The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

Apr 16, 2007

Them Caucasians Again

It appears as though the Caucasus is as much a hot-bed of linquistic diversity as Papua New Guinea. I remember reading in the Guinness Book of Records about the sixty-two case endings of Tabasaran (Arrey yaar, I have trouble with genders in Hindi only). This article expounds a bit more.

Russian mountains cradle hoard of ancient languages
Stephen Boykewich
AFP April 11, 2007

KUBACHI, Russia -- Life is not bad in this North Caucasus mountain town. The air is pure, the view is magnificent, and the centuries-old tradition of silver handiwork guarantees jobs for all. There is one downside for the 2,000 residents of Kubachi, however. Their neighbors, a short donkey ride down the road, cannot understand a word that they say.

"What we speak here, the Kubachinsky language, people in Darginsk don't understand at all," said Magomed Akhmedov, 35, director of the village's silverworks factory. "That's literally five or six kilometers away."

The extraordinary linguistic diversity preserved amid these snow-capped peaks is what led a 10th-century geographer to name the Caucasus "the mountain of tongues." The rocky, mostly rural region of Dagestan has one of the highest concentrations of languages in the world, between 30 and 70 in an area smaller than Scotland. Its 2.3 million residents are divided into 34 ethnic groups and nearly all speak Russian, as the territory fell to Russia's imperial advance in 1859.

Besides Russia are local languages that would strike fear into the heart of any student who has ever wrestled with case endings. Lak, the native tongue of about 5 percent of the Dagestani population, has 56 cases - compared to six in Russian and a mere four in German - language specialist Yunusov Abdul-Raman said. But even Lak is beaten by Tabasaran, which is spoken by 95,000 in southern Dagestan and has 62 cases.

"It was in the Guinness Book of World Records! These are extremely difficult languages," Abdul-Raman said.

Like many Dagestani tongues, Kubachinsky in not a written language and is not taught in schools, but was preserved through the Soviet era by the same combination of geography and tight social bonds that has preserved Kubachi's tradition of silver-working for centuries.

"We only marry among ourselves. There are exceptions, but you can count them on the fingers of one hand," said Akhmedov, who has directed the village's silverworks factory since 2001. "Everyone here is related in one way or another."

Unlike in neighboring Chechnya, which was devastated when Joseph Stalin deported its entire population in 1944, Dagestan's mountain towns were largely spared from Soviet social engineering. Aside from the total number of languages here - which depends on where lines are drawn between dialect and language - the diversity of their origins also amazes scholars. Aside from the native Caucasian languages, linguists have identified Turkic, Mongol, Greek, and other language families here. The Tats, an ethnic group of about 18,000 people living near the southern coastal city of Derbent, still speak a dialect of Persian that is over 1,000 years old. But what seven decades of Soviet rule could not erode, the creep of Western culture is beginning to. Children in Kubachi learn their native language only at home, since it has no written form and is not taught in schools. The related language of Darginsky is, but has to jostle for position with Russian and, increasingly, English.

"To tell you the truth, we teach English better than our own language," said Darzhi Kurvan, the director of a village school. "As much as we talk about patriotism, beyond our region it's more convenient and more profitable to know English."

And though children usually speak Kubachinsky in the home, "we've noticed that in the schoolyard, most of the children speak Russian. They even bawl each other out in Russian," Kurvan said, his wizened face breaking into a smile.

"There's a battle for these languages going on now," said journalist and opposition activist Magomed Shamilyev, a member of Dagestan's majority Avar ethnic group in the regional capital Makhachkala. Radio and television programs are broadcast here in 14 languages, but as more of the region's 60-percent rural population moves to cities in search of work, the smaller languages are at risk of vanishing, Shamilyev said. And while there is a regional law reinforcing the status of Russian as an official language, "there is no law on national languages, no law to protect and develop the languages that are disappearing," he said.

Factory director Akhmedov is living proof of how times are changing. Asked how a simple welcome would sound in Kubachinsky, he hesitated, then let a few words of Russian slip in while he spoke. "He spends too much time in the city," laughed one of the factory's workers. After an embarrassed smile, Magomedov repeated the phrase fluently. "There is a risk these languages will disappear," he said, "but we preserve them in our hearts."


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