Monday, August 10, 2009

mandelshtam et trubetskoj

Mr Verb posted an entry (link) about a passage from a book he’s reading, The Stalin Epigram by Robert Littell.

"I overheard a lady mention what the professor was a professor of. It turned out to be something called linguistics. The lady said that he was famous for figuring out the difference between languages and dialects—languages were spoken by people with armies, dialects by people without."

It’s in the context of Osip Mandelshtam in transit to a correction camp where he would die of an unspecified illness. We’ve all heard the aphorism, and it has been attributed to Antoine Meillet and Max Weinreich, though the latter gave it its first appearance in the literature, and that in Yiddish (link).

So, just who is that professor linguistics supposed to be? Since it’s a work of fiction, I’d like to add my candidate to the offerings in the commentary: Nikolai Trubetzkoy (link). He too died in ’38 and likewise at the hands of a totalitarian regime, this time the Gestapo in Austria, rather than the NKVD in the USSR. And somehow I’d like to fit Jan Baudouin de Courtenay and Mikołaj Kruszewski in therre, too.

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