Ob-Ugric 2: Mansi (Sygva), the mouse tale

In the second class, we read a folk tale in the northern dialect of Mansi (also called Vogul), Sygva, about a mouse. Here are the first few lines of the text, and I’m using the Latin script for ease of recognisability (Cyrillic was introduced in the late 1930s). There’s no upper case:

mātāpriś ōli. χottaľ minuŋk noməlmātas. āmpńēlum tūpsup wārəs, ponalťēr χāpsup wārəs, χāpťēte nāluw(*) nariɣtaste, tūpťēte wis(**), tāləs. ta towi, te ērɣi: āmpńēlum tūpsuptem, pol, pol, pol, ponalťēr χāpsuptem, χaľ, χaľ, χaľ … χosa minas, wāti minas, ēlaľ sunsi: ak pāweln nēɣləs …

The above can be translated into Hungarian with ease (source: Béla Kálmán, Wogulische Texte mit einem Glossar, Budapest, 1976, pp. 180-2):

Egér van. Valahová menni gondolt. Ebnyelv evezőcskét csinált, kendermaghej hajócskát csinált, hajócskáját vízre(*) taszította, evezőcskéjét vette(**), beszállt. Evezett, énekelt: ebnyelv evezőcském, pól, pól, pól, kendermaghej hajócskám, sáv, sáv, sáv … Hosszú ment, rövid ment, előre lát: egy falutól látszott.

It’s really tricky in English. Here’s my best shot:

There is a mouse. He thought of going somewhere. He made dog-tongue oars, he made a hemp-husk boat, led his boat to the river bank, took his oars, sat down in the boat. He rowed, he sang: my little dog-tongue oars, pol, pol, pol, my little hemp-husk boat, shav, shav, shav … He went a long time, he went a short time, he looked ahead: the mouse appeared to a village.

Like Hungarian, Vogul has no grammatical gender so I could have chosen ‘it’ for the mouse, but that sounded wrong. Mouse heroes in folk tales are going to be male unless specified otherwise.

Many of the derivational formatives, repetitions and formulae of the genre are instantly recognisable to Hungarian speakers: ‘he went a long time, he went a short time’ is particularly familiar (Cf. HU ment, mendegélt).

Unlike Hungarian, there’s no accusative case, but other means are used to keep subjects from objects. So, in Sygva, the mouse does not see a village, but becomes visible from/to a village: ak pāweln nēɣləs (a village+Lative appears), Cf. HU egy falutól látszott.

The other Mansi word for mouse is šiŋire. In Finnish, š > h, and the ŋ disappears = hiiri. (Mickey Mouse in Finnish is Mikki Hiiri.) Hungarian drops the h, so mouse was egere, which becomes egér. Etymology of ‘mouse’ (mātāpriś) in the text: mā is (the) earth, tā the bear’s gallbladder, priś a diminutive. The bear gallbladder is used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat fever, liver and heart disease, convulsions and diabetes, and the Mansi regard it as one of the most important sources of the bear’s strength. In this tale, the mouse represents the soul of the bear. Because speakers of Ob-Ugric languages live along rivers, river vocabulary is particularly rich. The mouse takes his boat to the flat strip of land next to the river bank.

(*) Further, nāluw, meaning ‘in the direction of (down to) the river/downriver’ can also mean ‘towards the fire’, which is in the centre of the hut.

(**) when the mouse takes his boat to the river, the 3rd person definite conjugation is used, but when he he takes up his oars, the indefinite is used, as in ‘he took up oars’, although it is clear that he is picking up HIS oars. It seems unlikely that this def+indef pattern could be inverted.

Summary of the rest of the story: the mouse is offered food by children in the village, but refuses the perch because the bones will stick in his throat. At the third village he is offered roe broth, the favourite dish of his father and grandfather. The mouse eats and drinks so much his stomach bursts. The children sew it back up with a needle and some roots. The mouse gets in the boat and rows off. He meets a reindeer, and they play hide and seek in the forest. The reindeer accidentally swallows the mouse. The reindeer suggests that the mouse come out through his eyes, but his eyes are full of sleep. The mouse cannot come out through the reindeer’s mouth, because it is too sputum-y. And the reindeer’s ears are full of wax. So the mouse goes into the stomach, gets out his little knife, and cuts a hole in the reindeer’s belly. The reindeer dies, the mouse strips the meat and fur, runs home and summons his wife and their daughters and sons. The mouse family collect the reindeer flesh and meat, and take it home where they ate and lived well for a long time. And they all lived happily ever after.

Note that the mouse brings his daughters and sons, not sons and daughters: āγ(i)+piγ, Cf. HU i[a]=fi[a].

Other familiar words include: fish (Mansi xūl, HU hal, FI kala); knife (Mansi kasaj, HU kés); soul (Mansi lili, HU lélek, FI löyly); ear (Mansi paľ, HU fül); village (Mansi pawəl, HU falu); long (Mansi xosa, HU hosszú).

Beyond lexical items, however, the real gems come from (1) the gerundive: while rowing, or in the course of his rowing: tōw=ant-ima-te, Cf. HU evez-té-ben, roughly ‘rowing-his-in’; and (2) participle forms: the more participle forms a language has, the less European it is. Because Mansi has no relative clauses, it uses participial forms to do lots of work. More about this another time.

Finally, ‘and they all lived happily after’ is a real Western hepiend (happy ending).

ań ta śuńēɣt, ań ta χūleɣt. ta ojipas.

In other (Hungarian) words: ‘ma is élnek, ha meg nem haltak. Vége.’ The English would be ‘and they all lived happily ever after’, although it’s more like ‘they are still alive, if they did not die. The end.’

I particularly enjoyed the fact that the mouse manages to convert his reindeer friend into a supply of food from within. Having been invited to leave by more ‘conventional’ ways, he sings another little song before cutting open the reindeer’s belly:

kasaj-supťem ťiwl-ťiwl, sāɣrap-supťem ťiwl-ťiwl, χār-ōjk puki jakteɣm!

Further reading:

Daniel Abondolo (ed.), The Uralic Languages, London, Routledge, 1998.

Peter Sherwood, ‘Definiteness in the Ugrian Languages’, in T. Seilenthal, Anu Nurk, Triinu Palo (eds), Congressus Nonus Internationalis Fenno-Ugristarum 7-13. 8. 2000 Tartu. Pars VI Dissertationes sectionum Linguistica III, Tartu, Trükk OU PAAR, 2001, pp. 185-187.

G. F. Cushing, ‘The Bear in Ob-Ugrian Folklore’, Folklore, 88, 1977, 2, pp. 146-59.

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