Monday, 15 June 2009

Chernobyl and Krishna

In Adam Roberts' novel Yellow Blue Tibia, he tells us that Chernobyl means "wormwood". Apparently Ukrainian Чорнобиль Čornobyl' is a combination of Ukrainian чoрний čornyj "black" and билля byllja "grass blades". Ukrainian čornyj is undoubtedly related to Russian черный černyj "black", which seems to be from Proto-Indo-European *kers-no- from *kers- "black". In Sanskrit *kers-no- became कृष्ण kr̥ṣṇa "black". This is where we get the name of the deity Krishna, who was so called perhaps because of his association with storm clouds, or perhaps because of his dark skin.

Yellow Blue Tibia is a very enjoyable read, like Jose Chung's from Outer Space if it was set in the USSR. The title is a cross-linguistic pun. See if you can figure it out.

4 comments :

vp said...

It may be worth commenting on "ṛ" in "kṛṣṇa" versus "ri" in "Krishna".

The syllabic "ṛ" (probably a retroflex approximant) was lost very early in the evolution of the Indo-Aryan lanaguages. What is interesting is that AFAIK no attempt is made by modern Indians (even pandits) to approximate its original pronunciation in Sanskrit loan words or recitation. Instead "ri" or "ru" is substituted, I believe, depending on the first-language environment.

This is in stark contrast with the care taken by pandits and the Sanskrit-conscious in the pronunciation of the other sounds. For example, the "ṣ" of "kṛṣṇa" denotes a retrofiex sibilant, which would definitely by pronounced by pandits today, even though this sound was also lost in the Indo-Aryan languages.

Adam Roberts Project said...

I'm chuffed you enjoyed the novel!

Glen Gordon said...

I always assumed that Krishna's dark skin is indeed because of his "storm cloud" association.

goofy said...

Glen: You could be right; I can't find a satisfactory explanation as to the connection.

Adam: My absolute favourite bits were Zembla (ha) the testicular cop, and the bit where Skvorecky is confronted by the assassin in the hospital.