Language endangerment

Historical roots: The Soviet and the post Soviet period

In order to understand the current sociolinguistic situation a brief look into the recent history is necessary. Since there are almost no official documents about the recent history, or reliable statistics, we are obliged to rely on the personal accounts of Shiri and Sanzhi people, recounted to us on a visit to Druzhba and Chinar and during several meetings with Shiri and Sanzhi speakers in Makhachkala in the summer of 2010. These personal accounts concerned the historical events of the last century and estimated numbers of speakers.

In 1944 the Chechens were accused of collaboration with the Nazis and were therefore deported to Central Asia. At the same time many Daghestanian people were forcibly resettled to Chechnya to the places which the Chechens had to vacate. Especially Daghestanian people living in the small mountain villages suffered from this forced resettlement. Thus, in 1944 many Dargi people, among them also the inhabitants of Shiri, had to leave their houses and most of their properties. While they went to Chechnya, all valuable things were taken away and their villages were destroyed and burnt down. The Shiri people, who according to our informants consisted of about 70 households at that time, had to move to the village of Majartup in the Korchelov (Shali) district of Chechnya. On the way to Chechnya and during the first months there almost half of the Shiri people died because of malaria and other diseases (Bulayeva et al. 2008). The Sanzhi people were fortunate not to undergo the same fate because at that time the Sanzhi Gusejn Abdullaev was the head of the Dakhadaev district executive committee and was able to secure the villagers’ right to remain in their village (Magomed-Rasul 2009: 54). In 1957, when the Chechens were rehabilitated and came back to their villages, the Daghestanian people had to move back again. Back in Daghestan, they found their houses destroyed and it took them several years to rebuild their villages. Right at that time the Soviets pressured the people living in the Caucasus mountains to move to the lowlands, especially from those villages which lacked roads and other infrastructure. The aim of this policy was twofold – on the one hand, the state needed a labor force for the industrialization and the big collective farms. On the other hand, this was a means of controlling people who were difficult to handle politically and administratively (Mühlfried 2010). Thus, beginning from about the 1960s Shiri people moved to Chinar (Derbentskij district) and to other places in the lowlands. Similarly, from 1968 Sanzhi people, who at that time consisted of about 30 households, moved predominantly to Druzhba (Kajakentskij district). There was and still is no road leading to Sanzhi, and also no electricity. Around ten years later the last Sanzhi speakers had left the village.

During Soviet times there were collective farms producing mainly wine in Chinar and Druzhba. But a number of male inhabitants also temporarily moved to Central Asia to earn money for their families, because the wages in the collective farms were very low and the work was extremely hard.

Nowadays there are more than 100 Shiri households living in Chinar. A number of families also live in Druzhba, Izberbash, Makhachkala, Kizljar and other places. In the village of Shiri, which still has an elementary school, only about 3 complete households are left, in addition to a number of older people whose children and grandchildren have moved to the lowlands. Our informants estimate that there are more than 200 Shiri families living in Daghestan, which means that the number of speakers is probably about 1000.

According to our Sanzhi informants, there are more than 100 Sanzhi households today, most of them in Druzhba, where they live together with Lak, Agul, Tabasaran and speakers of other Dargi languages. There are also a few households in Makhachkala, Kizljar, Izberbash, Derbent, etc.

In both villages there is still winegrowing, but these farms are not big enough to provide work for all inhabitants, so that especially men often go to other parts of Russia in order to work there and support their families at home.

The current sociolinguistic situation

Both Shiri and Sanzhi are severely endangered for a number of reasons:

(1) Due to the resettlement, almost all speakers left their original villages. The way of life drastically changed. In the 1970s and 1980s there was a period of heavy Russification, with increasing pressure to make Russian the “second mother tongue” (Grenoble 2003: 58). This process was sustained by the formation of ‘mixed’ villages in the lowlands where people from many ethnic groups with different languages lived together. As a result, almost all Shiri and all Sanzhi people live in a multilingual environment in direct neighborhood with speakers of other Daghestanian languages (the only exceptions are those few Shiri speakers who are still living in Shiri). For these people the only lingua franca is Russian. Thus, in Chinar there are also Aguls, Tabasarans, Avars and other Daghestanian people. In Sanzhi live other Dargi people, Lezgians, Tabasarans, Aguls and Lak. In fact, our own observations of Shiri and Sanzhi families showed that the people speak Russian not only to their neighbors who usually do not understand their native varieties, but even at home. Especially younger generations, including small children, speak predominantly Russian with each other. Thus, the new generations either acquire Shiri or Sanzhi incompletely or they do not learn them at all. Although the people generally have a positive language attitude and are proud of speaking their own language, Russian is considered to be not only more prestigious, but extremely necessary for the future of the children. Parents tend to say that children automatically learn Shiri or Sanzhi in one way or another, for example when talking to their grandparents, but that it is much more important to learn Russian well right from the beginning.

(2) Since the Dargi languages are considered to be dialects they have no official status in Daghestan. Although literary standard Dargwa does have an official status, this is of no use for Shiri and Sanzhi speakers. The social life outside the household is dominated by Russian. The medium of instruction in schools is Russian, even in those villages that consist of one language community only. In some places (including the villages of Druzhba and Shiri), where there are enough Dargi children, a few hours of “mother tongue instruction” is offered in school (i.e. standard Dargwa), but in many places not even this is possible. Furthermore, the influence of Russian transmitted by the media cannot be overstated.

(3) Literary standard Dargwa has never become a lingua franca for Dargi people (except for the people who already speak Akusha), in contrast for example to the standard Avar language that existed already for a long time before the Soviet period. Dargi people used local linguae francae like Kumyk or Lak, and nowadays almost exclusively Russian. Shiri and Sanzhi speakers do not understand literary standard Dargwa. Young Shiri and Sanzhi people, who have Dargwa classes in school, usually do not really learn the language, because for them literary standard Dargwa is a foreign language without any further use.

(4) Another factor influencing the linguistic situation is marriages between women and men from different ethnic groups, which usually does not lead to bilingual children acquiring both the language of the mother and of the father, but to children speaking only Russian at home because the parents use Russian to communicate with each other. We estimate that there are only about 10 families left where both husband and wife are competent Sanzhi speakers and have grown up in the village of Sanzhi. Shiri people are somewhat more conservative, but the same tendency can be observed.