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In Lithuania, He’s “Denzelis”

October 3, 2011

Denzelis Bowlesas

Denzelis Bowlesas is averaging 13 points and nine rebounds per game for the Lithuanian team BC Siauliai, while teammate Cameronas Longas has yet to log time two games into the VTB United League season. Last year, these players – known in America as Denzel Bowles and Cameron Long – were two of the Colonial Athletic Association’s best for James Madison and George Mason, respectively.

Why the new names? Are they going undercover in Lithuania, on a secret mission to steal and bring home the paintings of M. K. Čiurlionis?

Apparently not. Searching for answers (and a feasible alibi for our friends Denzel and Cam), I contacted Slava Gorbachev, a Slavic Languages and Literatures professor at the University of Chicago. Gorbachev was nice enough to explain how Denzelis and Cameronas came to be.

“In a Lithuanian sentence, the ending ‘-as’ marks the singular subject if it is masculine (the ‘as’ form is the so-called nominative case, and the nominative case happened to be the citation form in this language).

To be sure, only a subset of masculine nouns in Lithuanian belong to the “-as” class.  There are also an “-is” class, an “-us” class and multiple other classes.  Their nominative (subject case) forms end in -is and -us respectively.

 When a word is borrowed into Lithuanian (even if it’s a proper name), it is absorbed into one of the above classes, or else the Lithuanians would be at a loss as to how to decline that loanword (an example of a declined word in English would be ‘he’ – ‘his’ – ‘him’, but in Lithuanian EVERY noun and pronoun is declinable).

Now, why some masculine loans become “-as” class nouns in Lithuanian, and some are “-is” or “-us” nouns, I am not sure.  It seems arbitrary to me.”

Explained David Herman, the Slavic Languages and Literatures department chair at the University of Virginia: “Apparently for phonetic reasons Lithuanian puts –is with some names instead of –as, but the meaning’s the same.  -ys is also a possibility.”

If former President George Herbert Walker Bush visited Lithuania, he’d be, according to Gorbachev, “Džordžas Herbertas Volkeris Bušas.”

So it looks like Bowles and Long are clean. And Čiurlionis’ artwork is safe. I figured the 6-foot-10 Bowlesas was a bit too tall to pull off a heist like that anyways.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Jim Ed permalink
    October 3, 2011 5:40 pm

    Cool article, but for the love of god, don’t call Lithuanian a Slavic language. It’s Baltic, and Lithuanians get very angry when called Slavs, as they have a rocky history with their Slavic neighbors to the east.

    • Mark Selig permalink*
      October 3, 2011 6:46 pm

      Thanks for the comment, Jim. I actually searched first for “Baltic” language professors but couldn’t track any down, so I figured Slavic ones might have the answers.

      Did not know about the tension between the sides. Good to know.

  2. October 5, 2011 7:30 pm

    Well, none of Slavic languages are directly related to Lithuanian language, only some international words are used.

    By the way, good post. It’s nice to see foreign people being at least a little bit interested in stuff like this.

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