At the very end of Anton Chekhov’s play The Cherry Orchard there is a reference to a peculiar sound:
A distant sound is heard coming from the sky as it were, the sound of a snapping string mournfully dying away. All is still again and nothing is heard but the strokes of an ax against a tree far away in the orchard. (Yarmolinsky, 1947, 594)
This passage has been interpreted by literary scholars as a reference to the passing of the old order and accompanying way of life in Imperial Russia. The high-
While this is a possible interpretation of the Chekhov passage, the analysis is essentially little more than an educated humanistic guess, based on the mood generated in the body of the play. The present author’s experience in the field of dialectology leads him to propose a rather different interpretation. I am convinced that the passage is the description of an actual event from Chekhov’s life
The phenomena of Isogloß-
The bundle of isoglosses is the most easily detected, and a major boundary is often audible to the naked ear if one knows where to look for it. It is well known, for example, that major bundles if isoglosses often parallel important trade routes. This is clearly true, and the reader may test the hypothesis for himself by stopping his car alongside a major highway on a quiet day when there is not much traffic. (Major highways may often be spotted by the large number of telephone lines alongside them.) The bundle of isoglosses should be clearly audible as a persistent thrumming sound (Isogloß-
Individual isoglosses frequently reveal themselves to the acute observer, however, when they are crossed at right angles in a motor vehicle. Here the sound made by rapid passage across the isogloss is very similar to the one described by Chekhov, “the sound of a snapping string.” Single isoglosses are thus easily overlooked but bundles of isoglosses give off an unmistakable rhythmic pinging. The effect is especially noticeable in older cars. Incipient or actual isoglossy is not nearly so prominent in newer cars or in cars that use STP or high octane fuel. The reasons for this are not yet well understood. Vehicles with rotary (Wankel) engines are inexplicably immune to isoglossy interception of any sort.
Socially stratified isoglosses are much more difficult to detect as vertical movement of the observer is required. Indeed it is significant that the intensive study of social dialects postdates the invention of both the elevator and the airplane. The pinging or bell-
The phenomena described above constitute independent evidence for my interpretation of the Chekhov passage. It remains to identify the particular Russian isogloss that was broken by the Chekhovian ax in the Cherry Orchard. Since Isogloß-
In the meantime it is hoped that the long neglected study of the physical-
Yarmolinsky, Avrahm (trans. and ed.) 1947. The Portable Chekhov. New York: Viking.
Chekhov, Anton. c. 1903. The Cherry Orchard. In Yarmolinsky, 1947, 531-594.