Umbrian in Tolstoy

My holiday reading this year was Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, which I had been meaning to read for a while. For the first three hundred pages, it was a total escape from work – but then what should pop up in Part III but a reference to Umbrian:

Alexei Alexandrovich ordered tea to be served in the study and, toying with the massive paper-knife, went to the armchair by which a lamp had been prepared, with a French book he had begun reading on the Eugubine Tables. Above the armchair, in a gilt frame, hung an oval portrait of Anna, beautifully executed by a famous painter. Alexei Alexandrovich looked at it. The impenetrable eyes looked at him insolently and mockingly, as on that last evening of their talk. […] Hastily sitting down in the armchair, he opened the book. He tried to read, but simply could not restore in himself the quite lively interest he had formerly taken in the Eugubine Tables. He was looking at the book and thinking about other things.

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (Penguin Classics). p284

Notes on this passage tend to be rather inaccurate about the nature of the Eugubine Tables (now normally called the Iguvine Tables or Iguvine Tablets in English). Most editions correctly state that the tables were found in Gubbio (Italy) in 1444, but the edition I was reading then explains (incorrectly) that the tables are in Umbrian and Old Latin. In a quick online search of other editions, I discovered that they are also described as being in Umbrian, Latin, Etruscan and even Northumbrian, which I’m guessing is a misunderstanding of “Umbrian” or “North Umbrian” rather than a reference to north-east England. Part of the confusion about the language of the tables presumably stems from the fact that they are written in two different alphabets, and part from the fact that in the nineteenth century they had not yet been fully understood. (If you have reached this page because you are writing a new edition of Anna Karenina, please note the Iguvine Tables are in Umbrian only.) Several editions also put the date far too early – the tables are now dated between the 3rd and 1st centuries BC, and the last three were probably written after the first four.

The Iguvine Tables on display in Gubbio. My friend Chris provided for scale.
Umbrian and Latin alphabets for comparison.

So what book was Alexei Karenin reading while trying to decide what to do about his wife’s infidelity? The note in my Penguin Classics edition on this passage suggests that the book that Alexei Karenin was reading was a French article on the Iguvine Tables by Bréal. This article, published in 1875, made Bréal’s career, and got him a huge amount of attention in the German universities where Indo-European linguistics was coming to life. Timing-wise, it’s the most probable “French book” on Umbrian for Karenin to be reading.

But why was Karenin – or Tolstoy – interested in a linguistics article in the first place?

By complete coincidence, my holiday was (in part) in Göttingen, the original home of Indo-European linguistics. Göttingen is still a university town, but the plaques which adorn almost every building make it clear in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries it was home to some seriously influential researchers. Among the most prominent were Göttingen’s linguists, and the most famous of these were the Brothers Grimm. They are now widely known for collecting and publishing local folktales, but this project was closely linked to their study of Indo-European linguistics. Among linguists, they are best known for their discovery of Grimm’s Law, one of the first sound change laws ever described.

The Grimms’ house in Göttingen

Travelling around Göttingen (and nearby Weimar) shows that in the nineteenth century, Indo-European linguistics was not just a niche subject for a handful of specialists – it was part of intellectual life. New publications on Indo-European linguistics and the undeciphered languages of ancient European were widely read, and not just by fictional intellectual poseurs like Karenin. Writers including Samuel Taylor Coleridge and George Eliot spent time in the area, and many of the great literary figures of the nineteenth century were keenly interested in linguistics. The depictions of regional accents in Thomas Hardy and Charles Dickens are also very much a part of the same scene, in which traditional and local language was becoming more valuable and worthy of preservation.


How many other novelists refer to Indo-European linguistics as directly as Tolstoy? George Eliot’s notebooks attest that she was extremely interested in linguistics, including the link between Sanskrit and European languages, and that she was well-versed in the German philological tradition of the time. In Middlemarch, Rev. Casaubon’s research into the Key to All Mythologies recalls the Grimm’s research into folktales – and his research is sadly out-of-date because he cannot read German. The link to linguistics here is implied rather than stated, perhaps, but it’s not a coincidence that German scholarship is mentioned. I’m sure there are more examples out there – what other examples of Indo-European linguistics in nineteenth-century literature are there that I am missing out?

9 thoughts on “Umbrian in Tolstoy

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  1. I found the passage from Ulysses – like Middlemarch it’s about myth:

    —Eternal punishment, Haines said, nodding curtly. I see. I tackled him this morning on belief. There was something on his mind, I saw. It’s rather interesting because professor Pokorny of Vienna makes an interesting point out of that.
    Buck Mulligan’s watchful eyes saw the waitress come. He helped her to unload her tray.
    —He can find no trace of hell in ancient Irish myth, Haines said, amid the cheerful cups. The moral idea seems lacking, the sense of destiny, of retribution. Rather strange he should have just that fixed idea. Does he write anything for your movement?
    He sank two lumps of sugar deftly longwise through the whipped cream. Buck Mulligan slit a steaming scone in two and plastered butter over its smoking pith. He bit off a soft piece hungrily.
    —Ten years, he said, chewing and laughing. He is going to write something in ten years.
    —Seems a long way off, Haines said, thoughtfully lifting his spoon. Still, I shouldn’t wonder if he did after all.

    Also this:

    Mr Best eagerquietly lifted his book to say:
    —That’s very interesting because that brother motive, don’t you know, we find also in the old Irish myths. Just what you say. The three brothers Shakespeare. In Grimm too, don’t you know, the fairytales. The third brother that always marries the sleeping beauty and wins the best prize.


  2. Thanks, Chris, good example! I’m not going to pretend I’ve read Ulysses, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s some linguistics in there…

    That reminds me of the last Greek play – which was a double bill of Prometheus and Frogs – just after we’d finished, one of the actors needed to read Finnegans Wake for his first essay of term, and what should pop up on the second page but βρεκεκεκεξ κοαξ κοαξ. This has taught me that there is a reference to almost everything in Joyce if you know how to recognise it.


  3. This is interesting stuff, Katherine! I will now stop to give a thought to spousal infidelity each time I peruse the Iguvine tablets.

    The best I can do off the top of my head is a very short reference to Julius Pokorny – writer of the Indogermanisches Etymologisches Wörterbuch – which pops up in James’ Joyce’s Ulysses (I think in the episode roughly equal to Homer’s Wandering Rocks). I’m sure there are a few more references to IE scholarship sprinkled throughout Ulysses; I’ll have to take a closer look.

    Always glad to be measuring pole for scale! At least I’m not slouching in this one haha. Did you notice your camera-wielding ghost in the left most tablet?

    All the best,



  4. Though I should point out that any academic reading/watching Middlemarch is likely to suffer from serious over-identification with Casaubon in a way that I’m pretty sure was not the author’s original intention (unless she just really didn’t like academics)


  5. I can recommend it! I speak as someone who has never yet gotten beyond the first chapter of any other Eliot novel and whose initial reaction to Middlemarch was ‘oh God, it’s very long, but it’s a classic so I guess I ought to try’ – it’s worth it. Also there is a pretty good (fairly old) BBC adaptation.


  6. I recall that Michael Weiss actually talks about this passage of Tolstoy for a bit in the introduction of his Language and Ritual in Sabellic Italy (Brill, 2009) where I think he does a bit of work trying to figure out what the exact book that Alexei was reading. I can’t remember what else he says about it there, but it’s probably worth a look to see what he’s thought about it.

    I can’t think of other examples of historical linguistics in 19th century literature, but if I can think of more I’ll let you know.


  7. Yes, I think you’re right. (At least, from what I’ve googled this week. To my shame, I have not actually read Middlemarch. Maybe that’s my next batch of holiday reading.)


  8. Interesting! I don’t think I have any other examples of linguistics in literature that immediately spring to mind – but Casaubon’s work also seems very much in keeping with attempts to reconstruct I-E mythology/poetic traditions, etc, not to mention the linguistic equivalents of Nostraticism and other attempts at global proto-languages…for both of which, I suspect, German would be equally necessary!


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