Asterisk-Insertion—Michael M. T. Henderson Lingua Pranca Contents Linguistic Contributions To The Formal Theory Of Big-Game Hunting—R. Mathiesen

On Some Acoustic Correlates of Isoglossy

Robert L. Rankin
University of Kansas

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-pitched pinging sound described is said to represent an attempt by Chekhov to evoke nostalgia and longing, while at the same time symbolizing an irrevocable break with the past.

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 lifeprobably from his youthand that the sound described is that of a plucked and possibly ruptured isogloss.

The phenomena of Isogloß-Gesumme and Isogloß-Brechung are only marginally dealt with in linguistic literature, but both may prove crucial to our understanding of both geographical and social dialect boundaries. Such boundaries have in the past been determined by drawing arbitrary lines on the map between sampled areas which show different responses to a particular item on the dialect questionnaire. This unscientific methodology could easily be replaced by the far more objective and sophisticated technique of direct observation. With careful observation and instrumentation it is perfectly possible to detect the physical presence of an isogloss and/or isogloss bundle.

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-Gesumme). Generally speaking, the less important the route (as indicated, say by number of telephone lines), the fewer isoglosses will be present and the less thrumming will be detectable. Observation of single isoglosses is usually possible only with special amplification and recording equipment.

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-like sounds of socially stratified isoglosses are still quite distinctive however. They are often audible as elevators stop near particular floors in tall buildings. Similarly in airliners as the plane rises just after take-off, or when landing, just preceding touchdown, a bell-like sound is often heard about the time “the captain has turned off/on the ‘no smoking’ sign”.

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-Brechung often results in cases of rule loss in grammars, perhaps an examination of Chekhov’s dialect will reveal the nature of the severed linguistic boundary. This is left for another study.

In the meantime it is hoped that the long neglected study of the physical-cum-acoustic characteristics of isoglossy will be pursued in the detail that it deserves. Crescat scientia vita excolatur.

References and Bibliography

Yarmolinsky, Avrahm (trans. and ed.) 1947. The Portable Chekhov. New York: Viking.

Chekhov, Anton. c. 1903. The Cherry Orchard. In Yarmolinsky, 1947, 531-594.

Asterisk-Insertion—Michael M. T. Henderson
Linguistic Contributions To The Formal Theory Of Big-Game Hunting—R. Mathiesen
Lingua Pranca Contents