Staunton, October 23 – A century ago, residents of highland Daghestan spoke at least two languages, with men speaking two or three foreign languages. Today, however, according to a new study by scholars at Moscow’s International Laboratory of Linguistic Convergence, they speak only Russian as the lingua franca beyond the confines of their native villages.
In a study entitled “Gendered Multilingualism in Highland Daghestan” which appeared in the new issue of the Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, Nina Dobrushina, A.A. Kozhukhar, and Georgy. Moroz discuss why this has happened and what it means for the republic (publications.hse.ru/articles/221040478; summarized at iq.hse.ru/news/226529912.html).
In Daghestan, people speak 30 to 45 local languages as well as more widely used Turkic and Indo-European ones and Arabic as well, the three say. Most of the local languages are used only in a village or a small group of villages in highland regions; but they survive because even now, “marriages among people from different villages are a rarity.”
Historically, women have spoken fewer languages than men because they are more likely to remain in the village than move about for work. That means that all men and many women know “at a minimum” two languages, although the mix has changed profoundly over the last 150 years.
Even in the past, “there was never a common language for all Daghestanis. Until the 20th century, in valley districts, many knew Kumyk; in southern Daghestan, Azerbaijani; and in northern Daghestan, Avar served as the lingua franca. “But in may districts there was no common language at all, and people mastered the languages of their neighbors.”
Research shows, the scholars say, that in the last two decades of the Russian Empire, “approximately 25 percent of men knew a language of the region, and 15 percent knew two or three others. Among women, the fraction of polyglots was lower: only 10 percent knew one regional language and fewer than five percent two.”
After the revolution, they continues, “the number of men who knew regional languages” in addition to their own village one “began to decline and by 1950 the gender difference on this measure disappeared entirely. Among Daghestanis born in 1980 and later, knowledge of regional languages was rarely encountered.”
This loss of multi-lingual knowledge “began with the arrival of Soviet power and the spread of Russia as the single official and common means of communication for all citizens of the Union,” the three researchers say.
Until the 1920s, “Russian played the role of a regional language. In mountainous regions, there was no Russian speaking population or schools. And as a result, among local residents born between 1890 and 1909, only 50 percent of the men and ten percent of the women could communicate in Russian.” Many learned it only as adults, as for example in the military.
In Soviet times, Russian displaced the regional languages among both men and women, the study says; and “with the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the status and prestige of Russian only increased” because many had to leave their villages in search of employment. “Communication with neighbors lost its significance” as did knowledge of their languages.
According to Nina Dobrushina, the lead scholar in this research, Daghestanis seldom focus on the impact of these changes. “For village residents, the local language remains the basic one … but their grandchildren who were born and grew up n the city typically do not master the tongue of their native villages.”
“The main danger for the preservation of local languages,” she says, “is to be found in increasing migration from rural places to the cities.”
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