Abstracts: North Caucasus and Turkey

November 6, 14.50-16.30 CET. Language in conflict an war – focus: North Caucasus and Turkey

Chair: Dr Lidia Zhigunova

Emre Pshigusa (U.S. State Department, English Language Fellow): The Circassian language and identity created a feeling of illegality in us” Language Ideologies, Policies, and Circassian Language Rights in Turkey

Due to the Tsarist Russian Empire’s conquest of their homeland in 1864, more than 90 percent of the Circassians were forcibly exiled to the Ottoman Empire (Alankus & Taymaz, 2010). While the official resettlement policy aimed at accommodating over one million Circassians posed its own set of challenges to preserve their language, the Turkish Republic, in its language policy, went further to prohibit the use of their native tongue and even Circassian names within Turkey (Kaya, 2010). Previous research has explored the sociolinguistic situation of other minority languages spoken in Turkey, such as Kurdish (Zeydanlioglu, 2012), Judeo-Spanish (Seloni & Sarfati, 2013), and Laz (Kutscher, 2008). However, there has been a notable absence of research examining the effects of Turkey’s official language policies on the preservation of the Circassian language and its intergenerational transmission.

By adopting a socio-historical approach, this presentation delves into the sociolinguistic landscape of the Circassian language, shedding light on the initiatives that have played pivotal roles in maintaining the language over the years, as well as the official language policies that have curtailed Circassians’ linguistic rights. Employing Critical Language Policy (Tollefson, 2006) as its theoretical framework, this presentation shares the findings of a multiple case study (Stake, 2013) that explored how official language policies have impacted the sociolinguistic situation of Circassian and its preservation in Turkey. The data were collected through online linguistic life story interviews (Atkinson, 1998) with five ethnic Circassians hailing from different regions in Turkey and spanning various age groups. Thematic analysis of the interview data revealed the long-lasting impact of the “Citizen Speak Turkish” policy on language practices within families, intergenerational language transmission, and language preservation. The findings also highlighted that the oppressive language policies enforced by educators led participants to associate their mother tongue with illegality from a very young age, distancing them from their ethnic identities. The presentation concludes with the perspectives of participants on the future of the Circassian language in Turkey and discusses the implications for language policymakers and language advocacy groups in the country.


Lars Funch Hansen (Circassian Studies): The marginalisation of Circassian language through local history teaching, with cases from Krasnodar Krai including the Black Sea coast

According to UNESCO, Circassian is on the list of languages at risk of dissapearing. However, in spite of this status, recent initiatives of the authorities in the Russian Federation have further marginalised the Circassian language instead of the opposite. Teaching of local languages, history and culture – know in Russia as ‘kraevedenie’, which is often translated as ‘local history’, though ‘local’ or ‘regional studies’ would be more correct. Political demands for an increased focus on Russian patriotism have contributed to marginalise teaching in local language, history and culture further. This includes a renewed focus of schools and civil society organisations on visiting, maintaining and promoting monuments to the victory in the Second World War – including a renewed focus on the Stalinist era as a positive period in history. In spite of the fact that a number of North Caucasian peoples were collectively deported to Central Asia during the war. The hours of teaching in local languages such as Circassian have been reduced and made optional to pupils. All of which have contributed to further marginalise Circassian as well as other North Caucasian languages.


Valeriya Minakova (Penn State): “It all starts in the family”: Placing discourses on the role of families in Circassian language preservation into a historical-political context

The presentation explores local ideologies of language in Adyghea, one of the national republics in the North Caucasus and the traditional homeland of the Circassian people. Local educational, official, social and mass media discourses highlight the paramount role of families in the preservation of the Circassian language, often blaming parents for language shift to Russian. Little consideration, however, is given to the historical, political, and social forces that shape family language policies (FLPs). Consequently, families are presented as autonomous units unaffected by larger factors.

Drawing on interview and focus group data collected in Adyghea in 2019-2021, the presentation discusses how parents in urban and rural areas deal with the problem of Circassian language maintenance. I demonstrate that even those parents who are adamant about raising their children in Circassian struggle to create Circassian spaces in their homes as Russian enters their children’s lives naturally through kindergartens, media content, and socialization with peers. I place Circassian FLPs into a larger historical-political context emphasizing how Soviet and modern Russian nationalities and language policies inevitably affect families’ language decisions. For example, the devaluation of Indigenous languages in the 1960s-1980s motivated many Circassians to speak only Russian to their children. As a result, some modern parents cannot pass Circassian on to their children as they are not fluent in their ancestral language. Others, especially those in rural areas, consciously expose their children to Russian from an early age as in the Soviet time a Circassian accent in Russian was an immediate marker of a rural dweller and often elicited a condescending attitude (Lalor, 1990).

Modern language policies and the federal government’s discourses about indigenous languages also create less than favorable conditions for their development. In official rhetoric, indigenous languages are presented as related to peoples’ past, i.e., their traditions and heritage. Their political, communicative, and “market” value, however, is declining, and attempts of the national republics to create tangible incentives for learning them are often labeled as discrimination against the Russian-speaking population and a threat to the state’s unity. In contrast, the Russian language is portrayed as a source of national strength whose protection has critical implications for both the present and future of all peoples of Russia. Recent language and educational policies prioritize the knowledge of Russian while marginalizing indigenous languages. A case in point is the 2018 amendment to the Law on Education which made the teaching of indigenous languages optional in public schools and introduced additional classes of Russian “as a native language”.

The presentation concludes that in the highly repressive context of modern Russia, critical evaluation of history and current policies is dangerous. Therefore, exerting pressure on the community and families might be considered a strategic tool for attempting to preserve the Circassian language while demonstrating loyalty to the current regime. Yet, the gap between local rhetoric, emphasizing the importance of Circassian, and the reality, not conducive to the development of indigenous languages, makes some community members skeptical and dismissive of the emotionally charged appeals to speak Circassian to their children.

Merab Chukhua (Tbilisi State University and the Circassian Culture Center, Tbilisi): “One case of reflecting a historical fact in language”
Language is an integral part of existence at any stage of human development. That is why the natural language originating in the core of society is defined as a system of ordered signs consisting of certain elements and rules, which later itself reflects the reality. Any language, attested in the history of mankind, always includes and reflects in its own system all material objects, crafts, as well as inventions and changes in the existence of society. 
It turned out that such a mechanism of reflecting of the surrounding processes in the language system is still active,  evidenced by the reflection of the tragic results of the Circassian genocide among Megrelians. We have in mind the verb form chargaz-u-a in Megrelian, derived from the noun chargaz-i “Circassian”, which has the current meaning of “destruction” in Megrelian.
According to my observation, the case described above should be qualified as a linguistic fact reflecting the process of genocide of the Circassians in the speech of the Mingrelians, resident in the neighboring regions.


November 7, 14.30-15.45 CET. Afternoon session 2

The second presentation of Afternoon session 2 is given by Lidia Zhigunova at 15.10.

Lidia Zhigunova (Tulane University, USA): Russia’s War on Indigenous Languages: The Case of Circassian in the North Caucasus

Despite the fact that there are speakers of more than 155 languages in Russia, some of which have the status of state languages within individual federal subjects, from the outside Russian society may seem almost monolingual. To a large extent, this situation has been the result of government policies in recent decades, especially in matters of education: minority languages have disappeared from the compulsory school curriculum, and their support is often of a decorative nature. In fact, while the Russian government was actively engaged in the rhetoric of defending the linguistic rights of ethnic Russians in the neighboring post-Soviet countries, and even resorting to military aggressions in Georgia in 2008 and in Ukraine in 2014, all indigenous (non-Russian) languages spoken on the territory of the Russian Federation had been fighting for their survival. The number of speakers in the Russian Federation was only increasing for Russian, in all other languages it has been declining and, in some regions, sharply.

This paper closely examines the Soviet/Russian state language policies and their effects on the ethnolinguistic situation in the North Caucasus on the example of Circassian language, the official language in three republics – Kabardino-Balkaria, Karachay-Cherkessia, and Adygea. It will specifically discuss the Russia’s 2018 Language Law amending the Federal Law on Education that introduced the principle of voluntariness in the study of the state languages of the republics. This law which is now in effect makes education in 34 of Russia’s 35 official languages—every language except Russian—optional, limiting instruction in ethnic-minority languages to two hours per week. Previously, native-language instruction had been exclusively the purview of regional governments in Russia’s 26 ethnically defined autonomous republics and okrugs (in their Constitutions, the native languages have the same official status as Russian). It was presented as a choice by which parents choose the language of instruction but in reality, it was about the federal government consolidating power, and taking choice away from Russia’s autonomous republics. The language about a “parent’s choice” is merely a distraction from the central aim of the legislation, which is the suppression of minority languages. By limiting native-language instruction to two hours a week, Putin’s administration stroke a devastating blow to the already fragile minority languages in Russia. The situation is worsened by Soviet-era language teaching practices at schools, outdated textbooks, and the lack of resources and teacher preparation programs for indigenous languages, as well as the lack of literature and other materials (films, cartoons) in the indigenous languages.

At the grassroots level, language activists are working on these issues trying to ensure the reproduction of their speakers and increasing the visibility of the indigenous (non-Russian) languages on the platforms that are accessible to them (social media, NGOs). However, without the comprehensive and systematic measures that would address the asymmetry in the power dynamics and issues of equity and human rights as fundamental elements in the social use of languages, without developing and applying the linguistic ecology frameworks that would ensure the promotion and protection of local languages, the indigenous languages in Russia would eventually disappear.

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