Shiri and Sanzhi are highly endangered. The way of life and the economic basis for it have drastically changed. Old traditional handcrafts and ways of life disappear (e.g. terrace agriculture and horticulture) and with them the knowledge and the terminology related to these. Due to the resettlement speakers forget about the microtoponomy. The systems of demonstrative pronouns and spatial preverbs which are very elaborate in Shiri and Sanzhi, including numerous distinctions related to a mountainous environment are not used anymore by younger speakers. This is most probably also due to the fact that in the lowlands, geographical distinctions like ‘up from here’ or ‘down from here’ are less relevant. There is very strong Russian influence on the lexicon, as more and more Russian words replace Dargi expressions. Judging from our material collected in 2010 and 2011, occasionally younger speakers translate back from Russian into their own language, thereby also adopting Russian word order and other syntactic properties of Russian that are not characteristic for Dargi languages.
However, until now both varieties, although endangered, are still far enough away from language decay (cf. Sasse 1992). The Shiri and Sanzhi communities are aware of the changes that their languages and cultures undergo and they are very interested in preserving both. However, they lack possibilities to do so, because the government does not support unwritten languages and dialects that do not have an official status. Thus, in our project we will help them by documenting as much as possible of their linguistic and cultural knowledge and by actively supporting them in transmitting this knowledge to the younger generations.
There are also a number of scientific reasons why a documentation of Shiri and Sanzhi is needed at this stage:
- Shiri and Sanzhi are until now completely undocumented, both from a linguistic perspective as well as from an ethnographic perspective.
- The place of Dargi languages inside the Nakh-Daghestanian family and their internal classification are still unclear because the relevant data is lacking.
- Dargi languages, including Shiri and Sanzhi, show a number of typologically rare and interesting features, such as demonstrative pronouns that distinguish meanings such as ‘higher / lower than the speaker’ and spatial cases expressing the location of a figure in front of the ground.
Additionally, Dargi languages have personal agreement, which is a rare phenomenon in Daghestan; unlike gender agreement, which is always with the absolutive argument of the clause, the controller of personal agreement is determined by the personal hierarchy (2 > 1 > 3).
- Dargi languages also have extremely elaborate systems of tense, aspect and mood (TAM). For example, Icari distinguishes as many as 70 different TAM paradigms (Sumbatova & Mutalov 2003: 61).