Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Can a Language and Culture Survive When There are No Native Speakers Left?

Paul Goble

            Staunton, January 10 – The Livs, whose last native speaker died three years ago, are nonetheless keeping their language and even more their culture alive via social organizations and the Internet, an indication that some of the numerically small peoples in the Russian Federation may, Moscow’s intentions notwithstanding, be able to do the same thing.

            The Livs, who currently number no more than 200, are seldom the focus of much attention; but as is often the case in cultural anthropology, the examples of the smallest peoples are often more instructive about cultural change and possibilities than are the larger nations around them.

            And that makes a new publication by Roland Papp, a Hungarian-born scholar, about the Livs and efforts to maintain their language and culture especially useful and even valuable (deepbaltic.com/2017/01/09/keeping-alive-an-extinct-language-the-finno-ugric-tongue-of-latvias-remote-fishing-villages/).

            The Livs traditionally lived in the northwest corner of what is now Latvia on the so-called Livonian Coast. There are 12 villages where they lived more centuries, but because of battles during World War I and Soviet actions after World War II, most of them were dispersed to other parts of Latvia and have not returned.

            As Papp points out, “The Livonian language is related to Estonian, Finnish, Hungarian, and other Finno-Ugric languages,” but “the few remaining speakers of Livonian learned it as their second or third language.” And as of now, he says, “there are certainly no more than a handful with any level of fluency.

The Livs, he continues, “prospered due to strong economic development in the 10th-13th centuries before Christianity arrived to the Baltics; theirs was an oral culture, without a written language. Livs were a minority for centuries, and evidence suggests that even as early as the 13th century they composed only 20% of the inhabitants of the region.”

As a consequence, he says, “bilingualism was widespread and the language was heavily influenced by Latvian, not only on the level of vocabulary, but also phonetics and grammar, such as the dative and instrumental case of Livonian. But linguistic impact was never unidirectional: Latvian displays a strong influence from Livonian as well.”

Estonian and Latvian began to be standardized when missionaries translated Christian texts into those languages in the 16th century; but this process began among the Livs only in the 19th, when most Livs were bilingual and when visitors to the region were already suggesting that “Livonian was practically an extinct language.”

The first grammars were prepared by non-Livonians, “mostly Finns or Estonians,” Rapp says. And the first books in Livonian were published abroad, often in St. Petersburg or London, and never reached the Livs or did so in microscopically small numbers and had less impact than their authors and compilers hoped for.

After Latvian independence in 1918, the Livs experienced a national revival. “The institutionalization of Livonian cultural life took place rapidly … The Livonian Society (Livõd Īt) was established in 1923 … The Livonian national flag was created the same year [and] the Livonian national anthem was written to the same melody as the Finnish and Estonian anthems.”

But Rapp points out, “as a result of the lack of a sizeable number of “consumers” for these cultural products, the Livonian community relied heavily on outside donors. This was a time when Finland and Estonia, as newly independent countries, had more possibilities to help Livs and other small “relatives.”

And that provides the most important lesson of all, he suggests: “Despite earnest efforts of the interwar era, the language was already doomed, relegated only to a few spheres of life. While the language was a fundamental carrier of cultural heritage and traditions, it was not the most important or widespread mean of communication.”

Moreover, because “the cultural project of saving the Livonian people and their way of life was not a political project, and thus remained marginalised; given the fact that it relied very much on foreign donors, it was not a nationalist project as such, but rather an ethnographic project to ensure the survival of the nation.

“With glasnost and the restoration of Baltic independence, the purpose of Livonian changed for its users. Most native speakers had died, and the ones still alive in their old age lived in mixed families. People who wanted to use the language were almost entirely native Latvian speakers, so its use was restricted to cultural realms, such as choirs.”

Riga officially recognized the Livs as a historical nation in 1991 and sponsored summer camps and some courses in the language. Moreover, Livonian language studies are now possible in Riga and Tartu, but as Rapp notes, “linguistic study of a language is quite different from learning it for colloquial use.”

The Internet has begun to play a key role, featuring Livonian recordings and instructional materials.  Livones.net  provides materials about the Livs in English, Livonian and Latvian. There are now Facebook pages to help language students (facebook.com/livuval/?fref=ts), and YouTube channels to attract young people to the Livs (youtube.com/watch?v=--29AtoNARc&index=2&list=PLS8BEenNfW0o_oAbD8p_QIM4SHfRhF0sR).

“Since the Livonian language and culture has been teetering on the edge of extinction for centuries,” Rapp concludes, “the possibility of a re-established and thriving Livonian-speaking community may seem fantastical.” But “if there is active engagement from the few remaining ethnic Livs, as well as outside support, [they] will undoubtedly survive -- although perhaps not in the way we might expect.”

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