A Reluctant Babel, by Maxim Edwards, is a somewhat depressing look at the linguistic situation in Russia today. It’s heavy on anecdotes and light on statistics (and given to silly remarks about “languages such as Abaza, Ingush or Kabardian, rightly called some of the most complex in the world,” which “may simply be unteachable except for the most motivated and dedicated of students,” not to mention the even sillier attribution of James Nicoll‘s famous statement that “English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary” to Booker T. Washington, of all people), but it’s still worth a read for bits like “Leysan Khasanova, owner of a Tatar music shop in Tatarstan’s capital of Kazan, is confident that ‘Tatar will always be spoken on the streets of Kazan,’ before pointing out that many young Tatars prefer to speak in Russian amongst each other, and that her own children are not proficient in the language,” and insights like this:
Alyena Ivanova, a Mari language journalist and activist, is proud of the fact that her “entire professional and personal life is conducted in Mari.” This certainly is a remarkable achievement for a language which UNESCO believes faces some serious problems over the coming decades. Yet, the fact remains that Ivanova is only able to do so because her career is intricately linked with Mari cultural and linguistic activities. The day when a factory worker or forester in Mari El can live his life and access all the services he needs completely through the medium of the Mari language is a long way off, if in sight at all. The Irish writer Flann O’Brien wrote in his novel The Poor Mouth of the arrival of Gaelic-language enthusiasts in the protagonist’s impoverished rural village. “‘What,’” they ask, “‘is the point of speaking Gaelic unless one uses it exclusively to discuss Gaelic matters, Gaelically?’” The danger in making the daily use of minority languages an over-politicised issue can be alienating.
Frankly, I’m glad to support anyone who quotes Flann O’Brien.
Oh, and there’s a poster with a legend that might be translated: “Too few words? Don’t be curt!/ Go and study some Udmurt!”
Update. For an even more depressing look at one region (Mari El), see Christopher Culver’s latest post.