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Why save an endangerd language?*

Barbara Wieser
Simferopol, Crimea

On November 5th, a roundtable was held at the library on the Crimean Tatar language. Bringing together experts from the Crimean Tatar Educators Union, the Crimean Tatar Writer's Union, the Crimean Engineering and Pedagogical University and the Verkhovna Rada (the Autonomous Republic of Crimea's governing body), the round table focused on the status of Crimean Tatar as an endangered language and what can be done to preserve it.

The roundtable started me thinking about why, exactly it is important to preserve a language. Over the course of human history, thousands of languages have appeared and then disappeared. In the United States alone, 115 languages of the approximately 280 spoken at the time of Columbus, have been lost in the last five centuries. Today, according to UNESCO, there are about 6,500 languages spoken in the world and at least half of those are under the threat of extinction within the next 50 to 100 years.

The UNESCO Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger has six classifications of language survival status, ranging from "safe" in which the language is spoken by all generations and intergenerational transmission is uninterrupted to "extinct," in which there are no speakers left. Crimean Tatar falls in the fourth classification, "severely endangered." In this designation, "language is spoken by grandparents and older generations. While the parent generation may understand it, they do not speak it to children or among themselves." The statistic often sited when discussing the current status of the Crimean Tatar language--that only 5% of Crimean Tatar children speak their mother tongue--certainly supports this classification.

In a speech to the European Parliament, titled "Stability in Crimea," in March 2010, Mustafa Jemilev, Chairman of the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar People, said: "One of the most critical and, probably, the key problem of the Crimean Tatar people is the problem of preservation of native language…."

And indeed, much of the work of Crimean Tatar organizations and institutions, such as the Gasprinskiy Crimean Tatar Library whose mission is "to preserve, grow, and transfer to present and future generations, the intellectual wealth, native language (emphasis mine), and culture of the Crimean Tatars," is oriented towards preserving and revitalizing the Crimean Tatar language.

But why is language preservation so important? What will be lost if Crimean Tatars can no longer speak their native tongue? Around me I constantly hear Crimean Tatars speaking Russian, and indeed, many of the young Crimean Tatars I know are unable to speak more than a few words of Crimean Tatar. What would it mean if fifty or a hundred years from now, no one speaks Crimean Tatar? Would Crimean Tatars still exist as a people?

The Hans Rausing Endangered Languages Project at University of London has this to say about language preservation:

In many areas of the world, economic, military, social and other pressures are causing communities to stop speaking their traditional languages, and turn to other, typically more dominant, languages. This can be a social, cultural and scientific disaster because languages express the unique knowledge, history and worldview of their communities; and each language is a specially evolved variation of the human capacity for communication.

It seems inconceivable that such an event would come to past, as there are now approximately 100,000 speakers of Crimean Tatar (according to the UNESCO Atlas). But if only 5% of those speakers are the children who will become the Crimean Tatar people of the future, then it is obvious how a language can disappear.

For Crimean Tatar people no longer to have access to a language their ancestors have spoken for hundreds of years would greatly diminish who they are as a people. Their songs would go unsung, their poetry only read by language scholars, and wealth of their literary heritage only known in translated form. As my counterpart at the library, Nadjie Yagya, said to me when I first came to the library, "If a person does not know the language of his ancestors, the spiritual losses are irreplaceable and he cannot fully understand the culture of his people."

So, the work to preserve the Crimean Tatar language becomes a fight for the survival of the Crimean Tatar people. The words of the Evenki poet Alitet Nemtushkin about his endangered language ring true for the Crimean Tatar people:

If I forget my native speech,
And the songs that my people sing,
What use are my eyes and ears?
What use is my mouth?

If I forget the smell of the earth,
And do not serve it well,
What use are my hands?
Why am I living in the world?

How can I believe the foolish idea,
That my language is weak and poor,
If my mother's last words,
Were in Evenki?

(Moseley, Christopher (ed.). 2010. Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger. 3rd ed. Paris, UNESCO Publishing.)

For more information on endangered languages, see these websites:

Hans Rausing Endangered Languages Project SOAS University of London:
Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger:

* This essay by Barbara Wieser was originally published on

Posted: 11 December 2012

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