The Harmony of Languages


by Justin E. H. Smith


The so-called Muscovy duck is so called not in view of its homeland in the vicinity of Moscow –for in fact it is native to Central and South America– but rather in mistranslation of its Latin designation, Anas moschata, the “musky duck”, thus “not transferred from Muscovia,” as the English naturalist John Ray writes in 1713, “but from the rather strong musk odour it exudes.”[1] While domesticated breeds had begun to circulate back to Europe by the 16th century, so that the duck’s “naked and carunculated face” gains a mention even in Linnaeus’s 1746 Fauna svecica,[2] a nearly exhaustive description of the zoological diversity of Sweden, nonetheless it is unlikely that in its wild form the bird could have distributed itself across the northern parts of Eurasia. It is after all a nonmigratory species, evolved to prefer life in swamps.

We may wonder, then, what led Daniel Gottlieb Messerchmidt, in his Forschungreise durch Sibirien [Research Voyage through Siberia], to suppose that he had seen such a bird, or that such birds could be seen, on his arrival in the far eastern region of the Siberian Governorate known as “Yakutia”.[3] In his list of vocabulary items recorded in the Yakut or Sakha language of on February 4, 1724 –thus, following the Dutch traveller Nicolaes Witsen’s Noord en Oost Tartarye [Northern and Eastern Tartary] of 1692,[4] the second oldest attempt in the history of Sakha to record the spoken language in writing–, the German explorer gives the word Turpàn as the equivalent of “the Moscowy duck Willughbeji”, referring, as contemporary readers would have known, to Francis Willughby and John Ray’s 1676 Ornithologia.[5] But turpan is not a Sakha word; it is a Russian word, and it designates not the Anas moschata, but rather the Melanitta fusca, commonly known in English as a “velvet duck” or “velvet scoter”, whose habitat centers around the Yenisey River basin in Siberia, and whose feathers are an iridescent black.

The bird in question looks nothing at all like the dirty white Muscovy duck, and here we may assume that, like Marco Polo christening the stout and somewhat monstrous Javan rhinoceros a “unicorn”, simply because that was a species name he knew to apply to any quadruped with one horn,[6] so too Messerschmidt is simply extending a familiar term to impose order amidst the general zoological disorder of an unknown realm. This is the standard procedure for what might be called “imperial taxonomy”, and it is what gave us, in the other direction of travel a few centuries prior, such improvised designations as “mountain lion” and “Indian corn” (and, for that matter, “Indian”).[7]

The fact that this duck’s name sounded like it had something to do with Moscow could only have helped to recommend it to Messerschmidt’s mind, for by anchoring a species in this far reach of the empire to the capital city thousands of kilometers to the west, the explorer was advancing the vastly larger project in which he was implicated, known as the First Kamchatka Expedition, in which a team of naturalists, surveyors, astronomers, and other specialists, under orders from Peter the Great, sought to bring all the peoples and territories of the empire under more certain political control by gaining better knowledge of who they were and what their lives were like, what natural resources they drew on, which rivers they traveled, in which directions, and so on. Knowledge is power, as Francis Bacon understood. Before Peter the Great sent his knowledge seekers east, Siberia had been under nominal control of Russia ever since the Cossacks under Yermak Timofeyevich defeated Kuchum Khan’s Tatar empire in 1582. But the maps remained vague, tax collection irregular, and resource extraction costly and impractical. Peter was going to change that; the territory was to be mastered and subdued not only by marauding Cossacks, but also by prospectors, engineers, and naturalists, imported from Germany mostly, some from France and Scotland, some Swedish officers taken prisoner at the 1709 Battle of Poltava.

Messerschmidt’s mistake is noteworthy, as it is the largest one in a list of forty-two Sakha vocabulary items, which includes forty-one names of different sorts of animal, plus the word for snow (Chár in Messerchmidt’s orthography, хаар in modern Sakha). Fifteen mammals are identified, seven species of fish, and nineteen of birds. Most of Messerschmidt’s mistakes make at least some sense. He correctly gives the name of the domesticated reindeer (Taba/таба), but wrongly infers that the generic term for any wild beast (Kýll/кыыл) is the specific term for the wild reindeer, as he presumable heard the term being used adjectivally (Kýll Taba/кыыл таба) but failed to notice that the noun it was modifying was the same as the name for domestic deer. For the Canis marinus or Seehund, which is presumably the name he uses for the so-called ringed seal or Phoca hispida common in Kamchatka and the far north of the Pacific Rim, Messerschmidt again gives the Russian name (Nérpa/нерпа), evidently unaware that the Sakha people of the Lena River basin with whom he was in contact had no native words for marine or littoral fauna.

Messerschmidt gives signs of only a cursory familiarity with the phonology of the languages he records. Thus he combines vowels that cannot occur together in Sakha according to the strict laws, common to all Turkic languages, governing vowel harmony. For example, he writes the word for “red” as Kysil rather than kyhyl/кыһыл: the s where we today write an h is comprehensible within the rules of Sakha phonetics and dialectal variation; the where there should be a y is simply a result of imperfect hearing. One might be tempted to say that Messerchmidt is not searching for harmonies, and so does not detect them.


The same cannot be said of Messerchmidt’s contemporary and sometimes rival, the Swedish explorer and naturalist Philipp Johann von Strahlenberg. It is true that he did not do much better with his list of Sakha terms published in the enormous “Polyglot Table of the Harmony of Languages” at the end of his 1730 work, Das Nord- und Ostliche Theil von Europa und Asia,[8] published in English eight years later under the title, An Historico-Geographical Description of the North and Eastern Parts of Europe and Asia; But more particularly of Russia, Siberia, and Great Tartary.[9] Strahlenberg was among the Swedish officers sent to Siberia as a prisoner, and he was also among the first foreigners to contribute to what would be a long tradition: making the best of time spent as a penal colonist in the far reaches of the Russian empire by taking an interest in the geography, natural history, and ethnolinguistic diversity of the place to which fate had brought him. Strahlenberg and Messerschmidt traveled together from Tobolsk into Siberia in 1722.[10] The two of them discover the skeleton of a woolly mammoth together on the banks of the Tom River between Tomsk and Kuznetsk (today Novokuznetsk). Eventually Strahlenberg begins to complain that his companion, in view of harsh weather conditions and limited supplies, is unable to spend more time drawing and describing the natural-historical discoveries they make along the way, notably the petroglyphs and runes left, we now know, by proto-Turkic nomads millennia before.[11]

The Swedish linguist advances in certain respects beyond Messerschmidt in his account of the Sakha language. For “red” he gives Kisill, which uses the incorrect front vowel и/i rather than the back vowel ы/y, but at least is consistently wrong and so does not break the law of vowel harmony. Strahlenberg’s table is also much more ambitious: he provides the word for “red” on its own, while in Messerschmidt it only occurs as an adjective describing a certain kind of fox. Strahlenberg gives the words for only three animals –horse, dog, and wolf–, as well as words for the numerals one through ten, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty, one hundred, and one thousand; several body parts; family relations; precious metals; day and night, sun and moon, earth and sky; fire, water, mountain, king, and God. He places the column of these Sakha words alongside the counterpart, often cognate, words of other Turkic languages, including that of the “Siberian Muslim Tartars” (i.e., Siberian Tatars) who live in the region of Tobolsk, and that of the Czuwaschi (i.e., Chuvash), “who live in the Governorate of Kazan’, and are heathens.” Another class of columns places together the languages we today would call Finno-Ugric: Hungarian, Finnish, Vogul, Mordvin, Cheremysh, “Votiak” or Udmurt, and “Ostyak” or Khanty. Another class groups together the Kalmucks, Manchus, and Tanguht, who not only speak similar languages but also in matters of religion are said to follow the Dalai Lama; these languages in turn are classed apart from, but next to, the Tungusic languages of Siberia, among which Strahlenberg includes not only Evenk and Even, correctly, but also, incorrectly, Koryak (a Chukotkan language), and Ainu (commonly classified today as a paleo-Siberian language isolate).

If we move back to the Turkic section, grouping together a variety of Tatar, as well as Sakha (the northeasternmost Turkic language, with heavy syntactic, grammatical, and lexical borrowings from Mongolian and from Tungusic languages), and, finally, Chuvash (the only living member of the so-called Oghur branch of Turkic), we see that indeed they do share a significant amount of vocabulary, and Strahlenberg was correct to assume their relatedness. The numerals in particular plainly announce a shared ancestry: thus, lining up the Chuvash, Tatar, and Sakha words for “one” (with the equivalent modern Sakha term in parentheses), we have PärrBirrByrr (биир); for “two”, YckiIckeIcki (икки), and so on. Strahlenberg had difficulty finding Chuvash words other than those for numbers though he does offer words for “day” (Kann) and “hair” (Ssys) which evidently correspond to the Siberian Tatar and the Sakha terms. For these latter two languages, without Chuvash, the degree of similarity is surprising. Thus: “horse” in Tatar is given as Ath and in Sakha as Att (ат); for “fire”, Ott and Oth (уот) respectively; for “water”, Ssu and U (уу).

What now about “God”? The Tatar word that Strahlenberg gives is Chudai, which seems to be a corruption of icatçi/иҗатчи, a term that may be translated as “creator”. The Sakha term given is Tangara. This is the word that will later be most commonly used for the Christian God in translations of the Bible beginning in the late 19th century, translations which, as the first major written texts in the history of Sakha, contributed significantly to its development as a literary language.[12] It is also the name of the pre-Islamic Turkish divinity tengri or tanrı, who is the focus of sundry neopagan revivalist movements throughout the Turkic-speaking world today. This divinity is generally understood as a heavenly paternal figure, who may or may not be identical to the sky itself, but is at the very least associated with it symbolically.

Earlier in his work Strahlenberg asserts that among the Sakha there are three gods who are most exalted: in addition to Tangara, he mentions an “Ar-teugon” or “Ar-tugon”, and a “Schugo-teugon”, names that evidently refer to Tygyn Darkhan and Tyusyulge, warrior heroes who lived in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, who were valorized in recitations of the Olonkho oral epic, and who could easily have come across in this context as divinities rather than as historical figures. Even within Sakha epic tradition the line is not so clear; Genghis Khan for example is not known as a Mongolian ruler in the Olonkho, but only as a supernatural being.

Strahlenberg is not a particularly ingenious etymologist, and throughout his work he makes several false conjectures about the origins of words. He takes for granted that the ethnonym “Slav”, or “Sclavi” or “Sclavonian”, may be traced back to the root slava, meaning “glory” (it is more likely connected to slovo, “word”). He claims that the Sakha word for “Russian” is Lutschae or Ludzae (in fact it is nuuchcha/нуучча), and asserts that it is derived from the Russian word luchshe/лучше, meaning “better”. He explains that “when the Russians first brought [the Sakha] under their yoke, they adopted this manner of speaking, when they wished to make known their superiority of the Yakuts, and that they were of a better and more noble lineage, saying: mi Lutzae or Ludtschi kacwy, that is: We are a better, higher, more noble, and more renowned people than you.”[13] It is more likely however that the Russian word from which the Sakha derive nuuchcha is not luchshe/лучше but liudi/люди, which means “people”. Strahlenberg believes in fact that appellations such as “the better” or “the eminent” serve across Eurasia as a way of marking out certain ethnic groups. He even attempts to show, citing Tacitus, that the endonym for Germans, Deutsch, has its ultimate origin in the word Teutones (which is true), a term that in turn may be traced back to Teutobogh or Tolistobogi (which is not true). The latter of these variants is a Slavic word that may be analyzed as “massive [or fat] gods”. On another approach to the origin of the Germans’ self-designation as Deutsch, he suggests that it may be traced back to Thiud or Tziut, early Germanic terms for soldiers, and thus, like the “Ar-teugon” of the Yakuts, glorious warriors who are subsequently divinized. Most surprisingly of all, he also suggests that the Sakha Teugon or Tuigon may have the same root as Teut or Deutsch, and that in both variants are traced back to the name of one and the same ancient Eurasiatic warrior people: the Scythians.

It seems remote from more recent folk-taxonomies of the ethnolinguistic families of Eurasia to run the Germans, a paradigmatic “white” people by 20th-century standards, together with the ethnic groups of central and northeastern Asia. But Strahlenberg is writing before the Germans have been racialized as “white”, and the historical awareness of the ancient history of the Germanic tribes, as invaders of Roman Europe alongside the Huns and other groups that likely spoke a Turkic language, was central to burgeoning German national identity in the early modern period. Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq’s encounter with the last remnants of the Goths, still living in the Crimean peninsula in the 16th century,[14] reinforced the belief that Germans are cousins of the Turks and the Slavs, and that all of these groups share a common Barbarian origin story. One common figure in early modern European representations of Norse literature and lore is that of the “Asiatic Odin”, who, we learn from Isaac La Peyrère’s Relation de l’Islande [Relation from Iceland] of 1663, “entra dans le Nort” from his birthplace in the East, and who “a esté adoré dans tout le Septantrion.”[15] Well into the 18th century, what we might today call “Boreal studies” or “circumpolar studies” remained a branch of Orientalism.


In sum it is not at all unusual to see Strahlenberg speculating on the ancient unity of a Siberian Turkic group, with significant genetic and phenotypic proximity to Mongolians, on the one hand, and the Germans on the other. What is most interesting about his approach is the debt, which he openly acknowledges and which runs throughout his 1730 work, to the philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. One of the earliest posthumous publications of the work of Leibniz, who died in 1716, was the so-called Otium Hanoveranum, edited by Joachim Friedrich Feller.[16] This is a peculiar volume, as it consists in a largely contextless presentation of a number of Leibniz’s correspondences on various topics, notably topics that scholars today do not think of as central to Leibniz’s philosophical project. Considerable space is given over to what we might call “ethnolinguistics” and “ethnohistory”, the project of reconstructing the migration and evolution of the various ethnonational groups of Europe and Asia.

Strahlenberg has studied this volume well, and refers to it repeatedly throughout his own work. It is to Leibniz that Strahlenberg owes the etymological analysis of Deutsch that traces the word back to Teuht and Tiuht. And it is also Leibniz whom Strahlenberg credits for understanding in what way, “on doit juger de l’origine de Mythologie ancienne, [car] il y a de l’apparence que des Histoires y sont cachées”.[17] In other words, an oral epic might speak of gods, but a listener might discern that these gods were once men of distinction, involved in real historical events, and might from there unravel the history of a people from its unwritten sources. And, most interestingly of all, Strahlenberg declares that he hopes to achieve in his Polyglot Table at least what Leibniz had hoped for in the wish list he had sent to a certain “Pater Rodesta”, undated, and published in Feller’s 1718 volume.[18] This “Rodesta” is in fact Giovanni Battista Podesta, interpreter for the emperor at Vienna, and author of a 1677 comparative study of Arabic, Persian, and Turkish.[19]

Leibniz had sent to him a detailed list of “desiderata pertaining to the languages of nations”. He wishes to renew the search, suspended since the time of Busbecq, for more “semi-Germans” in Crimea and elsewhere in the area of the Black Sea (item 2); he wishes to know “the languages that are particular to Siberia and to the people furthest toward the Ob’, the Irtysh, and other rivers flowing there” (item 5); and so on. Leibniz did not know anything concretely about the Sakha language, or indeed about the number and variety of Turkic and non-Turkic languages in the Russian empire. It is because of this ignorance that he felt compelled to ask. He understood, in no small measure thanks to Witsen, that the eastern and northern portions of the empire were occupied by various sorts of “Tartar”, which is ito say, Turkic peoples related to those of the Ottoman Empire. But he did not have a good sense of who dwelt where. Podesta replies that there are indeed still inhabitants of the north shore of the Caspian Sea whose language “has something German about it”.[20] He also explains to Leibniz that “there are several different hordes of the Tatars, that is, armies [castra]… Their languages are mixed, sharing both in the Tartaric and the Muscovite [i.e., Slavic] towards the more western regions, and in the eastward reach of Tartaric it moves away from its mixture with Turkic, and commingles with the Tartaric of Cathay [i.e., inland China, likely a reference to the Uighurs].”[21] In broad strokes, Podesta’s account is correct. But he does not follow Leibniz’s exact instructions for gathering information in the field. We might say in fact that while Podesta was the addressee of Leibniz’s list of desiderata, Strahlenberg, with some delay, was its true recipient.

The fifteenth and final item on the list is a request for “an index of certain words signifying the more common things.”[22] Leibniz proceeds to offer a sort of intuitive folk-taxonomy of the basic categories of thing, including the names of numerals (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 20, 30, 40, 50, 100, 1000), relatives and ages (father, mother, grandfather, etc.), parts of the body (flesh, skin, blood, bones, nose, eye, ear, etc.), and actions (to eat, to drink, to speak, and so on). The two remaining categories are of particular interest. The one is “Necessities”, in which Leibniz includes food, drink, bread, water, milk, wine, mead, herbs, grain, fruit, salt, fish, bull, sheep, horse, clothing, pelt, chariot, sword, bow, arrow, spear, and bombardment. The other category is “Natural things”, in which the philosopher includes, working backwards from the end of the list: mouse, snake, bird, fox, bear, deer, wolf, dog, sand, stone, river, sea, valley, mountain, field, earth, smoke, light, heat, fire, ice, snow, hail, frost, clouds, lightning, thunder, rain, air, star, moon, sun, sky, man, and God.

Could Leibniz really mean what he says here: that food and drink, domestic animals and clothing, are “Necessities”, while God is a “Natural Thing”, alongside the animals, the mountains, the rivers, and the sky? In the course of answering this question, a first thing to note is that it is certain that Strahlenberg’s vocabulary items in the Polyglot Table are based on Leibniz’s letter to Podesta. And in this Polyglot Table, at least one of the languages featured, Sakha, yields up a word for “God” that denotes a being often understood as fully immanent within the visible sky.

In fact, whether the pan-Turkic tengri or tanrı –of which the Sakha Tangara is a variant– meets the criteria of Godhood in the sense of the Abrahamic religions is a difficult question to answer. Much depends on which particular Turkic people, in which century, under which state or tribal formation, are being considered. The 10th-century Arab traveler Ahmed ibn Fadlan, observing the Oguz Turks of the Volga region (which is to say the Chuvash), notes that in moments of prayer these people “raise their heads to the sky and say, bir tengri, that is in Turkic, ‘I bow down to the one God’.”[23] In the 13th-century Secret History of the Mongols, Tengri is consistently graced with the epithets “eternal”, “almighty”, and “father”.[24] Mircea Eliade identifies the Sakha Tangara as one of many Siberian divinities –including the Tängere of the Volga Tatars, the Tengeri of the Buryat, and the Tengri of the Mongols– on its way to becoming a deus otiosus, who retires from the world after creating it.[25] By contrast, in his authoritative dictionary of the Sakha language, E. K. Pekarskiï provides the following as the first three meanings of Tangara: “1. The visible sky; 2. A general name for all good beings, a good spirit, a god; 3. God, a divinity, a divine being.”[26]

As we are seeing, at least sometimes Tengri manages to tick a number of the boxes on the checklist of divine traits that a Christian theologian or missionary would be looking for in a local name for the translation of “God”, even if in the Sakha iteration Tangara is often much more literally assimilated to the sky itself as a particular region of human empirical reality. But such things are always a matter of interpretation, and any such assimilation can be understood, if one wishes, as allegorical: witness, for example, the depictions of heaven in European Renaissance painting as a place in the clouds, with fat cherubim, which did not automatically or immediately subvert the authority of the theologians’ considered view that heaven is not a place.

What is important here is not the theology of Tengrism itself, but that Leibniz, largely ignorant of this theology, anticipated that the terms for “God” that he might hope to receive back from expeditions into inner Asia might well be terms for entities best classed among the naturalia rather than among the necessitates. This approach is one that Leibniz had honed in parallel in the much more well-known case of traditional Chinese religion.[27] Taking the side of the least dogmatic Jesuit missionaries to China in the so-called rites controversy, who wished to allow, against the demand of the authorities in Rome, for continued observance of rituals of ancestor worship after conversion to Catholicism, Leibniz argued in the 1714 Discours de la théologie naturelle des Chinois [Discourse on the Natural Theology of the Chinese] and elsewhere that traditional Chinese religion has a very clear distinction between the transcendent creator and the immanent world, li and xi respectively, and that therefore the Chinese already had a concept of the true God prior to contact with European missionaries.[28] The Europeans only helped them to refine and to recall what they already knew, rather than teaching them something wholly new. This task of refining and recalling, Leibniz thinks, requires the missionary to be prepared to engage with popular conceptions of the divine in which it is intermingled with the natural. Such mixture, Leibniz thinks, is something like a precious metal found in an ore state: the gold is still there, even if it has to be extracted. And the truth about God is still there, in the pagan religions of Asia, even if it remains to the Christians to help them to extract him, or re-extract him, from nature.

Such flexibility is characteristic of a great deal of early modern missionary work. It acknowledges what might easily appear as a paradox: we have come to people with no concept of God, with the intention of telling them about God. What words should we then use? In his 1643 Key into the Language of America, Roger Williams affirms that the Native Americans both have a word for the single and unified God (Manitou), as well as thirty-seven different names for the various gods (manittowock) of small things. But these latter are not so different from the “He and Shee Saint Protectors” of “the Papists”,[29] and in the end finding a common tongue with the Naragansetts is not categorically more difficult than finding one with the Catholics. What is remarkable about Leibniz’s expression of this flexibility is, first of all, that he understands the need for it without himself ever leaving Europe, while typically it is a pragmatic response to difficulties encountered by travellers “in the field”; second of all, that it extends to all domains of knowledge, and not just the divine.

Leibniz was selected as a privy councillor to Peter the Great in 1712,[30] and he spent much of the energy of his final years working on proposals for the advancement of the sciences in the Russian empire. The most notable outcome of this work is the foundation of the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences, in 1725. And perhaps the most important project spearheaded by the Academy in realization of Leibniz’s goals was the Second Kamchatka Expedition, also known as the Great Northern Expedition, of 1731-41, which might best be described as a massive undertaking of applied Leibnizianism: thousands of researchers and grunt-workers (conscripted laborers, guides, dog-sled drivers, etc.) seeking answers to questions that Leibniz had explicitly posed a few decades earlier: What languages are spoken on the banks of the Irtysh river? What are the variations in the distance between the magnetic pole and the geographical north pole as one crosses the Asian continent? Does this continent connect with North America at its far northeastern edge? And so on.

Leibniz had always been accommodating of the tsar’s idiosyncratic interests, allowing naval architecture, for example, to occupy a more central place in his division of the sciences than he ordinarily would have done. In general, Leibniz’s project for the advancement of learning in Russia is one that allows him to both experiment with new divisions of the sciences, but also encourages him to adopt a pragmatic disposition to any possible division: the way we carve knowledge up will depend on what sort of knowledge we are able to obtain. He accordingly promotes “history” to a more important rank, equal to mathematics and physics, as for example in a draft, composed in 1708, of a division of the disciplines for eventual implementation at a still-to-be-founded Russian academy of sciences. He understands this field as encompassing both natural history and civic history, which involve “the explanation of times and places, and thus of singular things (which of course includes the descriptions and attainmentes of kingdoms, states, and countries, as well as state records and also, particularly, itineraries or travel logs.”[31]

In a set of undated notes on Russia, likely composed between 1705 and 1712, Leibniz writes that he would like to obtain a sample of such plants as the Siberian kidney vetch, the Voltschnoi Koren, wolf root, or lupina radix; the fur of the vichochol or Russian desman, which he describes as “a large aquatic mouse that gives off a pleasant odor.”[32] Leibniz’s turn to Russia, as the place that might permit him to indulge his interest in history, conceived as the collection of singular things, is one that he initiated years earlier. Thus in a 1698 letter to another Swedish linguist and author of the pioneering Lexicon Slavonicum, Johann Gabriel Sparwenfeld,[33] Leibniz complains that “I am criticized even when I attempt to take leave of the study of mathematics, and they tell me that I am wrong to abandon solid and eternal truths in order to study the changing and perishable things that are found in history and laws.”[34] But Sparwenfeld did not criticize him, nor did the numerous Russian councillors to the tsar to whom Leibniz sent his desiderata.

What Leibniz desired most were samples of languages. He requested books written in Russian and other languages, but was most interested in obtaining traces of spoken language, in gaining a picture of the differences between dialects as a point of access to understanding language evolution and divergence. Thus in his letter to Podesta, the one Strahlenberg will use as his own model in Siberia, Leibniz requests “a sample of the words and manners of speaking peculiar to the Germans of Transylvania, that is, not as they are spoken by the learned people, but as the common people speak, in order to be able to compare them with the popular language of our Germans.”[35] We have already seen, moreover, Leibniz’s observation to Spanheim, also cited by Strahlenberg, that mythology is a variety of history: it contains historical facts, we might say, developing an earlier analogy, in an ore form, mixed into storytelling like gold in a rock. Strahlenberg evidently bears this lesson in mind in his encounter with the Sakha storytelling tradition known as Olonkho: real events of the previous centuries come through in it, though in a sublimated form, and it is the job of the field observer to desublimate the tale and to piece together the history of nations from their speech practices as well as can be done.

Leibniz knew nothing of Olonkho, but he already anticipated that the future of the human sciences was not in books but in the study of natural languages and popular traditions. This is what Han F. Vermeulen has rightly recognized as the Leibnizian origin of what would, over the course of the 18th century, evolve into the new science of ethnography, of which the practice of what we have been calling field Leibnizianism in the Russian empire consitutes the long first chapter.[36] Thus Leibniz writes in the New Essays concerning Human Understanding of 1704:

“When the Latins, Greeks, Hebrews and Arabs shall someday be exhausted, the Chinese, supplied also with ancient books, will enter the lists and furnish matter for the curiosity of our critics. Not to speak of some old books of the Persians, Armenians, Copts and Brahmins, which will be unearthed in time so as not to neglect any light antiquity may give on doctrines by tradition and on facts by history… And if there were no longer an ancient book to examine, languages would take the place of books, and they are the most ancient monuments of mankind.”

The Sakha, like every other human group, have their own ancient monuments, which constitute a part of world history whether this is how they conceive it or not. Their language, like all language, in turn, is a reflection of human reason itself, which is, like the great texts of literate civilizations, a reflection of the rational order of nature. The study of the multiplicity of languages, in this regard, is in the end part of Leibniz’s most basic philosophical concern: that of discerning the underlying unity of things that, as he often puts it, compensates diversity.

Reason is one, for Leibniz, and all differences in the way different human groups and individuals account for things may be themselves accounted for in terms of differences of point of view and degree of clarity. Again, one never introduces anything new, but only clarifies or reminds people of what they already confusedly or indistinctly know. This is not to say that there are never mistranslations, or that a local word for a mountain spirit or river deity will be suitable for rendering “God”. But one must be pragmatic, and work with the available local resources and ways of knowing; and because all human beings are in the end endowed with the same faculty of reason, all groups of people will have the resources for articulating a true idea of God from within their native language.


While Willughby calls the Anas moschata a “Muscovy duck”, the 16th-century Italian naturalist Ulisse Aldrovandi had dubbed it the “Cairene duck”, as if it came not from Moscow, but from Cairo.[37] Others still spoke of it as if it were from Libya, and to this day when it appears in recipes it becomes the canard de Barbarie. This suggests that “Muscovy” might not have been a misunderstanding of “musky” after all, but just one of the many cases in the era of colonial zoology in which a newly discovered species, generally with strange markings or appendages, is projected into a geographical region also considered strange: witness, most famously, the “turkey”, which the French take to be a dinde, that is to say, “from India”, and the Arabs take to be from Ethiopia. (The Turks themselves also project it into India, calling the bird a hindi).

It may be that the problems presented by theology are not so different from those of ornithology, and that in the end the rendering of “God” as Tangara, or indeed as li or manitou, presents some of the same challenges as those faced by the explorer in the presence of an unfamiliar species of bird. It is after all not unusual to find a Protestant translator such as Roger Williams referring to “the Roman God”, which syntactically speaking follows the same model as “the Muscovy duck” in creating a binomial for the species and genus of a kind of being, and anchoring the species in a particular geographical location. God’s transcendental character –meaning among other things that he is not spatially locatable in the sky– is generally thought to be a necessary truth of definition about God, something that is contained in the very concept such that, if we encounter a powerful being in the clouds, we can know ipso facto that it is not the true God. But the problem with deciding in advance how to respond to such a possible encounter is also illustrated, again, by ornithology: “All swans are white” had been a common example of a definitional truth in medieval logic, yet in 1697 the Dutch explorer Willem de Vlamingh encountered a black swan on the coast of Western Australia. At such a crisis moment, one is always confronted with two options: one can say that we already have the definition, and that ipso facto the black swan is not in fact a swan, or one can say that the definition was wrong, and that some swans are black. If we agree with John Dupré, there is nothing about the world itself that dictates how we are to proceed in such cases; that we now have black swans (or, to use his preferred example, that we do not now have cetacean fish), is largely a matter of choice, of pragmatic and often plainly political expediency.[38]

Considerations of expediency are heightened in cross-cultural encounters, especially at geographical extremes where one is cut off from the social context in which the words we first learned to speak make the most sense. In such circumstances, black swans will more readily count as swans, cougars as lions, maize as corn, and ancestor worship as a legitimate rite compatible with the one true faith. It is not just that one is bringing whatever was more familaiar at home in order to “feel at home” in a strange place, but one is also allowing to count as familiar things that are in fact foreign, because upholding in the periphery the usual standards that hold at the center is a futile task; substituting local resources and customs becomes a necessity. This is familiar to historians of colonialism, but not much thought has been given to the way in which this experience of assimilation and substitution, of translation and approximation, impacted philosophical reflection within Europe, via networks of correspondence, on the nature of natural kinds and their names.

It may of course be that Leibniz is wrong, and that different human groups are radically cut off from one another within their own mutually incomprehensible worlds. In such a case, the imposition of an equivalence between “God” and “Tangara” really is like the claiming of a velvet scoter for Moscow, or a French Jesuit somewhere to the north of Roger Williams’s Providence claiming Manitou for Rome. The word in New Guinean Tok Pisin for “God” is “God”, which seems to suggest that someone, at some point, gave up on the effort to find an equivalency, placing God on the list of untranslatables, alongside sugar, tobacco, and other global commodities and means of compelling submission.

But the project of finding equivalencies, and of allowing approximations where equivalencies cannot be found, is one that has played a crucial historical role in the dawning of a modern awareness of the universality of human capacities and aspirations, and the basic commonality, with myriad local and regional inflections, of the structure of human society and cognition. Allowing God, in this context, to count as natural, alongside the desman and the wolf root, is a radical move for Leibniz to make, and one that he understood to be necessary for his project of establishing and fleshing out the universality of human reason, as expressed in the sundry particular forms of natural language and culture: a project that, again, is grounded in his deep metaphysical commitment to a world of diversity underlain by unity. That it had become more important to him to establish this universality than to continue defending the absolute transcendence of the divine is a significant fact about Leibniz’s own philosophical development, and more generally about the consequences for modern European philosophy of the long initial phase of globalization– which for convenience’s sake we might say began in 1492, and ended in 1741, when Vitus Bering, on Leibniz’s recommendation, arrived in America from the other direction.

Piece originally published at


[1] John Ray, Synopsis methodica avium & piscium: opus posthumum, London: William Innys, 1713, 150. “Anglice, the Muscovy-Duck dicitur, non quod e Muscovia hic translata esset, sed quod satis validum moschi odorem spiret.”

[2] Carolus Linnaeus, Fauna svecica sistens animalia Sveciae Regni, Leiden: Conrad & Georg Jacob Wishoff, 1746, 98. “Anas facie nuda papillosa.”

[3] Daniel Gottlieb Messerchmidt, Forschungsreise durch Sibirien, 1720-1727, Teil 2. Tagebuchaufzeichnungen, Januar 1723 – Mai 1724, Berlin, Akademie-Verlag, 1964, 200.

[4] Nicolaes Witsen, Noord en Oost Tartarye, Ofte Bondig Ontwerp Van eenig dier Landen en Volken Welke voormaels bekent zijn geweest, Amsterdam, 1692.

[5] Francis Willughby and John Ray, Ornithologiae libri tres, London: John Martyn, 1676.

[6] See Marco Polo, The Travels of Marco Polo, Book 3, ch. 9, trans. Henry Yule, ed. Henri Cordier, London: John Murray, 1920.

[7] See Alfred W. Crosby, Jr., The Columbian Exchange: The Biological Consequences of 1492, Westport: Greenwood Press, 1972.

[8] Philipp Johann von Strahlenberg, Das- Nord und Ostliche Theil von Europa und Asia, in so weit solches Das ganze Russische Reich mit Siberien und der grossen Tatarey in sich begreiffe, in einer Historisch-Geographischen Beschreibung… vorgestellet, Stockholm 1730.

[9] Philipp Johann von Strahenberg, An Historico-Geographical Description of the North and Eastern Parts of Europe and Asia, but more particularly of Russia, Siberia, and Great Tartary, London: W. Innys and R. Manby, 1738.

[10] Strahlenberg, Das Nord- und Ostliche Theil von Europa und Asia, 280.

[11] Strahlenberg, Das Nord- und Ostliche Theil von Europa und Asia, 411.

[12] Thus in the 1898 Sakha translation of the Gospels by the Yakutia-raised Russian D. A. Kukhnevyï, John 3: 16 is rendered as follows: “Тан̨ара а̄н дойдуну солкурдук тапта̄быта, арай Бӓйӓтін соб соготох тӧро̄бӱт Уолун, бары Кініӓхӓ ітӓгӓйӓччі ол́бӧтӱн, хата ӧрӱтӱн ты̄нна̄х буоллун діӓн, а̄н дойдуга біӓрбітӓ.” See Gospoda nashego Svyatoe Evangelie na yakutskom yazyke, Kazan’: Tipo-Litografiia V. M. Kliuchnikova, 1898, 219.

[13] Strahlenberg, Das Nord- und Ostliche Theil von Europa und Asien, 63.

[14] See Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq, Augerii Gislenii Busbequii D. Legationis Turcicae Epistolae IV, Paris: Beys, 1589.

[15] [Isaac La Peyrère], Relation de l’Islande, Paris: Thomas Jolly, 1663, 65-66

[16] G. W. Leibniz, Otium hanoveranum sive Miscellanea, Ex ore & schedi Illustris Viri, piae memoriae, Godofr. Guilielmi Leibnitii, ed. J. F. Feller, Leipzig: Joann. Christiani Martini, 2nd Edition, 1737 [1718].

[17] Leibniz, Otium hanoveranum, 103.

[18] “Leibnitii Desiderata circa linguas populorum, ad Dn. Podesta, Interpretem Caesareum transmissa,” in Leibniz, Otium hanoveranum, 49-54.

[19] Giovanni Battista Podesta, Dissertatio academica continens specimen triennalis profectus in linguis orientalibus, Arabica nempe, Persica et Turcica, Typis Leopoldi Voigt, 1677.

[20] “Responsum Domini Podesta, Interpretis Caesarei, & Professoris Linguae Turcicae,” in Leibniz, Otium hanoveranum, 54. “…videtur aliquid de Germanismo eorum linguae inesse.”

[21] “Responsum Domini Podesta,” in Leibniz, Otium hanoveranum, 55. “Sunt perplures Tartarorum Hordae, id est, castra… Linguae sunt mixtae, participantes de Tartarica & Moscovitica versus partes magis occidentales, & versus plagas Orientis de Tartarica, recedente a mixtura Turcica & commuiscente se cum Tartarica Chitai.”

[22] Leibniz, Otium hanoveranum, 53-54.

[23] Akhmed ibn Fadlan, Kniga o ego puteshestvii na Volgu v 921-922 gg., Kharkov, 1956, 126.

[24] See Igor de Rachewiltz (ed. and tr.), The Secret History of the Mongols: A Mongolian Epic Chronicle of the Thirteenth Century, vol. 1, Brill, 2006.

[25] Mircea Eliade, Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, trans. Willard R. Trask, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1964 [1951], 9.

[26] E. K. Pekarskiï, Slovar’ iakutskogo iazyka, Moscow: Akademiia Nauk SSSR, 1959 [1917], vol. 3, 2551-52.

[27] See in particular David E. Mungello, Leibniz and Confucianism: The Search for Accord, Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1977; Franklin Perkins, Leibniz and China: A Commerce of Light, Oxford University Press, 2004.

[28] See G. W. Leibniz, Discours sur la théologie naturelle des Chinois, ed. Christiane Frémont, Paris: L’Herne, 1987 [1714].

[29] Roger Williams, A Key into the Language of America: Or, An help to the Language of the Natives in that part of America, called New-England, Providence, 1643, 124.

[30] See V. I. Ger’e (Guerrier) (ed.), Sbornik pisem i memorialov Leïbnitsa otnosiashchikhsia k Rossii i Petru Velikomu, Saint Petersnburg, 1873, 268.

[31] “Chernovaia zapiski sostavlennoï Leïbnitsem o vvedenii obrazovaniia v Rossii,” in V. I. Ger’e, Sbornik pisem i memorialov, 96-97.

[32] “Raznyia zametki Leïbnitsa o Rossii,” in Ger’e, Sbornik pisem i memorialov, 47-48.

[33] Johann Gabriel Sparwenfeld, Lexicon Slavonicum, ed. Ulla Birgegård, in Acta Bibliothecae R. Universitatis Upsaliensis 24, Uppsala, 1987-92.

[34] “Iz chernovykh pisem Leïbnitsa k Sparvenfel’du,” 27 December, 1698, in Ger’e, Sbornik pisem i memorialov, 38-39. “On me querelle même lorsque je veux m’en excuser (des Mathématiques), et on me dit que j’ai tort de quitter les verités solides et éternelles pour les recherches des choses changeantes et périssables, comprises dans l’histoire et dans les lois.”

[35] Leibniz, Otium hanoveranum, 50.

[36] See Han F. Vermeulen, Before Boas: The Genesis of Ethnography and Ethnology in the German Enlightenment, University of Nebraska Press, 2015.

[37] Ulisse Aldrovandi, “De anate cairina,” Ornithologiae tomus tertius ac postremus, Bologna: Apud Nicolaum Tebaldinum, 1637 [1603], ch. 28, 199-201.

[38] See John Dupré, “Are Whales Fish?” in D. Medin and S. Atran (eds.), Folkbiology, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1999, 461-476.