"Russia's Babel"

Don Osborn dzo at bisharat.net
Fri Aug 3 09:48:43 UTC 2007

FYI (fwd from ILAT)...  Don

August 1, 2007

Russia's Babel

By Scott Spires
Special to Russia Profile

Linguistic Heritage under Threat

It is an interesting paradox: as the earth's population expands, the number of languages decreases. The language you are reading in now is one of the causes of this situation. English rolls over other, weaker languages like a tidal wave, obliterating the smallest ones and leaving even some of the larger tongues gasping for breath. But it is not the only such killer language--Spanish, French, Chinese, and Portuguese have been doing deadly work as well, and Russian definitely belongs in this formidable company.

Languages die for any number of reasons. They die because a few languages, led by English, dominate the Internet, science and business. They die because you can't take a test, get a driver's license, book a hotel room, or watch a movie in Ladakhi, or Huron or Ainu. They die because the Beatles sang in English (not Cornish or Manx), and because Alexander Pushkin wrote in Russian (not Vepsian or Karakalpak). They die because their speakers see no use for them, or are ashamed of them. They die because their speakers do.

In spite of factors like these, the Russian Federation has remained one of the world's greatest preserves of linguistic diversity. Here you will find specimens of Indo-European, Uralic, Altaic, Caucasian and many other families in their natural habitat. There are oddities to amuse you: The Caucasian language Ubykh, recently extinct, contained a jaw-breaking 81 consonants and only three vowels; the Chukchi language maintains different sound systems depending on whether a man or a woman is doing the talking; Izhor, with fewer than 500 speakers, is nonetheless divided into three separate dialects. Surveys indicate that over 100 languages have indigenous speech communities within Russia.

Yet this "nature preserve" is under severe threat of turning effectively monoglot within a few decades. Many of these languages are, like Ubykh, already extinct; others are in the process of extinction or are barely holding on. The process of extinction has, in fact, been going on for centuries; place names attest to this. Northern Russia, for instance, is studded with toponyms from Finno-Ugric dialects that died out long ago--the most famous example being Moskva, which probably means something like "dark water."

Siberia's Loss

Siberia, in particular, can be seen as the ground zero of these trends in Russia. Many of the phenomena that lead to the demise of minority languages are especially apparent there. Geography, politics, and culture all interact to create a space in which it is difficult for such languages to thrive.

The lack of linguistic compactness, for example, is a problem that especially affects Siberia. "Many of the peoples of the North are non-compact peoples," says Vida Mikhalchenko of the Russian Academy of Sciences' Institute of Linguistics. They live sparsely scattered across a vast territory, which makes communication as sizable communities difficult. This contrasts with, for example, the situation in the Northern Caucasus. It remains, in an expression that goes back to Roman times, "the mountain of languages," a region of densely packed and clearly demarcated tongues. Linguist Irina Samarina points to Archi, a language in Dagestan, as an extreme example of compactness: It is spoken in a single village of 1,200 people, but everyone in the village speaks it. As long as this situation persists, it is likely to survive.

Policy choices have contributed to the situation. The family is one of the most important forces in ensuring the survival of a language--if parents are able to hand it down to their children, it will continue for at least another generation. In the last century, however, it was common for children of minority-language speakers to be taken away from their parents and raised in boarding schools together with children of other small nationalities. The inevitable result of this situation was that everyone grew up fluent only in Russian. In many cases, only people born before approximately 1940 have preserved knowledge of a language. Once that happens, language death becomes almost inevitable--when the younger generation drops the baton, the race is over.

Standardization can also present a problem. If a language has never been equipped for use in any official sphere, deciding where the standard ends and dialects begin can be problematic. The Nenets language, for example, comes in two distinct varieties--Forest and Tundra. Should one of these be chosen as the basis for the standard; should a hybrid language be created; or should each be recognized as a separate language and treated accordingly?

These are the sort of questions that can keep a language out of classrooms, radio stations, and newspapers, and promote its eventual extinction. Even standardization does not guarantee a continued use, since elderly or longtime speakers rebel against using the new standard.

The Stigmatizing Effect

And there is the important issue of will. Much depends simply on the desire of speakers to maintain their language, a factor that is typically independent of both official support and official suppression. If the will to speak a language exists, it can survive neglect and repression; conversely, if the will isn't there, no amount of support will save it.

 While outsiders may perceive small languages as something romantic or exotic, speakers of small languages often view their native tongues from a very different perspective. Frequently, they associate such languages with poverty, illiteracy and backwardness. Sheer utility is a powerful argument in favor of switching to a few mega-languages, and many people who might speak indigenous languages follow that pragmatic argument to its logical end in their own lives.

Linguists know that the effectiveness of outside forces is limited. "We can't stop the process of disappearance," Mikhalchenko says. "And it's not good to try to decide things from above." The important thing is to gather data, create detailed descriptions of those languages threatened with extinction, make information widely available, and support those initiatives that promise success.

Laws can also play a role. According to Mikhalchenko, Russia may soon ratify the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. The charter sets out a series of measures to promote the use of minority languages in education, the media and other spheres.

At this point a skeptic might ask if there is any point in trying to preserve these languages at all. Language death is a normal phenomenon of history. Linguist Andrew Dalby estimates that a language dies every two weeks. Why put so much effort into recording, teaching and preserving dialects that might be limited to a handful of villages?

A novel line of reasoning, laid out in Daniel Nettle and Suzanne Romaine's 2000 book Vanishing Voices, treats linguistic diversity as analogous to biodiversity. Languages, the argument goes, are like species in an ecosystem. Just as the extinction of species leads to the degradation of the natural environment, so the extinction of languages degrades the human environment. Thus, systems of local knowledge are somehow dependent on the languages in which they were originally developed.

One can find echoes of this in Russia. Some languages have highly developed vocabularies for locally specific activities, such as reindeer-herding. People who usually speak Russian in their everyday lives will switch to the local language whenever they pursue local practices. The problem with this view is that every language is capable of expanding and changing to meet new challenges. There are no recorded instances of a language dying out because it confronted a world it couldn't describe. If it is necessary to invent reindeer-herding terminology for Russian, that will be done.

A Cultural Preserve

In fact there are good reasons to preserve minority languages, although those reasons are rather prosaic and may not appeal to people who perceive endangered tongues as something exotic and magical. Culture is really the key factor. Mark Abley, in his book Spoken Here, quotes an activist for the Celtic Manx language as saying: "the language is almost like a peg to hang the culture onЙThe music, the Gaelic way of storytelling, the folklore--all these things come out of the Manx language."

Cultures can survive the translation to a new language, but in the process they lose something unique and essential. Poetry, folklore, songs and customs have a unique sound and shape, and possibly a unique meaning, in one language that they don't have in another.

Abley also quotes the graphic words of MIT linguist Ken Hale, who says that losing a language is like "dropping a bomb on the Louvre."

The outside world tends to take little notice of the small peoples of Siberia. Japanese film director Akira Kurosawa's Siberian epic Dersu Uzala featured a Goldi hunter who befriends a Russian explorer; the Tuvan throat-singing group Huun-Huur-Tu has enjoyed success around the globe, singing songs in their native language that simply couldn't produce the same effect in Russian--or any other language. But it is hard to think of much beyond these admittedly esoteric examples that have made it into the wider world.

Linguistic homogenization is one of the factors that could blur the peoples' distinctive cultural profile. While language death, as Mikhalchenko notes, is something that is largely beyond prevention by outside forces, the disappearance of even the smallest dialect represents a loss of a cultural treasure-house.

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