Monday, September 5, 2016

Arabic Vies with Russian as Language of Interethnic Communication in Highland Daghestan

Paul Goble

            Staunton, September 5 – Often remarks made in passing are the most significant in many articles, and so it is with one offered by Mikhail Roshchin’s report about his recent visit to highland Daghestan, where he notes, the population is overwhelmingly Muslim and Arabic vies with Russian as the language of interethnic communication among many ethnic groups.

            Daghestan is a republic where most people speak more than one language and often several because the individual groups are too small to allow them to develop in isolation.  In the past, there have been a succession of “common” languages – Arabic, Chagatay Turkish, Persian and Russian – but most observers had assumed that Arabic was no longer playing that role.

            What makes Roschin’s observation so striking is that since the 1930s, Soviet and then Russian officials did what they could to wipe out the use of Arabic especially in daily life and that both did so much to promote Russian over not only Arabic but other languages of Daghestan via education and the mass media as the only way to rise in Soviet/Russian society.

            In his article, posted on the Kavkazoved portal today, Roshchin reports on his visit to the Tsumadin district of Daghestan, one in the northern part of the republic in which approximately 24,500 people live all of whom are by passport Avars (

            But in reality, he says, there are alongside the Avars, five other nationalities who speak distinct languages. These “local non-Avar languages,” he reports, “are very much alive and deeply rooted in the population. All of them are non-literary in practice, but people in the villages know them better than they do Avar or Russian.

            “Typically,” Roshchin says, “residents speak several local languages” but “in view of the fact that this district is a zone enmeshed in Muslim culture from all sides, Arabic is also widely used.” And that is true despite the absence of schools and official media in it and despite official pressure for people to learn Russian.

            There are only schools in Russian in the district, he continues, and Avar is taught as a separate subject. That is intended to make Russian the dominant language of interethnic communication. Moreover, most residents have to work outside the region, typically in south Russia, the mass media is most only Russian, and one must speak Russian to get a better job.

            But other languages nonetheless remain important. Avars retain their language despite the small number of hours – two per week – that it is offered in the schools. They do so in part because there are some Avar broadcasts on radio and television but mostly because of social pressures, Roshchin suggests.

            Other local languages, which are not literary in the normal sense are also “very much alive and in the villages, they are the chief means of communication. Given that teachers in the schools “as a rule” are from the local areas, they know these languages and often give explanations in them even in nominally Russian classes.

            In Daghestan as a whole, school instruction is now provided in 14 languages, up from 11 a few years ago.  The three new ones – Agul, Rutul, and Tsakhur – now have separate status rather than being viewed as part of Lezgin; and that status is helping to promote the strengthening of separate national identities among those who speak them.

            Then Roshchin says the following: “Despite the large linguistic spectrum and poly-ethnicity [of Daghestan as a whole, the republic] is integrated into the unified field of Arab-Muslim culture and therefore here the role of Arabic has always been quite large.”  That was much commented upon in the early Soviet period but has not been recently.

            Beginning at the end of the 1930s, the Soviet state tried to wipe out Arabic.  It closed mosques where that language was used, forcing those who wanted to retain it to train young people secretly. That they did, and “Arabic has survived. Today it is quit widely used in the district especially among the young” as a language of interethnic communication.

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