Perm

Language goes through many permutations and permanent mutations. It can be rather like hair: styles come in, styles go out, but sometimes the style changes the form quite a bit, permanently.

When you see the name Perm, you will likely think first of a perm, a thing one can do for styling hair. Chemicals break down the inner structure of the hairs, making them more susceptible to reshaping; heat and physical devices reshape them. This perm is short for permanent wave, and has been in the language as such from the 1920s. Permanent comes from Latin per ‘through’ and manere ‘stay’; we can see that in perm most of the manere has not remained. Fashion led to the curtailing of the word form, and that curtailing seems to be enduring, although the memory of the original is not altogether lost.

But there is another Perm, a capitalized one (well capitalized with industry – except, oops, industry built up during communist times), a city of a million people in Russia, in the Ural area, straddling the Kama river, suturing it with bridges. It was founded in the 1500s and renamed in 1780 as Perm. My Oxford Concise Dictionary of World Place Names declares that this came from Finnish perya ‘rear’ and maa ‘land’, because to the Vep people who had moved to the area from closer to Finland it was really the back of beyond.

So this Perm is also styled, cut down from peryamaa. But it has grown out to a new form: Permian, which is the name of a geologic period, the last period of the Paleozoic Era, ending some 252 million years ago with a rather massive extinction episode. At the time, all the land masses of Earth were one big Pangaea, which subsequently broke up and left formerly contiguous bits widely separated. And, anent that, in parallel with the Vep displacement and the dislocation of the back half of perm, deposits from the Permian Period have come to be found in widely separated places. Near Perm is one such place, of course (hence the name), but another is in northwest Texas, an area commonly called the Permian Basin, a source of much oil production (i.e., reusing old stuff for new ends) and home of towns such as Marfan and Odessa (another far-removed place name duplication). From cold and communist to hot and capitalist – such a split.

There’s also a split in pronunciation. You know how perm is pronounced: three phonemes, thanks to a syllabic /r/ in the middle – like “purr” with “mm” added at the end. Soft, lazy, comfortable. You might suspect that Perm would be said a little differently, and you would be right. In perm the tongue may curl comfy like a cat in the mouth, but in Perm, the end is palatalized due to the source, and the beginning is palatalized due to Russian phonemics. This word begins and ends in bilabials that physically cannot palatalize, but the tongue twists for them anyway because they are nonetheless phonemically “palatalized.” And so is the /r/, which actually can be, but maybe don’t hurt yourself trying. The tongue doesn’t loll its body lazily near the palate; it presses its blade parlously close to the alveolar ridge, as if curled unnaturally – though the sounds are natural enough to Russian speakers.

Imagine actually seeing the tongue doing that. Imagine, say, taking an ultrasound wand and putting it under your chin and looking at the screen-borne phantom of the tongue twerking away in the interests of phonological fashion. As it happens, I had the chance to see just that sort of thing this afternoon, in a linguistics talk called “Tracking and Imaging the Tongue: New insights into language-particular phonetic variability,” presented by Alexei Kochetov – now of the University of Toronto, but originally from Perm.

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