Saturday, January 23, 2016

An Insidious Way Moscow has Employed to Subvert Non-Russian Languages

Paul Goble

            Staunton, January 23 – Most of those who track the ways that Moscow has sought to limit the use of non-Russian languages focus on such things as the closure of non-Russian schools and media outlets or other restrictions on the use of non-Russian languages relative to Russian.

            But a Catalonian scholar who has been teaching in Chuvashia for more than 20 years has pointed out an even more insidious way that the Russian authorities are not only subverting non-Russian languages but forcing non-Russians who want to speak or even read their own language correctly to learn Russian first.

            In an article in a new collection of studies on Chuvash orthography, Hector Alos-i-Font points out that there are two systems regarding the borrowing of words in non-Russian languages, one that governs borrowings from Russian and a second that governs borrowings from other languages.

            With regard to borrowings by non-Russians from languages other than Russian, he writes, the non-Russians can impose their own orthographic rules on spelling and usage; but with regard to borrowings by non-Russians from Russian, they must follow Russian rules. That means that to speak or even read a non-Russian language correctly requires a knowledge of Russian.

            His article, “The Orthography of Russian Borrowings as a Codificaiton of the Subordinate Status of the Chuvash Language and the Problem of Pronunciation Norms” [in Russian], appeared in the book Chuvashskaya orfografiya vchera, segodnya, zavtra (Cheboksary, 2015), pp. 113-127. It is available online  at

            The situation in this regard in Chuvash is particularly dire, Alos-i-Font says. One cannot even correctly read a Chuvash dictionary without a knowledge of Russian because there are so many Russian words included and because they are written in a form and with a stress that is alien to Chuvash.

            This is a product of a Stalin-era policy that has been largely maintained, he writes.  Prior to the 1930s, Chuvash added a large number of words to its lexicon from Russian and other languages, but as is true in most such cases, it reformatted them to correspond with Chuvash orthodoxy and stress. After the early 1930s, this changed.

            While borrowings from other languages continued to be “Chuvashized,” Alos-i-Font continues, borrowings from Russian were maintained in the Russian format and with Russian stress as a means of promoting Russian language knowledge and of signifying the subordinate status of Chuvash in the USSR.

            This rule has infected Chuvash in a variety of ways. It has had the effect of changing the phonemic structure of the language, of changing spellings, and even affected word order and other critical parts of the use of the language by writers and other educated people in ways that have harmed apparently completely intentionally Chuvash as a independent language.

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