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Central Asia: Conference Provides Forum For Altaistic Cultures

  • Bruce Pannier



Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty will host a meeting next week of scholars studying the languages and cultures of Inner Asia, a vast landlocked region comprising Central Asia, Mongolia, and Tibet. The annual meeting focuses a rare spotlight on a region which has played key but often little-known roles in the histories of Europe, the Mediterranean, and North America.

Prague, 20 August 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Scholars who study Inner Asia, as well as officials from several countries of the region, are gathering in Prague beginning Monday for a five-day annual meeting of the PIAC (Permanent International Altaistic Conference).

The conference is considered by many experts in the field to be the world's pre-eminent forum for studying Altaistic cultures, an umbrella term referring to peoples and languages tracing their origins to the area around the Altai mountains (located where Russia, China, Mongolia and Kazakhstan meet).

The meeting, hosted this year jointly by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Prague's Charles University, is the 42nd annual gathering of the group but its first ever in the Czech Republic.

The PIAC traces its roots to 1957 when a group of scholars attending the International Conference of Orientalists broke with the then-tradition of studying the Asian continent as a single entity to fully concentrate instead on Inner Asia in its own right.

Since the first formal meeting in 1959 in Mainz, Germany, the PIAC has inspired a resurgence in the study of Turkic, Mongol, Tungusic and Finno-Ugric cultures, often through the examination of their past and present languages. The effort has significance far beyond Inner Asia itself because through much of pre-history and history the region has been the source of some of the world's greatest population movements.

Due to eastward and westward migrations from Inner Asia, Native Americans, Siberians, and several peoples of Europe and the Mediterranean originally come from the region. Yet Inner Asia itself, often 1,000 kilometers or more from any ocean, was terra incognito to most of the world until European explorers began to penetrate it barely 200 years ago.

PIAC comes to Prague through the efforts of Charles Carlson, director of RFE/RL's Kazakh and Kyrgyz broadcasting services. Carlson is a former student of the longstanding secretary-general of the conference, Professor Denis Sinor of Indiana University, a scholar well known in the field for his work in Uralic and Altaic studies. Carlson, himself a scholar of Central Asian languages, described some of the delegates coming to the meeting.

"We have about 90 delegates coming from most of the eastern and western European countries, the Baltic states, Mongolia, inner Mongolia, Hong Kong, Japan, large delegations from Turkey, the Russian Federation, and the Central Asian republics of Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Included in the delegation from the Russian Federation are distinguished representatives from Tatarstan and the small but not minor peoples of Kalmykia, Tuva, Altai and Khakassia. And we even have a representative from the small Finno-Urgaic nation of Livonians in Latvia."

In the days of the cold war, the conflict between East and West gave great importance to PIAC meetings as a means of exchanging information about cultures which were shielded behind contemporary ideological barriers. Such gatherings helped to keep linguistic interest, and the availability of accurate information, about these cultures alive in the western world.

Today, the meetings continue to be vital both for eastern and western scholars who use them to freely exchange information about linguistic events in the region.

Many scholars believe that the urgency for studying the languages of Inner Asia and the peoples who trace their origins to the region has never been so great as it is today. With the opening of doors to western culture and investment, the increasing access to computers and the internet and the possibilities provided by modern-day travel, these cultures and their languages will increasing come under attack from outside influences. Much that is and has been will surely be lost in the years to come as innovations and inventions never encountered, and in some cases, never imagined by the peoples influence their lives.

Knowledge of one's historical roots, the heritage of one's people, is dear to any culture. The adage "It is difficult to know where you are going unless you know from where you came," is an unspoken truth in the soul of any nation. This idea guides meetings such as PIAC, which recognize that language, the cornerstone of any people's communication, development, or defense, gives insight into the direction a culture is taking.

As many peoples have learned through history by painful experience, those who are unable to maintain their language, such as many native American cultures, invariably lose their ethnic identity. Without one who can read the signs or understand the story, the wonderful events of a culture become extinct, nevermore to be known to any living soul.

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