A chapter of the article "Minority languages in a society in turmoil: the case of the northern languages of the Russian Federation" published in Endangered languages: what role for the specialist? Proceedings of the Second FEL Conference (Editor: Nicholar Ostler; Edinburgh 1998) on pp. 58--63

Tapani Salminen

The languages of the Russian Federation today

Almost all of the languages spoken in the Russian Federation are endangered, most of them seriously, but the indigenous languages of Arctic Russia and Siberia with a few thousand speakers or less, face the most immediate threat. Only a few years ago the main problem with language endangerment was seen in the loss of linguistically interesting data rather than that the loss of irretrievable human diversity and potential. Kibrik (1991), for instance, only includes languages that are already on the verge of extinction. Even the Red Book of the Languages of the Peoples of Russia (Neroznak 1994), which is by far the most detailed and reliable source for further information, mechanically excludes languages of the titular peoples of republics and autonomous provinces even when they, like for instance Karelian, are undoubtedly endangered; for similar reasons its coverage of languages is sometimes unequal: the three Northern Altai idioms are given separate entries, while Olonetsian and Ludian, officially regarded as Karelian dialects, are left out, although they are likely to be more diverse and at least as endangered. The languages of the larger minority peoples are covered by Solncev & Mikhalchenko (1992).

In what follows, the languages of European Russia and Caucasia are dealt with briefly, and the situation of the indigenous languages of Siberia and Arctic Russia is presented in more detail. The degree of endangerment is evaluated along the scale "not endangered -- endangered -- seriously endangered -- nearly extinct -- extinct", which broadly corresponds to the basic viability classes in Krauss (1997), who also deals with most though not all of the Siberian languages.

The number of minority languages whose principal area has traditionally lain within the borders of the Russian Federation is, according to the present count, 110; this figure does not include the majority language Russian nor non-territorial minority languages like Romani and Yiddish; also excluded are dialects of major languages of neighbouring countries though some of them will be mentioned below. The number of officially recognized minority languages is a bit lower, because in a few cases, notably Altai, Enets, Karelian, Khanty, Mansi, Mari, Nenets, Sámi, Selkup, Tat, Yukagir, and Yupik, idioms traditionally regarded as major dialects are, for compelling reasons, treated here as separate languages.

In the Northwest of Russia there are six languages belonging to the Finnic branch of the Finno-Ugrian family: Ingrian, Karelian, Ludian, Olonetsian, Vepsian, and Votian. Of these Votian is nearly extinct, Ingrian is either seriously endangered or nearly extinct, and the rest are seriously endangered. Distinct, and endangered, dialects of Estonian and Finnish are also spoken in the area.

In east-central Russia, in an area which ranges from the Volga to the Urals, ten minority languages are spoken: Bashkir (Turkic: Common: Kipchak), Chuvash (Turkic), Erzya (FU [Finno-Ugrian]: Mordvin), Komi (FU: Permian: Komi), Eastern Mari (FU: Mari), Western Mari (FU: Mari), Moksha (FU: Mordvin), Permyak (FU: Permian: Komi), Tatar (Turkic: Common: Kipchak), and Udmurt (FU: Permian). Tatar is spoken by several million people and cannot be regarded as endangered in spite of its subordinate status in comparison with Russian. The others also have substantial numbers of speakers, in most cases a few hundred thousand, but because of gradual urbanization and consequent assimilation, processes aptly characterized as the "erosive trends" by Lallukka (1990), the number of younger speakers is decreasing rapidly, which makes them clearly though not seriously endangered.

Northern Caucasia and adjacent southern Russia is home to 35 languages: 4 Abkhaz-Adyge languages (Abkhaz including Abaza, Adyge, Kabardian-Cherkes, Ubykh), 2 Nakh languages (Chechen, Ingush), 22 Dagestanian languages (Agul, Akhvakh, Andi, Archi, Avar, Bagulal, Bezhta, Botlikh, Chamalal, Dargva, Ginukh, Godoberi, Gunzib, Karata, Khvarshi, Lak, Lezgian, Rutul, Tabasaran, Tindi, Tsakhur, Tsez), 3 Iranian languages (Ossetic, Tat, Judeo-Tat), 3 Turkic languages belonging to the Kipchak branch (Karachai-Balkar, Kumyk, Nogai), and the Mongol language Kalmyk, whose speakers settled in the area in the 18th century. As a result of another immigration, a dialect of Turkmen known as Trukhmen is also spoken in Northern Caucasia, and German dialects were spoken for centuries in the lower Volga basin. On the other hand, the Ubykh nation as a whole emigrated to the Ottoman Empire when their homeland was annexed to Russia. Many languages of the area suffered severely from the mass deportations of whole nations in the aftermath of the Second World War though all except the Volga Germans were allowed to return to their homes after a decade in exile. In general, however, minority languages are much better preserved in Caucasia than in other parts of the Russian Federation. Chechen is in most respects like the official language of an independent country, but the other major languages of the area, spoken by proud Islamic nations, are also used vigorously. On the other hand, most of the Dagestanian languages (all but Avar, Dargva, Lak, Lezgian, and Tabasaran) are spoken by small ethnic groups which are not even officially recognized as separate peoples but lumped together with Avars or Lezgians. These 17 languages are included in the Red Book of the Languages of the Peoples of Russia (Neroznak 1994), but despite their low numbers of speakers, at least most of them appear to be in no immediate danger of disappearing.

Finally, the number of the indigenous languages of Siberia and Arctic Russia is 59. This figure does not include the Siberian dialects of Tatar, mentioned above, although at least one of them, that of Baraba, is both very distinct and endangered, nor languages whose principal area lies outside the Russian Federation and which have ceased to be spoken there, notably Ainu, Dagur, Inuit, Khamnigan Mongol, and North Sámi.

There exists a political division between the titular peoples of republics and autonomous provinces (Southern Altai, Buryat, Khakas, Tuvan, and Yakut), and the so-called Peoples of the Far North (all others). The obvious fact that the languages of the peoples of the first group are much less endangered than the others is not in itself a consequence of this division but both facts follow from the differences in numeric strength and relative political power between the two groups.

The one and only Siberian language that certainly need not be regarded as endangered is Tuvan (including Toja; Turkic: Common: Tuvan), with 200,000 speakers including all generations. The independent state of Tannu-Tuva was forcibly annexed to the Soviet Union in 1944, but the Tuvan people have not ceased to cultivate their language and culture vigorously, despite the loss of political autonomy.

The second best situation is that of Yakut (including Dolgan; Turkic: Common), with as many as 350,000 speakers, though urbanization and consequent Russianization have affected a notable part of younger generations. Yakut can therefore be charazterized as a potentially endangered language. Mainly because of a divide and rule policy of the Russians, the northernmost Yakut-speaking group known as the Dolgans is officially regarded as one of the Peoples of the Far North and distinct from Yakuts proper; the 5,000 Dolgan speakers use their language, a dialect fairly close to other Yakut dialects, almost as vigorously as the rest of the Yakut speakers.

The three other languages of the titular peoples of republics and autonomous provinces are Southern Altai (including Telengit and Teleut; Turkic: Common: Altai) with 50,000, Buryat (Mongol) with 350,000, and Khakas (Turkic: Common: Khakas) with 60,000 speakers. Their areas have suffered a lot of recent industrialization and urbanization and their active use is nowadays more and more restricted to remote rural communities, from where many younger people have had to emigrate. They must therefore be regarded as endangered but, thanks to the relatively large numbers of speakers, not seriously endangered, though some of their dialects may fall into the latter category.

Only two of the languages of the Peoples of the Far North have a substantial number of young speakers: Chukchi (CK [Chukchi-Koryak]), with 10,000, and Tundra Nenets (FU: Samoyed: Nenets), with 25,000 speakers. The peoples in question are notably the most prominent reindeer breeding nations in the Russian Federation, and it is this line of occupation which, unlike all others, has retained its function among the indigenous peoples and largely remained in their hands. However, even among the Chukchi and the Tundra Nenets there are many communities where the situation is not so fortunate, which means that it is best to characterize them as either endangered or seriously endangered. Tundra Nenets used to have a very strong position in the heartlands in the Yamal Peninsula but this has drastically changed in recent times when gas excavations have led to an unprecedented destruction of pasture lands. More data on the situation of Tundra Nenets and other indigenous languages of north-western Siberia are available in Salminen (1997).

There are eleven languages most speakers of which are middle-aged and older, though in the most remote and isolated corners of their territory some children still learn them. Although the number of speakers range from one thousand up to ten thousand, it is clear that all of them must be regarded as seriously endangered: Northern Altai (a conglomeration of Chalkan, Kumandy, and Tuba; Turkic: Common: Altai), Even (Tungusic: N), Evenki (Tungusic: N: Evenki), Eastern Khanty (FU: Khanty), Northern Khanty (FU: Khanty), Koryak (including Alyutor; CK), Northern Mansi (FU: Mansi), Nanai (Tungusic: Amur: Nanai), Forest Nenets (FU: Samoyed: Nenets), Northern Selkup (FU: Samoyed: Selkup), and Shor (Turkic: Common: Khakas).

There are further eight languages whose speakers are mainly middle-aged and older and whose overall number of speakers is so low, from two hundred to one thousand, that it is reasonable to treat them as an intermediate group whose members can be seen as very seriously endangered: Chulym Tatar (Turkic: Common: Khakas), Ket (Yeniseian: N), Nganasan (FU: Samoyed), Nivkh (Nivkh), Kildin Sámi (FU: Sámi), Tofa (including Soyot; Turkic: Common: Tuvan), Ulcha (Tungusic: Amur: Nanai), and Central Siberian (Chaplino) Yupik (EA [Eskimo-Aleut]: Eskimo: Yupik).

The largest group consists of 17 languages, only spoken by the oldest generation, usually having some tens of speakers left, which makes them nearly extinct: Aleut (EA; Siberian Aleut derives from a 19th century resettlement; there is also a Russian-Aleut mixed language known as Copper Island Aleut), Forest Enets (FU: Samoyed: Enets), Tundra Enets (FU: Samoyed: Enets), Itelmen (Kamchatkan), Eastern Mansi (FU: Mansi), Negidal (Tungusic: N: Evenki), Oroch (Tungusic: Amur: Udege), Orok (Tungusic: Amur: Nanai), Akkala (Babino) Sámi (FU: Sámi), Skolt Sámi (FU: Sámi), Ter Sámi (FU: Sámi), Central Selkup (FU: Samoyed: Selkup), Southern Selkup (FU: Samoyed: Selkup), Udege (Tungusic: Amur: Udege), Forest Yukagir (Yukagir), Tundra Yukagir (Yukagir), and East Cape (Naukan) Yupik (EA: Eskimo: Yupik).

Five languages, Kerek (CK), Southern Khanty (FU: Khanty), Western Mansi (FU: Mansi), Sirenik (EA: Eskimo: Yupik), and Yug (Yeniseian: N), have either recently become extinct or have very few speakers left.

Two languages, Kamas (FU: Samoyed) and Southern Mansi (FU: Mansi), have definitely become extinct during this century. There are relatively extensive and reliable records of them, though naturally far from the extent one would desire.

Nine languages became extinct before the 20th century, and the material we have of them is scanty: Arin (Yeniseian: S), Chuvan (Yukagir), Eastern Kamchadal (Kamchatkan), Southern Kamchadal (Kamchatkan), Kott (Yeniseian: S), Mator (FU: Samoyed), Omok (Yukagir), Pumpokol (Yeniseian: N), and Yurats (FU: Samoyed). In recent statistics a people called Chuvans has reappeared, but the given figures for native language speakers refer to those ethnic Chuvans whose first language is Chukchi. A large Russian-speaking but ethnically distinct group of people with Itelmen ancestry are nowadays known as Kamchadals; an old name for Itelmen is Western Kamchadal.

Of the languages listed above, at least Aleut, Buryat, Evenki, Nanai, Skolt Sámi, Tofa, Tuvan, and Central Siberian Yupik are also spoken in neighbouring countries, in most cases more vigorously than in the Russian Federation. The situation of Evenki in China and Central Siberian Yupik in the United States, in particular, is much less critical.


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