Russian Professor Sibelan Forrester Earns Recognition from 'Speculative Grammarian'

by Erin Kelly

It's not often that the title of a work gets more attention than its content, but for the Speculative Grammarian, a conference by any other name isn't always as sweet. Self-described as "the premier journal in the neglected field of satirical linguistics," it recently awarded Professor of Russian Sibelan Forrester the Chiasmus of the Month Award for the title of her lecture, "A Russian in Persia, and Persia in Russian: Translating Yuri Tynyanov's 'The Death of the Vazir-Mukhtar.'" 

A chiasmus is a figure of speech in which two or more clauses create a parallel through a reversal of structures: e.g., "Russian in Persia, and Persia in Russian." The chiasmus is largely found in Greek and Latin literature.

"Because you have to switch the two parts of a phrase to form a chiasmus, typically one or the other - and sometimes both - of the words changes its meaning in the second, inverted instance," Forrester says. "In my title, the first Russian is a person, the writer Aleksandr Griboedov, and the second Russian is the language. The flip works because we don't have to say 'person' or 'language' - it's clear because the first has the indefinite article and the second doesn't. The change in meaning sort of makes the ground open up under you - or, at least, makes it clear that language is a contingent thing whose meanings aren't as firmly fixed as we typically think as we go around speaking and reading."

According to Chiastic Editor & Editorial Chiasturge Daniela Müller with Psammeticus Press, the chiasmus "stands at the pinncale" among figures of speech, "surpassing by far alliteration and rhyme, hendiadys, and boustrophedon."

Forrester, who joined Swarthmore's faculty in 1994, specializes in Russian and Slavic literature and Slavic and East European folklore. She is also the editor and translator of The Russian Folktale (2012) by Vladimir Yakovlevich Propp.