Thursday, February 27, 2020

Official Status Helps But Doesn’t Save Minority Languages in Russian Republics

Paul Goble

             Staunton, February 21 – On International Native Language Day, Yuliya Kulikova and Gleb Yarovoy compared the state of the Karelian and Komi languages in their respective republics, where the first does not have official status but the second does, to show that official status may help an indigenous language to survive but it won’t be itself save it.

            Karelia, where only 45,000 of its 614,000 residents are Karels and where only a portion of them now speak their native language, is the only non-Russian republic in the Russian Federation where the language of the titular nationality does not have official status (

            This represents a continuation of Soviet practice which was driven by fears of the spread of Finnish influence in a border republic and by the relatively small number of Karel speakers. But of course, that policy has only further reduced their number given the absence of the use of the language in schools and government agencies.

            It also means that those who want to save and develop Karel can’t count on official support, either financial or lobbying, but must rely on their own efforts and resources. But a few such people and some resources domestic and Finnish found and the activists have organized non-governmental center for the use and study of Karel.

            These are clearly a rearguard effort to save a language that the Russian government would just as soon see disappear, but in the current environment, they appear to be slowing if not stopping the demise of Karel.

            The situation in the Komi Republic is different but hardly the basis of optimism. There only a quarter of the 854,000 residents are ethnic Komi, and only a few more than half of them, 135,000, speak Komi. Language activists say that they get little support from the republic government even though they are an official language.

            But because the language has official status, these activists can take steps which their counterparts in Karelia cannot. When police or other officials approach them, they respond to Russian questions in Komi; and if the authorities don’t know the language, they demand as is their right that the latter bring in translators.

            That possibility has given activists the confidence to develop on their own and without support translation and training programs for online portals.  These programs have been accepted by international services like Google Chrome, Internet Explorer and Mozilla. Russian outlets have not responded, yet another battleground in which non-Russian languages are under attack.

            As one Komi activist put it, “if a language isn’t represented on the Internet, that means that it doesn’t exist for the current generation.”

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