Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Many Non-Russian Languages Now at Risk of Disappearing, Moscow Philologist Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, February 20 – In advance of the International Native Language Day tomorrow, Oleg Belyaev, a philologist at Moscow State University, says many languages in Russia today are at risk of disappearing because their speakers are shifting to Russian and even those surviving are in trouble because of massive lexical and grammatical borrowing from Russian.

            In some cases, he says, these processes have been going on for a long time; in others, they have accelerated in the relatively recent past. He says that in some republics like Daghestan, non-Russian languages are having an analogous but weaker impact on Russian and promoting regional dialects (

            Belyaev’s comments are noteworthy because some more prominent Russian specialists on the nationality question downplay the risks that non-Russian languages now face, especially given that having made the study even of the titular languages of the non-Russian republics completely voluntary, Moscow is providing less support to many of them than in the past.

            The Moscow State University specialist makes a number of additional comments worthy of note.  He says that “unfortunately, under conditions of globalization, many small languages without additional support are fated to wither away.” In Russia, the larger non-Russian languages do not face that risk now; but the smaller ones without official structures do.

            Languages of the latter kind, Belyaev says, “which do not have official status are very difficult to save, unfortunately.” Thus, he continues, “urbanization destroys the traditional forms of the existence of these languages in small rural societies. Linguists are making attempts to slow this process” but so far without notable success.

            “The problems which the numerically smaller languages of Russia encounter are similar to those of numerically small languages in other countries,” he adds.  “The specific feature of our country perhaps is that many of the languages with relatively small numbers of speakers nonetheless have definite official cultural institutions” and other supports.

            According to Belyaev, “this is connected above all with Soviet language policy. Sometimes these formal characteristics look somewhat artificial, but they make a definite contribution to the support of languages spoken by relatively small groups of people.”

            The obvious conclusion of Belyaev’s remarks is that if the state eliminates these formal supports, ever more non-Russian languages will be put at risk of disappearing.  That explains the fears and anger of many non-Russians about what is taking place now and why they are working as hard as they can to block changes that could be the death knell for their languages.

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