Staunton, July 23 – Most analysts believe that Moscow’s promotion of literary languages for some non-Russian nations that had not had them earlier has helped those languages and the people who speak them to survive. Indeed, some Western scholars have suggested that such language creation was and is an example of a kind of Russian affirmative action.
It is likely true that in some cases, the creation of literary languages worked in exactly that way; but in others, as Dulma Batorova, the editor of the Buryat newspaper Nyutag Helen (“Dialects”) , points out, it isn’t, and Moscow’s creation and promotion of a single literary language has had exactly the opposite effect (culturalsurvival.org/publications/cultural-survival-quarterly/troubled-state-buryat-language-today
Buryat has five major dialects and 15 sub-dialects, she says; but “when the official literary form of the Buryat language was chosen, all the other Buryat dialects were banned.” And as a result, most speakers of dialects went over to Russian rather than to the Buryat language Moscow had chosen.
That has meant that “approximately 80 percent of the Buryat population [now] today now does not know or speak their mother tongue” and few are ready to unite to promote the revitalization of their language. In short, what looked like Moscow’s support for Buryat was in fact a move to destroy it and promote Russian instead.
Seven years ago, Batorova says, she established Nyutag Helen to counter this trend by promoting the various dialects Buryats have historically spoken. Some might think that a newspaper promoting dialects would divide that nation; but in fact, as its 38 issues so far show, it is uniting them.
As Dinara Tregubova, one of the newspaper’s writers, says, “Nyutag Helen reminds people who forget Buryat words of their language of their roots. Therefore, this newspaper does not separate the Buryats but on the contrary contributes to the creation of a unified language environment.”
Having been given an opportunity to find their voices in this publication, she continues, Buryats who have stopped speaking their dialects and gone over to Russian as a common language can see why they should save their own dialects and unite with those who speak other dialects as well.
As a result, “the scope of the language is expanding, which is important for its survival,” Tregubova says.
Batorova insists that “we have never been against the literary Buryat language,” but as construed by the authorities, it isn’t used by very many people and so becomes not a defense of this part of national identity but an attack against it. Rescuing and where possible saving dialects helps work against such an outcome.
She concludes that it is “absolutely important” for everyone to understand that “our oral speech and traditions are more important today than the written language. After all, if there is no oral figurative speech, then there is no point in further developing a written language.”
Buryats have a saying, Batorova says. “’If the Selenga River becomes shallow, what will happen to Lake Baikal?’ If the rivers and small streams of the oral speech and dialects dry up, then what will happen to the Buryat language as a whole” and ultimately to the Buryat people.