A long article by Vera Ryklina in Русский Newsweek (in Russian, obviously) describes the rapid and probably irreversible decline in the use of the Russian language. Since the collapse of the USSR, it is studied and spoken less and less in the countries that have won their independence; even within the Russian Federation, there are regions where it is less used. Ryklina says Russian is needed by only half of those who now know it, and still less will it be needed by their children. She quotes a number of academics who compare it to the languages of other vanished empires; English, obviously, has been a tremendous success, French less so. I was particularly struck by the comparison to Dutch. Historian Ivan Belenkii is quoted as saying:

But Russia’s situation is more or less like Holland’s. A century later, there will remain not a trace of our presence over half the globe, just as happened with the many colonies of that great maritime empire. People without much education aren’t even aware that Holland had those colonies; the language has remained only in Suriname. And yet only 60 years ago Holland ruled Indonesia, a country with a population greater than that of Russia. Today absolutely nobody there wants to study Dutch.

There is much discussion of causes; the article suggests that Russian might have had a longer shelf life if the USSR had promoted it as an attractive cultural language rather than an administrative tool (the way France has promoted French abroad), but frankly I doubt anything would have changed the desire of the ex-colonials to reject everything having to do with the Soviet regime. Anyway, it’s a good read if you know Russian, and I thank bulbul for the link. (His latest two posts are an interesting discussion of “blue blood,” in which he laments the lack of an etymological dictionary of the Slovak language, and an annotated list of Books He Hasn’t Read, inspired by this.)


  1. I tutored a HS student from Kyrgyzstan, and he seemed to feel good about the Russian language (he mentioned Pushkin with great pleasure). He was of Kyrgyz ancestry, but said he spoke Russian better.
    I’ve also seen signs that Mongolia may appreciate some of what the Russians brought.

  2. michael farris says

    IME Russian is actually becoming a popular (as opposed to enforced) foreign language in Poland of all places.
    In the institute I work in, is an example (but I’ve seen stories in the media to the same effect). Ten years ago it was deeply unpopular and students were forced to take it. Then it was dropped as a requirement and all but disappeared before starting to make a comeback and now it’s one of the most popular elective languages (along with Spanish and Japanese). Ease of learning is of course one factor, but many Polish people have always liked the aesthetics of Russian, just not the politics.
    And although English standards improve every year, in a way it’s becoming less popular. Students go to English class because it’s required of most of them (it or German) but they’re a lot less interested than they used to be (beyond passing end of year exams which are very tough).
    And I think I detect hype in the article, when Georgians and Kirghiz speakers need to communicate I assume they still use Russian.
    A few years ago a lecturer I know spent some time in Latvia. She wanted to learn Latvian (that’s why she was there) but it was hard – at the first sign of difficulty the locals (even young ones of the supposedly Russian-free generation) switched to Russian.

  3. I ran the article through Systran (courtesy of babelfish dot altavista dot com) to find out what it was about. The tone indeed does sound rather alarmist. And the translation is really quite readable, at least to a native anglophone who has some practice at deciphering partly broken English. I couldn’t help snickering at these (I am sure) old and classical errors of mistranslation:

    • Russian still occupies the fourth place among the most extended languages of peace (yeah, I do know enough to understand that one)
    • the former African colonies – Guinea, the Mauritania, the niger, the cameroons, the fumes and in Madagascar […] The fumes?
    • In reality [in Belarus] the Russian almost no one is necessary. Hm.
    • They after a lapse of the decades will compose the backbone of “russkoyazychnykh”, about fate of which so love to be baked Russian patriots. And when the pie was opened, the birds began to sing….
    • Well a coma was not wanted to make pleasant to chief from Russia, after having a talk with it in its native language? I should hope not.
    • “Earlier all [at Cairo University] knew that strongly soak Russian in the life.” Learning by immersion, I guess.
    • And I love the way it generates OF THE USSR and WITH THE USA in all capitals.

  4. Those are great! (“The fumes” is Chad, whose name happens to be homophonous with chad ‘fumes; intoxication.’)

  5. I had a good laugh when travelling to Bali with my friend with only African experience and she expected people would speak Dutch. It was also impossible to find anyone speaking Portuguese when we visited Macao. Yes, the triumph of English as lingua franca in SEA is pretty complete, probably because its countries were on a relatively equal basis and there was little agreement in either national or colonial languages.
    I’d bet on Turkmenistan as first in line to fall off the Russian wagon. Niyazov’s regime may not be pro-Western, but it’s isolating Turkmens from all foreign influences, and neither the resident Russian population or Turkmen emigre population in Russia are large. When the country emerges, they will learn English, Turkish, or other neighboring languages instead.
    It’s true Russian is falling betind the Asian languages on birthrate, but that’s exactly why Russia declared independence from the USSR in the first place, instead of continuing with a rump union of Russia and Central Asia.
    Is it Beavis or Butthead who is Pushkin?

  6. “the languages of other vanished empires”: Arabic?

  7. Too bad “Afrika yuzhnee Sakhary” is only in a picture, what would the translator have made of that?

  8. Ryklina’s prognosis seems overly pessimistic. Russia has two large advantages over Holland – geographical proximity to its former colonies and a much larger population. Despite the best efforts of the authorities Russian seems to be alive and well in places like Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan. The sad truth is that even today there is very little real cultural production in languages like Kazakh, Tatar or even Ukrainian and most of the educated elite still need to know Russian to be considered “intelligentny”. I suspect the future of Russian will be comparable to German rather than Dutch – it will remain regionally important even outside its national borders, but will no longer be a world language.

  9. Language shift in any form is alarming. Unfortunately, such shift represents, in some cases, a completely natural and unavoidable phenomenon. We should, however, be reminded that the decline of Russian translates as the principal element responsible for reversing the decline of a great number of languages (previously) considered minority or threatened languages in the former USSR. Latvian is just one example. I, personally, would like to see everyone getting a piece of the linguistic pie.

  10. “The languages of other vanished empires”:
    Persian used to be an official language in the Ottoman empire, the Mughal Empire, and much of Central Asia.
    In Central Asia Russian has really been a language of world culture, and in that function it cannot be replaced by any of the national languages.

  11. Perhaps someone with more knowledge than I can answer this: was Dutch REALLY that widespread in Indonesia? I mean, from what I understand, the Netherlands didn’t rule the whole archipelago very long. And I somehow doubt that the vast majority of Indonesians spoke anything other than their own languages, even at the height of Dutch colonialism. But I could be wrong.

  12. John Atkinson says

    To Bourgeois Nerd:
    My understanding is that the Netherlands administrators in the East Indies had a policy of *not* promoting the use, or even knowledge, of Dutch, but rather did most of their business in Malay, even in those places where it wasn’t widely known previously. This policy was of course continued by the post-colonial government, and is perhaps one of the reasons why Malay was chosen as the national language, rather than Javanese, which had many more native speakers.
    More surprising, perhaps, (and more like the situation with Russian) is the way that French has been so completely discarded in Vietnam.

  13. JC: Thing is, мир means ‘peace’ and ‘world’. I’m putting out a request for an explanation on that. ~~ Also? even if Russian’s first language speakers dropped 25%, they’d only drop a couple of slots. And anecdotally, Russian is certainly holding strong in Brooklyn.

  14. Roger Depledge says

    “Language shift in any form is alarming. Unfortunately, such shift represents, in some cases, a completely natural and unavoidable phenomenon.”
    Could Arrogant Polyglot suggest some references that argue these apparently prescriptive points (alarming, unfortunately) at greater length?

  15. мир means ‘peace’ and ‘world’. I’m putting out a request for an explanation on that.
    The semantic transition seems to have been ‘peace(ful agreement)’ > ‘(harmonious) society’ > ‘(social) world’; the Slavic root is related to Albanian mirë ‘good’ and Sanskrit mitrá- ‘friend,’ among others. (Prerevolutionary Russian used to artificially distinguish them by writing the ‘world’ word with the dotted i, otherwise used only before vowels, which led to an absurd urban legend that Tolstoy’s novel was really called “War and the World” but the spelling reform confused everyone and the true meaning was lost!)

  16. Azeri has already replaced Russian as the lingua franca in the mountainous areas of Azerbaijan – most of the mountain people speak Azeri as a second language and only the older men seem to know Russian from their time in the Army. In contrast, the (relatively) rich Azeri youth in Baku et al speak Russian on the street, albeit with Azeri-isms like a rising “дааааа?”, and seem to regard it as a status symbol (“Русский плохо знаешь, дааааа?”)
    Both groups seemed to be in the same position – the ethnic provinces learning the cosmopolitan lingua franca. If the situation is similar in other former republics I wouldn’t expect Russian to die out too quickly, particularly considering the increasing economic power of Russian and the resultant business ties with the old republics. For urban populations it will just make economic sense to learn Russian.

  17. …increasing economic power of Russia and the resultant business ties…

  18. David Marjanović says

    French? Language of culture? French has much broader uses. The child soldiers in the More or Less Democratic Republic of Congo speak French — as seen on TV.

  19. I didn’t mean to imply that French was only a language of culture, just that France promoted it that way as well as using it administratively. Thinking of it as la langue de Racine, Corneille, et Moliere as well as the language of the colonial master makes it a more attractive subject. But of course in a multilingual place like Congo it serves as an indispensible lingua franca.

  20. Next time I meet a Frenchman crying over the decline of French, I’ll tell him to think of Russian and find comfort in the fact the situation could always be worse and see if that makes him feel any better.

  21. “La langue de Racine, Corneille, et Moliere….”
    A list which appeals only to native speakers, no?
    Wixman’s book on Caucasian language policy is highly recommended. The Caucasus has more linguistic diversity than the rest of Europe and the rest of the Middle East combined.

  22. The terms ‘unfortunately’ and ‘alarming’ reflect my personal sentiments. I need not justify them further.
    And if you wish to seek a reference regarding natural and unavoidable shift, may I recommend Mougeon and Beniak’s Linguistic Consequences of Language Contact and Restriction.

  23. The New Yorker:
    Do you mean Language Aspects of Ethnic Patterns and Processes in the North Caucasus? I’ve wanted to read that for years but have never been able to track it down (and Amazon wants $170!).

  24. Yeah, it’s an amazing, totally language-hat-ish book.
    The most interesting thing I remember is that marriages across language lines were not regarded as mixed, but marriages across religious lines were.
    I don’t know if he reported it this way, but I got the impression that a high proportion of the men in the area were trilingual, since so many of the mother tongues had relatively few speakers. I remember reading that Avar, which we would think of as rare and exotic, was a lingua franca in some areas where most people’s mother tongues were even more rare and exotic. (NOTE: they’re unlikely to have anything to do with the Avars defeated by Charlemagne).
    I once met an American woman with an eight-syllable name. It turned out here husband was from Soviet Georgia, but was not a Georgian. At the beginning of WWII he was drafted from the Russian-language school he taught at, was captured by the Germans, escaped from the train repatriating him at the end of the war (knowing that he would be shot upon return), lived in Gemrany for a few years, and finally made it to the US. He spoke broken English and worked as a janitor — too much challenge, I’d guess.

  25. About the trilingualism, I had heard that Avar was a lingua franca in some areas, and was considered high status on account of their early adoption of Islam. In the mountains in N. Azerbaijan the men over 35ish who served in the army spoke Russian, like I said before, and Azeri from school, and possibly Lezgin in addition to their local language, which makes them tetralingual.
    I also visited a Jewish village (half a city really, separated by a river from the rest of town) where they speak “Jewish” (really Judeo Tat), Russian, Farsi and Azeri, all of which they learnt at school. Presumably those who emigrated to Israel also learn modern Hebrew. And none of this seems to be considered particularly remarkable.
    It really is a fascinating place, with all the identity and linguistic issues. I was riding on a horse with a Xinaliqi guy and he pointed to some cattle on a hillside and said to me “Lezgin cattle” – even the animals over there have ethnicity;-)

  26. “The languages of other vanished empires”:
    Persian used to be an official language in the Ottoman empire, the Mughal Empire, and much of Central Asia.
    I remember being intrigued to learn that early British administrators in India sometimes needed to learn Persian….
    Though the situation is a little different with Persian, since it wasn’t the native language of the conquerors/rulers (as was the case with English, Spanish, French, Russian…), but rather a sort of prestige language associated with higher culture.

  27. I also recommend Canfield’s “Turko-Persia in Historical perspective”. I think that Central Asia is best regarded as pervasively bilingual at the high cultural, a bit like the Roman Empire. Turkish and Persian have been next to one another for a millennium or more, and there’s a lot of bilingualism and confusion. For example, estimates of the Tajik (Persian) population of Uzbekistan range from 5% to 42% (wiki).
    Multi-lingualism is characteristic of the Balkans too. Elias Canetti wrote a piece about “the importance of languages” in a Balkan context, where a man who knows some Greek is able to thwart a murder when he overhears the conspirators.

  28. I’ve wanted to read that for years but have never been able to track it down (and Amazon wants $170!).
    Same here. And that goes for Turko-Persia in Historical Perspective too.

  29. Charles Perry says

    Thirteen years ago, a young Uzbek complained bitterly to me about having to study Russian, which had turned out not to be a world language as advertised. (He considered it a wordy, fussy language, unlike sensible tongues such as English and Uzbek.) Later I met a man in the market of Namangan handing out a pamphlet on the correct spelling of Uzbek names. In the first brave flush of Uzbek independence, it had been written so as to be accessible to speakers of world languages, so it was in Uzbek, Russian, English and … Spanish.

  30. In the first brave flush of Uzbek independence, it had been written so as to be accessible to speakers of world languages, so it was in Uzbek, Russian, English and … Spanish.
    Hmm? Spanish is very clearly a world language. Go to Buenos Aires, try and communicate in Uzbek, Russian or English, you’ll realise very quickly that you need to learn Spanish, much more so than would be the case if you tried those three in Paris. I would also dispute the “first brave flush of Uzbek independence” phrasing, since independence from the Soviet Union was not clearly a positive thing, and there’s a decent argument for it being negative.

  31. This has happened in South Africa, where I believe that the desire of the majority to be conversant in English, an international language, has led to a decline in the teaching of Afrikaans. I guess that social and economic factors are the reasons for the decline in the use of Afrikaans, Russian, Dutch and other languages in a similar position.

  32. hat:
    Putting my effort where my mouth is, I see that Language Aspects of Ethnic Patterns… is held in a few libraries, as is Turko-Persia in Historical Perspective.

  33. Someone has to stand up for Dutch here — the statement that in Indonesia today nobody is interested in studying it is incorrect. Dutch is part of Indonesia’s heritage, for better or worse, and is necessary to the study of its heritage. At Cornell years ago I made some beer money by translating Dutch colonial materials for an Indonesian student working on a Ph.D. thesis. Some details here on the study of Dutch in Indonesia and elsewhere: http://taalunieversum.org/en/dutch_worldwide/ “Many universities in Indonesia therefore offer courses in Dutch as a source or occupational language. Students and other interested parties can enrol in general Dutch courses at various educational centres, the most important of which is the Erasmus Language Centre (ETC) in Jakarta. Each year, some 1500 to 2000 students take Dutch courses there.”
    I do agree that Dutch is useless as a language of commerce, and that Russian is likely to fare more as German has than as Dutch.

  34. Lucius: I don’t know about Northern Azerbaijan, but Dagestan just across the border certainly is a fascinating place linguistically. The interesting thing is that there are attempts to impose a Dagestani identity on the extreme linguistic diversity of the place. One of my wife’s nephews (now 11 yrs. old) lived in a mountain village until recently, where he spoke (as his first language, though in addition to Russian) one of the many dialects of Dargwa, the second language of Dagestan, which are mutually difficult to understand, especially if you have no training in the artificially-concocted Standard Dargwa. However, when he moved to the capital Makhachkala he quickly became a fervent Dagestani patriot. Now it’s no longer donkeys from Urari vs. donkeys from Kubachi (two neighbouring villages, the latter being envied and despised for having great goldsmiths and a language all of their own), but “real Dagestani cows” (the best in the world of course, as he told me haughtily when I dared mention cows I’d seen around Moscow).

  35. Funny, I was just this minute reading a sentence in Figes’s A People’s Tragedy that referred to “the Chechens, Daghestanis, and Azeris” (discussing the late tsarist period) and thinking “Wait a minute, ‘Daghestani’ isn’t a nationality!”

  36. Perhaps this is the right time to float an open-ended question. Apparently the Caucasian languages are groups in three families. One thing I read seemed to suggest that these three families are not closely related to one another, and that instead of one unique group of Causasian languages we have three different unique groups of Caucasian languages. True?

  37. The New Yorker: Ethnologue splits them into North and South Caucasian, with N. Caucasian split further into NW and NE. I wish I could remember the source, but another classification was Kartevelian (Georgian, Mingrelian, Laz, Svan), Nakh-Dagestani (Chechen-Ingush, the Dagestani Languages) and Circassian (Cherkess, Kabardin, Abaza, Abkhaz). Even under this classification though the Nakh-Dagestani tongues seem grouped together for convenience by location. For instance, Chechen-Ingush was said to have diverged from (I think) Avar around 6000 years ago, and the correspondences between the two were a bit tendentious, nowhere near as strong as those between the Indoeuropean languages. I’ve also seen Chechen-Ingush given its own group (Nakh), making 4 in total.
    An interesting thing, I think it might have been a throwaway line, from a paper on population genetics was that Chechen society found its modern pre-Russian form after “the Chechens overthrew their Circassian rulers”. I’ve never heard that elsewhere, and I’d be pretty interested to know if it were true.
    Mischa G.:N. Azerbaijan is interesting precisely because it’s a safer, more accessible extension of Dagestan;-) That’s a great story about your nephew, although I’m pretty surprised that there is a Dagestani identity even in Makhachkala. I always thought that issues of identity stuck around even in the capital, and the only real glue in the republic was (Sunni) Islam.

  38. Islam doesn’t work for everyone, as there still seems to be a sizeable group of old Stalinists who don’t care that much for religion.
    But the new Dagestani identity apparently inculcated at schools seems to be on a par with traditional Islam (or what they like to think is traditional) in that it’s a reaction to sectarian strife and especially the spectre of “Wahhabism”. But of course the comments I quoted were made in Moscow, where it’s easier to feel Dagestani since there are no Laks or Lezgins around who make you feel Dargin above all.

  39. David Marjanović says

    There seems to be broad agreement on two groups: Kartvelian (as explained above; used to be called South Caucasian) and Caucasian (the rest; used to be called North Caucasian). Within the latter, the East and West (earlier Northeast and Northwest) groups are quite different and must have split long ago. The chief difficulty for historical linguistics is the mind-boggling size of the consonant systems in the (North) Caucasian languages — as a Wikipedia talk page puts it, “no dialect of Abkhaz shares more than 85 % of its consonants with any other, and Abaza is different again”.
    In earlier times “South Caucasian” and “North Caucasian” were sometimes grouped as “Caucasian”. But apart from geographic proximity, the retention of ejective consonants, and a number of loans, they don’t seem to share much. Kartvelian is Nostratic, Caucasian is Dené-Caucasian *duck and cover* 🙂

  40. i like the pronunciation of Russian better than Arabic. I studied a little Russian and the way of speaking and writing it made me feel good.
    maybe you know that the english vacabulary counts one million words, the Spanis 250.000 and the Dutch only 110.000.
    Dutch speaking was not promoted in the East-Indies but many pre-indonesians learned it because they had a better conversation with local adminitrative Dutchmen (now known as kind of expats).
    Yes, the Dutch language will disappear in the future and the signs are apparent for English words are becoming normal day speaking, especially among youths. If it was not for the fact that New-Amsterdam in the 17th century was sold to the English, maybe the lingua franca today would be Dutch.
    i loved your reactions fot i could feel the intentions after the words.
    kind greetings (do widzenja)

  41. This story about the number of words in any language is so silly.
    Anyway, Wikipedia (everyone I know pronounces it like Weekeepaydeeya, but that’s in Dutch and in non-native English) has a Dutch lemma on Dutch in Indonesia: http://nl.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nederlands_in_Indonesi%C3%AB
    I also remember Jusuf Habibie giving an interview once in Dutch.

  42. “Kartvelian is Nostratic, Caucasian is Dené-Caucasian *duck and cover* :-)”
    I am not sure if this is meant to be tongue in cheek or not, but Nostratic and especially Dené-Caucasian are controversial superdupergroups that are far from being proven (e.g. there is more than one version of Nostratic). (“Controversial” does not necessarily mean that only old fuddy-duddies are against it while “gifted amateurs” are forging ahead with revolutionary new methods).

  43. Yes, I think David is aware of that (and he may also be aware that I’m one of those old fuddy-duddies).

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