendant of Gaulish. He offers a number of points to back his theory up, most based on lexical grounds. For example, донѥ donje appears to be cognate to OI duine and Welsh dyn, from CC *donyos, while криждєбь križdebĭ appears to be the reflex of a dative plural *kridyobi. This last in particular is telling, as the Celtic reflex of PIE *ḱerd- is highly distinctive in its reformation into an io-stem *kridyo-.

Of course, objections to this new theory were both instant and vociferous. Evans is not a Slavonicist, nor a palaeographer, but rather a specialist in modern Armenian dialectology. Furthermore, how on earth would a Kievan scribe have known a variety of Gaulish, some nine centuries after the language's demise in its heartlands some two thousand kilometres away?

In the most recent volume of Palaeographica Slavonica, Evans addresses some of these concerns. He points out first of all that distance is not necessarily an obstacle: we know for certain that the Gauls were a widely-travelled people, with Gaulish-speaking settlements in Asia Minor and Central Europe. While we have no records of Celtic-speaking peoples in the vicinity of Kiev, Evans points out that the Marginalium is written in a hand which is clearly distinct from the rest of the manuscript, and suggests that it could have been added by a copyist in Sirmium. Sirmium, of course, was the chief settlement of the Celtic Scordisci. Furthermore, he also points out that Gaulish is attested extremely late in Endlicher's Glossary (a 9th century manuscript from Austria).

While the debate is far from over, I personally believe that Evans is on to something very significant and exciting. In conclusion, then, I shall leave you with his tentative translation of the text:

A sheep that had no wool saw horses, one of them pulling a heavy wagon, one carrying a big load, and one carrying a man quickly. The sheep said to the horses: my heart pains me, seeing a man driving horses. The horses said: listen, sheep! Our hearts pain us when we see this: a man, the master, makes the wool of the sheep into a warm garment for himself. And the sheep has no wool. Having heard this, the sheep fled into the plain.

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§ 2 Response to “Excitement in Slavistics”

  • Bo says:

    Oh you are a wag! I'm glad to say I saw through it as soon as I saw 'Ovi' (AND in Cyrillic) and thought, aha, we're in for a nice bit of Schleicherism.

    Nicely done!

    PS must put you in touch with Alderik, my Gaulish-expert colleague.

  • Deiniol says:

    Thanks! It is rather worrying that the entire post is, essentially, the setup for a rather dusty academic joke!

    However, I assure you that I didn't write the post giggling (well, not much.) At the request of a friend I recently translated Schleicher's fable into Proto-Celtic and then started wondering what it might look like OCS-ified.

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