A Reluctant Babel

In an increasingly globalised world, linguistic diversity provides one of the most potent reminders of difference. A perennial resource for conflict, language barriers are an inevitable test of tolerance. As the world’s largest nation, Russia’s multitude of languages – from Abaza to Itlemen, Kabarda to Yukagir – is a veritable Babel. Yet, it would appear, an increasingly reluctant one.

UNESCO’s Red Book of Endangered Languages holds an alarming prognosis for the future of Russia’s minority languages in the historically multicultural Volga Region, where every non-Russian language save for Tatar is seen as in some way endangered. Whilst Muslim peoples such as the Tatars and Bashkirs had a religious barrier to linguistic assimilation, there is still the lingering sense in Kazan that Tatar may move from National Language to National Heritage before its time. Whilst the rural areas of Tatarstan and Bashkortostan are overwhelmingly Tatar and Bashkir-speaking in daily life, the death of rural life in Russia does not make these non-Russian environments particularly popular places for young Tatars to build their futures, regardless of the evident respect they may hold for the traditional villages and their way of life.

Russian serves as a kind of Janus language, simultaneously the cultural expression of ethnic Russians, and the glue that holds the many peoples of the Russian Federation together. Tsagana, an ethnic Kalmyk student, justified her lack of enthusiasm for the Mongolic Kalmyk language with the assertion that “Russian contains many words of Turkic and non-Russian origin, so speaking it is proving that Russia is a multicultural state.” To paraphrase James Nicoll, “[Russian] doesn’t just borrow words- on occasion it has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary.”

On the subject of language death, Eamon de Valera was once asked if he would have an English ruled but entirely Irish-speaking Ireland, or a free yet English-speaking Ireland. He responded without a shadow of a doubt that he would prefer the former, for “Would not an Irish Ireland inevitably become a Free Ireland?”

With this in mind, perhaps the oddest development in Russia has been the redefinition of the public space as a Russian-speaking zone. Whilst the existence of a lingua franca to unite those divided by diversity has been a feature of all multilingual societies, never before has it been so pervasive. Alexandre Dumas wrote in his letters from the North Caucasus that Tatar served as the lingua franca of the dozens of different ethnic groups in the area. Russian has now replaced it, the crucial difference being that Russian is the language of a state, and carries with it the possibilities of contact with more than just other North Caucasians.

An ethnic Kabardian student mentioned that she “did not like when teachers speak in Kabardian, as many of the Russian students don’t understand.” Russian in public, Kabardian at home. The plaques on government buildings in Nalchik are trilingual (Kabardian, Balkar, and Russian.) Yet there is the sensation that speaking Kabardian- a language that is truly a testament to the dynamism of the human oesophagus- remains something done behind closed doors, a cryptolect between friends and family. As its use becomes restricted to smaller and smaller social circles, the necessity of maintaining strong family ties and marrying other speakers becomes more and more urgent – reinforcing a link between the language and conservative social values which younger speakers may not want as part of their lives.

Poster by the Udmurt language activist group Udmurtyk.

Grandma speaks Tatar, Chuvash, or Udmurt. The Udmurt-speaking Babushki in Russia’s Eurovision entry are a cursory nod to this transition – to a future in which such languages become simply an odd indulgence rather than the working speech of a culture and way of life. There are many Russified Tatars, Chuvash, and Mari who can ‘understand, but not speak’ the language. The question begins in Tatar, and the answer ricochets back in Russian. These languages are if anything testament to the idea that it does not matter how many speak a language, but how many do. Chuvash is classified as a moribund language, despite it’s having over one million speakers. Among young people, it is a language listened to, but rarely spoken. As more and more young Tatars, Bashkir, and Chuvash begin to favour Russian over their national languages (an incessant topic among many Tatars – in the 1930s, the Tatar writer Ğayaz Ishaqi having written a pamphlet predicting the death of the Tatar nation in two centuries,) so national identity begins to attempt to redefine itself without reference to the national language.

Cultural events become accessible in both languages to the extent that ironically, being a culturally aware Tatar or Bashkir can be an equally enjoyable experience through the medium of Russian. These reluctant ‘passive speakers’ are those who are the targets of language revitalisation projects. In the case of some languages such as Abaza, Ingush or Kabardian, rightly called some of the most complex in the world, they may simply be unteachable except for the most motivated and dedicated of students. The Komi Permian language, for example, has some eighteen noun cases – a kind of grammatical suicide given that no amount of emotional feeling for the language as that of one’s ancestors can provide the linguistic aptitude necessary to learn such a language without any prior knowledge.

Some, however, are dismissive of such concern. Leysan Khasanova, owner of a Tatar music shop in Tatarstan’s capital of Kazan, is confident that “Tatar will always be spoken on the streets of Kazan,” before pointing out that many young Tatars prefer to speak in Russian amongst each other, and that her own children are not proficient in the language. A peculiar statement to make for a member of a people whose unofficial national anthem is the song, Tuğan Tel (“Mother tongue”). The oddest justification for this state of affairs is also the most commonly heard. A justification which the author has heard from Karachai, Kabardian, Tatar and Mari speakers. In layman’s terms, it’s the idea that ‘not speaking Russian in public is rude, because people who don’t speak our language may think we are talking about them.’

Not only does this convey the automatic association of a threat with the minority language in question. It becomes even more confused when contrasted with English. Speaking English on the streets of provincial cities in Russia somehow does not fall into this labyrinthine logic. The irony – and it is a testament to Brits and Americans abroad – is that the English-speakers in question are far more likely to be insulting about their surroundings than the Chuvash speaker whose alienation of Russians with his language is seen as a threat or insult.

Regarding the mother tongue as something firmly tongue in cheek is surely the first step on the road to some radical shift in the linguistic landscape, one which in Russia is not nearly as bleak and uniform as the country is pictured. It is easy, and many do, levying the blame for an increasingly difficult sociolinguistic situation on the Russian government. It is equally tempting as Westerners to give this position more credence than it deserves. Nevertheless, the first step in the struggle to save minority languages is simply to speak them.

"Miy Marla Oylem" ('I Speak Mari'). Mari El, 2012.

Alyena Ivanova, a Mari language journalist and activist, is proud of the fact that her “entire professional and personal life is conducted in Mari.” This certainly is a remarkable achievement for a language which UNESCO believes faces some serious problems over the coming decades. Yet, the fact remains that Ivanova is only able to do so because her career is intricately linked with Mari cultural and linguistic activities. The day when a factory worker or forester in Mari El can live his life and access all the services he needs completely through the medium of the Mari language is a long way off, if in sight at all. The Irish writer Flann O’Brien wrote in his novel The Poor Mouth of the arrival of Gaelic-language enthusiasts in the protagonist’s impoverished rural village. “‘What,’” they ask, “‘is the point of speaking Gaelic unless one uses it exclusively to discuss Gaelic matters, Gaelically?'” The danger in making the daily use of minority languages an over-politicised issue can be alienating.

A sense of awareness is growing, however, as wider accessibility of technology makes speakers of minority languages able to communicate with each other in ways never before experienced. A Tatar version of Windows (misspelt, people point out, yet Tatar nonetheless) and options for a good many of Russia’s state languages on Russia’s chief social networking site vKontakte are just two reasons for optimism; an attempt to ‘rebrand’ minority languages as something spoken by people other than grandmothers in dying villages (although credit should of course be given to the grandmothers where credit is due.) This is in part a reaction against an education system which, while providing for speakers of minority languages, does little to encourage them. Bashkir language television appears to be the kind of entertainment only shown to captive audiences on aeroplanes. Dynamism, and at least some recognition that a cringeworthy attempt to ingratiate the language with ‘the youth’ is sorely needed.

Grassroots movements have begun to make a demand for linguistic preservation in the Russian Federation. A good journalist is by necessity unnecessarily sceptical of his subject matter. Nonetheless, I find fewer reasons to be than I would have supposed. Tatarstan is home to the Üzebez movement, which organises impromptu street festivals of Tatar music and cheerfully distributes stickers of the Tatar letter Ә, which smiles and declares Min Tatarşa söyləşəm! (“I speak Tatar!”) The attentive may see the letter Ә smiling back at them from shop windows across Kazan – a green light to show that within lies a Tatar-speaking environment. It has been a moderately successful campaign, and attempts to find its leading figures to interview were as fruitless as Russian cuisine in winter. In retrospect, that is perhaps testament to its true success as a real grassroots movement.

Neighbouring republics have also lovingly plagiarised the Üzebez strategy, and the Tatars are pleased to let them. Since 2011, a small number of shops in Mari El’s capital of Yoshkar-Ola bear the Mari letter Ӧ, shouting out Miy Marla öylem, (“I speak Mari!”), whilst in neighbouring Bashkortostan, Min Başqortsa höyləşəm! (“I speak Bashkir!”) is the slogan of choice. Further credence to the belief of linguist Edward Sapir that two people proficient in the same language – one having had it imposed on them and the other having learnt it of their own free will – may as well be complete strangers to one another. These grassroots movements could be interpreted either as a sign of belief in failure of the education systems, or simply working alongside them to encourage language use outside the classroom. Either way, the summer in Russia is hot and intense, its glory quickly buried under metres of snow. Whether these movements have laid the seeds to flower again for future generations remains to be seen.

Photographs courtesy of the author


  1. The article presents quite well the overall situation, but several statements are doubtful, inaccurate or even untrue.

    For example, about Chuvash the author says that “Chuvash is classified as a moribund language, despite it’s having over one million speakers. Among young people, it is a language listened to, but rarely spoken.” UNESCO classifies Chuvash as “vulnerable” ( http://www.unesco.org/culture/languages-atlas/ ). I agree it should be classified as “definitive endangered”, but, as the author implicitly says, it’s a contradiction in terms stating that a language with a million speakers is moribund. It’s untrue also that there aren’t young people who speak it: the author, based in Kazan, could go to a Chuvash village in Tatarstan and could see that himself. Nevertheless it’s true that almost only young people from villages (not the ones from the cities) speak it and that they tend to use it more with older people than between them. There’s no doubt that the language is endangered (although politicians and most of the population don’t want to believe it), but it’s almost impossible that it will fully disappear in one or two generations.

    I also would like to point that a language with 18 declinations or 18 prepositions can be learnt at school. Of course it can, as any language can be learnt if there’s the right environment is created, for instance using a language immersion programme. The problem does not lay in the grammatical structure of the language but in the society, which is not willing or able to create the language immersion schools in order that the new generations learn the languages their parents couldn’t.

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