As promised, here’s the second part of David’s excellent post about the only ten neuter Russian nouns that end in -мя. You might, of course, be wondering, why I included this monument to Russia’s beloved poet Aleksander Pushkin in this post. The answer is he used every single one of these 10 little words in his poetry. “Ай да Пушкин!” [Attaboy Pushkin!]. But on with the post…
Meanings and connections of the words
After this digression you couldn’t be blamed if you’ve forgotten the list of «–мя» nouns, but now we’ll go through their meanings and their connections, this time in inverse Cyrillic alphabetical order.
«Темя» is given in the dictionary as “crown (of the head)”, “top (of the head)”, “pate” (not to be confused with French pâté). The connection is fairly simple: mutate м to п, drop the я and convert to the Latin alphabet – we get “top”. «Темя» is not used in the plural. [I doubt if it is much used, except by hairdressers, in the singular either].
The English word “pate” might possibly be an example of what I think of as the “Spoonerism” mutation, where two consonants swap places, so “top” becomes “pot” and the vowel changes to become pate. Spoonerisms are so-called after a 19th/20th century Oxford don, The Rev. William Archibald Spooner, who was allegedly prone to accidental switching of consonants, e.g. “A well-boiled icicle” (well-oiled bicycle).
«Стремя» means stirrup. Nowadays not a word in everyday use except by people who are involved with horse-riding, but when Proto-slavic was spoken, the people who knew about stirrups – Asiatic warrior tribes – had a big military advantage over the people who still didn’t – the Europeans. To get from stirrup to «стремя», remove the highlighted i, change the double rr to single r, and mutate p to m. Convert to Cyrillic, add я, and we’re there. «Стремя» is declined normally except for the genitive plural, which is not «стремён», but «стремян».
«Семя» means seed. We can see relationships without needing to mutate anything. Think of words like seminal, inseminate… The Spanish for seed is semilla (Spanish -lla is often pronounced like Russian я). «Семя» is declined normally except for the genitive plural, which is not «семён», but «семян».
«Племя» means tribe. Not very obvious how this word relates to anything familiar, but possibly: mutate the initial п to ф and switch л and м in a Spoonerism mutation, and we end up with something very like family. When populations were very much smaller than today, there probably wasn’t much difference between a tribe and a large extended family.
«Пламя» is quite simple: mutate the initial п to ф and we get something that looks very much like flame, and this is exactly what «пламя» means. In Russian flame is treated as a “substance word” rather than a countable object, so «пламя» isn’t used in the plural. However, «языки пламени» (tongues of flame) can be used to convey the message of more than one flame.
«Имя» [name], is next on the list. This is so commonly used that we don’t really need to look for ways to remember it.
«Знамя» means flag or banner. It is probably the third most common of these «-мя» words, after «имя» and «время». It comes up often in soviet-era song lyrics («красное знамя») Its declension is slightly different from the others in the plural – the infix -ен- becomes -ён- and is stressed, in all the plural cases. Mutate з to s and insert и before н and the first part of the word becomes English sign (the g being silent). Sign comes from Latin signum, meaning sign, mark, emblem. Signum can be mutated completely into знамя (after silencing the g, which was sounded in Latin), so we now have a clear connection.
«Вымя» comes next. An important word for people involved with dairy farming. It means udder. Mutate в to м and change to Latin script, and we can see the link to words such as mammal, mammary, mom (American English)/mum (UK English)/mam (northern UK English). Typically, «вымя» is not used in the plural.
«Время» [time], is so common that we don’t need to look for ways to remember it.
«Бремя» completes the list. It means burden, usually in a rather abstract sense as in “the burden of responsibility”. For a physical burden «ноша» or «груз» is preferred. If we eliminate the u from burden we see that the first two consonants br correspond to the бр of «бремя».
Can we complete the connection by finding a mutation pathway between м and d? D belongs to the t, d, th group. If we mutate it to th we change burden to burthen. The th sound provides a bridge to the p, b, v, f, m group, by mutating to f. In some English dialects “th” as in “thinking about things” is often pronounced as f “finkin’ about fings” or “Fings ain’t wot they used to be”. So now we’ve got from burden to burfen. Mutate the f to m, to get burmen, and now when we get rid of u and insert e between r and m, we see the full connection to «бремя». Although «бремя» isn’t much used, one of its derivatives, the adjective «беременная», is more common. It looks as though it should mean “burdened”, but in fact this is only in a figurative sense. It means pregnant, and it is listed in the dictionary in its feminine form. However the masculine form, «беременный», does exist – it is the title of a film. Can you think of biologically plausible circumstances where «беременный» might be used?
How did these feminine-looking nouns come to be neuter?
To find the answer it’s better to put the question the other way round – how did these neuter nouns come to be feminine-looking? First we need to bear in mind that я is a multitasking letter that, in unstressed positions, can represent other sounds in addition to its principle sound. When unstressed, -я, -е and -и can all sound very similar. If you’d never read these –мя words, but just heard them spoken, you wouldn’t always know what to write for the final letter.
Many of these 10 -мя nouns look very similar in other Slavonic languages, but some of the differences tell us a lot. Here they are in all their variety.
To see why these words ended up with normal neuter-looking endings in some languages but with –я in others, we need to consider the history of the Slavonic languages.
The modern Slavonic languages are all descended from Proto-slavic, which was spoken up till about 600 CE or later. It was not a written language (not everyone is agreed on this, but even if it was to some extent written down nobody knows how to decifer it). Our ten neuter nouns, in Proto-slavic, all ended with a soft m followed by a nasalized e sound, like the modern Polish ę, so they would be bremię, vremię…etc, and they were declined similar to the way they are today, with the epenthetic n.
By the time Slavonic writings appeared, around the 9th and 10th centuries, Proto-slavic was beginning to separate into different dialects, but not yet so different that Slavic speakers couldn’t all understand each other. Some of these populations were Christianised by the Roman Catholic church, and their versions of Proto-slavic were written in the Latin alphabet, while others were Christianised by the Greek Orthodox church, and their versions of Proto-slavic came to be represented in an early form of Cyrillic by the written language Old Church Slavonic.
By this time the nasalized ę had become denasalized in most dialects. But it was, and remains, still nasalized in the dialect that evolved into Polish. Importantly, it was also still nasalized in the Macedonian dialect on which Old Church Slavonic was based. The nasalised soft e sound was represented in Old Church Slavonic by the letter called «юсъ малый» (unfortunately, the special character doesn’t come through in WordPress, but here’s the link)
As the East Slavonic languages (Russian, Ukrainian and Belarussian) developed, «юсъ» took on the role of representing the я sound. Modern я developed from a handwritten version of «юсъ», and for a while the alphabet contained both «юсъ» and я. The alphabet was simplified by decree of Peter the Great in 1708, and «юсъ» was officially discarded, its role being taken over by я. So our ten nouns, that started life as neuter nouns in nasalized –e, ended up as «бpемя», «вpемя», «вымя», «знамя», «имя», «пламя», «племя», «семя», «стремя» and «темя».
At this point you might like to test yourself. Can you match up the above 10 with their English equivalents, which are in alphabetical order: banner, burden, crown, flame, name, seed, stirrup, time, tribe, udder?
Are there any others?
In Russian there are no nouns ending in –мя apart from the 10 we’ve discussed. There are a few others that started out as Proto-slavic –м + the nasalized e, but didn’t make it into modern Russian as –мя neuters either because they evolved differently or they just died out. There were quite a lot of Proto-slavic neuter nouns ending in the nasalized e (without м), but only one of these has made it into modern Russian as a neuter noun ending in –я. This is «дитя» – note that the stress is on я.
«Дитя» is used often in its plural form «дети» (children) but the singular is rarely used, and then only in the nominative. Nowadays the masculine noun «ребёнок» is normally used for child in the singular. This usage is exclusive to Russian. You are likely to encounter the singular «дитя» in the works of classical literature, but also in such phrases as «дитя прогресса» [a child of progress], «дитя века» [a child of the time], «дитя природы» [a child of nature].
Not all proto-slavic nouns that ended in –мя made it to the modern Russian:
«Чисмя» is a word that failed to come into existence. It mutated, acquired a “conventional” neuter ending, and became «число» [number].
Another might have been word is «писмя», but it became a regular neuter, письмо, instead.
So, although there are only 10 Russian nouns ending in –мя, and most of them are rarely used, they take us deep into the history of not only Russian but also the other Slavonic languages, and they help us to see why apparent irregularities in other families of words are the way they are.
If you’d like to test yourself:
- What does a myrmecologist do?
- What Russian adjective is listed in dictionaries in the –ая form?
- What masculine noun declines in the singular like a feminine –ь ending noun?