Siberia's disappearing languages underscore a chilling cultural shift

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Sun Dec 24 14:40:03 UTC 2006

 Posted on Sat, Dec. 23, 2006

Siberia's disappearing languages underscore a chilling cultural shift

By Alex Rodriguez

Chicago Tribune

BEKOVO, Russia - The dying flickers of the Teleut language can be found
here in southern Siberia, where the coal industry blackens the sky and
hems in what once was a thriving nomadic nation enlivened by shamans and
holy mountains. In most Teleut households in this hamlet of tumbledown
cabins and garden plots, only Russian is spoken. Teleut is kept alive
solely by Bekovo's older generation and by 3rd-grade teacher Marina
Kushakova, who once a week teaches a handful of 9-year-old Teleuts the
rudiments of a language as foreign to her pupils as French. "The word for
mother?" Kushakova, speaking in Russian, asks her class.  "Ene," replies
Katya Yakuchayeva, tugging at her ponytail. "And the word for grandfather
on your father's side?" "Abash!" barks out Maxim Shabin from the front

Linguists have logged about 6,900 languages around the world, and they
expect half of them to disappear in the next 50 to 100 years. When they
vanish, whole cultures and vast storehouses of knowledge will be gone.
"Language is the embodiment of human knowledge," says Russian linguist
Andrei Filchenko, who devotes much of his work to recording and preserving
Siberia's disappearing languages. "It's the result of centuries of
survival, and it's our window into the way people understand the world
around them," Filchenko says. Ultimately, mankind's diversity is reflected
in the world's vast array of languages, Filchenko says. That diversity, he
adds, "is vanishing with amazing speed."

The Teleut, a centuries-old tribe whose domain once spanned from the
steppes of southern Siberia into northern Mongolia, speak one of those
languages on the brink of extinction. Only 2,900 Teleut are left in
Russia, and only 1 in 10 speaks the language fluently. Once the Teleut
language disappears, says Maria Kochubeyeva, president of the Association
of Teleut People, "the nation disappears." In parts of the world,
linguists are waging battles to revive endangered languages. The Hans
Rausing Endangered Languages Project researches scores of dying languages
and creates dictionaries and textbooks for many of them, including the
languages of the Uspanteko and Sakapulteko people in Guatemala, the
Shangaji of Mozambique, the Moluccan people of Indonesia, and Russia's
Archi nation in the North Caucasus and the Chulym of western Siberia.

Roughly 1.6 million people make up what's left of the 30 aboriginal tribes
of Siberia. For centuries the tribes hunted, fished and raised reindeer
relatively undisturbed. In the 16th Century, Cossack explorers paved the
way for Russian settlement of Siberia, and by the 17th and 18th Centuries
legions of Russian peasants escaping serfdom were streaming into the
region. The biggest threat to the region's aboriginal groups, however,
came with the advent of the Soviet era, when collectivization and
industrialization took hold. The Soviet Union's unspoken policy of forced
assimilation wore away what once was a rich mosaic of indigenous peoples -
the Chulym, the Evenk and Tofalar of the Central Siberian Plateau, the
Shor and Teleut nestled in the steppe north of Siberia's snowcapped Altai

After eons of existing as nomads and hunters, Siberia's indigenous nations
had their territorial lands wrested from them by Soviet authorities.
Families were herded into collective farms, where their languages and
heritage began giving way to the sweep of Russification. Soviet
authorities had little patience for the melange of tribes that stretched
across the Siberian taiga. Kochubeyeva, 45, recalls how teachers hit her
on the head with their pointers when they caught her speaking Teleut.
"They did everything they could to make us forget the language," she says.
In the 1960s, the decline of many tribes accelerated as the state laid
claim to reindeer pastures and hunting grounds that held vast stores of
oil, natural gas and minerals.

In south Siberia, coal mining drove Teleut and Shor populations off their
native lands. "They lost their pastures, which meant they could no longer
raise cattle and horses," says Dmitry Funk, a Siberian affairs expert at
the Russian Academy of Sciences' Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology
Institute. "That dealt a major blow to their way of life," Funk says. One
of the most telling indicators of the decline of Siberia's aboriginal
nations has been the gradual disappearance of each nation's native tongue.
Less than 10 percent of Siberia's Shor people speak their language
fluently, according to a Web site run by Funk's institute that catalogs
endangered Siberian languages. The language of the Chulym in south
Siberia's Tomsk province has all but ebbed away. Only 426 Chulym are left,
and only 35 of them speak the language fluently.

Filchenko has made two trips to the taiga along the Ob River to record the
language of the Khanty, a Siberian tribe with Finnish, Hungarian and
Estonian roots. Of the estimated 28,000 Khanty who live in Russia, only
about 20 of them speak the language proficiently, says Filchenko, who
teaches at Tomsk State Pedagogical University in western Siberia. To get
to one of them in 1999, Filchenko trekked 30 miles on foot across a swamp,
then spent two weeks with the elderly Khanty speaker, catching and smoking
fish while listening to his stories about hunting moose and the Khanty's
revered prey, bear. "In Khanty, its taboo to use the word `bear,'"
Filchenko says. "They either use their word for `animal' to refer to a
bear, or the word `kaky,' the Khanty term for brother."

In Bekovo, a village of 1,700 people, almost all of the Teleut with a firm
grasp of their language are the village's older men and women. Their
lexicon is rich with references to Teleut spiritualism: kam, the village
shaman; emegendyr, the doll-shaped idols families prop up in their homes
as icons to Teleut spirits; somdor, a young birch tree placed along a
fence and festooned with ribbons that signify a Teleut's wish for health
or prosperity. Almost monthly, Kochubeyeva visits the village's Aiktu, or
holy mountain, that towers over the region's cluster of coal pits. She's
baptized as a Russian Orthodox, but she clings to her tribe's ancient
rites, like tossing bread, meat and milk into a birch fire at the foot of

"I feel like I have to go there to talk to the spirits," Kochubeyeva says.
"I always ask them to make our people friendly, to keep us together, to
revive our culture." Other Bekovo villagers appear just as determined to
keep Teleut heritage from disappearing. Vladimir Chelukhoyev runs the
village's Teleut museum, an austere but spirited tribute to the tribe's
culture that includes a cluster of nomadic tents called yurts, models of
Teleut shamans and muraled walls colorfully depicting moments in Teleut
history. The village's attempt to keep Teleut song alive is embodied in
Solony, a troupe of seven women, four of them Bekovo grandmothers. Dressed
in flowing satin gowns and accompanied by a jew's-harp and the tapshur
(the Teleut version of a lute), they fill the room with layered, sirenlike
harmonies and step dancing.

Ultimately, however, the language's only hope for survival may rest with
the lessons Kushakova gives the village's next generation of Teleuts. The
odds are against her; Teleut textbooks don't exist, so she has to rely on
a Teleut picture dictionary co-authored by Kochubeyeva and lesson
materials in Shor, which like Teleut is a Turkic language and is similar
enough to suffice. Kochubeyeva admits it's an against-all-odds battle to
revive the language.  Still, it's a fight she feels compelled to wage. "I
personally don't think the language can be revived, but I'd like to
preserve what we've got," she says. "I believe language is the treasury of
the soul. You can speak about what you feel inside only in your native


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