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Contribution to the International Mother Language Day of UNESCO Budapest, 21 February 2013

Description of Minority Languages in Russia on the Basis of
Historical Data, Sound Archives and Field Work

Tjeerd de Graaf
Foundation for Siberian Cultures, Groningen Centre for Russian Studies and
Mercator European Research Centre on Multilingualism and Language Learning
Frisian Academy, The Netherlands

During a stay in the Sakha Republic (Siberia) in 1994, local linguists in Yakutsk told us about the history of the Yakut language. They mentioned the fact that the first written information on this language could be found in a book by the Dutch author Nicolaas Witsen, but that they were not yet able to read this. Witsen was an important Dutchman who had personal contacts with Peter the Great during his visit to Amsterdam in 1697 and who provided information about Western Europe to the Russians. On the other hand, from Witsen's publicati¬ons the Western world learned much about the Russian empire. Witsen’s main work is contained in two large volumes of the book Noord en Oost Tartarye which first appeared in 1692 with a description of North-eastern Asia. In this book Witsen gives many details on the peoples of Siberia, their languages and cultures, and he provides the first maps of this part of the world. For many of the Siberian languages, for example for Yakut, word lists are provided. The books are written in seventeenth century Dutch and it was difficult for colleagues in Russia to get access to the interesting material it contains. With a group of Russian and Dutch scholars we have prepared a Russian edition of this work, which has been published in 2010. The historical data of about 30 of the minority languages and cultures mentioned in the book are now available, such as for the Uralic languages Hanty (Ostiak), Mansi (Vogul), Mari (Cheremis), Mordvin, Komi (Zyryen), Nenets and Enets (Samoyed . We are preparing a special publication on this topic.

Archives do not only contain written material, but also other data like sound recordings. Prior to 1890, linguistic and ethnological fieldwork was based on direct contacts with represen-tatives of various cultures, in which the investigator took notes by hand after many repe¬titi¬ons of tales and songs during recording sessions. At the end of the 19th century, the great inventi-on of the phonograph by Thomas Edison changed all this. For the first time in human history, people were able to store and rehear acoustic data, in particular speech, songs and music. As recordings were made, it became obvious that a central facility was needed for the preservation of the valua¬ble material which had been collected. At the turn of the century this led to the establish¬ment of sound archives, the ear¬liest of which in Europe were located in Vienna and Berlin. Soon after, the first Russian collections were made, which later found their way to the sound archives of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Saint-Petersburg in the Pushkinsky Dom. These sound archives contain more than 6,000 wax cylinders of the Edison phonograph and in addition, an extensive fund of gram¬ophone records exists and one of the largest collections of tape-recordings of Russian folklore. These represent the history of Russian ethnogra¬phy and contain a wide range of materials.

In the past, expeditions were sent to various parts of the world to gather data which were then returned to the archives for preservation and study. In 1897, for instance, on the initiative of the famous anthro¬pologist and linguist Franz Boas, the Jesup Expedition set out to examine eviden¬ce of similarities among the peoples of Siberia and the North¬west Coast of America. Recor¬dings of this expedition were made in Siberia and many of these recordings form one of the basic collections used in our collaboration projects with Saint-Petersburg. The first of these projects on the Use of Acoustic Data Bases and the Study of Langua¬ge Change (1995-1998) has been finan¬cially suppor¬ted by the organisati¬on INTAS of the EU in Brus¬sels. We were able to reconstruct part of the many recordings in the Pushkinsky Dom and to make them available for further re¬search, which is not only important for historical and cultu¬ral reasons, but also for language description and for studying direct possible evidence of language change. In a second INTAS project, Saint-Petersburg Sound Archives on the World Wide Web (1998 - 2001) part of the sound recordings have been put on a web site and are now available for further study .

In our INTAS projects we first completed the reconstruction of sound archive material of the Zhirmunsky collection. Zhir¬munsky was a famous linguist who worked in Saint-Peters-burg/Leningrad earlier in the 20th centu¬ry. One of his main interests was the study of German dialects spoken on the territory of Russia. In the period between 1927 and 1930 he recorded many utterances, in particular songs of German settlers on gramop¬hone discs. In the framework of our INTAS project, most of these discs have been digitized. Over the last twenty years, it has again become possible to study the German dia¬lects in Russia with the aid of existing linguistic databases and new fiel¬dwork. One of these dialects is the Plautdietsch language of the Siberian Mennonites, which has been the topic of a PhD thesis in Groningen.

Important activities related to linguistic databases in Saint-Petersburg concern the many recordings of Russian dia¬lects and minority languages in the Russian Federati¬on, such as Nivkh, Tungus, Yakut and others. One of our aims has been the construction of a phonetic database of the languages of Russia which has many scientific, cultural and technical applications. In the framework of the NWO project Voices of Tundra and Taiga  (2002 - 2005) we combined the data from old sound recordings with the results of modern fieldwork, in order to describe the languages and cultures of ethnic groups in Russia. It will be possible to use this information for the preparation of text books on certain languages, collections of folklore, data on ethnomusi¬cology and for the study of language contact, langua¬ge change and migration movements.

From 2006 until 2008 and from 2010 until 2012 we received grants from the Endangered Archives Programme of the British Library, which made it possible to re-record material from mainly private collections on historic sound carriers according to up-to date technology and to store them in safe places together with the related metadata. The storage facilities provided by the project can modernise the possible archiving activities in the Russian Federation. In our presentation we consider some examples of data in these archives, such as the historical sound recordings which in 1935 Wolfgang Steinitz made of the Hanty language and folklore. At present we continue this work with the reconstruction of Udmurt material in collaboration with scholars in Saint-Petersburg and Udmurtia, one of the Federal Republics of the Russian Federation with a Finno-ugric minority.

The extinction of languages is a process which takes place nearly everyw¬here in the world. The rich variety of languages which must have existed in the past is diminis¬hing rapidly. As estimated by various linguists, in the next 50 years many of the 6000 languages which are at present spoken in the world will disappear. At the moment 20 to 50% of these langu¬ages are no longer used by children, which makes their survi¬val very uncertain. In our reports it has been stated that quite a few langua¬ges on the terri¬tory of the Russian Federation are under threat of total extinction and that measures should be taken to put an end to this pro¬cess of degra¬dation and dying out of languages. Linguists and ethnolo¬gists should work together with represen¬tatives of endangered langua¬ges in order to find solutions to these problems. With a study group of UNESCO we have prepared several publications on this matter and a special Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger, which is also available on the internet.

In the Foundation for Siberian Cultures, which was founded in 2010, we have the aim to preserve the indigenous languages of the Russian Federation and the ecological knowledge expressed in them. During our fieldwork expeditions to Sakhalin, Kamchatka, Northern Yakuti¬a and Central Siberia we have studied  processes of language shift and language death for some minority peoples of  Russia, in particular for the Nivkh of Sakhalin, the Itelmen and Koryak of Kamchatka, the Yukagir of Sakha and the Siberian Mennonites. It is a very important task for the linguistic community to make a regist¬ration of the last speakers of these langua¬ges in inter¬views with good sound and video recording equip¬ment. The results of modern field work and the reconstructed data from sound archives will provide important information for the preparation of language descripti¬ons, grammars, dictiona¬ries and edited collections of oral and written literature. These can also be used to develop teaching methods, in particu¬lar for the youn¬ger members of certain ethnic groups who do not have suffi¬cient knowledge of their native language. In this way we can make them aware of their heritage and the Russian Federation can develop a basis for multi-ethnic co-existence between Russians and many other ethnic groups in this country.

Short biography Tjeerd de Graaf

Since 1990, Tjeerd de Graaf, associate professor of Phonetics at Groningen University until 2003, has specialized in the phonetic aspects of Ethnolinguistics. In 1990, he made his first fieldwork trip with a Japanese expedition to the minority peoples of Sakhalin. Since then, he has contributed to various research projects on endangered languages and the use of sound archives related to ethnic minorities in Russia.  This takes place in co-operation with colleagues in the Russian Federation and Japan. Most of these projects were financially supported by special grants from the European Union and the Netherlands Organization of Scientific Research NWO. In 1998, Tjeerd de Graaf received a Doctorate Honoris Causa from the University of St.Petersburg for his work in the field of ethnolinguistics. Since 2002, he has been a board member of the Foundation for Endangered Languages (Great Britain) and a research fellow at the Mercator Centre of the Frisian Academy, which co-ordinates research on European minorities - in particular the language, history and culture of Frisian, one of the lesser used languages of Europe. In the first half of 2003, he spent a semester as visiting professor at the University of St.Petersburg. In 2004 and 2005, Tjeerd de Graaf worked as guest researcher at the Slavic Research Center of Hokkaido University (Japan). Since 2006 some of his projects have been financially supported by the Endangered Archives Programme at the British Library.

Dr. Tjeerd de Graaf
Foundation for Siberian Cultures, Germany (
Foundation for Endangered Languages, UK (
Centre for Russian Studies at Groningen University (
Mercator European Research Centre on Multilingualism and Language Learning
c/o Fryske Akademy
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NL-8900 AB, Ljouwert / Leeuwarden
The Netherlands
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