Sunday, September 21, 2014

Window on Eurasia: Can a Pensioner Revive One of Russia’s Smallest Dying Languages?

Paul Goble


            Staunton, September 21 – Many of the smaller languages in the Russian Federation are dying, with the United Nations and other institutions saying that they will die out in a generation or less. But one pensioner who grew up speaking Entsy is fighting the trend and seeking to revive a language now spoken by only 150 people.


            The Entsy  now number fewer than 300 people and live near the mouth of the Yenisey River in northern Siberia are close to the Nentsy and Nganasans in language and culture. Indeed, they were not treated as a separate nationality until the 1930s when Soviet ethnogrqpaher G.N. Prokofyev identified them as such, using the word for human being in the Ents dialect to do so.


            But even after they received that status, they were treated as part of the Nentsy nationality and counted as members of that group or of the Nganasans. The Entsy language is subdivided into two dialects, the Madu and Bay, reflecting the division between those who live on the tundra and those who live in the taiga.


            The future of the group as a distinct nationality and language community is not bright, but one Entsy pensioner, Zoya Bolina, is fighting back. The 64-year-old former teacher has prepared a picture book to help teach young Entsy to take pride in and thus speak their native language (


            The child of nomadic herders in the Taymyr, she spoke Entsy at home, but when she was enrolled in the local internat school, she spoke Russian and only Russian and rapidly forgot many of the words she had known, Bolina says. She then became a teacher in the first classes where she was not able to use her language as much as she would like.


            Entsy, she says, despite having been spoken for a millennium or more, is in danger of disappearing.  The first Entsy dictionary appeared only two years ago, and her new picture book, prepared jointly with an Entsy Ivan Sikin and a Dolgan Vasily Batagay, is intended to keep the language alive.


            Bolina says that when she was growing up, she spoke only Entsy, although she says she understood without difficulty Nentsy. In school, however, the teachers taught “only Russian.” The children weren’t prohibited from speaking their native languages, but few of them did so because “this simply didn’t come into their heads.”


            Now, at least, Entsy pupils have the chance to study their native language but only as an elective. But Bolina is encouraged by the formation of Entsy language groups in kindergartens, and her new picture book is directed primarily at them. She believes that if they retain Entsy, then the language and the nation will survive.


            Even “if Entsy isn’t particularly needed by anyone,” she says, “we can speak our native language among ourselves.”  And in support of that idea and the possibility that it will lead to the revival of one of Russia’s smallest languages, she invokes the Event saying that “Togo dugeye achin!” – “fire doesn’t have an end.”



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