Thursday, March 18, 2021

No Outside Force Can Kill a Language or Save It, Moscow Linguist Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, March 16 – Anna Muradova of the Moscow Institute of Linguistics says that no assistance from outside or efforts by enthusiasts can save a language if its speakers are comfortable transitioning to another but “not unfavorable external factors can destroy a language if its bears are certain that it must be preserved and are ready to make efforts in that direction.

            Many non-Russians whose languages are under threat because of the Kremlin’s Russianization campaigns are convinced that their languages will die unless Moscow changes its policies or they get outside help, but the outcome depends much less on that than on the attitudes of those who speak these languages, the linguist says.

            In an article on the portal of the KBR Human Rights portal, Muradov discusses this issue in the broadest terms – she is a specialist on minority languages in France – and thus presents it very differently from how it is normally discussed in Russia (

            Languages typically die, she says, when those spoken by a numerically smaller people come into competition with those spoken by a larger and more powerful one either because the former have lost their statehood or because they live dispersed within the latter and can function only if they rely primarily on the larger language group.

            The process by which one language dies because its speakers pass over to another usually takes three or four generations to complete. But while this process is going on or even after it appears to have been completed, some speakers of the numerically smaller language may try to revive it and on occasion succeed in doing so.

            This happens, Muradova suggests, because languages learned in childhood shape the image of the world its speakers have and consequently, “the loss of a native language and a shift to another one” may be extremely disturbing for many if not all of its speakers, however complete their shift appears to be.

            “Having lost its language,” she continues, “a people does not lose its uniqueness and therefore a paradoxical situation is observed: complete assimilation does not exclude a clear division of people into ‘ours’ and ‘not ours’ from the side of representatives of the titular nation.”

            That is especially the case “if representatives of the assimilated people are externally distinguished from the overwhelming majority.” In that event, marginalized groups will often feel a desire to save or revive their language and their attitudes will spread to other members of a group treated distinctively by the majority as well.

            But those efforts are crowned with success only quite rarely, Muradova says. More commonly, “the rebirth of a language becomes successful when at a certain moment, a people is conducting a national-liberation struggle and language becomes in the eyes of many a symbol of independence.”

            But as the Walloon and Irish experiences show, a minority language may revive without a national-liberation struggle or it may not regain its position even if the national liberation struggle succeeds in creating a new state.

            Muradova suggests that there are five factors which help maintain minority languages and four that threaten their survival. The first include having a written language and a literary tradition, its use by government agencies, its use in religious services, its study in schools, and the motivations of those who speak it.

            The second, in contrast, includes state policy directed against the survival of these languages, the lack of a literary tradition, economic backwardness and the outflow of population to places where its speakers are an even smaller portion of the population, and the lack of motivation and thus “a low self-assessment by its speakers.”

            Language, Muradova concludes, “is a very important means of self-identification. To adapt to society, that is, to find one’s niche in society, is the task of each of its members. To give up one’s own language means to give up part of one’s adaptability, and thus one’s customary self-assessment, and one’s own personality.”


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