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An Endangered Language, by Vitali Sharia

Ekho Kavkaza -- The Abkhaz language is officially registered in UNESCO’s list of endangered languages. The critical situation observed today has not something that emerged just yesterday or the day before. Among the numerous significant factors that have resulted in the current state of the Abkhaz language we can outline the calamity of the ‘Great Exile’ (makhadzhirstvo) in the 19th century, which turned Abkhazia into a country with a multi-ethnic population where the Russian language slowly but surely acquired the status of the language of interethnic communication; then there was the Georgian demographic and political expansion during the ascendancy of Beria in the mid-20th century, which in part led to Abkhaz-language schools being forced to adopt the Georgian language as the language of tuition. Such were the main but far from all the historical episodes and factors conditioning the current situation.

After gaining independence, Abkhazia seemed to have no obstacles to improving the conditions for the development of the Abkhaz language. The relative density of the Abkhazian ethnicity has more than doubled, from 18% to 44 % (according to the 2003 census). However, use of the state-language has not expanded among the different communities, in public places or the mass-media. And many Abkhazians from urban areas still do not speak their mother tongue.

Serious steps aimed at preserving and developing the language were essential in state-policy. After several weeks of discussion in gatherings at its session, the deputies of the People’s Assembly (Abkhazia’s Parliament) on 14 November 2007 passed in its final reading the bill “On the state-language of the Republic of Abkhazia”. The bill was officially published on 29 November 2007 in the governmental newspaper “The Republic of Abkhazia” and came into effect on the date of the publication. The adoption of the law was preceded by many years of work which attracted the best specialists and scholars in the field of philology, law and state-building. Each point and paragraph of the law was thoroughly debated in the Parliament as well as outside it.

The time-scale for the actual awarding to the Abkhaz language the status of state-language is the tight period of 7 years. According to the last paragraphs of the Law to come into force, by 1 January 2015 all heads of state-organs of power in the Republic of Abkhazia, as well as the heads of their structural subdivisions, Deputies of the People’s Assembly (the Parliament of the Republic of Abkhazia), and heads of the organs of local governments will be obliged to speak the state-language. The state-language should become by this date the language of the original for normative-legislative acts.

The provisions of the Law were supposed to come into force step by step. Within 6 months of the adoption of the Law, texts printed in the state-language were to constitute not less than a half the space in the output of non-governmental mass-media and overall not less than two-thirds of the volume issued by the state in its printed output. Television- and radio-broadcasters, irrespective of the form of ownership, were to broadcast two-thirds of their programmes in the state-language. Starting from 1.01.2010, all meetings held by the President, all Parliamentary sessions and the sessions of the Cabinet Council were to be conducted in the state-language.

However, ‘everything is fine on paper...’. Both skeptics and people used to judging matters in a sober way forecasted during the discussion and promulgation of the Law, if the planned measures provided by the Law are not fostered by daily efforts from the government and society, then, to the delight of those disinterested in the fate of the Abkhaz language and those concerned only to keep their jobs without any additional efforts on their part, the measures will remain on paper. Unfortunately, this is precisely what has happened over the course of the four years since the adoption of the Law.

Last year, the Parliament started to hold sessions in the state-language with simultaneous translation into Russian being provided for those who do not speak the state-language. The Speaker tries to stick to Abkhaz when speaking, as do some deputies too. However, they generally switch into Russian during discussion and exchange of opinions. The session-papers distributed among the participants are mostly in Russian, not Abkhaz as planned. The other supreme bodies have not reached even this level.

The Abkhaz Language Fund and other organisations responsible for issuing periodicals in the Abkhaz language have done a lot of work. However, all of this is not in and of itself the aim but rather the means to achieve the designated goal, namely: that not only the whole Abkhazian population but also the rest of the population of the Republic should have free command of Abkhaz. However, we shall call a spade a spade and say that we have not even come close to achieving this goal over the four years that have passed since the Law came into force.

Incidentally, in recent times almost nothing has been heard of courses for adults to learn the Abkhaz language, although, prior to the adoption of the Law, they were actively encouraged in the mass-media, and on Abkhazian TV series of programmes were broadcast for those aspiring to master the language. I dare say that both the organisers of these courses and the participants were convinced of the fruitlessness of their efforts. In the pre-election period leading up to the last parliamentary elections, the following happened: in the Abkhazian TV-studio one of the candidates for deputy was read a question from a viewer as to whether he had command of the Abkhaz language; the candidate, who had been born into a mixed Abkhaz-Russian family and who, not long before the elections, had completed the aforementioned courses, replied that he did; but then and there the following question from another viewer was in Abkhaz, and, not understanding the question, the candidate was ready to crawl under a stone...

It is obvious that without total immersion into the language-environment, which in today’s Abkhazian towns is impossible, teaching Abkhaz to adults is beyond the realms of possibility, no matter how strong their eagerness may be. On the other hand, children of pre-school age easily and without compulsion master two, three or even more languages. That is why it is my firm conviction that the government should focus on creating a wide network of kindergartens, where small children from different ethnic (and not only Abkhazian) families might gain mastery of the state-language. True, this option may be far more costly and slow, but still it is reliable; the situation has developed over many decades, and to solve it in one fell swoop is impossible.

This article was published by Ekho Kavkaza and is translated from Russian.

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