Wednesday, February 17, 2016

‘Practically All’ North Caucasus Languages Will Die Out This Century

NOTE: Professor Tuite informs that while he agrees with the conclusions offered in the Onkavkaz article, he was not the author of this article. I have recast the article to reflect that fact.

Paul Goble

            Staunton, February 17 – “Practically all” of the indigenous languages of the North Caucasus will die out in the coming decades because there are so few speakers left of so many of them and because other languages, including Russian, Turkish and English, are displacing them, according to UNESCO research..

             UNESCO experts now list among the “dying” languages of the region Adygey, Kabardino-Cherkess, Karachayevo-Balkar, Ingush, Chechen, Abkhaz, Osetin and “a number of others” as well (

            In Daghestan alone, “residents speak more than 50 local indigenous languages,” but these languages have not developed: they remain as they arose in medieval times and thus lack the vocabulary to discuss modern processes.  Moreover, most are spoken by so few people that there is no reason to think that they will survive.

            Attempts at saving these languages by increasing instruction in them in schools are doomed to failure, the international organization says. “For these languages to survive in the contemporary world, they must be competitive in the contemporary information society of high technologies and rapid social change.” That is a bigger challenge than most of these language communities can meet.

            As a result,  “approximately a century from now, one can forget about the languages of the North Caucasus.” They will then survive if at all only in villages in the mountains. “But the main core of the population of the Caucasus republics will speak Russian,” although some are likely to “completely go over to English, Turkish or Arabic.”

                Scholars have tracked the deaths of many languages. At present, about two languages around the world die each month. First these languages are restricted to home use, then only to the elderly, and finally the latter die out and the language and the community it supports dies with it.

            Sometimes languages can make a comeback if there is a strong political will to help them do so, but such examples are rare and there is no reason to believe that the North Caucasus will add to their number.

            Two things this article does not address, however, may be even more important for the political development of region. On the one hand, it sometimes happens that a nation does not become fully conscious of itself until it stops speaking its national language and adopts the language of empire. Ireland, India and some of the smaller nations in the former USSR are clear examples.

            And on the other, the rise of lingua francas like Russian or Arabic may allow these peoples to cooperate and even resist those who now rule them.  Shamil could not have assembled his armies without Arabic, and many Chechens who have fought against Moscow acquired allies because both they and the others speak Russian in addition to or instead of their native tongues.

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