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Sample Essay from Brooker Prize Winner

Languages and Linguistics of the Former USSR

Quinn Anya Carey

General Information


Previous Prize Recipients



I remember, at the age of six, being told about the fall of the Soviet Union, as my father pointed to an enormous country on the family globe. I found the Cyrillic characters shown on news reports to be absolutely fascinating, but it wasn't until my junior year of high school that I learned to decipher them. My high school exposure to the Russian language not only laid the foundation for my current professional pursuit of Russian linguistics, but it also opened doors for me in relation to other, vastly different languages of the former USSR. Many of these languages have very little written about them, and what work has been done is available almost exclusively in Russian.
A majority of the books in my collection were acquired used. To my mind, this is an important aspect. Owning these books that other scholars in this specialized field once owned, I feel a connection with those who have studied this discipline before me. I will never meet most of the original owners, but the occasional bent page or stray pencil mark point towards someone who once cared enough about a book to buy it and bring it home-even if money was tight or "home" was on the other side of the world.

The book that started my collection was Townsend's Russian Word-Formation, found in a cramped used bookstore near the University of Washington campus in Seattle, where I was participating in a summer Russian program. I had just graduated from high school (2002), and in my 17 years growing up in the suburbs, I had never set foot in a bookstore with a book on Russian linguistics. I was enchanted to discover that such books existed, but this particular title was made all the more irresistible by the fact that it was signed by the author, and made out to a University of Washington PhD student. As I carried the book back to my dorm room, I was excited to have the opportunity to begin the journey with this book that the PhD student had already completed. In the suburbs, I was the only person I knew who was interested in Russian linguistics; reading a used copy of Russian Word-Formation made me feel less alone.
That summer, I spent hours wandering through the stacks of the University of Washington library, and likely gave myself future back problems by lugging books back to my dorm room. It was then that I was first exposed to the languages of the Caucasus, an extremely diverse group of particularly interesting languages from a linguistic point of view. The Caucasian languages are unrelated to Russian, and largely unrelated to one another. I didn't expect my linguistic study of them to get very far, however, due to the paucity of materials even available in Russian used bookstores, not to mention the United States.

A visit to the Slavic Department during O-Week (2002) changed that. As it turns out, Professor Howie Aronson had just retired, and left a large number of books stacked in boxes for anyone to take. I began to poke through the book out of idle curiosity, but soon I was ravenously filling my backpack and arms with the boxes' contents, some of which were extremely rare grammars of Caucasian languages. These cast-offs left by Prof. Aronson laid the foundation for the Caucasian side of my collection, which I have subsequently been able to build upon on a trip to St. Petersburg. Almost all of my Caucasian books are long out of print, and were only printed in very limited quantities in the first place (2,200 to 650 copies). Two years passed before I met Prof. Aronson for the first time, and when we did meet, he didn't seem like such a stranger, thanks to the common bond we shared through these books.

My collection grew steadily over my first three years of college, specifically in the category of contemporary Russian language and linguistics, but few of the books were rare or exceptional enough to be included in the attached bibliography. Notably, however, Zaliznjak's Drevnenovgorodskij dialekt (ordered by mail through a small importer/reseller of Slavic books, out of California) has provided me with much of the material for my B.A. paper, dealing with a feature of the historical phonology of the unique Russian dialect in question.

My trip to St. Petersburg last summer provided my collection with a quantum leap forward. I made a point of stopping in every bookstore I saw, to inquire about books on Russian linguistics, and minority languages of the former USSR. I did purchase some books new: on a side trip to the nearby city of Novgorod, I purchased the two books by Janin about ancient personal documents in the very museum where many of those fragile documents are housed. However, once again a used bookstore provided me with the most precious additions to my collection.
From the outside, Akademkniga ("AcademyBook") is just another nondescript bookstore right off Nevskij Prospekt, the main street running through downtown St. Petersburg. Inside, however, there are three long shelves running floor to ceiling filled with exactly the books I was hoping to find. I became a regular customer during the month I was in St. Petersburg, going almost daily to hungrily eyeball the shelves for anything new, and buy books until my backpack was full or I ran out of roubles. One particular gem was Vinogradov's Russkij jazyk: grammati?eskoe u?enie o slove (1947). I was told that had that book been just a few years older, it would be considered a Russian historic object and illegal to take overseas.

I also had the opportunity to develop my collection of other languages of the former USSR, both those with their own modern nation-state (Ukrainian, Belarusian, Lithuanian) and those that remain minority ethnic and linguistic groups in the Russian Federation (Yenesei, Yakut, Udykhei, Evenki, Nanaj, and Romani). The grammars and dictionaries I have from the latter group of languages are similar to my Caucasian collection, in the sense that these languages are sparsely studied and books about them are inherently rare.

I asked the attendant at Akademkniga where all the books came from. She mentioned the large university in St. Petersburg, and said that many of the books are sold to the store in bulk when a professor dies and his children don't understand the topics of his books-or their value. Once again, I felt as though I were participating in a dialogue of sorts with the older scholars in my field. The worth of these books was a secret shared between us. In purchasing these books, I became their caretaker, with an unspoken duty to pass them on someday.

This process of inheritance has continued recently as Prof. Victor Friedman has been cleaning out his office. He has contributed greatly to my collection of general pedagogical grammars for Russian (not listed here), but particularly worth mention is the collected works of Alexander Pushkin. Published in 1887, these volumes have been inherited multiple times and are, sadly, rather worse for wear. Nonetheless, Prof. Friedman impressed upon me the value of these books to him, and as their latest caretaker, I share that sentiment.

This summer I plan another trip to Russia, in which I plan to once again test the limits of the maximum baggage weight for international travel, while simultaneously holding my breath that the multiple packages shipped through international mail make it to Chicago safely. While all of my books are of use to me as a Slavic linguist, my current scholarly focus is on the history of the Russian language, so I will be particularly keeping an eye out for books on that general topic. At the same time, I do hope to continue to expand all aspects of my collection, and I can never say no to a used book on an obscure language-particularly if it looks like it's been loved.

Ms. Carey won the 4th-year prize in 2006
for the collection described in the preceding essay.