Daily Archives: March 11, 2011

Dreaming in a forgotten language

I dreamed that I was organizing an activity at a high school, at which the students were going to recite a certain prayer or psalm or something in several different “holy” languages — Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and Coptic, I think. I wanted to assign each language to a different group of students, but none of them would agree to do Greek, which was considered the most difficult of the four. I said, “Come on, who’s going to do Greek? Who’s going to recite the good old Chliep Doroch?” (I’ve transcribed the sound as best I can, with “ch” as in “Bach.” The IPA would be [xljep dorox]. In the dream, I didn’t have any particular spelling in mind.)

The prayer began “Chliep doroch…” in Greek, you see, and people often used those two words to refer to the whole thing, just as with the Pater Noster or the Kyrie Eleison. Their literal meaning was “Dear Lord.” I was rather proud of the way I had pronounced the Greek words in precisely the correct way, avoiding the novice’s mistake of reading it Chlieb dorog.


Upon waking up, I immediately jotted down the “Greek” phrase using the International Phonetic Alphabet — both the correct pronunciation and the common mistake — just in case it should turn out to mean something.

Throughout the day, the phrase was in the back of my mind. I figured it probably wasn’t any actual language (certainly not Greek!), but that my mind was unlikely to have created it out of nothing at all. Maybe chliep was related to the German Liebe, and doroch to the Latin dirigere — “loved director” for “dear Lord”? Or maybe doroch just came from the English dear, with chliep perhaps cognate with the Old English hlaf — as in hlafweard, “loaf-guard,” from which our modern word lord is derived. . . .

Then it suddenly struck me that pronouncing chlieb dorog as chliep doroch was consistent with the phonological rules of Russian, and that, come to think of it, I was almost certain that хлеб was an actual Russian word, though I couldn’t for the life of me remember what it meant. (I took a few semesters of Russian in college but have forgotten almost all of it.) When I got home from work, I found a Russian dictionary online and discovered that хлеб means “bread” and thus probably is an etymological cousin to “loaf” and “lord,” just as I had speculated. It turns out that дорог is also a word in Russian — either of two different words, actually, depending on which syllable is stressed. If the final syllable is stressed, it means “of the roads” (genitive plural of дорога); but if the first syllable is stressed, it means — of all things — “dear” (short form of дорогой). So “Хлеб дорог” could mean either “the bread of the roads” or “Bread is dear.” The dream pronunciation, with the syllables equally stressed and both [o]s fully realized (in actual Russian, the unstressed vowel would be reduced), is perhaps meant to suggest both simultaneously.


The Russian word for “dear,” like its English equivalent, can mean either “beloved” or “expensive.” A Google search for “хлеб дорог” turns up David Ricardo in translation: “не потому хлеб дорог, что платится рента, а рента платится потому, что хлеб дорог” –“Corn is not high because a rent is paid, but a rent is paid because corn is high.”

As for the “bread of the roads” reading, it reminds me of the”waybread” (lembas) of Tolkien’s elves.

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Filed under Anecdotes, Dreams, Language