I’m still reading Russia’s Steppe Frontier (see yesterday’s post), and I’ve developed the habit of looking up the peoples he mentions in my well-thumbed copy of Wixman’s The Peoples of the USSR: An Ethnographic Handbook. So when he mentioned the Kumyks, who “were organized into the largest principality in the North Caucasus under their ruler, the shamkhal (shevkal),” who “had a residence in the town of Tarki,” I went to Wixman and found:

The Kumyk are Turkified (Kypchak) Caucasic peoples of northern Dagestan. They were formed by the assimilation of these Caucasians by the Kypchaks. This process of assimilation was strong well into the mid-20th cent., and many Dagestani peoples (Dargins and Avars in particular), Chechens, and Nogai have shifted over to the Kumyk language. The Kumyk language and culture became very influential among the eastern North Caucasians (Chechen, Avar, Andi-Dido people, Dargin, Kaitak, Kubachi, and Nogai) because the Kumyk controlled the lowland winter pasture areas used by these mountaineers and the main cities in which they found winter employment [Khasavyurt, Buinaksk, and Makhachkala (Temir Khan Shura)] were in Kumyk territory. Even though numerically small their cultural, linguistic, political, and economic influence was great. Kumyk also served as a lingua franca for all eastern North Caucasians.

Who knew? I just got finished learning about the similar status of Polish in early modern Eastern Europe in The Reconstruction of Nations; I guess every corner of the world has had its lingua franca. (Wixman goes on to describe the language, religion, and location of the Kumyks in similarly compendious manner; his book is really extraordinarily useful and has a nice section of maps that shows where all the various peoples live.)


  1. Of course! It’s fascinating, too. It’s always the language of whichever country is dominant in the region(s) at the time as well, hence French having been a lingua franca when they were a powerful empire and Russian having been (and still is really) a lingua franca in many parts of Eastern Europe thanks to the U.S.S.R., etc.
    What’s interesting is what’s happening now with English, it seems to be turning into an international lingua franca which I, unlike many other language enthusiasts and linguists, think is a very good thing: the world needs a lingua franca. It just so happens that English appears to have been chosen by coincidence, so of course as a native English speaker I feel like I got very lucky in that regard.

  2. The use of the word ‘mountaineers’ in your quote strikes me as extremely odd. Surely the correct term is ‘highlanders’ or ‘mountain-dwellers’, горцы not альпинисты. And yet I have seen the word used time and again in English language studies of the Caucasus. Is this a specific ethnographic use ? I don’t recall the Swiss ever being called mountaineers (except when they’re climbing them).

  3. J.W. Brewer says

    “Mountaineers” to mean “highlanders / mountain-dwellers” can be seen in AmEng in “Mountaineers” as the name of West Virginia University’s sports teams (and also those of other schools such as Appalachian State), with the specific “Mountaineer” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/West_Virginia_Mountaineer)being a student mascot dressed in archaic frontiersman garb (coonskin cap and all).

  4. The older dictionaries at Wordnik all give “mountain dweller” as the first sense.

  5. “Heres a little story about a man named Jed.
    The poor mountaineer barely kept his family fed
    Then one day he was shootin’ at some food
    when up from the ground come a bubblin’ crude
    OIL..that is…Black Gold…Texas Tea…
    The next thing you know old Jed’s a millionaire
    the kinfolk said
    “Jed ..move away from here
    CALIFORNIE is the place you oughtta be!
    They loaded up the truck and they moved to BEVERLY!
    Hills…THAT is..
    swimmin pools….movie stars

  6. Here are the languages that Ethnologue thinks are lingua francas, or “languages of wider communication” as it calls them. Note that Russian is not one of them:
    Achinese, Afrikaans, Ajië, War-Jaintia, Aushi, South Azerbaijani, Bamanankan, Bemba, Bhatri, Bungku, Bulu, Central Kurdish, Dendi, Dyula, English, Éwé, Fon, French, Galela, Gen, Gonja, Hausa, Hiligaynon, Hindi, Armenian, Indonesian, Indian Sign Language, Tem, Northern Kurdish, Krio, Kuman, Kumyk, Pattani, Luvale, Hassaniyya, Peripheral Mongolian, Ndogo, Nyungwe, Pijin, Sadri, Chadian Arabic, Lamaholot, Sabaot, Sranan Tongo, Tetun Dili, Tiv, Trumai, Wali, Wolof, Nong Zhuang.

  7. what’s with this calling my language peripheral, all other languages are listed just as they are, lingua francas, suddenly it becomes peripheral in description when it comes to my language
    it’s really like chinese hegemony creeps into virtually everything, can’t they let things called by our name just once without any other unnecessary additives attached

  8. J.W. Brewer says

    “Peripheral” seems perhaps suboptimal terminology; I’m not sure there’s a single standard name used in English sources to the specify the variety/ies of Mongolian spoken in PRC-ruled Inner Mongolia as opposed to the standard (Khalka?) variety spoken in the current nation-state of Mongolia, but it’s the former they’re talking about as having a lingua franca function. By way of parallel they identify “South Azerbaijani” (i.e. the kind spoken in Iran rather than in Azerbaijan proper) as another lingua franca.

  9. A number of these languages (Krio, Pijin, Sranan Tongo, Wolof, Indonesian for example) have more non-native than native speakers: could a “language of wider communication” be defined on the basis of non-native speakers as a percentage of the total number of speakers? It would explain why English and French “made the cut”, but not Russian, Spanish, Portuguese, Mandarin, or any variety of Arabic other than Chadian and Hassaniya.

  10. Addendum: Trumai and Sabaot aren’t called “languages of wider communication”, though the phrase appears within the entries (not referring to either language, however). In the case of Bungku it *was* a language of wider communication “before independence” (that of Indonesia). Also, Bulu is “in decline” as a language of wider communication.
    Finally, Armenian is only called a “language of wider communication” in some countries with members of the Armenian diaspora living in it, which I think strengthens my hunch above. For, whereas Armenia proper is a country where the overwhelming majority of the population speaks Armenian as an L1, in the diaspora a considerable number of ethnic Armenians have the host country’s language as their L1 but learn (or claim to speak, out of ethnic identity/pride)Armenian as an L2: hence, because of its high percentage of L2 speakers Armenian in the diaspora is considered a language of wider communication, but not in Armenia. A similar dynamic may also explain in part why Khalkha Mongolian is not called a language of wider communication, as opposed to the variety spoken in Inner Mongolia.

  11. it’s one language and two dialects, so if it is recognized as a lingua franca it wouldn’t stop being that just on our borders
    then the description in the page reads as “the language of China”, why only china, when it’s spoken in Russia too, it’s really difficult then to interpret it is peripheral as opposed to our central dialect, they should have called it even better the chinese provincial something, that would have been more like apt or what

  12. J.W. Brewer says

    I think ethnologue wants to be a splitter here where read would like to be a lumper and as always there’s no good way to objectively referee between the tendencies.

  13. Ethnologue defines the term “language of wider communication” as “[a] language people commonly use to communicate across language and cultural boundaries.” It seems to me that Russian ought to qualify by that standard, but either they don’t think so or it’s an oversight: it’s incredibly difficult to maintain consistency across the whole Ethnologue database.
    “Peripheral Mongolian” is the Ethnologue (and consequently the ISO 639-3 standard) name of the Mongolian spoken in Inner Mongolia. I would have chosen “Inner Mongolian”, which is one of the alternative names they provide, but I don’t make the rules. Ethnologue’s tree of the Mongolic languages looks like this (the order of names is not meaningful):
    Mongolic family
        Mogholi (Afghanistan)
        Eastern group
            Da(g)ur (China)
            Monguor group
                Bonan (China)
                Dongxiang (China)
                Kangjia (China)
                Tu (China)
                East Yugur (China)
            Oirat-Khalkha group
                Khalkha-Buriat group
                    Buriat group
                        Buriat (in China)
                        Buriat (in Mongolia)
                        Buriat (in Russia)
                    Mongolian Proper group
                        Halh Mongolian (Mongolia)
                        Peripheral Mongolian (China)

  14. and what i am saying, if not that, if the point is it’s a recognized lingua franca for speaking the chinese provinces only, call it that then, that would be as we say nyaluunaas shuluun – not sugar sweet but direct

  15. ^in the provinces

  16. It’s quite strange for the Ethnologue to describe “South Azerbaijani” as a “language of wider communication” without giving the same status to Persian which is *the* language most often used for inter-ethnic communication in Iran.
    Shopkeepers -in this part of Tehran usually imigrants from Tabriz or Ardabil- speak to their Tehrani customers in Persian, not Azerbaijani (which is also heard often, but -it seems- only among the L1 speakers themselves).

  17. “I would have chosen “Inner Mongolian” ”
    i would prefer if the language was listed just Mongolian, since if to be called a lingua franca, non-native speakers should use the language for communication, in my country Kazakhs and Uriankhai(Tuvans)use it, but in Russia, yes, only the native Buriad or Kalmyk speakers mostly use the language i guess, so maybe it doesn’t qualify, though to communicate with them we use the language too
    even so, i would have preferred if as a lingua franca within the wherever it means to be used as such it’s called Southern Mongolian, since we call the division as Ar (northern) and Ovor (southern) in regards to the Gobi desert location, not by whether it is a part of China or not, if it comes to that it’s better then to use “peripheral”, at least as reflection of our central/northern dialect not to anything else

  18. Etienne: Thanks for picking up on my errors, which were the result of searching without further filtering.
    JWB: Ethnologue is definitely a splitter, but it makes some accommodations to lumping. In particular, the term “Mongolian” is also in the database as a cover term, what ISO and Ethnologue call a macrolanguage, for both Halh Mongolian and Peripheral Mongolian. A macrolanguage is recognized when there exist a group of closely related languages that are treated for some purposes as separate, for other purposes as the same language. As another example, “Chinese” is a macrolanguage encompassing all the Sinitic languages except Dungan. Although from a pure dialect geography perspective, Dungan is part of Mandarin Chinese, sociolinguistically it is completely distinct from any kind of Chinese: it is written differently, it borrows heavily from Russian and the local Turkic languages, its speakers do not think of themselves as being or speaking Chinese.

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