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Russia: Efforts Under Way To Prevent Extinction Of Shor Language

Shor is a Turkic language spoken by less than 10,000 people in the Kemerovo Oblast of the Russian Federation. The Shor language and culture are on the verge of extinction, although efforts are being made to keep them from disappearing altogether.

Prague, 5 June 2003 (RFE/RL) -- According to the Foundation for Endangered Languages, the majority of the world's languages are being spoken by fewer and fewer people, with many of them on the verge of extinction.

Recent estimates place the number of languages in the world at around 6,000, of which 52 percent are spoken by fewer than 10,000 people. Twenty-eight percent of these languages are spoken by fewer than 1,000 people.

On the other hand, the 10 major languages of the world are each spoken by more than 100 million people and are the mother tongues of almost half of the world's population.

David Crystal is one of the world's foremost authorities on languages and the author of "Language Death." He has been a staunch supporter of preserving endangered languages, particularly his native Welsh.

In an interview with RFE/RL, Crystal spoke of three factors that must be taken into account when speaking of preserving dying languages.

"For a language to be preserved, three things need to happen, and they have to work together," he said. "There has to be, first and foremost, bottom-up interest. That is, the people themselves must want the languages preserved. Secondly, there has to be a top-down interest. Somebody in power, whether it's a local government, or a national government, or a reflex of some international organization such as UNESCO, or the United Nations, or the Council of Europe. The third factor is there has to be cash: somehow, somebody has got to pay for this."

One of the languages whose survival is currently under threat is Shor, a Turkic language spoken by the Shor people, whose historic homeland is the Kemerovo Oblast in south-central Russia.

Gennady Kostochakov teaches the Shor language and its literature at the Kuzbass State Pedagogical Academy in Novokuznetsk, Russia. Kostochakov wrote the following poem in Shor:

"The first spring flower makes its way through the snow,

"Its whiteness and freshness pierce and conquer my heart.

"You are the creation of God.

"My hand does not deserve to pluck you."

Historians believe the Shors may be Turkicized descendants of Samoyedic, Ugric, and Ketic people who lived in the area thousands of years ago. In the first few centuries A.D., these tribes were displaced by Turks. Although they are considered a Turkic people today, the Shors display numerous cultural and linguistic traits that relate them to the Samoyedic and even the Khanty-Mansi people of northwestern Siberia.

Before the 1917 Revolution, the Russians called the Shors by various ethnonyms, depending on the location of a given tribe or clan. By the end of the 20th century, all of these tribes had merged, to the extent that they became a single ethnic unit.

In 1926, the Soviet government created the Shor Ethno-Cultural Region. In 1926, a new Shor alphabet was created under the Soviet regime based on Cyrillic, and in 1927 the first language primer was published. Then, in 1929, a new Latin alphabet was introduced, and books and textbooks were published in the Shor language. By 1935, the Shors had their own written language, 32 schools, and 64 native teachers.

In 1938, however, it was decided to revert to the Cyrillic alphabet. And as a result of the influx of workers during the 1930s from other regions of Russia to develop the region's coal, iron, and gold deposits, the Shors' share of the region's population dropped from about 39 percent in 1931 to 13 percent in 1938.

After this, the Shor language and culture rapidly declined through assimilation. Under Stalin, the area became the home of labor camps.

At the time of the last Soviet census in 1989, there were some 16,000 Shors in the Soviet Union, of whom some 12,500 lived in Kemerovo Oblast. Although 9,800 of them said they considered Shor their native language, only about 900 of them could actually speak it.

The "Red Book of Peoples of the Russian Empire," published in Tallinn in 1993, notes that the Shors have "failed to preserve their identity. Their traditions only survive in remote places and their language can only have a domestic use. The Shors have no national theater, publications, radio. The masters of the Shors' land are industry, aliens, and the Russian language."

The late 1980s and early 1990s saw a revival of Shor culture and traditions. The Association of Shor People was created, and in 1993 the Shor people became members of the Association of Indigenous Small-Numbered Peoples of the North, Siberia, and the Far East of the Russian Federation.

Most importantly, a chair of Shor language and literature was established at the Kuzbass Pedagogical Institute in Novokuznetsk, the capital of Kemerovo Oblast. Sixty students have already graduated from the faculty, which has four teaching staff. Sixty-seven more undergraduates are currently studying the language. Shor is also being taught at some village schools.

Irene Shentsova, a Shor professor at the Pedagogical Institute, describes the school and the efforts they are making to teach Shor.

"The chair of the Shor language and literature is one of the chairs of the Kuzbass State Pedagogical Academy," Shentsova says. "It is situated in Novokuznetsk, Russia. There are only four lecturers, members of the chair. At the present moment, 67 students study their native language and culture. On the whole, there are about 60 graduates, specialists in Shor. The graduates work as teachers of Russian and Shor, and as journalists. They work in museums and at the local administration."

Of efforts now being made to write literature in the Shor language, Kostochakov says, "Nowadays, Shor literature is being created by a group of writers. During the 1990s and currently a Shor language periodical 'Tugan Cher' ['Native Land'] is being issued, and nine booklets containing selections of Shor poetry have been published. Among them are 'Onzas Cherim' by Lyubvo Arbachakova and 'Tang Atcha' by Nikolai Bel'chegeshev. Eight Shor authors have entered the All-Russian Union of Writers. Members of the Shor Department of the Union conduct seminars. Young people attending them study their native language and discuss their own poetic creations."

These efforts may reverse the decline in the number of Shor speakers. And the gloomy title of Kostochakov's recent book of poetry, "I Am the Last Shor Poet," may prove to be wrong.

Asked whether a language like Shor -- with less than 10,000 speakers -- has reached the point of no return, language scholar David Crystal says, "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."

One further factor that could help the Shors is the fascination many Russians have with shamanism. The Shors have their own unique form of shamanism. The Shor term for a shaman is "kam." A male "kam" beats a tambourine gently and drinks a weak alcoholic beverage to induce a shamanistic trance, during which he visits the spirit world to rescue the lost souls of persons who have fallen sick.

Both male and female "kams" are also accomplished in alternative healing practices, such as laying hands on people. These "kams" frequently perform such rites for visiting ethnographers.