Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Numerically Smaller Languages Under Threat Not Just from the Kremlin but from the Computer, Shamayev Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, March 21 – The numerically smaller languages of the Russian Federation are threatened today not just by a Kremlin committed to russification but by the spread of computerization which increasingly is based on English, according to Sakha scholar Elley Shamayev. They must prepare to counter both if they are to survive.

            Speaking to the fifth online conference of “For the Languages of the Russian Federation,” he says that those languages which are able to create an online presence have a chance to survive while those that are unable to do so either because of external restrictions or the lack of interest face a bleak future (business-gazeta.ru/article/503016).

            “The digitalization of languages of the peoples of the Russian Federation, Shamayev says, “has a historic importance which will be comparable to the role of the creation of a national alphabet and the transformation of languages into literary ones.” Those which make that transition will likely survive; those that don’t, won’t.

            Of the non-Russian languages in the Russian Federation, Tatar has made the greatest progress in this direction; and now it is helping other Turkic languages follow its path. In some places, these efforts enjoy state support; in others, they remain at the level of a few activists working from their homes out of enthusiasm.

            The Sakha language, he continues, is one in the latter category; but it is being helped both by scholars in Tatarstan and by international platforms like Google which are interested in promoting the translation capabilities of their services. Unfortunately, these languages do not yet have sufficient online presence to gain the support of Yandex.

            Ayrat Gatiatullin of Kazan’s Institute of Applied Semiotics also spoke to the session. He said that what the Tatars have accomplished can be copied by other Turkic peoples because “in reality, 70 to 80 percent of the development for one Turkic language can easily be transferred to other Turkic ones.”

            At present, he said, his institute is working with seven Turkic languages – Bashkir, Kazakh, Uzbek, Kyrgyz, Crimean Tatar and Chuvash. Some like the Bashkir are sprinting ahead but others like the Crimean Tatar are lagging because there are still problems about the stability of orthography and the amount of material which has been translated.

            Ildar Kinyabulatov, who coordinates computer language projects in Bashkortostan, says he worked on his own until 2018 when he went into government service and secured state backing for what he and his friends were doing. Since that time, he says, Bashkir has dramatically expanded its online presence.

            Ali Kuzhget, an activist from Tuva, says he is still working on his own without support of the government. He created a Tuvan keyboard and a Tuvan version of Wikipedia but has found it difficult to get Tuvans to use either. And like other activists, he has still not managed to produce enough translations to attract the support of Yandex which requires a million before doing so.

            And Mari El activist Andrey Chemyshev said that his group was making progress with Yandex until the staffer there was changed. The new man is not interested, and so the Mari activists are seeking to find an alternative person within that structure, someone who will care about the survival of non-Russian languages online.

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