chapter  7
17 Pages

Language Standardization in the Aftermath of the Soviet Language Empire

WithLenore A. Grenoble, Nadezhda Ja. Bulatova

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The top-down language standardization process of the Soviet era has ongoing effects for the use and vitality of indigenous languages in the Russian Federation today. The so-called development of these languages was intimately tied to Soviet theories of nationalities and nation-building, founded on a theory of developing national-territorial units which are then combined into a greater, Soviet nation. Hierarchical, centralized language planning processes that ignored local needs and opinions have resulted in a spectacular failure of standardized varieties created in the 1930s.

Siberian indigenous languages and groups exemplify the ongoing repercussions of these policies. The identification of a language, or more importantly an ethnolinguistic group, was integral to Soviet ideologies. This was in direct contrast to reality: Siberian indigenous peoples self-identified along clan lines, not ethnicities. Their ethnonyms were frequently derived from place names, not linguistic groups, and the creation of such “nationalities” (in Soviet terminology) and their languages as discrete, self-contained entities reflects Soviet political and linguistic ideology of the time. In Siberia and elsewhere in the former USSR, these nationalities are social constructs, resting on cultural and political assumptions that played critical roles in its development of the Soviet nation-state. There is no indication that local speakers themselves were consulted about the process or the decisions. Nonetheless, these constructed nationalities have become the cornerstone not only for language revitalization, but also for how Siberian peoples themselves view their identity and position in society.

The present chapter illustrates the consequences inherited from Soviet language policies and the challenges current standardization efforts face with a focus on Evenki (ISO 639-3 evn, Tungusic). Evenki was once widely spoken throughout Siberia, because the people were historically nomadic reindeer herders and hunters. Efforts to create a locally based, standard variety are thwarted by a number of factors. These include a scattered speaker base, with people living in small villages not in contact with one another; a lack of a clear local leader who has both authority and responsibility for creating and implementing the use of a standard; dialect differences and disagreement about some fundamental issues of what should be included in the standard (such as the marking of phonemic vowel length); and ongoing language shift, which makes it difficult to determine who is the expert.

Current efforts to revitalize Siberian indigenous languages generally include formal education efforts and involve the use of a standardized written form of the language, direct carryovers from the Soviet model. In the broader Siberian linguistic landscape, particulars vary language to language and from village to village. But the overall impact of Soviet language policies of standardization and education in the standard is roughly the same. Soviet ideologies that classify peoples as nationalities are maintained today and continue to be the basis for both federal language planning and local revitalization efforts.