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Uralic Languages Endangered in Russia
18 May 2010
Uralic Languages Endangered in Russia

Uralic Languages Endangered in Russia
By Karen Politis Virk,
Director of Biotech and Pharmaceutical Research,
Language Connections

SiberiaApproximately one-fourth of the people in the world speak one of three languages: Mandarin, English, and Spanish. Of the estimated 6,700 languages in the world, almost 2,500 are considered at risk of extinction according to UNESCO [1]. Of the numerous languages that are actively spoken today, each reflects a unique view of the world. The death of a language means the disappearance of an irreplaceable part of human knowledge. It diminishes our ability to understand how a people thought, perceived, and adapted to their environment.

Languages typically are lost when speakers of a minority or indigenous language come into regular contact with a larger population that speaks a more dominant language. Recent globalization trends have greatly contributed to the endangerment of minority languages. As new generations are born and raised in urban areas that have dominant languages, the number of minority language speakers often diminishes. Globalization has also been accompanied by increased urbanization, migration, mixed marriages, and a decline in the traditional lifestyles that form the basis and need for much of the vocabulary of many minority languages. All of these factors help to contribute to language abandonment.

International programs have been formed, most notably by UNESCO, to preserve endangered languages and even revive lost languages – but how much emphasis should be placed on these efforts? On the one hand, losing a language means a loss in cultural diversity as well as the speakers' decreased ability to express perceptions, and pass on history and traditions as known and experienced by their ancestors. On the other hand, as new generations are brought up in a different environment, the culture that their language represents often no longer defines them. Languages shift and change over time, some are lost and others branch out. The ones that survive are those that adapt to the same changes experienced by their speakers. Others are replaced by the language spoken by the majority in their new language environment.

In several parts of the world where English, Spanish, and Russian languages are predominantly spoken, many minority languages are in danger of extinction. Some of the languages of the indigenous peoples of central and northern Russia and Siberia, for example, exist only in oral form. Thus, as the number of speakers dwindles, both due to the factors mentioned above and due to factors fueling Russia's overall demographic decline, the danger is that these languages will be lost entirely.

Endangered Uralic Languages in Russia

85% of Russia's population is composed of people of Slavic origin. Most of Russia's ethnic minorities speak languages that can be divided into three main groups: Altaic, Uralic, and Caucasian. Of these groups, the Uralic languages are perhaps the most at risk. Together, the Finno-Ugric and Samoyedic groups form the Uralic language family which consists of more than twenty languages.

These languages are spoken primarily in Eastern, Northern, and Central Europe, and in Western Siberia by more than 23 million people [2]. According to a 1989 census, nearly 3.3 million are minorities living in the Russian Federation [2]. Although recent evidence indicates that the Uralic languages have been in existence in Europe for approximately ten millennia [3], many of the Uralic languages spoken in Russia are either endangered or extinct.

Linguists have categorized these languages according to the status of their preservation and the extent to which they are endangered. Some have just a few speakers left, while others have disappeared entirely – at least nine Uralic languages were lost prior to the 20th century, and several have just a few hundred or thousand remaining speakers. Historically, the use of minority and indigenous languages was strongly discouraged in Russia. Government usage of the Russian language effectively unified communications across a vast nation, but it also contributed to severely diminishing the number of speakers of minority languages. Today there is a changing attitude regarding the preservation of minority heritage in Russia.

Minority Languages & Education

In the Russian Federation, teaching is conducted in seventy-five national languages, including thirteen Uralic languages. In the republics and districts inhabited by Uralic peoples there are both national primary and secondary schools and Russian schools, mainly in rural areas, where Uralic languages are studied as separate subjects. However, due to the crisis in Russia's education system, brought about by demographic decline and underfunding, these schools are not increasing in number. Moreover, they have an acute shortage of teachers and textbooks.

This educational crisis is creating a situation whereby many linguistic minorities are finding it difficult to pass on their language to the next generation. Many do not feel that they are encouraged to speak in their own language, although this is somewhat region-dependent. Of the Uralic peoples living in Russia, several have autonomy or republics within the Russian Federation. However, not all the Uralic peoples live within the territory of their own republics or autonomous districts, and in many of these areas, they are not the majority of the population or even concentrated in high enough numbers to make tailoring the education system to them economically feasible. 

Continued Debate

There is still some controversy as to the importance of preserving these languages. Some believe that the loss of minority languages, along with their corresponding history and culture, ultimately means a loss in human diversity. Among the Uralic people living in Russia, vast cultural differences exist. Their languages express these differences, and as these languages are lost, many fear that their cultures will also be lost entirely. In addition, efforts by Russian minority populations to preserve their linguistic and cultural diversity have at times led to interethnic conflicts. New government policies supporting ethnic diversity are helping to ease some of these conflicts. The Constitution of the Russian Federation protects the right of all Russian citizens to use their mother tongue, and gives them the freedom to choose which language they use to interact with each other and to educate their children [2]. However, many feel that there is still the need for separate language laws. A language law strengthens the position of a minority language by allowing its speakers the opportunity to use it in various arenas, including education, literature, science, and mass media.

Language is a tool we use to express our perceptions of the world around us. Losing this tool limits the ability of native speakers to describe their life experiences, and hence their culture. The traditions, songs, myths, historical accounts, and religious beliefs, as well as specific words which a culture uses to define their environment are often lost as a result. One should keep in mind, however, that with the increasing migration of Russian ethnic minority populations into major urban centers, their daily life experience significantly differs from that of their ancestors. Due to these urbanization trends, their culture is no longer defined by the same factors or environment. These groups primarily speak their native language at home, and use the official Russian language more and more with each new generation, until finally their native language is lost. The death of a language to some extent means the disappearance of our knowledge and understanding of a people and their cultural experiences. Culture is what gives us pride in our heritage and helps to shape our identity, and language is the vector of culture. However, nothing is static, and we must allow for change. This means that languages will evolve and thrive, and others will become extinct.



1. “Languages are rapidly disappearing” March 17, 2009. The Economist

2. “Endangered Uralic Minority Cultures” June 2, 1998. Council of Europe Report. Committee on Culture.

3. “Endangered Languages of Indigenous Peoples of Siberia” Department of the North and Siberia, IEA RAS


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