Kitab, nom, kinige, or bichik: the more the merrier!

The title page of a popular Bashkir tale Uran Batyr, produced in 2021 by the publishing house Kitap.

With a fear that every post I write for this blog will become a mea culpa for my long absence, I have to admit that it has, yes, been a long time since I’ve written anything for From Altay to Yughur. Part of the reason for this has been a bit of Web2.0 fatigue, but a larger contributing factor has been my work commitments. I’ve done a lot of cataloguing – A LOT – and, while that has meant that I’ve had less time to write, it has also exposed me to a few more phenomena that I’d like to share. I’m hoping that I’ve now passed a watershed and can start formulating these into more posts, reigniting that engagement with fellow curious readers that was, and is, so important for me.

Today’s piece is going to be something short (famous last words), and springs from my own observations. As someone who deals with the creation of metadata about printed and manuscript materials in dozens of languages, I’ve developed a few tricks to help me cope with the linguistic expanse of my field of responsibility. One of them is using phonetic equivalencies between related languages to get the gist of words and phrases. In essence, it’s about knowing what a “k” in Turkish usually becomes when you find the same word in Azerbaijani, Uzbek, Kazakh, Tatar, and so forth. It’s not a hard and fast science, and it ignores not only the exceptions but also semantic change. But it does serve its purpose more often than not. I wouldn’t recommend you write your PhD using this technique, but if you’ve got to catalogue 50 books before the invoice is due, it might save you from a fair bit of stress. And it really does help highlight a few interesting historical phenomena.

As languages that are spoken, largely, in Muslim-majority societies, the Turkic languages feature quite a few borrowings from Arabic. Evidence suggests that these generally entered the Turkic languages via Persian, which explains their semantic alignment with cognates in Persian rather than Arabic proper. Of course, some words have undergone further changes within the Turkic languages themselves. And while it might seem like Arabic loanwords are limited to the lects of Muslim-majority societies, that’s just not true. A number of the majority-Christian Turkophone communities, such as the Gagauz, also make use of words originating in Arabic. In the case of the Gagauz, this has led to fierce debates over the nation’s ethnogenesis (a term much beloved by Soviet and post-Soviet scholars), with more than a few historians speculating on mass conversion from Islam to Orthodox Christianity (see Dr. Astrid Menz’s great paper “The Gagauz Between Christianity and Turkishness” for more). That topic isn’t the focus of the current blog, but it is worth keeping in mind, just to remember that even etymology can be a domain littered with metaphorical mines.

The word I’m tackling today – and it should be of no surprise – is “book” in all its forms. After all, this isn’t just a common noun of high frequency in written texts. It’s something that speaks directly to the work that I do, and appears in a hefty volume of metadata about materials produced over the 20th century.

Ottoman Turkish and Turkish, like most other Turkic languages, took their word for book from the Arabic kitāb, derived from the k-t-b root that reflects all manner of written expression and practice. The final letter was devoiced, following a common phonetic phenomenon in Anatolian Turkish, and this is mirrored in contemporary Turkish orthography with the spelling kitap. Other words did exist, of course, including name from the Persian nāmah (نامه), a letter, but this did not persist as a standalone lexeme to describe a physical object in Turkish. So, while we do have Kâbusnameler and Şahnameler throughout the collection, no one ever emails me about purchasing a “name”.

But how does this match up with other Turkic languages? The Nişanyan Etymological Dictionary of Turkish gives, essentially, the same information, and demonstrates that kitab/kitap first shows up in the Kutadgu Bilig, from the 11th century CE, indicating the antiquity of the loan into Turkic languages. As we go east and north, there is remarkably little change in the way that the word shows up in contemporary usage: kitab in Azerbaijani (and Gagauz); kitab in Qarachay (китаб); kitob in Uzbek; kitap in Kazakh (кітап), Tatar (китап), and Bashkir (китап).

Things get interesting as we leave the realm of Muslim-majority linguistic communities and head into the Christian, Buddhist, and Animist communities of the far north and east. Here, there are other stories to be tracked out and different cultural realms to be considered. It’s important not to assume, in a very Gökalpian way, that some sort of mythical proto-Turkic word for “book” will be discovered, one free of the corrupting influences of surrounding cultures. Quite the opposite: the words in all of the state-attached languages show influence from non-Turkic cultures, and emphasize the importance of blurred linguistic boundaries for cultural production.

The title page of the 2020 collection of Tuvan short stories, Shak bo Söster, featuring the word “nom” as part of its publisher.

There are two main vectors of influence to explore. One is the Mongolian track, which is very much evident when we look at materials in Tuvan. The Mongolian word for book, nom (ном), is clearly replicated in Tuvan materials as well. This is an interesting one, as it likely entered Tuvan from Mongolian, but ultimately traces its origin back to the Greek nomos (νομος) via Old Uyghur and Sogdian. Mongolian influence is hardly a surprise, given the language’s profound influence on the religious and cultural evolution of Tuvan-speaking communities. Indeed, not only were Classical Mongolian and Classical Tibetan used as media of written communication in Tuva up to the early 20th century, the Mongolian script too was occasionally used to record Tuvan before the imposition of the Latin alphabet in the early 1920s (see Kaadyr-ool Bicheldei’s paper “80 лет Тувинской письменности: Становление, Развитие, Перспективы” for more on this).

Another vein of possible Mongolian influence can be found in a neighbouring Northeastern Turkic language, Altay. It is primarily spoken by the Altay people, who largely practice an Indigenous religion referred to as “Altay faith”. Here, however, an interesting twist occurs. Rather than finding the direct loanword of nom, what comes up is bichik (бичик) (check it out in this PDF Altay-Russian dictionary). This is a possible, rather than definite, Mongolic influence because historical sources don’t give primacy to one linguistic group exclusively. Rather, as this handy Wiktionary entry shows, the stem bich- shows up as meaning “writing” in both Old Mongolian and Old (Runic) Turkic. In any event, it seems clear that even if the word is a loan, productive and proactive forces have always been at play in communities’ decisions about using one word or another to describe the world around them.

The final source of Turkic words for books takes us to three outlier speech communities in the Turkic world, in geographical and linguistic terms. Chuvash, Shor, and Sakha, spoken on the northern and eastern fringes of the Turkic linguistic space, have borrowed their words for “book” from Russian sources. The Russian (or Slavic) word kniga (книга) appears in Chuvash as kĕneke (кĕнеке), in Shor as kniga (книга), and in Sakha as kinige (кинигэ). An example in Altay contemporary to the Shor work above shows that knige (книге) might have also been proposed or promoted as a synonym for bichik, but it’s not clear how long this lasted. As in Tuva, the source of the words is anything but surprising, given both the long history of Russo-Chuvash cultural relations, and the important role that Russian Orthodox missionaries played in the cultural development of Chuvash, Shor, and Sakha written culture (for this point, see A. V. Esipova‘s “Национальное образование и Шорская писменность” and T. V. Zakharova’s ‘Из истории якутского алфавита’; I speak a bit about the latter article in my podcast Righting Writing).

The story, here, is much more complicated than it might appear. Literacy and writing were not introduced to the Chuvash by Russians, and Chuvash-speakers have a long history of recording texts in their own language using either a Runic alphabet (derived from the one used by other Turkic peoples) or the Arabic script. As written culture was not something that stemmed exclusively from contact with Slavs or Russian-speakers, there must be something particular about the book as an object that resulted in the use of a Russian word for it. Sakha produces a bit of a different imbrication, as the Slavic-origin word exists alongside the word bichik, as we saw above, which appears to be used to mean “font”, or at least is connected to the concept of writing. As for Shor, the Soviet refusal to recognize it as a national language post-1945 means that there is precious little available online by way of scholarly etymology. Nonetheless, as Esipova’s article explains, there were concerted efforts by pre-Revolutionary Russian Orthodox clergy to spread vernacular literacy among Shor children, which might point to kniga being more widely accepted than first assumed. In other words, even the outlier linguistic communities in the Turkic family show how conservatism, innovation, and exchange can all overlap to produce unique cultures of the written word.

Speaking of the written word, a final case in point. Just because one word might be established for “book” in a language doesn’t necessarily mean that it won’t find competition from another loan word. Those of us who are exposed to considerable volumes of cultural production from formerly Soviet regions will know just how prevalent Russian adoptions, calques, and outright loans can be in any text. So it would be a surprise that even in those languages where a word like kitab is firmly established, the acceptance of a word like kniga wouldn’t find traction. Indeed, I’m fascinated by the way that this collection of Nogay creative writing produced in the Qarachay-Cherkess ASSR features the compound word knigoizdatel’stvosy (книгоиздательствосы), bearing the Turkic possessed suffix, on its title page. It’s true, kniga is not competing directly with kitab in this case to describe a singular object. But you have to know that kniga= kitab to understand what a knigoizdatel’stvo (“book publishing”) concern is. And in that case, does the sort of loan complexity that we see in English (consider pork and swine; beef and cow; chicken and poultry) start to take root?

All in all, this just goes to show you that even the most automatic and mundane of tasks – metadata creation at that! – can sometimes open up views to wonderful messiness and complexity of historical linguistics and culture.

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