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Lithuania/Ukraine: Karaims Struggle To Maintain Their Language And Culture

  • Charles Carlson

Karaim is an endangered Turkic language spoken only by an estimated 50 speakers mostly living in Lithuania. RFE/RL traces the ethnogenesis of the Karaims and highlights present-day efforts to maintain their language and culture.

Prague, 22 July 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Karaims are the descendants of Kypchak tribes who lived in the tribal union of the Khazar empire in the Crimea between the eighth and 10th centuries. In the eighth century, the Karaims converted to a form of Judaism known as Karaism, which may be described as a return to the roots or "sola scriptura."

The Karaims later split into three main groups. One group remained in the Crimea; another moved to Galicia, in part of present-day Ukraine; and the third group -- the largest -- in the 14th century left for what is now the town of Trakai in present-day Lithuania.

By the end of the 17th century there were about 30 Karaim communities in eastern Central Europe. But just 100 years later, their numbers had been drastically reduced as a result of epidemics and wars. Nevertheless, they were given status as a religious community by the respective countries in which they found themselves.

According to a 1992 study by Lithuania's National Research Center, the country's Karaims are considered a national minority and "original inhabitants" of Lithuania.

The sect of Karaism to which the Karaims have belonged since the eighth century is known as Anan ben David, a form of Judaism that acknowledges the Old Testament, but rejects the Talmud. According to Karaim religious teaching, reading the Bible is the duty of each believer. This religion is distinct from Rabbinical Judaism. The Karaim house of worship is called a kenesa. Today there are two functioning kenesas in Lithuania, one in Vilnius and one in Trakai.

In the 19th century, Karaim intellectuals became aware of the need to develop a literary language and publish periodicals in Karaim. The vocabulary of the Karaim language is strongly influenced by folklore, proverbs, riddles, and folk poetry, but lacks many abstract terms and has not expanded to incorporate words to express many scientific, technical, and philosophical concepts.

Until the 20th century, Karaim literacy was based on a knowledge of Hebrew. At first, Hebrew characters were used for writing Karaim, but later the orthographic system was based on the writing systems of the countries in which Karaims lived. After Lithuania gained independence in 1990, Karaims adopted an orthography based on the Lithuanian writing system. The most comprehensive grammar of Karaim is by the well-known Turkologist Kenesbay Musaev.

Estimates place the number of Karaim speakers today at around 50. This includes about 45 speakers of the language in Lithuania and only five speakers in the small settlement of Halych in Ukraine. This has led to Karaim being classified as a "seriously endangered" language in the UNESCO Red Book on Endangered Languages. The maintenance of their mother tongue and the revitalization of community life are the most urgent tasks facing the Karaims today.

Several projects today are aimed at maintaining conversational Karaim. One such project, designed to document the spoken language, has been carried out by Professor Eva Csato Johansson, a specialist of Karaim at Sweden's Uppsala University. She launched a program in 1994 to document the language by means of voice and video recordings.

Working with other linguists, she also produced a multimedia CD which has been in use by the community in order to support the revitalization of the language in Lithuania, and help linguists who want to learn about this language.

Csato praised the local Ukrainian authorities in the town of Halych, home to the five remaining elderly speakers of the Halych dialect of Karaim, for their efforts to publicize and preserve the Karaim language and culture. "Now in spite of the fact that the Halych community consists of only five old speakers, this is a very, very powerful little community. In 2002, in September, they could organize an international conference on Halych Karaim history and culture which evoked very great interest," Csato said.

This, Csato said, was partly due to the support the Karaim community received from Halych authorities, which has provided financial aid as well as help in maintaining Halych traditions.

The Karaim community in Lithuania, too, receives support from the state for the development of its culture. The Lithuanian Karaim Cultural Society, under the leadership of Karaim musicologist Karina Firkaviciute, seeks to promote Karaim cultural traditions through courses and programs especially designed for the approximately 250-member Karaim community in Vilnius and Trakai. Karina is one of the very few young native speakers of the endangered Karaim language.

Firkaviciute told RFE/RL that a great deal is being done to help preserve Karaim culture. "As the Cultural Society of Lithuanian Karaims, we are trying to maintain the language, and the most important thing is to be able to give the children the possibility to learn the language. So we are trying to organize each summer a kind of summer camp for Karaim children, where they can get some time to learn the Karaim language. But of course they would need to do it more often and during the whole year, not only in the summertime," she said.

She also praised the work of Eva Csato Johansson, especially the CD-ROM she compiled for people who would like to learn the Karaim language. "[It] includes also some dictionary, and grammar and sounds, and you would be able to learn how to read and how to pronounce it correctly, so it is quite a live thing. It is a very fresh and nice thing, but it is not yet published, and you would not be able to buy it. But we expect it every second to come, so there would be already the scientific background for the future lessons, and also we are trying to document the language in the sense of printing the books, printing the poems or literature or some articles on the Karaim language, on something that has been written in Karaim language, etc.," Firkaviciute said.

Firkaviciute said the various Karaim communities maintain contacts with each other and meet practically every year. RFE/RL asked her if she was optimistic the language would survive. "I would say, 'yes,' and if somebody is not, I would say we should actually be optimistic, because otherwise you are not able to do anything," she said. "And of course the only pessimistic note that could be here is that the [size] of the communities is very small, but it is not the main thing which could make you pessimistic. If you are pessimistic, then you are not a human being. You should be optimistic, and I think we are optimistic, and we will try to do something to make other people more optimistic. But it's the main thing just to stay with those positive moods, because otherwise there's no way to run."

As an example of her language, Karina read a Karaim poem entitled "Syru Trochnun": "Being faraway our brothers always remember our native lands. Elders and the young, everybody from distant places always come back to Trakai. There everybody enjoys the nature, summertime on the islands. Youth will not come back, so we have to remember and being faraway not to forget about Trakai. What is the secret of Trakai, why does everybody long for that small town? You have to tell that secret even for the youngest -- Youth go there because of young nice girls and we all go and long for Trakai because of tradition."

Some are convinced languages like Karaim, which have only a few speakers, are doomed to extinction. But Professor David Crystal, an internationally recognized linguist and supporter of endangered languages, believes that a language can survive regardless of the number of speakers -- as long as there is support for the language.

"It is possible for a language to survive, to regenerate -- to 'revitalize' is the usual term -- regardless of the number of speakers it has. There are cases on record of peoples with just a few hundred speakers who have, with appropriate support, managed to maintain their language presence and to build upon it," Crystal said. This should be encouragement to the small community of Karaims in Trakai.

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