Wednesday, December 19, 2018

‘The Secret Languages of Grandmothers’ and the Fate of the Russian Empire

Paul Goble

            Staunton, December 17 – Lennart Meri famously described Estonians as a nation which for centuries had lived on a single slab of rock that was gradually rising up from the pressure of the last ice age and which used its language as a secret code that allowed it to live its own live under the pressure of foreign rule.

            The Estonian president’s words about language are especially important: a nation which continues to speak a language occupiers do not learn can maintain itself for centuries whatever pressures the occupying powers place on it because the language serves as a unifying force for those who speak it and becomes political because the occupiers transform it into.

            Indeed, while some nations become nationalist only after they lose their national language – the Irish are the classic example of this – most, like the Estonians, become nationalist precisely because of their attachment to their language and because under the occupation of others, few outsiders learned it.

            Imperial rulers like the tsars, commissars and now presidents of Russia, can close schools, newspapers, and public institutions in the national languages destroying some of the nations they rule or transforming those nations into anti-Russian nationalists much as the Irish became opponents of the British after learning to speak English.

            But these rulers can do little except over very long periods of time to destroy the chief transmission belts of national languages, the families and especially the grandmothers who not only retain their languages but pass them on in the circle of their families to their children and grandchildren.

            To be sure, they may ultimately be fated to lose with the passing of generation after generation; but it is striking how often the reverse is the case and how “the secret language of grandmothers” becomes the basis for national rebirth even if imperial rulers and empire-centric ethnographers typically ignore that possibility.

            That makes a new article by Svetlana Niberlyain, a journalist from Kazan who has been living in Germany since 2002 on “The Secret Language of Grandmothers: How Udmurts in Germany are Preserving Their Native Language” especially important and noteworthy (

            The journalist spoke with five Udmurts living in Germany. Some of them are losing their language with the passing of generations, but others have found ways to keep the language going. Perhaps the most interesting of the give is Olga Ignatyeva, an Udmurt married to a Hungarian and living in Nurnberg who maintains an Udmurt language blog,

            She grew up in Udmurtia, graduated from the Finno-Ugric division of the Udmurt State University, and then did graduate work in Hungary where she defended her dissertation I 2011. A year earlier, she moved to Germany with her Hungarian husband. She has two daughters, aged six and seven.

            Olga decided to start her blog to tell her relatives in Udmurtia about her children and to link her children into the Udmurt world.  She and her family members speak Hungarian at home primarily, then German and only then Udmurt.  Udmurt is suffering lexically, she says, but it remains important for her and her children – and her husband understands but doesn’t speak it.
            She says that her children “are beginning to understand that Udmurt is our own secret language” and that when it is used in an argument, things are becoming serious. This is reinforced by the numerous visits she and her children have made to Udmurtia where they can see that many people speak Udmurt.
            But the children’s visits there have another impact: they see Russian on television and then ask why they aren’t learning that language too.  They have become more insistent about that because of the large number of Russian speakers now living in their neighborhood.  But Olga continues to speak Udmurt – and the children are retaining it as well.

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