At the Opening Ceremony on Feb. 7 for the Sochi Winter Olympics, Russia’s self-portrait in pageant form included trippy floating onion domes, dead-eyed stuffed bears, singing policemen, and monumental disembodied heads. But it also included a brief look at Russia’s many ethnic minorities: a Disney-ish parade of men and women in traditional garb, holding hands in a circle. According to the New Republic, the Russian announcer boasted of “180 nations, each with their own culture and language.”
What the announcer didn’t mention is that many of those languages are under serious threat. UNESCO’s 2010 Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger lists more than 130 Russian languages, placing an overwhelming portion of the country’s minority languages at least in the “vulnerable” category. The North Caucasus region near Sochi is a particularly dramatic example both of linguistic diversity—more than 40 languages are still spoken there—and language endangerment. In fact, Ubykh, the language that gave Sochi its name (it derives from an Ubykh word for “seaside”), is now extinct, mostly wiped out when the Russians brutally subdued the region in the 19th century.