Staunton, August 29 – For many peoples, the death of their languages marks the beginning of the end of their national existences. But for others, the death of the one does not affect the life of the other. Indeed, some nations become more vital and nationalistic only after they stop speaking what some of their members consider their “national” languages.
In the West, the classic example of that latter pattern are the Irish who did not become nationalistic at least in the modern sense until almost all of its members stopped speaking Gaelic and spoke the English of their British occupiers. Now, another case of this may be emerging in the North Caucasus with the Ossetians.
Indeed, Zaur Karayev says, “the number of those who speak Ossetian is sharply declining despite the fact that the number of Ossetians is increasing.” According to the 2010 census, among the 705,000 residents of North Ossetia, 450,000 identified as Ossetians, while 370,000 said they spoke Ossetian.
And those numbers may understate the size of the problem not only because several thousand members of other nationalities living in the republic declare that they speak Ossetian but also because the census relies on unverified declarations of knowledge, something that almost inevitably means that the number claiming knowledge is greater than the number having it.
However that may be, Karayev says, Ossetian is in trouble as a language even if the Ossetians are surviving as a nation, and reflecting the former reality, UNESCO has included Ossetian in its list of dying languages already for several years even though it remains under the terms of the republic constitution, a government language alongside Russian.
Republic officials working with UNESCO experts have sought to reverse the slide in knowledge of the language by various means. Sometimes these are inadequately financed but they do exist. One that gives promise is the setting up of Ossetian-language pre-schools so that very young Ossetians will learn their national language before they learn Russian.
That program has given sufficient promise that educators from Chechnya and Bashkortostan have adopted it for their republics, Karayev says. But the problems of the Ossetian language have not been solved. Instead, as he found in a “sociological experiment” on the streets of Vladikavkaz, they are bad and appear to be getting worse.
Karayev asked people he met whether they “knew” the Ossetian language. Thirty-six percent said they knew it fluently; 32 percent said they knew it well, 11 percent said they did not know more than a few phrases. “Not all of the respondents were Ossetians,” he acknowledged. But even these figures suggest that Ossetians know their language much less well than official statistics suggest.
Moreover, Karayev continues, the situation may soon get a lot worse. The Russian Duma is about to take up legislation that would eliminate the requirement in the non-Russian republics that residents be required to study the language of the titular nationality. Many linguists from the republics have already warned about the disastrous consequences such a law would have.
But even if it is not adopted, there are worrisome underlying trends at work that seem set to push Ossetian language competence down even as the Ossetian nation continues to grow in numbers. Many parents simply don’t know Ossetian well enough to pass it on to their children and see no reason to given that many Ossetians will find their future outside of the republic.
The declining use of the national language, however, may ultimately say little about the survival and attitudes of the Ossetian nation. After all, Indian nationalism was promoted more by an English-speaking lawyer named Gandhi than any Hindi-speaking peasant. Indeed, the national movements in most former French and British colonies were led by those who had learned the language of empire.
Whether that will prove to be the case with the Ossetians remains unclear, but no one should write off a nation that continues to increase in numbers simply because it is losing one of its national attributes. Obviously for the Ossetians as for other nations, the other characteristics continue to be more important – and ultimately lead to a rebirth of the language as well.