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Editorial: Welsh for Russia’s Muslims

Native language, lovely language,
Language of my parents dear,
Many things I've learnt in this world
Through this language of my birth.

At the outset, in my cradle
Mother sang me lullabies.
With my granny in the evenings
Fairy tales were our delight.

Native language, you were always
There to help me through my life.
Since my childhood I have known you
As my sorrow and my joy.

Native language, it was in you
That I first made prayer to God:
"Please have mercy, Lord, upon me
and upon my dad and mum."

Tugan Tel "Native Language", by Gabdulla Tukay. (Translation mine, with help from Alsu Valeyeva, Güzel Fazdalova and Suzanne Wertheim.) Tukay (1886-1913) is generally accepted as the Tatar language's classic poet. This poem, set to a mournful tune that can be heard at , serves as an unofficial anthem. I have set it down here in the proposed new Roman alphabet for Tatar, distinct from the Cyrillic script that has been used since 1939. Tukay himself used the Perso-Arabic script which was the vehicle for Tatar literacy for a thousand years before being replaced under socialism with a first Roman alphabet in 1920.

In June this year I visited Kazan, the capital of the Republic of Tatarstan, and its neighbour to the west, Cheboksary, capital of Chuvashia, another ancient Turkic nation which has been part of Russia for even longer than the Tatars.

Chuvash is more distinctive than Tatar as a form of Turkic (being the only survivor of Turkic's western branch), and probably goes back to the speech of the Volga Bulgars, who reached this area in the 7th century AD. However, Chuvash are Christians, while the Volga Bulgars as a group were converted to Islam in 922. Mongol Turks rode right across Asia to smash the Great Bulgar state in 1236, but this led to the predominance of Kipchak Turkic in "the Golden Horde", this north-western quadrant of the great Mongol Empire. This has developed into modern Tatar (as well as Bashkir, Kazak and Kyrgyz). Unlike Chuvash, these Kipchak languages are almost mutually comprehensible with Oghuz Turkic in modern Turkey, and the Chaghatay Turkic of the Uzbeks and Uyghurs in Central Asia.

For all these savage intra-Turkic wars, the "Tatar yoke" of Turkic dominance over the Russians was not shaken until Ivan the Terrible issued from Moscow and subdued Kazan, the Tatar capital, in 1552. (He had accepted Chuvash submission en route.)

With an introduction from the editor of the newspaper Tatar World, I went as the President of the Foundation for Endangered Languages; of course, I was concerned above all to see how they were sustaining and propagating their languages. But while I was there, I spoke to linguists, historians, and the editors of the Tatar encyclopaedia. I met poets, dancers and singers (classical and modern), as well as the owner of the chief compressor factory in Tatarstan.

What I found, in both republics, was a situation tantalizingly similar to that of modern Welsh: lands on the very edge of Europe, where children struggle at school with lessons in a language they never hear in their favourite TV programmes; where fossil fuel exploitation (oil, at least in Tatarstan) has traditionally played the biggest part in the economy; which, after so many centuries, has still has a lively idea of cultural difference from its dominant big neighbour. (Nevertheless, this region produced the man who became that neighbour’s charismatic ruler from the end of the First World War into the 1920s -- not David Lloyd George, but Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, who was attending Kazan State University when he first fell foul of the Tsar.)

The intelligentsia of Tatarstan and Chuvashia resist the idea of their languages as endangered:



as in Wales, they have the full force of their regional governments behind them (for whatever official support is worth to language revival); the 1990 Chuvash 'Law about Languages' and the 1992 Law 'About the Languages of the Peoples of Tatarstan' give them parity with Russian. But there is still much to be striven for and achieved if this is to be made a reality. According to the authoritative Pis'mennye Yazyki Mira - Yazyki Rossiyskoy Federatsii (MacConnell, [Solntsev] and Mikhal'chenko, Moscow, 2 vols. 2000 and 2003) only 30% of Chuvashia's children go to school in Chuvash; and according to Suzanne Wertheim (UC Berkeley PhD thesis on language contact with Tatar 2003 — available at ), an 1989 survey stated that only 36% of urban Tatars in Tatarstan used Tatar as a home language. This of course was before the re-establishment of Tatar-teaching schools, which have since the collapse of the Soviet Union been expanded to be universal, even for Russian children, in Tatarstan.

The two languages Chuvash and Tatar are interesting too, to compare the roles of absolute vs relative numbers in language survival. Chuvash has many fewer speakers than Tatar (1.8 million as against 5.7 million), but in Chuvashia the Chuvash people are an overwhelming majority, 67.8%. By contrast, the Tatars are not quite a majority in Tatarstan (48.5%). (Source - 1989 census.)

The examples of these languages, I believe, need to be brought into our general analysis of language plights, and policies to combat language endangerment. The Russians usually distinguish such languages as these, among the 33 pis'mennye yazyki "literate languages", which do after all have non-national governments to defend them, from yazyki malochislennykh narodov Rossii ("languages of ethnic minorities of Russia"), 67 of which have been reviewed in considerable detail in the recent "Red Book" (Yazyki Narodov Rossii - Krasnaya Kniga), edited by V. P. Neroznak - Moscow 2002: ISBN 5-87444-149-2). It seems then that Russia can style itslef "Land of a Hundred Languages".

Among the new policies being originated for post-Soviet conditions, a proposal for script revision is the most evident, an attempt to row back from Stalin's imposition of Cyrillic. But by an unfortunate irony, Atatürk's 1920s success in establishing a Roman alphabet for Turkish has made any move to romanize the writing system appear as a potentially seditious step towards pan-Turkic unity. For the Tatars, the leading linguist M.Z. Zakiyev is all in favour, not least as a way of combatting the pernicious effects on pronunciation which come about when people who hardly know the language (as the modern generation) come to it through Russian spelling. But at the moment, though ratified by the Tatar parliament, it is stymied in Moscow.

In fact, there is some guidance to be had from another of Tukay's famous creations, the forest sprite or Shuralé.

The main danger from a Shuralé lies in his long fingers, with which he loves to tickle people to death. In Tukay's famous poem, a woodcutter tricks a Shuralé, escaping from his clutches by catching those long fingers in a half-split log. As Odysseus did to the Cyclops, though, the woodcutter makes sure of his escape by giving a false name: as he leaves, he tells the powerless sprite that he is called Biltir, "Last Year".

Crying "Pinched and ruined by that
rascally Last Year I am!
Oh, I'm dying! Who will come and
free me from this painful jam?"
Then at dawn his brothers come, but
roundly curse the suffering dupe:
"You're a fool, possessed, a madman"
heartlessly they call and whoop.
"Stop your crying, for your own good
we beseech you, stop it now!
Fool, if you were pinched last year,
why today make all that row?"

(Translation again mine, with help from Alsu Valeyeva.)

[Picture © Baynazar Al'menov, Kazan 1999]

There must be some message here for Tatar, as other languages struggling to survive, and even thrive. Yesterday created the problems, it is true; but if solutions are to be found, we have to live in the present, and for the future.