A Linguistic Remark on the Term “Isolani”
- A Neoromantic Term?
The term “Isolani”, as a synonym for “isolated pawn”, has for many years been part of the international
standard terminology in chess. Nimzowitsch uses the word Isolani in “Mein System” in the chapter
“The isolated d-pawn and its descendants”. The term had been used by other authors before Nimzowitsch,
and Tartakower certainly mentions "isolani": "Ein Isolani verdüstert die Stimmung auf dem ganzen Schachbrett",
so the term belongs to the neoromantic vocabulary.
According to Edward Winter the earliest known
example dates from 1910, in a game Dus-Chotimirsky, annotated by
Leonhardt in the Hamburger Nachrichten.
C.N. 5083 reported that we had found the term in Leonhardt’s annotations to the game Dus-Chotimirsky v Tarrasch, Hamburg, 1910. Published in the Hamburger Nachrichten of 21 August 1910, the notes were reproduced on pages 357-359 of the October-November 1910 Wiener Schachzeitung. After 1 d4 d5 2 c4 e6 3 Nf3 c5 4 e3 Nf6 5 Nc3 Nc6 6 a3 Bd6 7 dxc5 Bxc5 8 b4 Bd6 9 Bb2 O-O 10 cxd5 exd5 11 Nb5 Bb8 there is the following:
Anyhow, Nimzowitsch is the name we in the first place associate with the term
"isolani". By the way, the "Recipe"
of blocking obviously was known as early as 1910, although the term "Blockade" had not yet come into use.
From a German morphological point of view the word “Isolani” as used by Nimzowitsch is in the singular,
examples of which we find in the following phrases in the 1965 edition of Mein System:
“Der Isolani als Endspielschwäche“ (Headline, p.218)
“Ein Indizium für die Schwäche des Isolani bildet auch die dem Angreifer sich nicht selten bietende
Möglichkeit, den Angriff vom Damenbauer nach dem Damenflügel hin übertragen zu können.“ (p.220)
as Matthias Vettel points out, "Isolani" occurs as a name of one of
the characters in Schiller's play
"The Death of Wallenstein". In a famous line Count Terzky says to Wallenstein:
"Dem Isolani hast du auch getraut,
Und war der erste doch, der dich verliess."
A more recent form found on a chess site is "Isolanis" with a plural ending that indicates that the writer
regards the term as a loan word in the singular: "Isolanis gelten im Schach gemeinhin als schlecht."
notice that the Nimzowitsch treats the word as a loanword, since the normal
German genitive s has
been omitted (des Isolani). As a comparison, the genitive of German “Cello” would be “des Cellos”.
The word looks like it comes from a Romance language, such as Italian or Spanish. So from where did
Nimzowitsch (or Tartakower) borrow it?
Usage in English, French and Spanish texts
The first English translation of Mein System (Philip Hereford 1929, Bell edition) retains the word isolani
unaltered, and the French Pratique de mon système (Payot & Rivage, 1995) also says "isolani" when
referring to one pawn. The Spanish editions of Mein System and Die Praxis meines Systems
(Mi Sistema, 1963, and La Práctica de mi Sistema", 1968), translate "isolani" with "Peón aislado",
which indicates that the translator has felt uncomfortable with the term in the German original.
It would not be unnatural for someone to choose an Italian word, considering the fact that there is an
old Italian chess tradition, in what regards old literature (e.g. Damiano: Giuoco Piano, 1512), as well
as the existence of other Italian terms (fianchetto, gambit, riposte, stallo, patta, tempo). However, the question is if the
correct form for a German loanword was chosen.
there is a word "isolani" in Italian, meaning "inhabitants of an
island". "Isolani" is the plural form
of “isolano”, i.e. “one inhabitant of an island". In the Italian editions of Mein System" (Il mio sistema, Mursia 1975)
and Die Praxis meines Systems (La pratica del mio sistema, 1987) the word Isolani is rendered as
"pedone isolato" (isolated pawn). Obviously, the translator has found it strange to use the Italian word
Isolani, which indicates the plural. And actually there is another translation where the word "isolano" is used.
So, we are dealing with islands and islanders here, and a clue to this fact is found in the following quotation
from Mein System:
“Dr. Tartakower, der geistreiche Verfasser der Hypermodernen Schachpartie, würde dies eine Figureninsel
nennen.“ (p.118). So the designation is undeniably witty; we have an isolated pawn that can also
in a metaphorical way be called an island or an islander, with a pun on the fact that people on a too small island
may become isolated (cf. the adjective "insular", which sounds somewhat depreciatory).
- The art of the Impossible
It is a fact well-known to any translator that certain texts and expressions (not to mention stylistic features)
are more or less impossible to translate, which especially applies to old texts and to incompatible prerequisites
between the source language and the target language. A translator who chooses to keep "Isolani" unaltered
has no doubt felt the conflict between two contradictory principles: Should I keep the word as it is (in this
case an internationally established term), or should I use a word that is better adapted to the target language?
A Modest Proposal
Nimzowitsch, as certainly also the versatile talent Tartakower, had a broad knowledge of languages. We do
not know which was his mother tongue, it could have been Russian, Latvian, Yiddish, or German, (Georg Marco,
the editor of the Wiener Schachzeitung, called him “the Russian") and most probably all those languages
were spoken by his family in Riga. Latin was certainly one of his subjects at school, and we find several Latin
and French quotations in his books. After he had settled down in Copenhagen he soon learned Danish,
and we also know he contributed to Swedish papers in the Swedish chess magazine Tidskrift för Schack
in the Swedish language.
there is no doubt that he was also a gifted linguist, and for that reason it is
somewhat astonishing that
he should have introduced such a strange term as “Isolani”, which, as has been shown above, is a grammatical
monstrosity. Most likely the word was already an established term that he just took over.
could be argued of course that “Isolani” referred to “an island of pawns”, but the
morphology in Mein System
clearly shows that the subject matter is “one pawn”.
I therefore humbly propose that the term “isolani” should be replaced with “isolano” as being the more logical form.