CULTURE: Language and Politics

Socialising is one of a person’s basic needs.  Therefore it is unsurprising that language and its problems cause so much debate – language itself is the fundamental means of human communication.  Language is a part of human culture, and just as an architectural monument needs protection from destruction, language demands support and ‘security’.  Language also needs to be defended by legislation.  The so-called linguistic policy of the state must serve this aim.

There are many very different languages in Russia. Some are spoken by millions, others by thousands, and there are languages which have almost disappeared and are remembered by only a few people.  There even exists a ‘Red book of the Languages of Russia’, where the languages of small nations are recorded.  Not all languages have a written tradition – certain of them exist only in oral form.  The legal situation of the languages is also varied.  Russian was declared the state language of the Russian Federation, however, a subject of the Federation has the right to confer government status on national languages.  At present, ‘titled’ national languages (for example, Tartar in Tatarstan) exist alongside the Russian state language in nineteen republics.  Though the linguistic situation is more complicated in the republic, yet the local legislation responds to this: for example, in Dagestan, where representatives of many peoples live, eight languages have government status.

Why confer such status upon language, and why pass laws on language at all?  It is in order to regulate the intercourse of different peoples in a multi-national state and to establish a sensible balance between ‘large’ and ‘small’ languages.  However, from a broader perspective on humanity, every language is unique and valuable, and worthy of attention and preservation.  A person’s native language is a part of their national identity, therefore laws help to defend the ‘linguistic rights’ of the individual and of the whole nation.

Although all languages have equal rights, it is pointless to deny that they possess different amounts of ‘power’ and ‘force’.  These characteristics are above all defined by the number of speakers of the language.  It is clear that Russian and Arabic, which are spoken by many millions of people, are not threatened with extinction in the same way that, for example, Kerek and Karaim are.  The presence of dialects, written traditions and literature in a language, and its use in various aspects of life (not only everyday, but business, scientific, and social) should also be considered as manifestations of its ‘power’.

It is difficult to influence certain factors from which a language’s ‘power’ derives (the number of speakers, the development of the dialectical system, the territorial radius of the language): they were formed historically.  But certain constituents can be ‘strengthened’ from outside.  This includes, for example, the so-called ‘transport’ resources of a language – its radius over space and time.  If books are published in the language, translations are made of foreign literature, and radio and television programs are made, the foundation of that language is consolidated.

Let us examine the Romani language and its functioning in Russia with respect to its ‘power’.  According to data from the latest census of the population, there are more than 180,000 Roma in Russia.  However, experts consider this figure an under-estimate, and give a different evaluation: up to 500,000 people.  Therefore, according to number of speakers, Romani is related to such languages as Ingush (200,000 speakers) or Lesgin (250,000 speakers).  But in respect to the Roma of Europe, researchers estimate the number of speakers of Romani as around 4.6 million, and in this case, Romani could be compared to Tatar (5.5 million) in terms of numbers of speakers.


The Romani language is distinguished by its great diversity of dialects, both within Russia and throughout the whole world.  This is a powerful internal resource which provides the language with its vitality and lexical richness.  However, the dispersal of Roma in different countries and the absence of a long-standing written tradition hinder the creation and functioning of a literary language common to Roma throughout the world.  Nevertheless, attempts to create a Romani literary language have been undertaken.  For Russia’s part, a written language based on the Cyrillic alphabet was created in 1926.  At the same time, books in Romani started being published.  These were translations from other languages, original pieces by Romani authors, textbooks and social-political essays.  Periodicals, ‘Romany Zor’a’ and ‘Nevo Drom’, came out.  However, failing to develop, the Romani literary language in Russia died out.  On its foundations was built a dialect of Russian Roma, which far from all Romani groups understood.  Moreover, this dialect in comparison with others was subject to a very strong influence by Russian (it contains many words and grammatical structures borrowed from Russian), therefore it is difficult for those who do not speak Russian.  In 1938, the publication of books in languages of small peoples was ceased, and written languages only just created were abolished.  This circumstance was fatal not only for Romani but also for other languages.  Moreover, national schools were considered ideologically harmful, and teaching in national languages was abolished.  Thus, Stalin’s policies, directed not at the development of national cultures but rather at their Russification and repression, destroyed the newly beginning construction of a Romani literary language.   It remained possible to protect the literary form of only those languages which were ‘titled’ for certain kinds of administrative education (for example, Yakut).  In the same way, the Romani language in Russia is in a somewhat paradoxical situation: it has many speakers, but in comparison with other languages which have between 250,000 and one million speakers, the extent of its influence is significantly limited: not only is it not a state language, but it is not used for teaching in schools or for publication of books or newspapers, let alone television or radio broadcasting.

On the other hand, in other countries, significant efforts have lately been made to bring Romani language into use in various spheres.  Primarily, these are measures of codification and standardization of a language which could become literary and common to all Roma of Europe.  In 1990, the French researcher Marcel Courthiade and the Romani public figure Rajko Djuric proposed a project for a standard Romani language with a written language based on the Roman alphabet.  This project was approved by the International Romani Union (IRU), and the official documents of this organisation were written in this Romani language.  This very language is taught to Romani children in schools in Romania.  In other countries (Hungary, Austria) a written Romani language is also used, but the alphabet, although based on the Roman alphabet, differs somewhat from that proposed by Courthiade and Djuric.  Given the European countries’ different approaches to the ‘standard’ Romani language, it is possible to assert with confidence that, in the last few decades, this language has significantly consolidated its stronghold: literature and periodicals are published in it, television and radio broadcasts are conducted in it, and it is taught in schools and even in universities.  At international conferences speeches Romani language is one of those into which proceedings are translated.            However, what can be done to defend the languages of small nations?  And, more to the point, what must language be defended from?  In our age, languages and cultures must be defended from globalization – from absorption into and assimilation with ‘large’ languages and cultures.  Linguistic politics must be a part of a general politics of conservation of the language speakers’ living environment, their traditional way of life, occupations and particular trades, historical and cultural manifestations.  In other words, the defense of a language is part of the defense of the distinctive culture of a people as a whole.  The state must organize the teaching of national languages.  Russia has taken upon itself this obligation, having ratified the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities.  Ideally, a person must have freedom to choose their language of education, training and instruction.  Research activities on language, culture and folk arts are essential.            The teaching of Romani language in schools must be touched upon separately.  The opinion exists that it is impossible to write text books in Romani language, since all terminology which does not exist in Romani would inevitably be borrowed from the main language of the state where the Roma live.  Of course, this is a problem faced not only by Romani, but by all languages which have gained a written language relatively recently and which have not had any relationship with the sciences (mathematics, chemistry and others) which are of current importance to contemporary humanity.  However, if Russian is considered in relation to this issue, it is easy to observe that almost all its terminology originates (is borrowed or constructed from foreign language roots) from Latin or Greek, and that many words which appear native at first glance turn out in fact to be calques from other languages (the Russian for ‘enterprise’, предприятие (predprijatie) is a calque from the German ‘Unternehmung’; ‘orthography’ (правописание, pravopisanie) – a calque from the Greek ?ρθ?ς orthós (‘correct’) and γρ?φειν gráphein (‘to write’); ‘object’ (предмет, predmjet) – a calque from the Latin ‘objectum’, and so on).

The history of mankind has known not only many examples of the creation of the written word and literature in various languages, but also the unique event of a dead language’s revival.   This language is modern Hebrew, which is alive owing to the Gargantuan efforts of one person, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda.  A native of a small Belarusian town, he became the propagandist, theoretician and strategist of the language’s rebirth.  In 1908, Ben-Yehuda wrote, ‘For everything there is needed only one wise, clever and active man, with the initiative to devote all his energies to it, and the matter will progress, all obstacles in the way notwithstanding… In every new event, every step, even the smallest in the path of progress, it is necessary that there be one pioneer who will lead the way without leaving any possibility of turning back.’

In our country at present there are no teachers who can teach in Romani language, nor Romani study aids or textbooks.  However, as European experience shows, with desire and the combined efforts of public agents, scholars, tutors, and activists from national organisations, the foundation of Romani language may be significantly strengthened, and the sphere of its use, at least in school education, may be broadened.  In Russia at present these problems are solved only at the level of social initiatives. However, it is without doubt that the problem of the linguistic adaptation of children who represent national minorities, who enter school speaking either no Russian at all or speaking it poorly, must be solved at the state level.

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