Thursday, November 7, 2019

If Finno-Ugric Languages Die Out, So Too will Their Cultures and Identities, Activists and Scholars Say

Paul Goble

            Staunton, November 2 – Moscow’s language policies are based on the arguments of Valery Tishkov who says that nations can lose their language and still survive.  There are historical precedents for that conclusion, but in many cases, especially among numerically small peoples, the reverse is true.

            If they lose their languages, they also lose their cultures and identities and cease to exist, a point made by activists and scholars concerning the numerically small Finno-Ugric peoples of Leningrad oblast, including the 5,000 Vepsy, the 250 Izhors, and the 64 Vods (

                “Although interest in the study of the cultures of these numerically small peoples has consistently grown in recent years,” those concerned with the problem say, “the preservation of language and its use is a serious challenge both for North-West Russia and for all of world culture.”

            In 2009, the Vod and Izhor languages were listed in the Atlas of the Languages of the World Under Threat of Disappearance; and in 2017, the Vepsy language was added to them.  And the threats to their survival continue despite much-ballyhooed programs to help them survive.

            Special courses for children and adults in these languages have been in place since 2014, and a mobile language school is functioning. But despite that, the number of speakers continues to fall – and not even all those who identify as Vods, Izhors, or Vepsy speak their native languages or use them frequently even if they know them.

            It is a measure of how close to death these languages and cultures are that some are hinging their hopes for survival on the possibility of putting up bilingual place names on the roads of the district.  But Olga Konkova, head of the Center for Indigenous Peoples of Leningrad Oblast, suggests that won’t be enough.

            More literature needs to be published in these languages, and more opportunities have to be created for those who learn them. If that doesn’t happen, then what many non-Russians now fear, Moscow’s reassurances notwithstanding, will occur: the death of languages will rapidly lead to the deaths of these nations.

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