Minority Languages in Russia

I’ve been working on this article for at least a year now, but actually I think it has been in my files for longer, up to five years. You can see that much of the information is a bit out of date as a result. A lot of this information was translated from Russian sources. The translations to English were poor, so the whole mess needed a huge rewrite from mangled Russian to English translation to a more proper English.

I’ve done this a number of times before and it was never easy. For some reason this is always a lot harder than it seems. For one thing, I had to eliminate entire sentences because I couldn’t properly understand what they were saying or they were saying something that didn’t seem correct to me.

For that matter it is quite hard to rewrite something written in seriously mangled English by someone who can’t write or even worse by someone who has English as a second language and doesn’t write it well. You would think it would be easy to turn mangled English into proper English, but it’s just not.

This post is pretty long. It runs to 33 pages on the web. If it were in a book, it would run to 16 pages.

According to the Constitution of Russia, Russian is the official language on the whole territory of the Russian Federation, but regions are given the right to establish republics and set their own their national languages. The Constitution also guarantees the right of all the peoples of Russia to preserve their native language and to create conditions for its study and development.

According to the Basic Law of Languages, citizens have the right to use their native language as the language of communication, education, learning, and creativity.

We will now look at the study of native languages in the schools of the Russian Federation in the areas within the jurisdiction of the regional authorities. In Russian schools, 89 different languages are studied, of which 39 are used as the language of instruction.

Adygea

In 2007 Parliament passed a law mandating the compulsory study of the Adygean language for Adygean children in schools where Russian is the mode of instruction. However, this law was repealed in 2013. Recently, March 14 was designed the Day of the Speaking and Writing the Adyghe Language. Parents of preschoolers may also choose to put their children in Aegean-language public kindergartens.

The Ministry of Education and Science reported the results of Adygean language teaching in the schools: in 43 preschools, 4,759 Adygean children study the language. In 127 preschools, children are taught the basics of Adyghe culture, customs, and traditions.

All students in Russian-medium schools must study the history and geography of Adygea, and Russian-speaking pupils have a choice of studying Adyghe Language or Adyghe Literature. 22,000 students are currently studying Adygean Language, and 27,600 are studying Adygean Literature.

Altai

There are regular proposals from the Altai people and educators to mandate the compulsory study of the Altai languages Northern Altai and Southern Altai for Altai children. Both Northern and Southern Altai are divided into three divergent dialects each, so there are actually six separate Altai languages. The three languages of the northern and southern groups each were combined into a Northern Altai and Southern Altai official language respectively.

Recently, an attempt was made to pass such legislation, but government legal scholars felt the law would violate children’s rights.

In Gorno-Altaisk on March 15, 2014 at the 9th Session of the Altay Culture Meeting, representatives of the Altai people went further, adopting a resolution to mandate Altai languages study for all students, no matter their ethnicity. However, attendees warned about a Russian backlash.

They felt that such a law would inevitably lead to rising dissent among Russians and other non-Altaians in the republic. This unrest could conceivably lead to the elimination of republic status for the Altai Republic itself.

Bashkortostan

A law is in place in Bashkortostan mandating the compulsory study of the Bashkir language by all students. Each educational institution gets to decide how many hours per week they wish to devote to Bashkir study. Parents of Russian children regularly protest this law and propose to make the study of Bashkir voluntary instead. Chuvash parents have also protested the law. Ethnic tensions have heightened in the area recently.

Buryatia

The question of the possible introduction of compulsory study of the Buryat language in republic schools has been discussed recently and has wide public support. Recently, a video titled, Buryad Heleeree Duugarayal! – “Let’s Speak Buryat!,” was released, urging Buryats to not forget their native language.

However, regional authorities decided to keep the study of Buryat optional in the republic. A few deputies appealed the ruling, and various amendments were adopted at their request, but the amendments did not substantially change the authorities’ decision to keep Buryat study optional. Opponents of the idea of compulsory study of Buryat in the schools fear that it will lead to the emergence of ethnic tensions.

Chechnya

In Chechnya, the national language is taught in all schools of the republic as a separate subject. Since 95% of the population is a member of a titular ethnic group, there have been no protests about people being forced to study a non-native language. There are no problems with Chechen in the countryside – on the contrary, children in Chechen villages have a poor knowledge of Russian.

Despite the fact that the national language is widely used in everyday life, nevertheless, the scope of its use continues to steadily narrow. At the last roundtable of the Ministry of Culture of the Chechen Republic, officials noted what they felt was the alarming process of mixing Chechen and Russian in speech as well as a gradual tendency towards replacement of Chechen in the official sphere.

According to the director of the Institute of Education of the Chechen Republic, Abdullah Arsanukaev, the introduction of Chechen language instruction in the schools could ameliorate this situation. The government for its part is working to equalize Russian and Chechen ​​on the official level. It is expected to create a state commission for the conservation, development, and dissemination of the Chechen language.

Chukotka Autonomous Okrug

The main languages ​​in Chukotka are Chukchi, Eskimo, and Even. The government is now working on a program for the development of the these languages. So far, the Association of Indigenous Peoples of Chukotka has organized courses in Chukchi and Even.

Chukchi is the language of everyday communication for most Chukchi in the family and when engaging in traditional economic activities. In schools in Chukchi villages, Chukchi classes are compulsory in primary school and optional in high school.

Chuvashia

The Chuvash language is taught as a compulsory subject in schools and in a number of universities for one or two semesters.

“In the beginning, a lot of parents opposed their children studying Chuvash. But today I can say with confidence that these parents no longer feel this way. In contrast, some even want their the child to know the native language of Chuvashia, and probably rightly so,” says Olga Alekseeva, a teacher of Chuvash language and literature in School № 50 in Cheboksary.

The acuteness of the language issue in the country can be judged by recent events – in 2013, a court found Chuvash journalist Ille Ivanova guilty of inciting ethnic hatred for a publication about how the Chuvash language was disadvantaged in the Chuvash Republic.

Discussions around the native language exacerbated the recent language reform. According to opponents of reform, the new rules impoverished the language and could catalyze its Russification.

Crimea

The newly adopted constitution of the new Russian region declared three official languages ​​- Russian, Ukrainian, and Crimean Tatar. Education in schools will be carried out in these three languages​​.

Russian-speaking parents of children from Buryatia, Bashkortostan, and the Tatar Republic residing in Crimea have already appealed to the President of Russia and the leadership of Crimea requesting making the study of Ukrainian and Crimean Tatar voluntary in Crimea.

Activists fear that unless the law is rewritten, in the future, all children regardless of nationality will be obliged to study all three official languages. Signatories cite the example of their national republics, where Russian-speaking students have to learn a foreign language, the titular language of the republic.

Dagestan

The people of Dagestan speak 32 languages​​, although only 14 native languages are officially recognized. Elementary schools allow instruction in 14 different languages, depending on the region. The rest of the instruction is in Russian.

According to Murtazali Dugrichilova of the North Caucasus radio station Freedom, the native language of the ethnic group is spoken in the most parts of the country as the language of the home. “In rural areas, all of the local languages are spoken. In large cities such as or in Makhachkala or Derbent, teaching in national languages is optional,” he said.

In the future, at the suggestion of Ramadan Abdulatipova, Dagestan will form a commission on the use of Russian and local languages ​​of the republic. It is also expected that after the adoption of the law “On Languages ​​of the Republic of Dagestan,” all 32 languages ​​in the country will receive the status of the official language.

Director of the Institute of Language, Literature, and Art at the Dagestan Scientific Center Magomed Magomedov believes that after enactment of the new law, all of the native languages of the region will be present in the school system.

Dagestan took into consideration the negative experiences of other national republics in this area, and according to Magomedov, the law will prohibit demonstrations and pickets about language issues.

Ingushetia

According to the law “On the State Languages ​​of the Republic of Ingushetia,” Ingush and Russian are both used as official state languages in all educational institutions in the country.

Experts believe that the preservation and development of Ingush is necessary to ensure it is on an equal footing with Russian in all aspects in the republic. In addition, there has been a lot of discussion about the need to develop new words in Ingush for modern things such as industrial terminology.

Kabardino-Balkaria

In Kabardino-Balkaria, the debate over language issues flared up in connection with the adoption of amendments to the law “On Education.” The law mandates that both languages,​ Kabardian and Balkar, be used in education for children who have one of these languages as a mother tongue.

Kalmykia

According to the law “On Languages ​​of the Republic of Kalmykia,” in schools where instruction is in Russian, the Kalmyk language will be introduced starting in first grade as a compulsory school subject. Representatives of non-Kalmyks in the republic are unhappy with this law, but they have not said much about it.

Language activists point out that Kalmyk has a low status in Kalmykia. As an example, they cite the fact that cultural events and even national holiday celebrations are exclusively in Russian.

Karachay-Cherkessia

In the republic, Abaza, Karachay, Nogay, Circassian, and Russian are all official languages​​. The Constitution of the republic mandates compulsory education in the native language for students who have one of the above as a native language.

In addition, according to the law “On Education,” in those Russian-language schools, students who have a native language other than Russian must be taught their native language as a compulsory subject. National activists think that the best outcome is achieved when native languages are used as a mode of instruction and not taught as a special subject. At the moment, the republic is in the process of updating textbooks in Abaza, Karachay, Nogay, and Circassian.

Karelia

Karelia is the only national republic of the Russian Federation in which Russian is the only state language. One of the problems with raising the status of the Karelian language here has been the fact that Karelians are a minority in their own republic, and as a consequence, the republic has only a relatively small number of Karelian speakers.

Recently, President Anatoly Grigoryev of the Karelian Congress fielded a proposal to declare three official languages in Karelia ​​- Russian, Karelian, and Finnish. They modeled this notion on Crimea, where authorities promised to introduce trilingualism as the official policy.

National languages are optionally taught in preschool, elementary school, and high school. According to the Ministry of Education in 2013, 6,500 students studied Karelian, Finnish, and Veps.

Khakassia

As in many republics, the Khakass language is preserved mainly in rural areas that are densely populated by indigenous peoples. Compulsory Khakass language study is mandatory in all national schools in the republic.

Meanwhile, Political Science professor Gunzhitova Handa said that in Khakassia on September 1, 2014, Khakass classes became mandatory from grades 1-11, with an exam in Russian, Russian-Khakass, and Khakass schools.

Khanty-Mansiysk

According to NGO’s, there is only one native language course for the 4,000 speakers of Khanty and Mansi in the republic. Language loss in both languages has been accelerating in recent years. Representatives of youth organizations of indigenous peoples of the North have offered drastic solutions, including depriving national benefits to Khanty and Mansi peoples who do not know their native language.

According to the Hope Moldanova, president of the Ob-Ugric Peoples youth organization, “Young people have a different attitude towards their native language nowadays. Some of them are fluent in two languages but only understand but do not speak their native language, and others think it is sufficient to only know Russian, which is spoken by the majority.”

She too is concerned that the new generation is less interested in the national languages​​. Due to the low demand for the specialty, Ugra State University even closed its Finno-Ugric language Department.

Khanty still has 10,000 speakers in three divergent dialects.  The dialects are so divergent that they are actually separate languages. 40% of Khanty speak their language. In the north, Khanty is still widely spoken in the home, but a boarding school system often causes children to shift to Russian during school age.

In the east, there are still some child speakers but there has been a general shift to Russian. Intergenerational transmission of Khanty has stopped in the south. Schools in Khanty-speaking areas generally use Russian as  the mode of instruction.

Mansi has 1,000 speakers, 50% of the ethnic group. It formerly consisted of four highly divergent dialects, two of which have either gone extinct or are probably extinct. These dialects were so different that they were actually separate languages. Up to 50% of children are still brought up in Mansi. However, the population is shifting to Russian. Schools in the area generally use Russian.

The northern dialect has most of the remaining speakers. There are only a few remaining elderly speakers of the eastern dialect. The southern dialect went extinct before 1950, and the western dialect is probably also extinct.

Komi

The Ministry of Education introduced the compulsory study of Komi language from the first grade in 2011. Later that year, in September 2011, the Constitutional Court ruled that the study of the Komi language in schools of the republic was mandatory. Now schools may choose two different Komi language study programs – “like a native” (up to 5 hours per week) or “as a state language” (2 hours per week in the primary grades).

According to Natalia Mironova, an employee of the Komi Scientific Center’s Ural Branch, this has led to latent discontent among the youth. She said high school students do not understand why they should waste time studying the Komi language when it takes away precious time they could be using to study for their math exams.

Mari El

In the Republic of Mari El, where the official languages ​​are Russian and Mari (Meadow Mari and Hill Mari), mandatory study of Russian and one of the Mari languages was introduced in 2013. Analysts say that among the Russian population, there is growing dissatisfaction with the fact that they are forced to learn what they consider to be an unnecessary language, but there have been few protests about the matter.

Mordovia

The republic introduced the compulsory study of either the Erzya or Moksha languages ​​in all schools of the republic in 2006. Originally, mandatory study of these languages only took place in national schools in districts and villages where there were many Erzya and Moksha people residing. Prior, since 2004, teaching of these languages had been optional in Russian-language schools.

When the compulsory study of these languages was introduced, there ​​were signs of dissatisfaction on the part of the Russian-speaking parents. Now, the number of dissatisfied parents has significantly decreased, and their voice is almost imperceptible.

Nenets Autonomous Okrug

In NAO there are 43,000 people, of which about 7,500 are the members of the titular population, the Nenets. The main problem in the study of the Nenets languages, Forest Nenets and Tundra Nenets, is the lack of books and teachers.

Tundra Nenets still has a good number of speakers, but Forest Nenets is only spoken by a small population. Tundra Nenets has speakers of all ages and is still spoken by children. However, in the west of the republic, a shift to Komi and Russian is underway.

According the Lyudmila Taleevoy of the Methodist SBD Nenets Regional Center for Education Development, the pedagogy programs at the university level no longer prepare specialists in teaching Nenets. Instead, children are taught Nenets by Russian-speaking teachers who studied Nenets when they were students. An old outdated Nenets grammar is used in instruction.

North Ossetia

According to the regional law on languages​​, children have the right to choose schooling in one of two languages – Russian or Ossetian. Ossetian consists of two dialects, Iran and Digorian. The two dialects are so divergent that they are basically separate languages.

According Ossetian journalist Zaur Karaev, all students who have another language as a native tongue, such as Armenians, Ukrainians, Azerbaijanis, and others, must study their native languages in language classes in the primary grades. The language teaching program is more complicated in high school.

Tatarstan

In Tatarstan, where only half of the population is a member of the titular ethnic group, the Tatars, the study of the Tatar language is compulsory for all. Non-Tatar speaking parents regularly protest this law. They even appealed to the Prosecutor’s Office claiming that the law discriminated against Russian-speaking students, but an inquiry by the prosecutor’s office found no violations.

Meanwhile, Tatar nationalists for their part remain alarmed about the state of the Tatar language. According to them, Tatar has a low status in the republic – for instance, in the streets, most writing on storefronts is in Russian, not Tatar. There are also problems with Tatar in TV media, and there is no university that conducts all of its teaching in Tatar.

Nevertheless, the republic regularly implements Tatar language projects and programs, a recent one being the introduction of the Tatar study in kindergartens.

Tuva

In contrast to most of the other republics, in Tuva, it is the Russian language that is in bad shape, not the titular language, Tuva, which is in much better shape. In 2008, a report noted that Russian was in terrible shape in Tuva.

According to Valerie Kahn, a researcher in the Sociology and Political Science Departments at the Tuvan Institute of Humanitarian Research, the authorities were forced to pay attention to this problem. 2014 was declared the Year of the Russian Language in Tuva. As a consequence, systematic measures have been taken to ensure that children in rural areas can learn Russian.

According to Khan, the Tuvan language is in excellent shape. Travelers also note that residents of the republic mostly communicate in Tuvan, although most signs on the streets are in Russian.

Meanwhile Tuvan journalist Oyumaa Dongak believes that the national language is oppressed. On her blog she notes that it is difficult to find Tuvans who speak pure Tuvan without Russian admixture, and even in the government, most employees do not know Tuvan. At the same time, she points out that the state allocated $210 million for the development of the Russian language and nothing for Tuvan.

Udmurtia

The State Council of Udmurtia recently rejected an initiative on compulsory study of the Udmurt language  in the schools of the republic.

Earlier, a similar initiative was made by the association “Udmurt Kenesh.” According to them, the compulsory study of the Udmurt will fight the loss of the Udmurt language in families where the parents do not speak Udmurt with their children as well as develop a culture of multilingualism among citizens. Russian activists have sharply opposed the proposals.

According to the interim head of Udmurtia, Alexander Solovyov, the budget annually allocates money for teaching and training in the titular language.

Yakutia

According to the law of the Sakha Republic “On Languages”, the languages ​​of instruction in secondary schools are Sakha or Yakut, Evenki, Even, Yukaghir, Dolgan, and Chukchi, and Russian in Russian-language schools.

In the non-Russian medium schools, Russian is taught as a subject. Local official languages of various parts of the republic ​​are also taught as a subject in Russian schools in areas in the north where there are large numbers of Evenki, Even, Yukaghir, Dolgan, and Chukchi speakers. In spite of the measures to preserve native languages other than Yakut, all except Yakut have been losing speakers in recent years.

In fact, Evenki, Even, Yukaghir, Dolgan, and Chukchi are only used as the principal means of communication in seven villages and towns. In all other places, most residents no longer speak those languages, and the languages are used mostly by the middle aged and elderly, and even then only in the home or in families that preserve traditional lifestyles like reindeer herding.

In Even areas, Even is taught as a subject from preschool through primary school. Even is an  endangered language. Even has 5,500 speakers.

In areas where the Evenki live, Evenki is taught from preschool through primary school, with an optional course in the eighth grade. Evenki is considered an endangered language. It has 25,000 speakers.

Dolgan, a language very closely related to Sakha, only has 1,000 speakers, and the number continues to decline. Mixed marriages are a problem as when a Dolgan speaker marries a speaker of another language, the children are raised in Russian and hence inter-generational transmission is broken. However, Dolgan is still spoken by all ages and is still being learned by children.

Chukchi still has 5,000 speakers and is considered to be in good shape. It is used in mother tongue education in regions where Chukchis predominate.

Yamal-Nenets Autonomous Okrug

Yamal-Nenets Autonomous Okrug faces problems common to republics where languages with only small numbers of speakers remain. The main indigenous languages ​​spoken here are Nenets, Khanty, and Selkup.

YaNAO has problems with  shortages of teachers for all three languages for both native language study classes and mother tongue education, which is offered in the nomadic schools. Other problems these languages face are language teachers who lack language teaching skills for beginning language learners and a shortage of instructional materials in the languages.

The Selkup language has 1,000 speakers, but it is in fairly good shape. It is only taught in the north of the speaker region and even there only until the fourth grade. In a couple of areas of the north, the language is still spoken by Selkups of all ages and also spoken by non-Selkups who reside there. In the north, 90% of Selkups continue to speak their language. In the south it is down to 30%.

Problems

Virtually all minority languages in Russia suffer because parents and students themselves prefer to learn and speak Russian. This is not surprising, as Russian is not only spoken by the majority of the population, but it also remains the main language of interethnic communication in multinational Russia.

Students must pass the compulsory USE exam, a Russian proficiency test, in order to graduate from high school, hence students tend to study Russian more than other languages, including their own native language, in order to pass the test.

Nevertheless the fact remains that the native language remains the basis for the culture and preservation of the ethnic group. If the languages dies, the culture and in a sense the group itself die with it. Hence, promotion of native languages remains an important goal in Russia. Each region is trying to solve the native language problem in its own particular way.

Compulsory study of the official language of the particular region for all students has not had good results. For example, in Tatarstan, all students are required to study Tatar whether even if their native language is not Tatar.

This led to opposition by Russian-speaking parents who saw no use in their children studying Tatar. Further, it has led to the feeling that people who do not speak the language of the titular republic are being oppressed on the basis of their nationality.

Voluntary native language classes in schools do not lead to increased interest in native languages among youth. Realizing this, many regional governments have begun moving the national native language more into day to day life; for instance, by translating books and street signs into the national language.

Communication in the family itself from p parents to children remains the best way to preserve native languages. Peoples who pursue traditional occupations also tend to preserve their languages longer. Also, not everything can be translated into Russian. For instance, in the north, people still use their native language for items and concepts that have no good translation in Russian.

With the Internet has come increased interest among native peoples in preserving their culture and consequently the Net now offers more opportunities to learn native languages. On the other hand, the presence of Russian on the Net had a bad effect on native languages.

For instance, with the advent of the Internet, many more Russian borrowings and neologisms went into native languages. In addition, people on the Net using native languages often do not write their languages properly. This leads to impaired learning of the correct rules and spelling of the language.

As the head of the Center for National Education Problems FIRO MES Artyomenko Olga, a number of republics are reducing the hours of Russian instruction in the schools.

According to her, changes in the laws are needed in order to remove tension between ethnic groups and improve the quality of language instruction.

In particular, she recommended the removal of terms such as “non-Russian native,” “nonnative Russian,” and “Russian as a foreign language” from the laws of Russia.

A bill to update the legal place of the native languages of Russia has been in the works for a long period of time by the State Duma Committee of Nationalities. The bill has been received positively by the regions. Nevertheless, it has not yet passed the Duma.

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How I Determined Intelligibility For Turkic Lects

Steve: This is amazing. Well done. But how can you possibly know the degree of mutual intelligibility between two languages you don’t speak or know if something is a language or dialect when you don’t speak it? That seems strange. How is it worked out?

Linguists don’t speak all these languages we study. We just study languages, we don’t necessarily speak them. This is confused with the archaic use of the word linguist to mean polyglot. Honestly, many linguists do in fact speak more than one language, and quite a few of them have a pretty good knowledge of at least some of the languages that they study. But my mentor speaks only Turkish and English though he studies all Turkic languages. I don’t believe he has ever learned to speak any Turkic lect other than Turkish.
In reference to my paper here.
We are not looking for raw numbers. We just want to know if they can understand each other or not.
A lot of it is from talking to native speakers and also there was a lot of reading papers by other linguists. I also talked to other linguists a lot. Linguists typically simply state if two lects are intelligible or not. Also there is a basic idea among linguists of what the boundary is between a language and a dialect, and I used this knowledge a lot.
Can they understand each other? Yes or no. That’s pretty much about it. Also at some degree of structural difference, we can see the difference between a language and a dialect. It’s a judgement call, but linguists are pretty good at this.
There is a subsection of very loud linguists, mostly on the Internet, who like to screech a lot about this question cannot be answered by answered because of this or that red herring or some odd conundrums that work their way in. The thing is if you ask around enough, you will be able to get around all of the conundrums and you should be able to eventually reconcile all of the divergent responses to get some sort of a holistic or “big picture.” You finally “figure it out.” The answer to the question comes to you in a sort of a “seeing the answer as part of a larger picture” sort of thing.
The worst red herring is this notion that speakers from Group A will lie and say they do not understand speakers of Group B simply because they hate them so much. If this was such a concern, you would have think I would have run into it at some point. A much worse problem were ethnic nationalists who lie and say that they can understand neighboring tongues when they can’t.
The toxin called Pan-Turkism or Turkish ultranationalism comes into play here. It is almost normal for Turks to believe that there is only one Turkic languages, and it is called Turkish. All of the rest of the languages simply do not exist and are dialects of Turkish. I had to deal with regular attacks by extremely aggressive Ataturkists who insisted that any Turk could easily understand any other Turkic language. Actually my adviser told me that my piece would not be popular with the Pan-Turkics at all. I don’t really care as I consider them to be pond scum.
Granted, some of it was quite controversial and I got variable reports on intelligibility for some lects like Siberian Tatar vs. Tatar, the Altai languages, Kazakh vs. Kirghiz, Crimean Tatar vs. Turkish.
Where native speakers differ on such questions, often vociferously, you simply ask enough of them, talk to some experts and try to get a feel for that what best answer to the question is.
Some cases like Gagauz vs. Turkish probably need raw intelligibility testing. That’s the only one that is up in the air right now, but it is up in the air because the lects are so close. Intelligibility between Gagauz and Turkish is somewhere between  70-100%. In other words, they have marginal intelligibility at worst. My Gagauz expert who knows this language better than anyone though feels that Turkish intelligibility of Gagauz is less than 90%, which is where I drew the line at language and dialect.
It is also starting to look like Nogay is a simply a dialect of Kazakh instead of a separate language, but that might be a hard sell.
Some of these are seen as separate languages simply because they are spoken by different ethnies who do not want to be seen as part of the same group. Also they have different literary norms. Karapalkak is just a Kazakh dialect, but the speakers want to say they speak a separate language. Same with Bashkir, which is simply a dialect of Tatar. The case of Kazakh and Kirghiz is more controversial, but even here, we seem to be dealing with one language, yet the two dialects are spoken by different ethnies that have actually differentiated into two separate states, each with their own literary norm. Kazakhs wish to say they speak a language c called Kazakh and Kirghiz wish to say they speak a language called Kirghiz although they are probably really just one language.
We see a similar thing with Czech and Slovak. My recent research has proven that Czech and Slovak are actually a single language. But the dialects are spoken by different ethnic groups who claim different cultures and histories and they have actually divided into two different states, and each has its own literary norm.
It is here, where dialects become languages not via science by via politics, culture, history and sociology, that Weinrich’s famous dictum that “a language is a dialect with an army and a navy” comes into play.
Scientifically, these are all simply dialects of a single tongue but we call them languages for sociological, cultural and political reasons.

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A Few Words on Language Endangerment

Carlos Lam: Congrats! However, isn’t language death a rather standard occurrence among societies?

It is, but we linguists don’t really like it. It is quite a debate going on, but the bottom line seems to be that ethnic groups and speaker groups have the right to ownership of their languages. We worry that a lot of speaker groups are being pressured into blowing up their languages prematurely. We like to study these languages and we are not real happy about seeing them vanish into the horizon. On the other hand, is cultural death a natural thing too? Both cultural death and language death are occurring at rates far beyond the normal background rates. English and some of the other major languages are like weapons of mass destruction in taking out languages. You really want a world with one language and one culture? I don’t.
The best position seems to be that speakers have the right to decide the fate of their languages. If speakers wish to continue speaking their languages, then governments and linguists should help them to preserve and continue to develop their languages. Quite a few groups do not seem to care that their languages are going are extinct or they are even driving or drove their languages extinct, and they have the full right to do so. In these cases, we will simply do salvage linguistics. There are many salvage linguistics projects going on in the world today.
You won’t get very far with linguists arguing that language death is a good thing. Most people don’t think so.
Occurring at the same time as language death is a lot of language revitalization. Even fully dead languages are being resurrected from the grave. Also in addition to language death, we are creating new languages all the time. In this piece, I created a total of net 13 new languages. And new languages are occurring on their own.
To give you an example. A group of Crimean Tatars moved from Crimea to Turkey about 200 years ago in the course of the Crimean War. They have been speaking Crimean Tatar in Turkey ever since, for 200 years now. But in that time, Crimean Tatar in Turkey and Crimean Tatar in Ukraine has diverged so much that Turkish Crimean Tatar is now, in my opinion, a fully separate tongue from the Ukrainian language. This is because in Turkey, a lot of Turkish has gone into Turkish Crimean Tatar which is not well understand in the Ukraine. And in the Ukraine, a lot of Russian has gone in which is not well understood in Turkey. Hence, Crimean Tatar speakers in Turkey and Ukraine can no longer understand each other well.
To give you another example, there are many Kazakh speakers in China. However, Kazakh speakers in China can no longer understand Standard Kazakh broadcasts from Kazakhstan because so many Russian loans have gone into Standard Kazakh that it is no longer intelligible with Chinese Kazakh speakers. I learned this too late for my paper, otherwise I would have split Chinese Kazakh off as a separate language.
There are many cases like this.
Further, many languages are being discovered. Sonqori, Western Khalaj, Todzhin, Duha, Dukha and Siberian Tatar are just a few of the new languages that I created. Khorosani Turkic was split into three different languages. Dayi was subsumed into one of the Khorosani Turkic languages. Altai was split from one into five separate languages, but the truth is that it is six languages, not five. Salar was split into Western Salara and Eastern Salar. Ili Turki was eliminated becuase it does not even exist. It is simply a form of Uighur. Kabardian and Balkar, Tatar and Bashkir, Kazakh and Kirghiz were some languages that were eliminated and subsumed into single tongues such as Tatar-Bashkir, Kazakh-Kirghiz, and Kabardian-Balkar. And on and on.
Languages and of course dialects are dying all the time, but new languages are being created by humans and by linguists as we continue our splitting projects. Many lects referred to as dialects are more properly seen as separate languages. Chinese is at least 450 separate languages, only 14 of which are recognized. German may be up to 130 separate languages, only 20 of which are recognized.
There are quite a few more languages to be created out there, but there is a lot of resistance to splitters like me from more conservative linguists and especially from linguistic nationalists. For while Chinese may well be over 1,000 languages, the Chinese government is anti-scientifically insistent that there is but one Chinese language and maybe 2,000 “dialects,” most of which are probably separate languages. The German government is quite resistant to the idea that there is more than one form of German, though I believe Bavarian and Swiss German have official status in Austria and Switzerland.

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Mutual Intelligibility Among the Turkic Languages

Turkic is a large family of about 40 languages stretching from Turkey all the way to China. Most of the languages are pretty close, and it’s often been said that they are all mutually intelligible, and that you can go from Turkey all the way to the Yakut region of Siberia and be understood the whole way.

This is certainly not the case, although there is something to it. That is because the languages, while generally not above 90% mutually intelligible which is the requirement to be dialects, do have varying degrees of intelligibility. That is, there is some intelligibility between most of the Turkic languages but generally below 90%.

The truth is that mutual intelligibility in Turkic is much less than proclaimed.

Azeri is spoken in Azerbaijan. Turkish and Azeri are often said to be completely mutually intelligible, but this is not true, though the situation is interesting. The two are not mutually intelligible. The far eastern dialects of Turkish are closer to Azeri than to Turkish. Turkish has an average of 69% intelligibility with Azeri calculated via three separate studies. After a few weeks of close contact, they can often communicate pretty well. Written intelligibility is much higher and Turks may have up to 95% intelligiblity of written Azeri.

Intelligibility is increasing now now due to increased contact. Nowadays due to exposure to Turkish TV, most Azeri speakers can speak Turkish well, and due to exposure to Azeri TV, Turks understand a lot more Azeri than they used to.

Kazakh and Kirghiz are also close, enough to be one language, with intelligibility over 90%. In addition, they have been growing closer recently. Kazakh is spoken in Kazakhstan, and Kirghiz is spoken in Kyrgyzstan.

Tatar and Bashkir are even closer than Kazakh and Kirghiz and they are best seen as a single language, with intelligibility of over 90%.

Uzbek and Uyghur are fairly close, but they are still probably only 65-70% intelligible. Uzbek is spoken in Uzbekistan, and Uighur is spoken Xinjiang Province, China.

Uzbek and Kazakh are not mutually intelligible, but there is an intelligible dialect between them.

Tofa and Tuvan are not mutually intelligible, but there are intelligible dialects linking them. Both are spoken in Russia in the same region as Altai below.

The truth is that Altai and Uzbek are not even intelligible within themselves.

Altai is spoken in the Altai region of Russia where China, Russia and Mongolia all come together. Altai is split into North Altai and South Altai, separate languages.

Uzbek is split into North Uzbek and South Uzbek, separate languages.

Azeri is split into North Azeri and South Azeri, although the two are mutually intelligible, there are large differences in phonology, morphology, syntax and loan words. Nevertheless, they are very mutually intelligible, with intelligibility at 98%. The split was probably done for political reasons, as North Azeri is the official language of Azerbaijan and South Azeri is a language spoken in Northwest Iran.

The Oghuz languages are said to be fully mutually intelligible, but that’s not really the case. The question of the intelligibility of Turkmen with Azeri and Turkish is controversial, as some sources say that they are mostly mutually intelligible. Intelligibility testing is warranted.

Turkish has uncertain intelligibility with Crimean Tatar. Crimean Tatar speakers say that Turks cannot understand their language (Dokuzlar 2010). However, Turkish speakers say that Turks and Crimean Tatar speakers can converse without too many problems. However, while mutual intelligibility is high, it is probably under 70%. Intelligibility testing is warranted. One problem is that Southern Crimean Tatar is a simply a dialect of Turkish, while Central and Northern Crimean Tatar are part of a separate language from Turkish.

Turkish has high, but not full, intelligiblity of Karaim. Turkish intelligibility of Karaim may be 65-70%. Intelligibility testing is warranted.

The intelligibility of Turkish with South Azeri may be quite high, on the order of 90% (however, some South Azeri speakers say that while they can understand North Azeri just fine, they have a hard time understanding Turkish, which calls the 90% figure into question), higher than between Turkish and North Azeri, which itself is ~70%. Intelligiblity between Turkish and South Azeri is the highest between Turkish and any other language.

The intelligibility of Turkish and Khorasani Turkic is probably around 40%.

Practically speaking, Turkish has low intelligibility with Kazakh (Kipchak Branch), Uyghur and Uzbek (Uyghuric branch) and Khakas (Siberian branch). Turkish-Kazakh intelligibility is surely less than 40%. There is also low intelligibility between Turkish and Bashkir, Nogay, Kyrghyz and Tatar (Kipchak Branch). Turkish has very low written intelligibility of Tatar (~5%) and Kazakh (0%).

Turkic has effectively 0% intelligibility with Yakut or Sakha.

The intelligibility of Turkish with the Central Asian Turkic languages like Uzbek, Kazakh, Kyrghyz and Turkmen is much exaggerated.

Speakers of these languages who went to study in Turkey said they had problems with the Turkish language. It’s true that Turkish TV is not much watched in the Central Asian Turkic nations, but the main reason for that is that Central Asian Turkic speakers can’t understand it. They can’t even understand the simplified Turkish used in these broadcasts. After the fall of the USSR, people from these new nations visited Turkey, but they had to bring interpreters with them to communicate.

In truth, the whole notion of the mutual intelligibility of all Turkish is a pan-Turkic conceit. Pan-Turkism is a noxious form of ultranationalism headquartered in Turkey. It says that all speakers of Turkic languages are part of a Greater Turkey and often uses ominous irredentist language implying that Turkey is going to conquer all the Turkic lands and take them back.

The Pan-Turkics have a snide attitude towards other Turkic speakers, insisting that they all speak dialects of Turkish and not separate languages. This snideness is resented by speakers of other Turkic tongues.

A number of Turkic languages are nothing more than dialects and not full languages.

Ukrainian Urum is a dialect of Crimean Tatar, and Georgian Urum is a dialect of Turkish. Ukrainian Urum is spoken in SE Ukraine, and Crimean Tatar is spoken on the Crimean Peninsula.

Salchuq is an Azeri dialect. It is spoken in Iran.

However, Qashqai, also spoken in Iran, often thought to be an Azeri dialect, is in fact a separate but closely related language with 75-80% intelligibility of South Azeri.

Gagauz has high intelligibility with Turkish. However, Bulgarians say that when Turks visit the Balkan Gaguaz communities in Bulgaria, the two groups have a hard time understanding each other. SIL says that not only Gagauz but also Balkan Gagauz Turkish are separate languages, but one wonders what criteria they are using to split them. The Gagauz are Christians living in Moldavia who strangely enough speak a Turkish language with many Christian Slavic loanwords. The Balkan Gagauz Turks live in Bulgaria, far west Turkey, Greece and Macedonia, but most of them live in Bulgaria.

Kumyk is said to be said to be intelligible with Azeri, which would make it a dialect of Azeri. However, this assertion is yet unproven, so for now, Kumyk should remain a separate language. Kalmyk is spoken in Dagestan.

Karakalpak is so close to Kazakh, with 98% intelligibility, that it is a dialect of Kazakh. Karakalpak is spoken in Western Uzbekistan.

Chulym and Shor are often thought to be dialects of a single language. Not only is this not true, but Shor itself is two separate languages – Mrass Shor and Kondoma Shor – and Chulym is also two separate languages – Lower Chulym and Chulym. Chulym and Shor are spoken north of the Altai Mountains in the Ob River Basin near the city of Novokuznetsk.

Further research regarding the intelligibility of these languages is indicated.

References

Uygar Dokuzlar, Crimean Tatar speaker. April 2010. Personal communication.

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