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The amazing endangered languages of Russia

Despite nods to diversity in Sochi, more than 130 different languages in the country are now imperiled, say experts

Globe staff

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.


Today, linguists say, the Putin regime’s inattention to non-Russian languages could be a less dramatic but no less sure path to widespread language loss. Despite Russia’s lip-service to diversity in Sochi, its actual languages are being gradually starved out.

In the North Caucasus alone, the languages spoken by ethnic minorities represent a confounding diversity of human knowledge. Two major language families appear here and nowhere else in the world—the Northwest Caucasian languages, including the Circassian languages, like Kabardian, and Ubykh; and the Northeast Caucasian languages, including Chechen, Ingush, and many Dagestani languages. All the Caucasian languages are highly complex in grammar and syntax, with up to 81 consonants, sounds articulated in many different parts of the mouth (the Dagestani languages use 11 parts of the mouth as opposed to the usual five), and widely varied case systems, according to
McMaster University linguist John
Colarusso, who has been studying them since the ’60s.

“What’s so strange about the Caucasus is it violates what we think of ‘areal linguistics,’” Colarusso said, referring to the way neighboring languages, even if they’re not related historically, often develop similar attributes over time. While the other languages in the region—of Semitic, Turkic, and Indo-European origin—have tended to adopt elements of Caucasian languages, the Caucasian languages themselves remain stubbornly unique. This reflects, Colarusso thinks, a fierce and embattled sense of ethnic pride: “Language serves as a very clear badge of identity. And they have to adopt some badge of identity to live.”


Sochi itself was once the home of several different languages, including Circassian, Ubykh, and Abkhaz, until Russia ethnically cleansed much of the local population and deported the rest to Turkey between 1860 and 1864. Circassian languages and dialects are still spoken in Russia and in diaspora communities in Turkey, the Middle East, and America. But Ubykh was declared extinct in 1992, although Colarusso says there are still some old Turkish villagers who speak it.

Language rights have been bitterly political in Russia as far back as the medieval czars, who developed a Russification policy meant to standardize culture, religion, and language across their vast territories. After the Revolution, the Soviets at first attempted to change course: In the 1920s, Joseph Stalin’s “nationalities policy” provided Latin alphabets to languages that had never had them before and added supplementary instruction programs in certain languages (along with Russian) up to the college level. Compared with US or Canadian Native policies at the time, says Kevin Tuite, a linguistic anthropologist at the University of Montreal, this had benefits: “One could even make the claim that perhaps the Soviet system kept [indigenous] languages in better health than they might have been otherwise.”

By the ’30s, though, concerned about various nationalities spinning out of control as the economy tanked, Stalin began imposing harsher restrictions. Soviet linguists Russianized languages like Tatar, removing Arabic and Persian loan words and inserting Russian loan words instead. In 1938, Stalin required languages that had been given Latin scripts in the ’20s to be Cyrillicized. And of course, he deported many ethnic minority populations entirely.


Today, some Soviet-era protections for ethnic languages remain in place: The Russian constitution asserts everyone’s right “to use his or her native language, to a free choice of the language of communication, upbringing, education and creative work.” But as with many stated rights in Russia, little is done to guarantee it. There’s no active pro-Russian policy, as there was under the czars or the Soviets—simply a slow creep of money away from education budgets and new laws reinforcing Cyrillic orthography and the use of Russian in classrooms. Some is done in response to demand—many speakers of minority languages desperately want to learn Russian and fear being left out of the economy—but much of it suggests political expediency and a basic disregard for small language groups. “If you look at the thrust of Putin’s policies, they are leading to significant cuts in the amount of money available for a lot of the smaller languages, and some of those are going to die as a result,” says Paul Goble, a Eurasia specialist and former State Department adviser.

While not as fragile as the languages of Siberia, many of the Caucasian languages have dwindling numbers of native speakers—tiny pockets up in the Dagestani hills speaking Archi (about 1,000 speakers, according to UNESCO), Hunzib (1,839), or Tindi (about 6,000). Others are larger in number, like Kabardian or Chechen, but are threatened either by the dominance of Russia in the public sphere or by security and economic issues. “It’s as bad as it’s ever been in [the North Caucasus],” says Victor Friedman, a Slavic language specialist at the University of Chicago who travels regularly to Dagestan.


And yet the linguists I spoke to described a palpable energy among young people when it comes to language preservation, especially online. “The old people say, I’ll just go on with my life, run the tailor shop or be the pharmacist or whatever,” Colarusso said. “But...the young people...want to retain it in some form.” The Sochi Olympics, although they may have glossed over painful history, could even galvanize revitalization, he said. For the moment, however, any efforts on that front—like a recent movement to resurrect Ubykh, the lost language of Sochi—seem to be in the hands of the Caucasians themselves, without support from Moscow.

Britt Peterson is a writer in Washington, D.C.