Friday, December 11, 2020

Those Seeking to Revive a Wepsy Literary Language Ignoring Death of Its Spoken Variants

Paul Goble

            Staunton, December 9 – Those who have been seeking to revive a literary language for the Wepsy by making one artificially promoted dialect are not helping the Wepsy to survive because they are ignoring the reality that the Wepsy, who speak many dialects, don’t want to have anything to do with what they see as something artificial and foreign.

            The upshot, Elena Mikhina and Yuliya Paskevich, 7x7 journalists say, is that the celebration of the literary language by outsiders, including Vladimir Putin who insists that this Finno-Ugric people is not on its way to extinction, is obscuring the reality that the current generation really represents “the last of the Wepsy” (

            They quote Igor Brodsky, a linguistics expert at the Russian State Pedagogical Institute as saying that the literary language which was developed in Petrozavodsk in the 1980s on the basis of one set of dialects hasn’t succeeded in attracting them or others to its use. As a result, while there is a literary language now, “the old dialects are dying out.”

            The 2010 census recorded almost 6,000 Wepsy, of whom approximately 1380 live in their central area of settlement in Leningrad Oblast, the two St. Petersburg journalists say. They have survived “by a miracle wars, revolutions, and centuries of assimilation” but they could be put on the path to extinction by those who are trying to save them with this literary language.

            That is because their Finno-Ugric language has been entirely an oral one since the Soviets suppressed an earlier attempt to create a literary language for them in the 1920s and 1930s, and people who do identify as Wepsy would rather speak Russian when they go outside the home or village than a Wepsy language they feel is entirely foreign.

            The two journalists began their investigation into the current state of the Wepsy because they were searching for faith healers. Most Wepsy deny the existence of such people anymore at least when speaking to outsiders, but others acknowledge the tradition continues. They do point out that because Wepsy men died in World War II, the healers are now women rather than men.

            One of the reasons most Wepsy don’t want to talk about this tradition is that they at least for public consumption long ago accepted Russian Orthodoxy as their public faith. But while building churches, they saw no reason to give up the old gods and old national traditions and thus have kept them up even though their language is dying.

            Mikhina and Paskevich point to one intriguing development that suggests the Wepsy, even if they lose their language, may remain more vital than many now think. At least one ethnic Russian has tried to claim that he is a Wepsy, but the community doesn’t accept him even though most of its members now speak Russian as he does.

            For them, the national traditions and knowledge of the genealogy of the families who have been part of the Wepsy world for centuries remain definitive. Those who seek to join them  for whatever reason are treated with respect but not accepted if they try to suggest they should be part of the nation. 

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