​Maintenance of the Circassian language in Jordan

Maintenance of the Circassian language in Jordan

Maintenance of the Circassian language in Jordan: self-identification, attitudes and practices as indicators of linguistic vitality

The Research was conducted by Ulle Rannut in the framework of  Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Fellowship Award at the American Center of Oriental Research (ACOR)  in Amman, 2007 and 2011.

9990607The research project “Maintenance of the Circassian Language in Jordan” was supported by an A. W. Mellon grant in 2007 and 2011 at the American Center of Oriental Research. The aim of the study was to analyze and explain the impact of ethno-linguistic self-identification, symbolic attitudes, personal beliefs and official language ideologies on minority language practices by examining the maintenance of the Circassian language in Jordan. The main focus was on UNESCO Language Vitality and Endangerment Factors (UNESCO, 2003) 1 – the absolute number of minority language speakers and the proportion of speakers within the total population, 2 – language policies, attitudes and beliefs, and 3 – language practices, including intergenerational language transmission, instruction and use in new domains,e.g., National Adiga Radio and Television (NART TV).

The number of Circassians in Jordan

The topic is relevant because little research has been conducted on minority language policy issues and the factors influencing the maintenance of the Circassian language in Jordan. Circassians are one of the invisible expatriate minorities living in the Middle East where the actual number of people belonging to these minorities is not known precisely, but only estimated. Data on the total number and proportion of ethnic groups appears to be an object of frequent manipulation in Jordan, where ethnic groups are a politically sensitive issue and official data pertaining to them is not available from the Department of Statistics. The census taken in 1933 by the British Government was the only one where people in Jordan were ethnically distinguished, and it therefore disclosed the total number of the Circassian population to be at 5,850. During this research on the Circassians in Jordan it appears that the the number of Circassians increases rapidly in Jordan, contrary to the expected decrease (from 5,000 to 100,000) and the same is true in Turkey (from 277,000 to 2 million). As it is demographically impossible to number the population, the aim of the current research was to provide estimates on the most reliable size of the Circassian diaspora in Jordan and investigate the reasons for the manipulation with numbers. Here, several factors including immigration, political context as well as the fear of loss of privileges (e.g. seats in Parliament) are considered. The topic is relevant because in the long run, the manipulation with numbers in the media augurs more harm than profit to the Circassian community, as it renders all other facts they present equally unreliable.

Ethno-linguistic self-identification and language use

One of the aims of current research was to examine the factors that influence ethnic and linguistic self-identification and intergenerational language loss among Circassians in Jordan. Accommodation theory in social psychological research suggests that ingroup identification and positive language attitudes are important precursors of language maintenance, learning and revitalisation. Ethnic and linguistic self-identification represents linguistic attitudes and behaviour as well as the extent to which one identifies with a particular ethnic and linguistic group. The survey revealed that all students of Circassian ethnic origin (92%) identified themselves as Circassians, and 5% of students identified their ethnic affiliation as Chechen. Students did not avail themselves of the opportunity to define their ethnic affiliation more precisely (Adyghe, Kabardian, Shapsugh, Bzhedugh, etc.), although many people did so in personal interviews. Survey results revealed, however, that students’ linguistic self-identification was much more precise. 64 percent of students identified themselves as Circassian language speakers, divided into four different groups of dialects: Circassian, Bzhedugh, Kabardian and Abzakh. This confirms that linguistic affiliation is still a strong indicator of self-identification. The survey results and interviews conducted in 2011 confirmed that the Circassian language is seen as a key symbol of self-identification. Circassians say that one who does not have a language does not have a nation. This proverb was constantly repeated during the interviews. However, linguistic self-identification does not mean that people can actually speak these languages or use them in daily life.

Among minority groups in which a language shift has occurred in the recent past, the symbolic value of language may be maintained in the absence of a communicative function. Language may be connected with group identity even if it is not used regularly or, indeed, known at all. Thus, strong linguistic self-identification does not necessarily mean that a community has maintained its language and that it is used as a means of communication within the community. The survey results demonstrate that the Circassian language is primarily a symbolic marker and that linguistic affiliation is based on self-identification rather than on actual language proficiency and use. 62% of students surveyed use Arabic exclusively when communicating at home, and the total proportion of Arabic speakers was 85%. A survey of 162 parents revealed that 80% used only or mainly Arabic when communicating at home, and a very small number of parents used only or mainly Circassian. Interviews with community members confirmed that the elderly can speak more fluently and conduct longer conversations than young people; however, this is rare even among the older generation.

The impact of symbolic attitudes on language maintenance

The situation in Jordan is interesting: all of the members of the Circassian community value their language and express the desire to promote it, but most of the parents and students are not actively motivated to maintain it, and they prefer to use the dominant language. Although community members constantly cite slogans such as “One who does not have a language does not have a nation” or “Forgetting one’s language means to forget one’s traditions and mythology,” these are symbolic attitudes that reflect heavily affect-laden moral judgments inherited from parents or elder members of the community, but do not have any impact on behavior and maintenance of their language.

Among minority groups in which a language shift has occurred in the recent past, the symbolic value of a language may be retained in the absence of its communicative function. This applies to Circassian in Jordan. Language may be emotionally linked to group identity whether or not it is used regularly or at all. Every Circassian who appears on NART TVsays that the language must be reestablished and made usable, but that is as far as they go. There are ideological statements, but a lack of volition. Thoughts that enter the conscious mind do not necessarily change subconscious beliefs and behavior. Although Circassians express the need and desire to learn and maintain their language, they do not devote enough time and effort to it, because, unlike Arabic or English, there is no obvious benefit for doing so to do so.

The research revealed that Circassians’ beliefs concerning the maintenance of their language are quite pessimistic, and that most of the negative statements were based on conjecture rather than any scientific proof. Most believe that the number of language users is decreasing because only some of the elderly and a few young people can speak Circassian. However, a survey of 362 students revealed that as a result of Circassian language instruction at Emir Hamza School, the number of young people who are able to understand, speak, read and write Circassian well or very well has increased, and is more than twice (55%) the number who use the language at home (21%). The thoughts that we hold in our minds have an impact on our beliefs, and over time, form our reality. If minorities believe that their native language will be lost within a generation, despite findings of scientific surveys to the contrary and ongoing efforts to revive the language, they will consciously or subconsciously sabotage every attempt to maintain the language.

The research provides useful and meaningful data which furthers our understanding of why Circassians in Jordan and other expatriate communities (e.g., in Turkey) fail to teach and maintain their language despite a positive attitude toward doing so. According to the UNESCO Language Vitality and Endangerment Factors, attitudes and beliefs are a key indicator for assessing linguistic vitality. Ingroup identification and positive language attitudes are important precursors of language maintenance. However, attitudes may be symbolic: they are based not on specific information or experience, but rather on important ideological values. Although symbolic attitudes seem to reflect strong convictions, they usually do not influence behavior. This helps to explain why emotional statements about the importance of maintaining the language of the minority community do not lead to actual language maintenance practices.
The research results are presented in the report available at the website Circassians in Jordan.
Ulle Rannut, Ph.D
Integration Research Institute

Who are Circassians in Jordan?

Circassians are one of the minorities living in a diaspora situation in many countries all over the Middle East. The reason for this was the Great Migration that occurred at the end of the Caucasian War in 1864. Circassians were forced to migrate due to various measures of oppression and injustice; the main period of Exodus falls between 1864 – 1878, and lasted until the year 1900. Ottoman Empire encouraged the emigration (from the annexed territories of the Tsarist Russia) and it is estimated that the number of immigrants from all nationalities reached to one and a half million people, of whom approximately 600,000 were Circassians (Haghandouqa 1985, 29). Circassians resettled in various parts of the Ottoman Empire, eventually becoming residents of a variety of states, for instance, in Iraq, Israel, Syria, Jordan and Turkey.Lot of them perished during the Exodus and the main bulk was assimilated and lost their identity, becoming mostly Turks and Bulgars (personal interview with Mohydeen Quandour in Amman, February 2007).

Jordan was reached by Circassians settling from 1868 in Amman, along with other sites at Wadi-Sseer (1880), Jerash (1884), Naur (1901), Russaife (1902-1904) and Sweileh (1906) (Shamy 1996, 307). First immigrants were of Shapsugh origin who settled in  the Roman Amphitheater and in the caves and valleys of Amman in 1868 (Haghandouqa 1985, 36). They were the first tribe to leave Turkey by sea route. Accidentally, the ship caught fire at sea and around 700 people burnt to death, the survivors landed in Acre and moved after a year to Jordan (Mufti 1972, 272). These were followed by Kabardians, who settled in Amman, Jerash (1885), Sweileh (1905) and Ruseifa (1909), and the Abzakh and Bzhedugh, who established settlements in Wadi Seer (1880) and Naur (1900) (Haghandouqa 1985, 31; Shamy 1996, 307). In 1905 a small number of Chechens and Daghestanis resettled also in Jordan, however, they are of differing ethnic origin not afiliated with Circassians. There were altogether 481 Circassian families who originally settled in Jordan (Haghandoqa 1985,134-140). According to Dean A. Walker (1984) the Circassian colonies at Amman and Jerash were small: “There are but few women and children. They are not on good terms with their neighbors, in occasional quarrels, their numbers are diminishing. They do not themselves hope that they can long hold their ground.”

The term “Circassian” is a cover term which denotes people of the North-West Caucasus: Adigas, Kabardians, Abkhazians, Abazinians, and Ubykhs. There are five recognized languages in the Northwest Caucasian family: Kabardian or East Circassian, Adyghe or West Circassian, Abkhaz, Abaza and Ubykh. Circassian includes the literary languages of Adyghe and Kabardian, as well as several dialects: Shapsugh, Bzhedugh, Abzakh, Adamey, Hatukuay, Kemirgoy, Makhosh, Natekuay, Zhane, Yegerikuay. According to Amjad Jaimoukha from the International Centre for Circassian Studies (personal interview in Amman, February 2007), there are four Circassian dialects spoken in Jordan. There are Kabardians and Shapsugs in Amman, Bzhedughs and Abzakhs in Wadi Sseer and Naur, Kabardians and a few Shapsugh families in Russaife, and Kabardians in Sweileh and Jerash.

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