The Uralic languages spoken in Russia and minority Uralic languages in other countries are threatened by extinction as the native language competence in children and young people is increasingly low, they are mostly educated only in majority language (Russian, Norwegian, Lithuanian) and grow up in a predominantly mainstream cultural environment.
In the book ''Northern Minority Languages. Problems of Survival'' (Shoji, Janhunen 1997), M.Krauss presents data concerning Uralic peoples and the number of speakers of their languages. This evaluation of viability by age distribution of speakers is as follows: a (language spoken by all generations, learned by practically all children), a- (learned by nearly all or most children), b (spoken by all adults, parental age and up, but learned by few or no children), b- (spoken by adults in their thirties and older, but not by younger parents, and probably no children), c (spoken only by middle-aged adults and older, forties and up), c- (fifties and up), -d (sixties and up), d (seventies and up), d-(seventies and up, fewer than 10).
Based on his count, Krauss draws the conclusions that from part of the Uralic languages some have already become extinct in the last two centuries (Yurats, Kamass, Mator, southern and western Mansi, southern Khanty). Some of them have a (best) viability status designation of a, meaning that there may be some children, but generally few, if any, who speak the language, which accordingly, may have some chance of survival into the indefinite future. Krauss writes, "Larger numbers still and the heavy concentration in the Obdorsk-Yamal region of northern Khanty of traditional speakers of all generations and exceptionally strong maintenance of eastern Khanty qualify those languages as the next strongest northern languages in Russia. In any case even these most favoured northern languages are to be considered endangered. Very probably they will still be spoken in the year 2100, but for how much longer, and by children?"
Based on our field work over the last 10 years the above statistics could be amended with regards to the Eastern Khanty dialects: Yugan, Vakh, Alexandrovo and Vasyugan (table below), and perhaps, the total number of the Eastern Khanty dialect speakers is nowadays to be realistically placed at under 3,000.
Since the time of the discovery of common features in Uralic languages, mainly in the 19th century, the problem of explaining the distribution of these clearly genetically affiliated languages over the vast geographical area has remained. Based on the interdisciplinary studies (linguistic, archaeological, genetic, etc.) a number of concepts was posited with regards to the location of an ancient Uralic proto-home: (i) east in western Siberia, or on both sides of the North-Urals; (ii) on both sides of the Central and South-Urals; (iii) on the European side quite far to the east; (iv) on the European side quite far to the west; (v) a narrow area along the Volga and its tributaries; and finally (vi) a vast area between the Urals and the Baltics inhabited by ancient Uralic people of a Uralic proto-race, who spoke the Uralic proto-language, enjoying the Uralic proto-culture and possibly. There is also a very plausible 'lingua franca' approach positing a vast contact area of remotely related languages/cultures in the state of on-going contact, using a variety of Uralic proto-language for communication. "At any rate, it should be born in mind that 6000 years ago there was no Garden of Eden any more, there were many languages which must have been in contact among themselves. The incidence of a common Proto-Uralic is logically highly improbable" (Suhonen 1997:89).
Based on the widely accepted (in Russia) convention, the Uralic proto period presumably ends around 8,000-4,000 years ago, with the migration mainly westward from ancient proto-home. Gradually, during thousands of years, the descendants of the ancient Uralic peoples of the east shifted more and more towards the west until they reached the vicinity of the Baltic Sea.
In western Siberia, the eastern Uralic group of the Ugric and Samoyed languages (together with Mordvin) display a number of similar features:
- morphologically distinguished transitive and intransitive forms;
- dual number;
- reflection of a plural object in the verb structure;
- expression of the object of the clause by a locative;
- predicative declension of substantives;
- addition of a redundant element in the expression of tempus.
With regard to syntax, the members of the Uralic language family are more closely knit. The similarities can constitute (as far as they do not represent language universals) retention of ancestral features from the time of the Uralic Protolanguage.
The Khanty language is one of two Ob-Ugric languages (the other being Mansi), which together with Hungarian comprise the Ugric branch of the Finno-Ugric group of Uralic language family.
The main dialectal divide is between the big dialectal clustering: of western (northern tundra) vs. eastern (southern+eastern forest hunter-fishers).
Western Khanty dialects enjoy better degree of description and continuous preservation and education attempts. Some of the western dialects have the devised written form and native language media. Eastern dialects are less described and more endangered, with no regular native language teaching or native media. The number of speakers steadily reduces placing some of the dialects in serious threat of extinction within the next 10-15 years.
The core Khanty vocabulary still contains numerous examples of vocabulary inherited from the Finno-Ugric proto-language (Collinder, 1962). Khanty is predominantly an agglutinative language with no prepositions and numerous affixes, each of which expresses a particular function.
Among the important features traditionally listed as typical be listed as follows:
Cultures are closely identified with languages and languages survival is often used to indicate cultural survival. More than half of the world's estimated original 15,000 languages have disappeared already. Approximately 6500 languages are currently spoken world-wide. It can be assumed that around most of these languages will become extinct in the 21st century. Unless important measures are taken to protect indigenous peoples' rights and cultures, linguists and anthropologists estimate that only 5-10 percent of the some 6,500 languages are expected to survive the next 50 years.
According to the latest population census of 1989 the number of various ethnic groups inhabiting the Russian Federation is as high as 180. There are large nations represented by millions of people, medium- size population groups - some 50.000 to several hundred thousand, and minority ethnic groups, from less than 50.000 down to a single person. According to data published in 1992 there are 63 of such minority ethnic groups. All these peoples and languages spoken by them have found themselves in an ethnic disaster area.
On a cultural level, language is a symbolic expression of community, encoding a group's values, its folkways and its history. Socially, it the most powerful means of interaction and communication, and it is through language that an individual or a group seeks and attains participation in society.
The concept of language rights, in its most general sense, refers to the right of people to learn, to keep and to use its own language in all manner of public and private business. This is human right. For minority groups language rights should include the right to learn both the mother tongue and the majority language fully, i.e. to become fully bilingual.
Opponents of the movement claim that the programmes are intended to maintain, at public expense, the language and cultures of ethnic minorities. Moreover, according to these opponents, maintenance of the native language serves only as a crutch to children and poses the additional danger of developing a minority-dominant group that will have separatist tendencies in the manner of French Quebec.
In the west and gradually in Siberia, some of the groups opposing bilingual education are teacher organisations. They use familiar arguments about the great priority that must be given to majority language (English or Russian), claiming that only in this way can the child obtain a high level of education. However, in the sort of legislation they have supported (e.g. the elimination of bilingual teacher certification requirements), it is clear that the main concern is not so much education as jobs. The issues of separatism and jobs are false issues. The goal of language rights in education is not separatism but economic and political (though not sociocultural) integration. Further, separatist sentiments derive from regressive policies, and language may become their symbol.
The educational consequences of instruction through a second language can be disastrous for minority pupils. The child under these conditions is denied the right to an equal educational opportunity. Equally as important, the failure to develop the home language is often a cause of alienation between children, their parents and their community. This failure is not the child's but can be laid directly on the doorstep of the majority-oriented policies in education.
The maintenance of language and culture by the school is a matter of academic and social survival and must be considered a civil right. For these reasons bilingual education must be supported, if at all as a maintenance effort. Children must be educated by the best means available, and these include their native language. And the educational process may not weaken or destroy the children's inheritance, which link them to their family and community.
When a language disappears the corresponding ethnos also disappears as an independent taxonomic unit. When the speakers of a language stop using it - this is the first and, usually, the last sign of the extinction of a tiny - and at times not so tiny - nation.
The struggle for creating a Soviet "superethnos", a so called "new historic community, a Soviet nation", i.e. efforts made to achieve the fusion of all nations into a single "socialist" one, have resulted in a policy of assimilation of minority ethnic groups, since the prevailing ideology viewed their separate existence as lacking any future perspectives. One has to note with grave concern that such an attitude towards numerically small native population groups has been the dominant one both in this country and in the worlds community as a whole.
The preamble of the International Labour Organisation Convention 1989 notes with regret that changes that have taken place in the international law since 1957, as well as changes in the status of native and tribal peoples in every regional in the world, have made necessary to adopt new international regulations on this subject in order to remove the assimilatory bias contained in previously effective regulations.
In a special law, the first of its kind in the whole history of Russia, the languages of all the peoples inhabiting the country (the law "On the languages of the peoples of the Russian Federation" adopted on October 25, 1991) are declared to be national value, part of the historical and cultural heritage protected by the state. In a number of articles of this law the languages of the minority ethnic groups are guaranteed state support, provision of necessary conditions for their preservation and further development (art.6), "assistance in the providing various forms of education and teaching their native languages, irrespective of the number of speakers but in accordance with their needs" (art.9); "any nation ... lacking a writing system of its own has the right to introduce and adopt writing in its native tongue. The state provides the necessary conditions"(art.10).
Using the classification scale by the prof. of Moscow University A.E.Kibrik, it can be observed that more than half of the minority languages of Russia have overstepped the border-line into the danger zone of seriously endangered languages.
One of the most dramatic ethnodemographic repercussions were provoked by wide scale exploration since 1960-ies of the famous Western Siberia oil- and gas-depositions, located almost exclusively on the territories of traditional Khanty residence. In few years from majority (although numerically small) population of the area this people become an insufficient ethnic minority, while their traditional habitat suffered irreparable and uncompensated harm.
Khanty being one of the biggest and complex ethnic groups of the North Western Siberia generally preserved their total population number: 1926 - 22306 pers., 1950 - 19410 pers., 1970 - 21138 pers., 1979 - 20934 pers., 1989 - 22521 pers., thus natural growth of the population was either absent or compensated by assimilation processes. However, parallel to the above there is marked and persistent decrease in number of mother tongue speakers: 1926 - est. 90%, 1950 - 77%, 1970 - 68.9%, 1977 - 67.8%, 1989 - 60.5%. It means that a number of speakers of Khanty language as a mother tongue declined from approx. 20000 speakers in 1926 to 13615 in 1989.
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Last update by A.Filchenko: 11/04/07