Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Activists in Daghestan Seek to End Linguistic Turkification Tsars and Commissars Imposed

Paul Goble

            Staunton, July 22 – Activists among the various nationalities of Daghestan are seeking to “cleanse” their languages by getting rid of the Turkic lexical and grammatical borrowings that first tsarist and then Soviet officials promoted, actions that have direct consequences now for Daghestan’s relationship with neighboring Turkic Azerbaijan.

            This effort to expel foreign words from the various Daghestani languages has taken off over the last several years, Magomed Shamkhalov writes in And while many in that North Caucasus republic consider this “a secondary” issue, others are working hard to reverse past policies (

            According to local experts, “if the adoption by the mountaineers of many terms from Arabic and Persian took place in a natural way, the filling up of Daghestani languages with Turkisms was an intentional policy of the [Russian imperial and Soviet authorities]” and thus something many now want to reverse.

            Timur Aytberov, a Daghestani historian, says that “the spread of Turkic-names in Daghestan took place after the conclusion of the Gulistan peace treaty in the early 19th century.” Having conquered the Caucasus, the Russian authorities sought to drive out Persian influence and to “create an ethnos on the territory of the Eastern Caucasus.”

            That new ethnos, in their plans, was to be “Turkic by language so that it would stand in opposition to Persia and Shiite by religion so that it would stand in opposition to Turkey.”  The tsarist plans were never completely realized, Aytberov says, but this policy led to the imposition of Turkic-language place and proper names and other linguistic borrowings.

            By the time of the 1897 Imperial census, he says, many of the peoples in Daghestan had begun to add the Turkic suffixes “ogly” and “kyzy” to their names.  That policy did not end with the revolution, he says, but continued until 1937. Indeed, Aytberov points out, the Soviets were able to impose the Azerbaijani language on many Avars.

            When as part of their divide and rule campaign, the Soviets began promoting the various nationality languages in Daghestan, this Turkic-centered effort faded. But the spread of Turkisms in the official media has continued, often offending members of the national intelligentsia and sparking demands for linguistic purity.

            What especially annoys some Daghestani intellectuals is that some journalists and others are even introducing Turkic grammar into the grammars of some national languages in violation of the grammatical rules under which these languages operate. But perhaps the greatest number of complaints involve the imposition of Turkic place names.

            The leaders of the Avar community are preparing “a handbook of the administrative-territorial division of Daghestan in Avar” and will insist that officials and ordinary people use the Avar names rather than Turkic impositions in the future.  That is likely to spark controversy among those who have gotten used to the Turkic names.

            Many of the members of these nationalities, however, view this drive for linguistic purity as a “secondary” matter.  They are more concerned, as Lak leader Ilyas Kayayev points out, about the fact that many Laks “literally compete to show how well they know Russian and despise Lak.”  Until that changes, getting rid of Turkic loan words won’t help much.

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