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East: Language And Identity Discussed At Altaic Conference

  • Beatrice Hogan



The Permanent International Altaic Conference (PIAC) recently held its 42nd annual conference in Prague. Our correspondent Beatrice Hogan talks to Denis Sinor, the organization's long-time secretary-general, and to its president, Charles Carlson, about the highlights of this year's conference.

Prague, 1 September 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Obscure dialects seldom heard in Europe were spoken in Prague last week, including the rare Altay, Tuva, and Khamukia tongues.

Preserving those and other languages and dialects of the Altaic region is the task of the Permanent International Altaic Conference. At the conference's recent meeting in Prague, more than 90 people came together to get reacquainted and to discuss issues of language and identity.

Participants came from western Europe, the United States, the Russian Federation, and Central and East Asia. They spoke many different languages but were united by a concern for the peoples who trace their origins to the Altaic Mountains area, which crosses Russia, China, Mongolia, and Kazakhstan.

Charles Carlson is the director of the Kazakh and Kyrgyz broadcast services at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and president of this year's PIAC. He explained the unique features of this year's conference:

"So, I think it was outstanding in this respect: that we were able to bring in more people representing the smaller minority languages. And also, we had more people from Central Asia this year -- four from Uzbekistan, two from Kazakhstan, four people from Kyrgyzstan -- which, I think, is a record for PIAC."

Schools, universities and other institutions in the region are trying to preserve native languages, Carlson says, some of which are on the verge of extinction. Textbooks and dictionaries are being introduced to encourage the use of native languages, rather than Russian, in local schools.

The topic of language is an inherently emotional and political one for many because it concerns people's identity, what it means, for example, to be a Tuva or Kalmyk. The conference tries to mitigate any potential tensions by encouraging a friendly atmosphere.

PIAC Secretary-General Denis Sinor -- a professor of Altaic Studies at Indiana University in the midwestern U.S. state of Indiana -- explains how the organization achieves this spirit each year:

"The key of the PIAC -- really, what makes it different from any other congress -- is that at the first day of the PIAC, we have a general meeting which we call confessions. And everybody gets up, and everybody tells aloud who he or she is and what is his or her interest. And so we introduce each other verbally one by one, and that allows them immediately after the first meeting to meet people with the same interest."

This congenial environment has helped Altaic scholars to develop a wide professional network. It also made PIAC one of the few forums during the Cold War where scholars from both ideological camps can meet and exchange views. Sinor is especially proud of the fact that analysts from RFE/RL were allowed to attend PIAC in past decades, when the conference was held in communist countries.

The five days of meetings this year proved fruitful. Professor Hidehiro Okada of Tokiwa University in Japan was awarded PIAC's annual gold medal, which is sponsored by Indiana University. The medal is for lifetime achievement in Altaic scholarship and honors Okada's research into 18th- and 19th-century Mongolian history.

In addition, the conference passed a resolution dealing with the Kara'im people, a small Turkic-speaking community of religious Jews found in Lithuania and Ukraine. Carlson explains:

"The resolution that was passed was on preserving a Kara'im monument in Halach, Ukraine. And they want to erect a plaque to the Kara'ims of the city of the small town and also to preserve the cemetery, which is going to ruin. So the resolution calls on the authorities, the leaders of the city, to take action to preserve this particular building, which is of significance to the Kara'im community, and for the upkeep of the cemetery. It is in a bad state."

Carlson says the conference attendees enjoyed the chance to talk to each other face-to-face. They also toured RFE/RL, which broadcasts in several native Altaic languages (Uzbek, Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Turkmen). The papers presented at the conference will be published in a volume by Charles University in Prague, in conjunction with Indiana University and RFE/RL.
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