Speaking in Tongues?
Text by Scott Spires; illustration Nika Harrison
Walk around one of the Moscow markets. If your Russian’s good enough, you should be able to understand at least some of what the sellers are saying. But even a good understanding of Russian might not clear up another source of confusion: the chance that you won’t understand anything at all when the traders begin talking not to you, but to each other. Because there’s a good chance that they are not speaking Russian at all, but some other language that you can’t identify, or didn’t even know existed.
Ex-pats who find learning Russian difficult may not know, or care, that there are more than 100 other languages spoken in this country. They represent the whole spectrum of language groups in Eurasia: Indo-European, Finno-Ugric, Turkic, Mongolic, Caucasian.
In a certain sense, therefore, the Russian Federation can be viewed as a “linguistic preserve”, a habitat for specimens of many of the world’s language families. Although Russian is the only federally-recognized language, the country’s constituent entities grant 24 other languages official status. Some of these languages, such as Tatar, Yakut and Buryat, have sizeable speech communities numbering the hundreds of thousands, or even more. But occasional signs of liveliness conceal the fact that Russia’s linguistic preserve is in danger of turning effectively monolingual within a couple of generations. The Russian language is similar to English, Spanish, and Portuguese in its status as an imperial language, covering a vast region and eroding smaller, pre-existing speech communities.
In fact, the process of language death has been going on in Russia for centuries; the land itself attests to this. Many of the place names of northern Russia (such as Lake Ilmen and the Neva River, and arguably “Moskva” as well) are derived from Finno-Ugric dialects that died out, or migrated elsewhere, long ago. Many languages of Siberia or the Caucasus have disappeared, or are in severe danger of doing so. They include such curiosities as Ubykh, spoken long ago in the Krasnodar Region, which had a jaw-breaking 81 consonants and only three vowels; the Tungusic languages, which are related to the speech of the Manchus, who conquered China and produced its last imperial dynasty; and the Ob-Ugrian languages, spoken by a few thousand people in western Siberia who are the closest linguistic relatives to the Hungarians, thousands of miles away.
An acquaintance with Russia’s linguistic archeology thus gives us a range of perspectives on Eurasia’s history and geography that we might otherwise miss. For instance, it may seem strange to consider that today’s thoroughly European Hungarians are part of the same language family as the shamanists of the Ob-Irtysh forests; but no stranger than to realize that Londoners and Parisians every day speak the same root words—day, night, sun; mother, father; one, two, three— as members of isolated hill tribes in the Indian subcontinent.
This situation raises a couple of questions. The first is whether these minority languages can be saved. The second is whether they ought to be saved. There is no clear answer to either of these questions.
The best region for understanding the threats to small languages in Russia is probably Siberia. 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 the survivability of a language. Siberians live sparsely scattered across a vast territory, which makes communication in the form of 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. A striking example of long-term survival on the head of a pin, as it were, is furnished by Archi, a language of Dagestan. Archi is 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 withering of some languages. 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.
This brings us to another fact that language romanticists seldom mention: the speakers themselves often see little value in holding on to the language. For them, there is nothing exotic in their native language, because it’s a familiar everyday presence. And its connotations can be anything but romantic. Instead of conjuring up ghosts of ancient wisdom and cultural tradition, it suggests poverty, backwardness, and a restricted life. Viewed from that perspective, there is no mystery why many people find the attractions of the major world languages irresistible.
Arguably, however, 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 on. The 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 Russia. 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.