Researchers of endangered languages knock on doors and search fields for interviewees

The Ungarinyin, Torlak and Veps languages have three things in common: their speakers are elderly, their spoken form is stronger than their written one, and there is a desire to study and revive them while it is still possible.

Laura Siragusa, Stef Spronck and Max Wahlström are linguists and post-doctoral researchers in the University of Helsinki Humanities Programme, studying languages which are at risk of extinction. All three are interested in the relationship between languages and culture, and studying small indigenous languages is a good way to approach the issue. Here, the linguists discuss their own research topics.


Max Wahlström: Old women are the best interviewees for Torlak research

 “Sometimes we have to head into the fields to find our informants who are herding goats. Once we get them back home, we’ll start asking about things in the past, and record their dialect as they talk,” explains Max Wahlström.

Torlak is a South Slavic transitional dialect between Serbian, Macedonian and Bulgarian. It is spoken in eastern Serbia and Bulgaria. Wahlström is studying the variety of Torlak which is spoken in the Timok river valley in Serbia.

 “Serbian grammar is close to Russian; for example, Serbian has the same grammatical cases as Russian. Macedonian and Bulgarian have no cases. In addition to this, these languages have developed a definite article while maintaining a verb system which is more complex than that of the other Slavic languages. One important reason for the linguistic changes that took place in Torlak is the fact that it was in close contact with other languages for centuries,” says Wahlström of his research topic.

 “Torlak shares characteristics with Serbian, Macedonian and Bulgarian, which makes it such an interesting research topic. Torlak offers us a glimpse into how linguistic change happens.”

The exact number of Torlak speakers is unknown, as some only speak a little of the dialect, while others are more fluent. The dialect is nevertheless endangered, which brings an urgency to the efforts to record and study it.

Max Wahlström is conducting his research in cooperation with the Institute for Balkan Studies at the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts. Together with researchers from the Institute, he is collecting both linguistic and ethnographic data. This is done by touring the remote villages of the Timok region and knocking on doors.

"We’re particularly trying to find older women to interview, as they tend to be more fluent in the dialect than the men. "

 “The Balkans are an easy area for fieldwork. The people are open and receptive to us. We’re particularly trying to find older women to interview, as they tend to be more fluent in the dialect than the men. The older men have all gone through the Yugoslavian army where they were taught the official language of the time, Serbo-Croatian. The women stayed in their home villages, and they also live longer than men,” the researcher explains.


Stef Spronck: Languages such as Ungarinyin show that language is much more than grammar

A scholar of indigenous languages will discover in very concrete terms how language and culture intertwine. Stef Spronck gives an example.

“For a Western linguist a sentence like ‘I’m sitting next to my sister’ is mostly just a combination of words and grammar. A common way to start researching a new language is by asking people to translate simple sentences like that. But for a speaker of Ungarinyin the sentence ‘I’m sitting next to my sister’ can be profoundly strange," Spronck says.

The reason: Within Ngarinyin culture, siblings of opposite sex are typically not in close quarters with one another, so often a first response by a male speaker of Ungarinyin to a question like this would be: ‘you can’t say that’.”

The Dutch linguist went to Australia in 2008 to work on his doctoral degree, lured by the prospect of researching how culture and grammar intertwine in Australian languages. In his home country, Spronck had studied general linguistics and Slavic languages, but in Australia he stumbled upon the Ngarinyin people and their indigenous language. Speakers of Ungarinyin traditionally inhabited much of the vast western Kimberley region of Western Australia. Nowadays most speakers live in and around the village of Derby.

The Ungarinyin language is severely endangered. There are less than a few dozen Ungarinyin speakers left, and most of these remaining speakers are elderly. For speakers who worked with Spronck to record the language, their main motivation was a wish to pass on their stories to the next generation. They want to make sure Ungarinyin remains to be heard.

"Some Elderly speakers are suspicious of writing, as the language is traditionally a spoken one."

Ungarinyin has survived for centuries without a writing system and some Elderly speakers are suspicious of writing, as the language is traditionally a spoken one. But for younger generations of Ngarinyin people writing may be a tool to remember and share language more easily. Local people and linguists have devised several ways of writing Ungarinyin over the years, and during his time in the Ngarinyin community Spronck organised workshops and discussions to demonstrate these.

Spronck ultimately spent over six years in Australia, as becoming acquainted with the indigenous people and building personal relationships took time. Spronck’s work involved field trips, interviews as well as documenting and describing the language.

Australia has had as many as 250 indigenous languages, but now only about ten of them continue to be spoken on a day-to-day basis. However, there are movements around Australia which are working to restore the traditional indigenous languages. Spronck hopes that linguists can play a positive role in bringing this goal closer.


Laura Siragusa: There’s hope for Veps

When Laura Siragusa, originally from Italy, chose to study Russian as her major subject, she had no idea she would end up researching the small Vepsian language.

Her first contact with Finno-Ugric languages was during her student exchange in Helsinki, and she later returned to learn more about the Finno-Ugrian languages and cultures. One of her role models within the Vepsian revival movement is Zinaida Strogalschikova, Vepsian researcher and activist. Siragusa arrived in Finland in August and has enjoyed her time here. There are many cooperation opportunities with other scholars of indigenous peoples, as they share many interests.

There are approximately 5,000 speakers of the Baltic-Finnic Vepsian language. According to Siragusa, roughly 6,000 people identify themselves as members of the Vepsian culture. Vepsian is spoken on the southern and western sides of Lake Onega, and it is most robust in the Republic of Karelia, where an enthusiastic movement to revive the language got started in the late 1980s. In the Republic of Karelia, Vepsian is supported by local governments: literature and newspapers are available in Vepsian, as well as some television and radio programming. Vocabulary is being actively developed for use in schools.

“Vepsians themselves are optimistic about the future of their language."

Elsewhere, the villages are more isolated and losing young people who could potentially become fluent speakers of Vepsian. On the other hand, the language is in closer connection with the traditional environment and daily life in the villages. There is a healthy Vepsian music community, including choirs and ensembles.

Even though Vepsian exists in a written variant, the spoken variant is equally important according to Siragusa. A language remains vital if it has active speakers.

“Vepsians themselves are optimistic about the future of their language. They don’t want to see themselves as victims. Vepsian has already survived the war, Stalin’s terror and Russian assimilation policies. There is hope.”


Listen to Stef Spronck speak in Ungarinyin about how he discovered the language, or Laura Siragusa recite a poem in Veps.