Monthly Archives: December 2007

Ob-Ugric 9: Mansi (Tavda, cont.)

Our final Mansi sessions were spent studying a folktale in Tavda, a southern dialect which, before it died out in the 1920s, was probably the closest to Hungarian. Reflecting on his visit to the lower Tavda river area in 1894, Munkácsi initially assumed that Tavda was a separate language:

A Tavda folyó alvidékén csekély számban fönmaradt vogulok nyelve a vogul nyelvterület lenönállóbb s legsajátosabb része, mely első tekintetre olyan benyomással hat a figyelőre, mintha benne nem is egy tájbeszédnek, hanem az uráli ugor nyelvek egyik külön tagjának őriződött volna meg végső maradványa.

Bernát Munkácsi, A vogul nyelvjárások szóragozásukban ismertetve, Budapest, MTA, 1894, p. 244.

A mere forty pages of Tavda exist: texts collected by Munkácsi from the late 1880s onwards and, later, by Artturi Kannisto in the early 1900s (see Kannisto, ed. Matti Liimola, Wogulische Volksdichtung, 6 vols., Helsinki, 1951-63), which are collated (and treated as one dialect) by László Honti in System der paradigmatischen Suffixmorpheme des Wogulischen Dialektes an der Tawda, Budapest, 1975.

Although stress nearly always fell on the second syllable, Tavda had an accusative marker (-mee/-mii), and vowel harmony where front and back vowels largely corresponded with those in Hungarian:

Tavda N. Vogul Hungarian English
äämp āmp eb dog
käät kāt kéz/keze- hand


Its other cases are: lative, locative, ablative, instrumental, comitative, and translative. Tavda is paratactic, which means that there is no subordination in sentence formation, where words can be placed in any order. Some relics of parataxis (in other words, where there is no accusativity) still exist in Hungarian, such as háztűznézni, könyvolvasás, kézmosás. In terms of the text we studied, the verb system has a passive marker inserted before the durative or the past marker; an indicative and imperative mood (the latter only in the second person); and momentaneous and durative present tenses and one past tense. Like Hungarian, there is no definite/indefinite disctinction in the past tense. There are no definite forms in the passive, or in intransitive verb forms. Personal possessive suffixes may be familiar to speakers of Hungarian:

s1 -(ə)m/-aam p1 -(ə)w
s2 -(ə)n p2 -((ə))n)ää/-((ə)n)aa
s3 -iit’ii/-eet’ii p3 -ään/-aan


Some examples, in which the sequence of morphemes is the same in Tavda and Hungarian include: niim (HU: nőm); käätəmən (kezembe); torəm (torkom). Of course, Hungarian has long since developed European features on top of the Uralic characteristics, such as the definite article, and agreement between definite noun phrases and verb forms.

The text is the story of a hunter who, having killed and skinned a reindeer and put it in the pot, is astonished when a wind blows up, the pot tips over and the reindeer jumps out and flees. He goes to the nearest village and tells a man there he has seen a miracle, and recounts the tale. The listener, a ploughman, invites him to stand with him on the plough, while he relates an even more fantastic story: he once came home to find his wife in bed with another man, and when the woman hit him and commanded him to turn into a black dog, he turned into a black dog. The dog came across some ploughmen who, believing Torem had sent them a guard dog, gave him food while he guarded their dwellings for a week. The dog then guarded the dwelling of the landowner, whose wife bore him a son. The baby was stolen. She had another son, who was also stolen. When the third son was born, the dog stopped the thief by biting his leg, and was rewarded with bread and sugar, even a ribbon around his neck. One day, he set off hunting for rabbits with the landowner, but instead returned home to find his wife in bed with another man. She beat him, and commanded him to turn into a sparrow, which he did. He flew off and started eating oats with horses in a field, where he was caught by two children and taken to their home. Their father, the baby thief, whips him and commands him to become a man. He becomes a man. They feed him and, when he leaves, the old man presses a whip into his hand and tells him to go home, whip his wife and turn her into a mare, and to whip her lover and turn him into a stallion. He does just this. The narrator harnesses the mare and stallion to his plough, on which narrator and hunter are standing. The hunter says, now that is a miracle!

Lexical items of interest: the words for black dog (śarnəšk), sugar (sääkäär), bed (krawāť) and miracle (t’iwa) are from Russian (чорнышка, сахр, кровать, диво), while Tatar borrowings include tüs (hunting), pajtəl (mare), and sol (oats).

Although it would be misleading to say that Tavda is ‘easy’ or even remotely intelligible for Hungarian speakers, the text provided numerous ‘whoah!’ moments. Having studied Mansi now for a few months, this was plain sailing. The Hungarian morpheme-by-morpheme crib sheet provided was immediately understandable. The following original and Hungarian crib, in which the ploughman begins his story, will illustrate the beauties of Tavda (transcription simplified in the interest of legibility).

tü kom länt: “tiťi ńokor ťiwa?! äm ťiwa wāsəm. āləs äm niim,” länt. “äšnäl jisəm, niim māt kom jōrtəl krawāť ašt šänəwtäktiim koji. nii noƞläkətəs, ńärəmtəs tupiinək, šäwräpəwsəm päntä, läws: ālsən näw kom, iń sown šiiməl ämp!” äm sowsəm šiiməl ämpəw, künpāšəwsəm. äm kajtsəm.

Ez ember mond: “Emez milyen csoda?! ÉN csoda láttam. Volt én nőm,” mond, “munkából haza jöttem, nőm más férfival együtt ágyon ölelkezve fekszik. Nő felugrott, vett dorong, vágott féjjen, mondott: “Voltál most(ig) férfi, most válj fekete eb!” Én váltam fekete ebbé, kiűzettem. én futkároztam.

Károly Makk, Szerelem, 1971

On 2 November, students and teaching staff watched Károly Makk’s 1971 film Szerelem (Love), winner of the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival that year, and arguably one of the greatest Central European films of all time. Two short stories by Tibor Déry (1896-1977) form the basis of Szerelem, for which Déry also wrote the screenplay. ‘Szerelem’, written in 1956, follows the encounter between B. and his wife, upon B.’s release from prison after a seven-year stretch. The reader observes B.’s hesitant reactions to life outside, as well as his anxiety about re-uniting with his wife, and seeing his son for the first time. ‘Két asszony’ portrays the tense but close relationship between Luca and her mother-in-law, an elderly lady of Austrian origin, now bedridden. Luca brings letters from János, her husband, and apparently a famous film director in the US, to the old lady who, while anticipating his return to Hungary, eagerly interweaves the details of her son’s fantastic life with her own memories. It is only after she dies, and in the last sentence, that we discover János is in prison.

At the age of 62, Déry was imprisoned in 1957 for his activities prior to and during the 1956 Uprising, and was released in 1960 in the first post-1956 amnesty, when he wrote ‘Két asszony’, based on the letters Déry’s wife wrote to his mother during his imprisonment. Like the old lady in Szerelem, Déry’s mother was of Austrian origin, and after he was allowed to publish again in 1962, he published their correspondence under the title Liebe Mutter! Younger followers of writers who, like Déry, were deemed polgári or individualista, also found it difficult to publish in the 1950s, and essentially stayed on the margins until the 1970s.

In an interview on the Second Run DVD of Szerelem, Makk recalls that when he told Déry in the early 1960s of his plans to combine the two stories into one film, Déry replied, ‘Te egy reménytelen csacsi fiú vagy, egy young angry man!’ The film could only be made after the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, which Makk describes as a decisive turn, at least in terms of cultural policy in Hungary. He also expands on the prison subtext: it was only once permission was finally given ‘from above’ that the studio director, who had served time inside with ‘culture dictator’ György Aczél, could accept the film. In the two weeks following its first screening, the wives of high-ranking commanders complained to their husbands for sitting on Szerelem until then, for they too had undergone the same distress while their men had been in prison: ‘a nők diadala is volt’ (Makk).

Makk gathered the inimitable ensemble of Lili Darvas as the elderly lady, Mari Törőcsik as Luca, and Iván Darvas as János; and chose János Tóth as cinematographer. Tóth’s method of blending past and present (in Makk’s words, ‘múlt és jelen külön is legyen, de együtt is szóljon’) was to use flashbacks which, as our guest Dr Cesar Ballaster noted, was a popular technique throughout the Eastern Bloc in the 1970s. Flashbacks demystify collective memory by means of individual memory, and introduce uncertainty as a counter to the monologic narratives of the Party-state. Such an emphasis on subjectivity, and the juxtaposition of shots reminiscent of black and white photographs, create a dreamlike, timeless quality which, as the old lady tires, becomes further and further removed from reality. Luca is fired from her teaching job because of her husband’s incarceration, while the old lady dreams of her son’s life in a French castle on the highest mountain in New York. After her death János, who has until now been present largely in his absence, is released from prison and returns to the flat, which his wife now shares with co-tenants.

When Szerelem was awarded the Cannes Jury Prize in 1971, one of the jurors apparently told Makk that although the film, and in particular the actors’ virtuoso performances, had greatly moved him, János’s incarceration required explanation, for it was highly unlikely that such an individual would have committed a serious crime. It is precisely the pointlessness of the prison sentence that constitutes one of the major narratives of the film: János’s release is never explained, neither to him, nor to the viewer. In the taxi on his way home, the driver asks, ‘Politikai?‘ , a question János need not answer.

Discussion included the ways in which cinema placed broader historical concerns within ensemble dramas of individual lives, beginning with Szerelem and continuing throughout the 70s and 80s, and whether the viewer can pinpoint the era depicted in the film. Our conclusion was that, despite the use of terms such as kitelepítés (forced relocation, usually from cities to the countryside) and társbérlők (co-tenants), which would suggest the early 1950s, one cannot say for certain that Szerelem was not a contemporaneous document of Hungary in the late 1960s. Indeed, the trauma suffered by the characters could easily have taken place at any point in the interwar years. In any case, Makk and Tóth’s deliberate transpositions of past and present undermine any attempts to tie the film to any specific point in time.

Further reading:

Déry Tibor, Szerelem és más elbészélések, Budapest, Szépirodalmi, 1963;

— ‘Szerelem’ in Irodalmi forgatókönyv. Filmkultúra, 3, 1967, 4, pp. 102-29.