V.M. Alpatov

What To Do With The Not Numerous Languages?

The question of the fate of the not numerous languages of Russia is actively discussed in the last years. However here are more talks than real works. Nobody says about the benefit of the language assimilation or about the necessity of the extinction of these languages, everybody calls to preserve them but is not clear what to do for it.

Before 1917 many not numerous languages were quite stable but it could be connected with the insufficient development of the territories of their spreading and with the lack of the necessity of bilingualism for their speakers. The languages which were found in more developed territories began to extinct already at that time (Live, Votic). In the first twenty years after the October revolution the new power took measures for the preservation and development of many languages. However from the second half of the 1930s the opposite policy of russification began to supplant this policy although sometimes the old policy was preserved automatically for many years.

The development of Russian (and to some extent the other numerous languages of the USSR) was provides by not only the state policy but the economical development of many territories which was always connected with migrations of people who spoke Russian. A striking example is the creation of the Siberian oil and gas industry in the land of Khanty (Ostyak), Mansis (Voguls), Nenets (Samoed) and other peoples. Bilingualism spread among many not numerous peoples, the next stage was Russian monolingualism. However the number of the languages became extinct at the soviet times is small: Kamassin and Yug which became not numerous still before the revolution. The number of the Indian languages in the USA which became extinct in the XX century is more significant. I want to mention that the Oroch language was called extinct in the encyclopaedia “Languages of the Russian Federation” (V. 2, 2003) but in 2005 the expedition of the Moscow State University and the Moscow Humanitarian University found the living native speakers of this language. Of course it is dangerous to speak about a language as an extinct one: it is possible to overlook something.

The situation changed at the time of perestroika. Many people in all Russia began to think that only the “totalitarian regime” prevented from the normal functioning of the not numerous languages and the change of the state system could lead to the “reviving” of them. “Reviving” was usually realized as the acquisition of the language function which had not existed or had existed after the revolution. The Western countries and Japan considered as models but their real experience was not take into account. For instance in the USA the problem of preservation of the Indian languages is not decided and in Japan the only primordial not numerous languages – Ainu – became extinct during a century. It was stable when Ainu – hunters and gatherers – lived separately and had not contacts with Japanese. Since the second half of the XIX century the mass colonization of their lands by Japanese became and the Japanese language became to supplant the Ainu language. At the time of the Japanese militarism Ainu were unequal in rights with Japanese, sometimes they were forced to learn Japanese, it favored the language assimilation. After 1945 the American occupation regime equalized Ainu in rights with Japanese but this measure only quickened their language assimilation and the Ainu language ceased to use in the 1960s.

Of course the experience of many post-Soviet states where the role of the new state languages increased at the expense of Russian seemed to be tempting for the nationally oriented intelligentsia of many not numerous peoples of Russia. However now it is evident that the language situation in Russia and in the other new states is different since 1991. The role of Russian in Russia can not change significantly in comparison with the Soviet time. Maybe some exceptions are the isolated Russian territories with the small per cent of the Russian population: Tuva, the Yakut Republic. For instance the not numerous languages if the Yakut Republic can be supplanted not only by Russian but by Yakut too. However such situation took place at the Soviet time too.

In most cases the time of illusions changed into the time of disappointments. For instance at the beginning of the 1990s “many teachers of Ket treated their work with great enthusiasm. However this enthusiasm came into collision with the severe reality and began to go out little by little and the teaching of Ket at schools became to nothing. The prestige of Ket slightly risen at the beginning of the 1990s is falling steadily now. The disastrous situation of the majority of the Ket families is not the least among the causes of this fall” [1]. And about Selkup: “The school teaching in Selkup is found to be extremely ineffective. School is the only place where Selkup people can learn to speak the language of their ancestors. Really the maximum learned after several years of studies is a limited list of Selkup words basically nouns” [2].

The spreading of the school education is the most significant measure which was realized for the saving of several not numerous languages for last fifteen years. However this measure can be insufficient and sometimes it is not possible. For instance an attempt to include the teaching of Khakass in the education in the Khakass Republic was made at the beginning of the 1990s but this attempt proved its ineffectiveness. The authors of manuals thought that Khakass children knew their native language before school even if slightly. However it turned that the overwhelming majority of them knew only Russian and it was possible to teach Khakass only as a foreign language. There are no monolingual speakers of such language and it is almost unknown by the young generations, the real danger of its extinction exists. And the Komi-Permyak intelligentsia was not successful in the introduction of their ethnic language to any official use even at the beginning of the 90h years. One local linguist wrote in 1994: the people lost its “kernel” and “the processes of the ethnical erosion became irreversible” [3].

This problem can be probably decides by other ways for several other languages which are still alive now. The author of the above-mentioned article about Selkup writes: “All the hope is connected with reindeers which exist in the possession of the native speakers because there is an appreciable correlation between the existence of reindeers in the family and the functioning of the ethnic language in the same family” [4]. And about Yukagir: “The good speakers are only that children who have relatives leaving by the traditional life in taiga or tundra and learn the language by natural ways” [5]. The traditional tenor of life can save the languages of its speakers.

At the times of perestroika or some years later the national intelligentsia of the not numerous peoples called not rarely not only for the giving Russian up but for refusal of all the modern culture and for the complete return to the traditional forms of economy (nomadic cattle-breeding, reindeer-breeding etc.). Sometimes foreign authors supported them. For instance the author of an article on Buryat called for their liberation from the oppression of the Soviet power including the discourse oppression. She wrote that it was necessary to refuse Standard Buryat formed at the Soviet time and to return to the dialects and the traditional picture of world without any classes, linear conceptions of time and so on [6]. In 1989 she thought that perestroika would do it possible but certainly it was not realized.

And what is to do for instance with Mansis after the creation of the Siberian oil and gas industry, if “practically all the Mansis settlements changed to the multinational ones and the new comers prevail upon the primordial population in many settlements”? [7] The majority of Russian oil and gas is extracted in the Hanty – Mansis and Yamal – Nenets autonomous districts but its native population did not become oil and gas industry workers. The situation in the other oil centers of Russia and the Soviet Union – Azerbaijan, Tatar and Bashkir districts – is quite different. “Cultural shock” of the native population after the appearance of prevailed new comers creates problems which are not solved neither in Russia nor in the developed countries.

Sometimes the organization of reservations after the pattern of the USA and Canada is considered as the best way of the decision of the problem of the not numerous peoples in Russia. However this experience is more negative than positive from the point of view of the preservation of languages as from some other points.

We have to say that there is no strict correlation between the degree of the preservation of a language and the level of the economical development of regions of its spreading. Stability of a language depends on many reasons and it is difficult to preclude the fate of concrete languages. The reasons can be very unexpected. One of them is called by N.B. Vakhtin “factor of grandmother”: women who did not speak native language with their children become to speak it with their grandparents. “Is this grandmother a constant social function in a language community irrespective of generation?» [8].

Of course the not numerous languages are becoming extinct more quickly but some numerous languages can find themselves in unfavorable situations. English supplanted Irish in the XVIII and XIX centuries to such degree that Irish could not become a means of communication even in the independent Ireland; it plays only the role of national symbol. Yiddish which had millions of native speakers hundred years ago is almost extinct. A part of its speakers was murdered, another part refused it voluntarily. Native languages of immigrants disappear especially quickly (certainly they do not become extinct because they preserve in native countries of these immigrants). However the languages of Daghestan with the especially small number of speakers (the so-called languages of one aul) are rather stable although their native speakers are bilingual or even three-lingual because they have to know Russian and one of other Daghestan languages. Maybe the mountainous character of the country limiting contact between languages favors the stability of these languages even nowadays. In general the language situation in the Northern Caucasus with many languages is relatively stable now.

Even if a language is far from extinction some question arise. Which its forms of existence are vital? Some notions formed for the national languages of Europe prevailed in the Soviet Union especially in its early years. According to these notions it was necessary to use all the languages of the country including the smallest ones in all the spheres of communication and to develop all the functional styles of them. In fact this process was not finished and this process began to turn backwards from the end of the 1930s. However the fiction on dozens of languages was created for the first time. There were very talented writers in these literatures, some of them became well-known in the USSR (however their fame were achieved owing to translations to Russian). Newspapers and magazines on not numerous languages published too. However such texts, especially fiction, often became “some special ethnographic objects which rank with samples of the decorative-applied art; such objects are acquired, they are preserved but they are not used with its purpose” [9]. Books of national writers can occupy a place of honor in libraries but almost nobody reads them. The literary part of some these languages is disappearing after 1991 without any support of the power. Such languages can return to the unwritten situation since the written form of many not numerous languages is restricted by fiction and school texts.

The publication of books and newspapers on the languages of minorities existed at the Soviet time collapsed now. Even if some such newspapers continue to appear they are really bilingual. Official texts can be published in native languages but the information which attracts readers (from TV programs to horoscopes) is published in Russian. The reasons are clear: it was possible to plan the publishing business without thinking on the profit at the Soviet time but nowadays the market laws do not permit to publish literature on many languages of minorities of Russia. The television broadcasting in these languages is usually more stable: the state local television is preserved and it is possible to have such broadcast.

So some languages exist only as dialects or mainly as dialects. The functioning of such languages is alike the functioning of dialects but the place of the standard native languages is occupied by Russian. We think that such situation is not the worst one. Many peoples are disposed to use two language formations for “our people” and for “alien people”. Nowadays the language for “alien people” is usually a standard language, the language for “our people” is a dialect or a so-called half-dialect mainly. An example is Japan where this factor apparently provides the stability of the dialects of Japanese [10]. However Japan is the state which is very homogeneous from the ethnical point of view but languages of minorities can not become languages for “our people” in multinational communities (including Russia). Only the choice between the national-Russian bilingualism and the Russian monolingualism is possible. Even without any administrative measures the economical, political and cultural situation puts pressure on the language situation [11].

The symbolic function of the ethnical language is closely connected with the function of the language for “our people”; the symbolic function can be preserved even if the communicative function was lost (example of Ireland). Of course it is easier to preserve such function if a national state exists but it is not excluded if there is a real (not decorative as sometimes in Russia) national autonomy.

One Western sociolinguist asks in connection with conceptions of the so-called linguistic ecology based on the priority of preservation of languages at any price: must we take into account opinions of native speakers of that languages who not always want to use them [12]? The appeal to the “popular opinion” is frequent but it is supposed that such opinion is always the same: it is necessary to “revive” and develop their ethnical languages. The “popular opinion” is equated with the opinion of nationally oriented intelligentsia. Is it always correct? The loss of the ethnical language can be considered as forced but advantageous situation. A conflict takes place; one Irish linguist writes about it: situations of the preserving of the ethnical languages can be good for the languages themselves but they can be bad for their speakers as persons, especially from the point of their material welfare [13]. J. Edwards points out that many people have painful dilemmas: to loose their language or to live in a backward rural life [14].

At any rate the purposeful state policy for the preserving of the not numerous languages of Russia is necessary. We had this policy in the 1920-1930s, its inertia existed some years later. Now such policy does not exist at least at the federal level. And it is necessary to understand that this policy must act against the market laws: these laws by themselves favor the supplanting of not numerous languages by Russian. We do not want to say that it is impossible to preserve not numerous languages under the market economy. However such measures are social acting against the market but the social trend is not peculiar to the state policy of the modern Russia.

  1. Казакевич О. Кетский язык // Письменные языки мира. Языки Российской Федерации. Социолингвистическая энциклопедия. Книга 2. М., 2003, с.251-252. [ back ]
  2. Казакевич О. Селькупский язык // Там же, с.482-483. [ back ]
  3. Шабаев Ю.П. Языковая ситуация и этноязыковая проблема в Коми-Пермяцком автономном округе // Языковые проблемы Российской Федерации и законы о языках. М., 1994, с.232. [ back ]
  4. Казакевич О. Селькупский язык, с.483. [ back ]
  5. Николаева И. Юкагирский язык // Там же, с.754. [ back ]
  6. Humphrey C. “Janus-Faced Signs” – the Political Language of a Soviet Minority before Glasnost // Social Anthropology and the Policy of Language. London; N.Y., 1989. [ back ]
  7. Парфенова О. Мансийский язык // Там же, с.306. [ back ]
  8. Вахтин Н.Б. Языки народов Севера в ХХ веке. Очерки языкового сдвига. Санкт-Петербург, 2001, с.284. [ back ]
  9. Бурыкин А.А. Язык малочисленного народа в его письменной форме. Социолингвистический и собственно лингвистический аспекты. СПб., 2004, с.48. [ back ]
  10. Алпатов В.М. Япония: язык и общество. М., 2003, с.23-32. [ back ]
  11. Skutnabb-Kangas T. Bilingualism or Not. The Education of Minorities. Clevedon, 1983, p.66-67. [ back ]
  12. Edwards J. Multilingualism. London – New York, 1994, p.208. [ back ]
  13. Ahlqvist A. Language Conflict and Language Planning in Ireland // Language Conflict and Language Planning. Berlin – New York, 1993, p.16. [ back ]
  14. Edwards J., p.107. [ back ]

Translation provided by the author

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