Russia: Losing Words, Losing Knowledge

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Tue Aug 21 13:53:57 UTC 2007

Friday, August 5, 2005

Russia: Losing Words, Losing Knowledge

By Julie A. Corwin

    [image: Russia -- Chechen students. Grozny.] Students in Grozny learning
the Chechen language (epa) The 9th of August will mark the beginning of the
second decade of the UN's observation of the World's Indigenous Peoples --
an international day created to register concern for the rights and welfare
of indigenous peoples. One of these rights is to speak in one's native
tongue. However, some linguists believe that the number of world languages
could halve over the course of this century. Scholars estimate that more
than 9,000 languages died in the past two centuries as the result of wars,
epidemics, acts of genocide, and the process of assimilation, "Rossiya"
reported on 11 November 2004. Of the almost 7,000 languages living today,
half of them can be found in only eight countries of the world; one of these
countries is Russia, according to "Rossiya."

*Dying Languages*

Russia has more than 160 nationalities and 101 languages, according to the
2002 census and the recently released edition of "Ethnologue," a reference
work cataloging all of the world's languages. While federal and local
policies to promote indigenous languages flourished in the first 10 years
after the breakup of the Soviet Union, the population of indigenous peoples
in the Russian Federation, and consequently, speakers of its languages have
kept declining. What's more, that trend is expected to continue. While it is
hard to generalize about a country as large as Russia, the majority of the
languages of the numerically small peoples share at least three common
problems. First and foremost, their best speakers are in many cases elderly.
The younger generation often speaks Russian better than the language of
their ethnic group. Two, there is typically little prestige or economic
incentive associated with mastering the indigenous languages. Three, federal
and/or local programs designed to promote indigenous language use and
instructions are often badly funded or nonexistent.

>>From 2003-04, only 47.5 percent of the children of the indigenous people of
northern Siberia and the far east were actually studying their native
language in schools, according to the social-science journal "Sotsis --
sotsiologizheskie issledovaniya" of 24 May 2005. In the southern Siberian
republic of Buryatia, just 40 percent of local primary schools offer
instruction in Buryatian; all teaching at upper levels are in the Russian
language. In the republic of Khakassia in 2002, 35 percent of students in
the republican capital of Abakan were studying Khakassian, according to a
paper delivered by Tamara Borgoiakova (sic) of Khakassia State University
during an international conference in 2002. But offering indigenous
languages in schools doesn't necessarily guarantee that students will use
them outside of class. Of the percentage of students studying Khakassian in
Abakan schools, only 2 percent reported using the language with their
parents, 22 percent with their grandparents, and no one reported using it
with their friends.
The greatest threat to indigenous languages is that their most fluent
speakers are often elderly.

There are any number of explanations for the failure of young people to
embrace their ancestors' language. One is lack of prestige. The most fluent
speakers of indigenous languages are often concentrated in the villages and
rural areas, thus giving the language an association of "backwardness" among
urbanites. Perhaps more significant are the greater economic opportunities
associated with the dominant language, Russian. However, even the custodians
of the Russian language have concerns that the use of their language is
declining, particularly in the CIS countries. At a conference in Moscow last
June, Deputy Education and Science Minister Andrei Svinarenko attributed the
declining interest in studying Russian to Russia's political and economic
situation. And if Russian is declining in popularity, we can only imagine
how low the status of Khakassian or Buryatian has fallen.

Of course, Buryatian -- with more than 300,000 speakers -- is in much better
shape than dozens of other indigenous languages in Russia. Among the 11
languages identified by "Ethnologue" as "endangered" is Southern Yukaghir, a
language spoken in northeastern Siberia. In 1859, there were more than 2,000
Yukaghirs, but over the next six decades the population declined rapidly due
to epidemics and assimilation. And like so many other indigenous peoples of
northern Siberia and Russia's far east, collectivization resulted in
cultural discontinuity and further population declines.

>>From the 1950s to the 1980s, the Soviet government sent all Yukaghir
children to boarding schools, where they were schooled in Russian. Today,
speakers of Southern Yukaghir number only 30 to 150, all of whom are older
adults, according to "Ethnologue." According to "Rossiiskaya gazeta" on 24
December 2002, Russian ethnologists used to joke darkly that for every
Yukaghir, there are three academic volumes about their people. The situation
is even more dire for the Tundra Ents language of north-central Siberia.
Only two or three of its speakers are still alive.

The Tuvan Model

Of course, the poor physical health and dismal living conditions of many
indigenous peoples tends to trump all other challenges facing a language's
survival. The Tuva Republic has received high marks for its language
program, but Tuva is one of the poorest regions in Russia. Tuvin is the
language of instruction in 80 percent of elementary and high schools,
according to Borgoiakova. In the majority of Tuva homes, Tuvin is the only
language spoken. The strong position of the Tuvin language in the republic
represents, according to Borgoiakova, "the most successful model of
implementation of language law in Siberia." Of all of the numerically small
peoples of northern Siberia and Russia's far east, the Tuvins-Todzhentsev
had the highest increase in their mortality rate for the period from
1999-2003, according to "Sotsis." Their death rate rose by 150 percent.

In the face of such alarming statistics, concern about language use may seem
esoteric. After all, many if not most members of indigenous populations in
Russia can speak Russian, enabling them to function in their daily lives and
participate in the local and national economy. But language may represent
something more than just a means of communication and a window into a

Some linguists are connecting linguistic diversity with efforts to preserve
and understand the environment. Speaking at an international conference in
2002, Tove Skutnabb-Kangas of Denmark's Rotskilde University reported that
Finnish biologists recently "discovered" that salmon can use extremely small
rivulets leading to a local river as spawning ground, something scientists
previously thought was impossible. But the indigenous group the Saami have
always known this and that the traditional Saami names of several of those
rivulets often include the Saami word for "salmon-spawning bed." According
to Skutnabb-Kangas, this kind of ecological knowledge is preserved in
indigenous languages.

See also:

Efforts Under Way To Prevent Extinction Of Shor Language

N.b.: Listing on the lgpolicy-list is merely intended as a service to its
and implies neither approval, confirmation nor agreement by the owner or
sponsor of
the list as to the veracity of a message's contents. Members who disagree
with a
message are encouraged to post a rebuttal. (H. Schiffman, Moderator)
-------------- next part --------------
An HTML attachment was scrubbed...
URL: <>

More information about the Lgpolicy-list mailing list