Friday, March 22, 2013

Window on Eurasia: 136 National Languages Now at Risk in Russia, UNESCO Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, March 22 – Some 136 national languages of the Russian Federation are at or already beyond “the edge of extinction,” according to UNESCO. Many of these languages are subgroups of others, but the danger of disappearance exists for groups as large as Avars, Bashkirs and Chechens.

            According to the United Nations body, 20 languages in the Russian Federation are already extinct, including most prominently Ainu in the Pacific islands and Ubykh in the North Caucasus. Another 22 are in “critical condition” and in imminent danger of disappearing. They include groups like the Itelmen and the Nivkh (
            Twenty-nine more languages, the UN body continues, are under “serious threat.”  They include Buryat, Evenk, Karel, Koryaks, and Weps. Forty-nine others, including Yiddish, Udmurt and Kalmyk, are approaching that barrier. And another 20, including Bashkir, Tuvin, Ingush, and Avar, are a matter of concern.
(For a complete list of all the languages at risk in the Russian Federation and elsewhere as well and for the UNESCO definitions of its categories and the nine measures it employed in evaluating the status of languages around the world, see
            As UNESCO experts make clear, the vitality of languages is a reflection of the availability of textbooks in those languages, the attitudes of speakers and of those around them to such languages, and especially the level of government support for the languages of national minorities as well as the lingua franca of the population as a whole.
            Both the Soviet and Russian governments have promoted the study of Russian by all residents of the country, but in Soviet times, Moscow provided a great deal of support for minority languages if never as much as many of them would have liked. But now under Vladiimir Putin, the pendulum has swung against them, and more languages are at risk.

             The Russian president has called the Russian language “the basis of unity of the country” and not just “the language of inter-national communication.  And he has urged “the broadening of support for the Russian language” and its further “popularization in all regions of Russia,” including non-Russian republics and elsewhere where non-Russian speakers live.

            Moreover, the Duma has approved, although the Federation Council has not yet acted upon, a measure that would increase the amount of Russian taught in the non-Russian republics almost certainly at the expense of the non-Russian languages of the republics. Non-Russians elsewhere would have even fewer opportunities to defend the study their own tongues.

            Throughout history, languages have died as their speakers either die out or are assimilated into larger linguistic communities.  That process appears to be accelerating around the world, with linguists predicting the extinction of many languages spoken by relatively small communities in the coming decades.

            But the consequences of this process both for those who speak these languages and for those interested in human development should not be dismissed out of hand. Sometimes, those who join a larger language community do have better life chances than otherwise would have been the case, but their loss of community is inevitably deeply felt.

            Some idea of how it feels to be a member of a nation that is losing its language and thus access to much of its past and to a sense of community is provided this week in an article by Musa Akhmedov a Lezgin poet from Daghestan’s Khasavyurt district (

            “It isn’t a secret for anyone,” he writes, “that one of the sharpest problems of the present-day is the insufficient attention which is devoted to native languages. Like all the peoples of Daghestan, the Lezgins already for ten to fifteen years (at a minimum) have been suffering from this ‘disease.’”

            Younger people aren’t learning it as well as their parents, a reflection of the impact of mass culture, almost all of it delivered in Russian, the decline in state support for non-Russian languages since Soviet times, and the failure of Lezgin parents to speak Lezgin at home and ensure that their children learn their national language.

            These forces mean, the poet continues, that young people not only are cut off from the cultural treasures available only in their native language but have few defenses when they are bombarded by the messages of “contemporary ‘culture’” in the form of Russian-language television.
            Under these circumstances, the best that the Lezgins can hope for is to rely on themselves, with every parent committed to ensuring that his or her children will learn the national language well and feel a part of a nation with deep historical roots and a proud and still-vibrant culture.

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