Dagestani Languages at Risk of Becoming ‘Illegal’

October 29, 2014
Photo by chernovik.ru

Staunton, October 29 – Officials in Dagestan, the most linguistically diverse republic in the Russian Federation, are preparing a new language law that calls for official support of 28 languages and effectively makes the others “illegal” by depriving them of any chance for support and in some cases for survival, according to Kavkazskaya Politika.

While such legislation would affect only some of the smaller language groups in one North Caucasian republic, it could easily become a precedent for other regions and republics in the Russian Federation given the provisions of the October 1991 Russian Federation law on languages that still remains on the books.

And that in turn could open the way for the destruction of many languages already identified by the United Nations as being at risk, either as the result of a political decree from above as has often been the case in Russia or as the result of a new ethnic politics in which some larger groups refuse to recognize smaller ones lest their own numbers be reduced.

Kavkazskaya Politika’s Said Ninalalov, a speaker of Kubachi which is one of the Dahestani languages that is at risk, points out that the 1991 Russian law guarantees “all peoples regardless of their number the right to preserve and develop their native language and the freedom to choose it as a language of instruction.

Because almost all of the federal subjects are multi-ethnic, the 1991 law calls for each of them to adopt a corresponding regional law. Several times, officials and politicians have tried to do so, Ninalalov says, but nothing has come of it, with all the attempts fading quietly away. Now, republic head Ramazan Abdulatipov is making another attempt.

In January, he called for the adoption of such a law and said that it must include a listing of “all the indigenous languages” of Daghestan as well has specifying what must be done to ensure “their support and development.” Obviously, in a republic as ethnically and linguistically diverse as Daghestan, doing so is no easy task.

There are more than 30 ethnoses, some autochthonian and others representatives of neighboring peoples like the Chechens and Azerbaijanis or those further afield like the ethnic Russians and Ukrainians. Many of the smaller linguistic communities are classified as non-literary and thus at risk of disappearing if parents do not pass on the language to their children.

In modern times, the number of officially recognized languages in Daghestan has been changed time and time again, Ninalolov says. Up until 1938, people could describe themselves as they wanted to, but in that year, “at the initiative of that well-known specialist on linguistics Joseph Stalin, many languages were officially suppressed.”

As a result, only 14 “so-called titular peoples” remained: the Avars, the Aguls, the Azerbaijanis, the Dargins, the Kumyks, the Lakses, the Lezginsk, the Nogays, the Russians, the Rutuls, the Tabasarans, the Tats, the Tsakhurs, and the Chechens. Each has subdivisions which it is reluctant to acknowledge lest its relative size in Daghestan as a whole be reduced.

There is a second Russian law which affects Daghestan in this area, Ninalolov says. That is the law on the guarantees for the rights of small indigenous peoples of the Russian Federation. It too requires the regions to adopt a corresponding law, and Dagestan has done so, declaring the 14 languages “officially” recognized to fall under its terms.

At the present time, the journalist continues, Dagestani officials are preparing draft legislation to meet the 1991 requirements. There are two drafts. They vary in many respects, but they are identical regarding the number of peoples of ethoses. Both specify that there are not 14 or 33 but 28.

But this list is “to put it mildly” incomplete, Ninalalov says, pointing out that it does not include his own language, Kubachi, even though the latter is now very much a literary language thanks to the efforts of local teachers and his own father who has financed the publication of books in Kubachi.

He points out that since the time of Stalin, Kubachi has been considered “a non-literary dialect of Dargin,” but “by generally accepted scientific criteria, it is a separate language,” one that is more different from Dargin than “for example, Ukrainian is from Russian.” At a minimum then, Dagestan should have 29 languages receiving support, but in fact, the number is much larger.

Just how many languages Dagestan has should be decided not by politicians interested in boosting their own group or officials concerned only with controlling the situation, but by scholars working in the area, he says. Daghestan has such scholars. They should be allowed to do their job and only after they do can anyone accurately compile a list of the languages of Dagestan’s peoples.