Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Can the Circassian Language and the People who Speak It Be Saved?

Paul Goble

            Staunton, December 14 – Two new reports suggest the Circassian language is now at risk of extinction in the coming decades and the North Caucasian nation of those who speak it has entered into a period of demographic decline and could also disappear in the future, prompting their supporters to consider new defenses.

            UNESCO has identified Circassian as one of the languages in the North Caucasus at risk of “completely disappearing in the next few decades” given the already low number of people who speak it in that region, the division of the community, and the absence of the use of Circassian in schools and other public spaces (

            Activists in Adygeya have called on the republic’s leaders to adopt a special law to preserve the Circassian language.  Such a law would reverse a 2007 measure that ended the obligatory study of the language in republic schools. That measure by itself would not necessarily help the far larger number of Circassians living in Turkey and the Middle East.

            The Circassians in Turkey are urbanizing and assimilating; those in the Middle East except in Israel are doing the same. As a result, they are rapidly ceasing to speak their native language and thus may cease to identify with the nation that has spoken it for centuries. Adding to the language’s problems are fights over alphabets.

            Most in Turkey favor the Latin script while officials in the North Caucasus favor Cyrillic. The Russian Cyrillic is inadequate for the sound system of Circassian, but most textbooks now available are in Cyrillic; and the Turkish government has done very little to develop educational materials in Circassian in the Latin script.

            One Georgian expert on the Circasssian language says that there is a way out of this difficult situation in which the Circassian language now finds itself: repatriation to a united homeland in the North Caucasus, something Moscow opposes, and intensified study of Circassian by all, “on the model of the Israeli diaspora.”

            A  second report notes that the Circassians, “once one of the largest peoples of the North Caucasus” no longer have that status but instead are divided internally and between the small population in the homeland and a much larger diaspora abroad (

                According to Anzor Daur, a Circassian activist, “the Circassians today are in a deep demographic crisis connected with a sharp fall in fertility and thus a lowering of the share of Circassians in the general population of the North Caucasus.”

            In 1986, there were more than 17 births for every 1000 Circassians and fewer than 11 deaths. By 2000, the number of deaths per 1,000 had risen to more than 15 while the number of births had fallen to nine.  In the years since, he suggests, the situation has not fundamentally charged for the better.

            Daur spoke with two activists about the current crisis. Adam Bogus of the Adygeya Adyge Khase group, said that in his republic, the number of deaths among Circassians now exceeds the number of births by 700 to 900 each year and that most marriages break down before producing a replacement level of children.

            The Circassian situation is much worse than that of other North Caucasian peoples, he said. On the one hand, they are divided and half fewer hopes for the future; and on the other, they have higher aspirations for their children and are less affected by Islam and consequently increasingly choose to have fewer children.

            And asker Sokh said that the demographic crisis has hit the Circassians hardest in the Russian North Caucasus, less in Turkey, and hardly at all in Jordan and Syria where Circassian families have three or four children. He said he was especially concerned by rising levels of mortality among the North Caucasus Circassians, the result of alcoholism among older people.

            Many had expected that the recovery of Islam after Soviet times would contribute to a boost in the birthrate among Circassians, he continued; but young Circassians have been much less affected by Muslim precepts than have their counterparts in other non-Russian groups in the North Caucasus.

            In the hopes of reversing these trends, Circassians have pressed for uniting their territories into a single republic and for allowing their co-nationals to return to their homeland. Moscow opposes both as it does expanded education in Circassian in Adygeya and other Circassian republics.

            But that has not stopped Circassian activists from searching for means of salvation, and two interesting developments surfaced this week. First of all, the Adygey language has now become a participant in the international language-learning program Book2 (

                That program allows Circassians and others as well to study Circassian in any of the 49 other languages in this program, including English, Turkish, Arabic and Russian. (The Natpress portal provides links to these programs for those who would like to begin.) The Circassian program was developed in the North Caucasus and is directed at the diaspora population.

            A second development may prove even more interesting. At the end of last month, the Circassians of Iraq joined with the Chechens and Daghestanis there to form a common organization, Caucasus, to press the authorities to address their concerns much as Christians did earlier (

                The group has already called for a special law on their status.  What makes this intriguing is that the Circassians of Iraq who are outnumbered by both the Chechens and Daghestanis – the three groups as a whole total about 15,000 -- are seeking to use the larger numbers of the others to leverage their position with the state.

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