Monday, June 24, 2019

No Laughing Matter: Comic Books Helping to Save Finno-Ugric Languages of Russian North

Paul Goble

            Staunton, June 22 – On many occasions and for many issues, a combination of high tech and low tech can come together to do more than either on its own. Thus, the Internet is currently being used in many parts of the third world in a strategy to promote the digging of wells and the purification of water.

            And such combinations often work especially well in the face of official indifference or popular beliefs that unless someone comes in from the outside and solves the problem, the people themselves can do nothing and must put up with whatever is occurring, including the passing of their own ways of life.

            One of the most interesting and important examples of such a combination is the use of comic books, disseminated on the Internet, to defend and promote the numerically small Finno-Ugric languages of the Russian North, a program that is the result of the combined efforts of Finnish cartoonist Sanna Hukkanen and Moscow philologist Anna Voronkova.

            Four years ago, they launched the program in Petrozavodsk and since then have held master classes in comic book drawing in Finno-Ugric villages and cities throughout the region and even set u a website where many of the best are posted ( reposted at and

            Hukkanen says that she launched this effort to save these languages from extinction, the victims of urbanization, state policy, and the feelings of many of their bearers that such languages have no future. She says she uses the word “’save’” literally “because some languages are almost extinct: there are dialects spoken by only a few dozen people.”

            She adds that comics can become “a good way to support indigenous languages because the technique is very simple: You only need paper and pencil and desire. You don’t need high technologies and a lot of money.” But “on the other hand, it is very powerful because it combines text and picture” in ways everyone can understand.

Voronokova, a Moscow philologist, says she “was aware of the existence of Finno-Ugric languages in Russia, but to be honest, I thought that they had already died, probably because that is what people think in Moscow and St. Petersburg” where “it is much more prestigious” and financially rewarding “to study Finnish, Estonian and Hungarian.”

“For me, as a philologist,” she says, “it was very interesting to see that native identity is much stronger than everything that is said on TV. It was interesting to get acquainted with the «handmade» initiatives, when people create projects themselves. It is inspiring.”

While working on this comic book project, “we faced administrative problems. Our contacts are activists. And if they occupy administrative or public positions, they are afraid to participate in international projects. It is difficult to find those who are not afraid. For example, it happened to our contact in Mordovia.”

“But then, through social networks, we found an electrician working in the suburbs, and he gave us the best contacts in the village where Erzya live. Thus, a language activist doesn’t have to be a teacher. He can be an electrician (everyone has his own fate) or someone else — the main thing that he loves and knows the language.” 

Elina Potapova, a journalist for Petrozavodsk’s Karelian language newspaper Oma Mua who is part of this project says that “Comics are an interesting way to draw attention to languages. The format is simple, but this is the thing for a newspaper. They are interesting for people of all ages: young and old.

            “It is especially cool is when a person can draw. Although in this case the ability to draw is not so important as the language proficiency. To be honest, I do not know how to draw, and at the master classes I mostly speak about how comics help to popularize the language. The hardest part is figuring out what the comic will be about, because you have only four slides.” 

Valentina Sovkina, head of Kola Sami radio and chairman of the Sami Parliament on the Kola Peninsula, also is a participant and offers a broader perspective on what the comic book project is seeking to overcome:

“Today we can only dream of Sámi acquiring the status of a state language. Sámi in the Murmansk Oblast are only 0.2 percent of the total population. Republics and Autonomous Okrugs can choose an official second language on the basis of legislative acts, but we do not even have a law about the Sámi language.

“Our wishes do not always accord with those of the powers that be of the region and country. But why despair, the initiative must be shown.

               “The Sámi language now is taught only in Lovozersky district. Over the past ten years, the program has shrunk immensely. The Sámi language used to be taught at schools from the first to the fourth grade, but today it is taught only in the first grade. There are also some lessons at the Northern National College, but only in the first year and only 36 hours a year.

               “I believe that it is necessary to start with the family and kindergarten, further — more. Native speakers are required to revive the language within a family. And if there is none? That means we need to create a sound background. That is why we need a regional law on the language, under which there should be budget to save and revive the language.

              “In today’s reality, I cannot say for sure whether there are many chances for the revival of the Sámi language at least in some form. Everything should come together: the desire of the people themselves, the support of the state, not just for the record, but real support. From laws on the Sámi language to creation of its own media.

“It is no secret that the language is learned better when it is heard in the background. If people speak it, then it is going to live.”

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