Danko Šipka: Water, Whiskey, and Vodka

Water, Whiskey, and Vodka takes a deep dive into the origins of the Slavic languages, from a common ancestor language through various cultural and historical shifts, to arrive at the current breadth of languages. Read on for a Q&A with author Danko Šipka about this book.

­­­The title of your book is Water, Whiskey, and Vodka. Could you briefly explain the connections these beverages have to the development of Slavic languages?

Water connects them all—whiskey comes from a Celtic word meaning ‘the water of life’ and vodka is literally ‘small water.’ The word for water was inherited from the Proto Indo-European language, which is believed to be the common ancestor of Slavic languages and English as well as many other languages. It initially traveled from Sri Lanka to Iceland and then spread around the world through colonial conquests. Since this book makes many comparisons between the English and Slavic languages and cultures, the title is made up of a word that connects both cultures, followed by a word associated with the cultures of the English language, and ending with a word associated with many Slavic countries. So the title contains something old, something new, and something borrowed (and there is something blue on the book cover).

Where do Slavic languages have their common root or ancestor?

They all developed from the Proto-Slavic language. The Slavs formed a linguistic community most likely in the area between today’s Belarus and Ukraine. From the second millennium BCE to 3rd or 4th century CE, some of them started to move southwards and later also westwards. Their common heritage is reflected in today’s Slavic languages, which share some elements of their grammar and vocabulary, especially in subjects such as numbers, kinship terms, colors, flora, fauna, basic actions, features, and others. There is also a large degree of cultural commonality among the Slavs. But this does not mean that we should disregard the significant differences that have developed since the disintegration of the Proto-Slavic linguistic and cultural community.

You mentioned that Slavic languages are more complex than they may first appear. What misconceptions about Slavic languages may cause people to overlook their complexity?

Probably the most common misconception is lumping them all together. It is true that there is a large degree of commonality among Slavic languages, but there are also numerous differences. Hollywood movies are notorious for this. Non-Russians are frequently cast as Russian villains. The accent is not correct, but Hollywood does not care. Additionally, equating language with ethnicity is another common misconception. For example, many non-Russians will have Russian as their mother tongue. Even here in the United States there are several Russian language islands, the best known of which is Brighton Beach in New York. The population has a strong Russian language identity, but they are not Russians (they are Ashkenazi Jewish), and they do not even come from Russia, but rather from Odessa in Ukraine. Finally, there is a common misconception that the number of Slavic languages is small. In reality, there are numerous lesser known Slavic languages, hybrid Slavic-Slavic and Slavic-non-Slavic language forms, and even constructed Slavic languages (akin to Esperanto).

There are unique aspects to Slavic languages such as how words form gender. Is there another example you can give of a unique feature of Slavic languages?

Yes, there is. When using verbs, most of the time Slavs will need to simplify things by indicating if the action is ongoing or completed. So you do not just say “to write,” you have to choose between two verb forms. One is called imperfective, and it means roughly “to be doing something,” in this case “to be writing,” which is pisat', pisać, pisati, psát etc. depending on the language. The other form is called perfective, and it means roughly “to complete doing,” in this case “to have written, to finish writing,” which is napisat', napisać, napisati, napsat, etc., depending on the language. So, each time you want to use a verb, you will have to make that choice.

When using nouns in most Slavic languages, in addition to the gender issue you mentioned, you need to modify the form of the noun to show who is doing what to whom in the sentence. For example, in English you would take a noun, say “brother.” If you are giving something to him, you would say “to brother,” and if you are talking about him you would say “about brother.” In Slavic languages, the word for brother is brat. When you are passing something to him, you would attach a suffix at the end of that noun, so it will be: bratu (brat+u) bratowi (brat+owi), etc., depending on the language. So rather than use a preposition as you would in English, you instead use a suffix. When talking about brother, it would be: o bratu, o bracie, etc., depending on the language. You can see that there is both a preposition and a suffix.

Two notable exceptions from this bending of nouns are Macedonian and Bulgarian, which are similar to English in this regard. However, they have peculiarities of their own. They have the so-called postpositive articles. Instead of saying the table (i.e., using the prepositive articles), they would literally say tablethe (i.e. masata, the article “ta” is glued to the end of the noun “masa”). They also have something called witness and non-witness mode where they will use one verb form if they witnessed an event themselves and another if they heard about it from someone else.

Are there any words from Slavic languages that have made their way into non-Slavic languages?

Close to 700 words of Slavic origin can be found in the Oxford English Dictionary. However, large monolingual dictionaries are to a great extent graveyards of unused words. Only a handful of those words are known and used by most speakers of English. They are vodka, paprika, vampire, and robot. The latter one was invented by the Czech writer Karel Čapek and first used in his 1920 sci-fi play R.U.R. Some other words are also broadly known among gourmands: pierogi, borsht, kielbasa, etc. The rest of these words are less known, and most of them unknown to an average speaker of English. They are the names of historical titles, musical instruments, dances, customs, dishes, flora and fauna, geological terms, etc. In many instances, as is common in the borrowing of words, the meaning in English will be narrower than in Slavic languages. For example, polje simply means “field” in Slavic languages, but this Slavic borrowing in English has a much more specialized geological meaning of “a field in the karst landscape.”

In terms of other languages, there are numerous South-Slavic words in Romanian and Hungarian, as well as many Russian words in various indigenous languages of Russia and many languages spoken in the former Soviet Union. All these, unlike many of the borrowings in English, are well-known and broadly used words.

What prompted you to be intentional in writing a book that is not overly technical in its approach to examining the cultural history and development of Slavic languages?

There are already excellent reviews of Slavic languages written in English and aimed at scholars and students of Slavic languages, which necessarily makes them technical. However, a review of Slavic languages and cultures that would be accessible to a general readership has been conspicuously absent. My principal motivation was to fill in that gap. It is more important than ever for English speakers to understand Slavs given the unfolding tragedy in Ukraine and what seems to be a new cold war environment. There are journalists, educators, people who have Slavic heritage, etc., that would be interested to learn more about Slavic languages and cultures but could be turned away by the barrier of an overly technical description. Needless to say, many things are simplified in a review tailoring to a general audience. That is why at the end of each chapter I refer the reader to more specialized publications on the topic of the chapter.

Can you give a brief overview of the types of research that you did for this book?

This book required eclectic research. Given the aforementioned excellent specialized reviews of Slavic languages (in English, Slavic, and other languages), a part of my research was to collect and condense information from those sources. There was also archival and library research to unearth the information about the development of Slavic literacies. Then there were analyses of various datasets, such as the previously mentioned Slavic words in English or tabulating how much of the vocabulary inherited from Proto-Slavic, the ancestral language of all Slavs, is alive in the present-day Slavic languages. I have also conducted field research to track current processes in Slavic languages and disputes around them.