Loss of Language May Not Mean Loss of Ethnic Identity, Vakhtin Says

Friday, July 5, 2019

Loss of Language May Not Mean Loss of Ethnic Identity, Vakhtin Says

Paul Goble

Staunton, July 3 – If a nation loses its traditional language and adopts another, that may or may not lead to a loss of ethnic identity, Nikolay Vakhtin, a specialist on the peoples of the Russian North who heads the Center for Social Research at St. Petersburg’s European University (nazaccent.ru/content/30255-ne-povod-zaciklivatsya.html).

Language is an important ethnic marker, but it is far from the only one, he says; and the loss of a traditional language may not be the end of the nation. Instead, it may give the nation additional bases for defending their identity because their interactions with other peoples will intensify, a situation that often gives rise to more intensely held national feelings.

And if those feelings intensify to a certain point, a group that has lost its traditional language at one point may or may not take steps to recover it, yet another finding that challenges both the language-centric definition of nationality among Russian officials and the focus on language retention among many non-Russian groups.

Vakhtjn’s arguments, based on his research on the numerically small peoples of the Russian North, who because they constitute only seven percent of the population of that enormous region and are undergoing intense pressure from the influx of Russian speakers, is not going to go unchallenged either by Moscow officials or non-Russian activists.

The St. Petersburg scholar says that he tries to “avoid catastrophic discourse” about the disappearance of indigenous languages. The reason, he says, is simple: “Linguists took note of the problem of disappearing languages only in the 1990s.  Of course, languages had disappeared earlier but unfortunately scholars did not devote particular attention to that.”

“When we speak about the disappearance of languages, we of course do not have in mind that people disappear or grow mute or that some people disappears. In history tehre have been many cases when a people shifts from one language to another and despite that continues to exist quite well. Language is an important sign of ethnicity but no the only one,” Vakhtin says.

According to the scholar, “the situation in Russia in this regard is no different from the situation in the entire world. And as far as the documentation of languages which are in the danger zone, we have even a somewhat better situation than in many other countries because we simply began doing so earlier,” in the 1920s and 1930s rather than in the 1990s.

Vakhtin also observes that in many cases, people do not simply shift from  one language to another or adopt pure bilingualism in which both languages remain what they were. Instead, in the cases of those who speak two or more, the languages tend to interact with one another and both change.

The Russian language too is affected by these processes. There is of course standard Muscovite Russian but there are many regional dialects, some quite distinct and vital. Vakhtin tells of a student from Vyatka who spoke the regional dialect to such an extent that when she came to Samara, people there could not initially understand her.

Sometimes these dialects can even be the basis for regional identification, especially if the regional media make use of them, Vakhtin says. But there is a danger that if these dialects become too distinct, those who speak them will need translators to deal with people from other parts of the country.

Posted by paul goble at 7:12 AM 


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