State and Language, by George Hewitt

The Abkhaz Latin alphabet used 1926–1928 designed by Nicholas Marr

The Abkhaz Latin alphabet used 1926–1928 designed by Nicholas Marr


Abkhazia in the Context of Contemporary International Relations
Pitsunda, The Republic of Abkhazia: June 29 - July 1, 2004

Though the title of this presentation may seem somewhat out of place in the context of the topic of the conference, I feel justified in discussing the matter in the conviction that a state's language-policy is an integral part of the way it presents itself to the outside world. It can, thus, help to shape general attitudes to the state and ultimately affect inter-state relations, both in the region and more widely.

Of course, everybody understands that Abkhazia's situation is far from ideal (whether we are speaking of politics or socio-economics). But I want to tackle the question of language in the way I think it should be addressed in the republic from the point of view of general philosophical principles, and not specifically within the. constraints of currently existing conditions. Though I shall not be concerned exclusively with the Abkhaz language, this will be my main focus and the obvious place to start.


Although Abkhaz and its divergent Abaza dialect have had official status as literary languages on their home-territories since the early days of the Soviet Union, the demographic facts and the dominance of Russian (or Turkish amongst the diaspora) mean that Abkhaz(-Abaza) must be classified as endangered (at least over the medium term). However uncomfortable, this is the reality with which planners are faced and which needs to be taken most seriously while there is still time to try to reverse the threatening decline into extinction. Perhaps it would be convenient to approach the problem by dividing it into three components: education; the media; relations with the diaspora.

I. Education. It surely goes without saying that the widest opportunities possible should be afforded to the homeland's autochthonous language. What constitutes these 'widest possible opportunities' is for local educationalists to determine. But the curriculum that existed for Abkhaz during the later Soviet period should surely provide firstly an absolute minimum, with, of course, improvements in quality where necessary, and secondly the basis for quantitative expansion, as and when the means allow. Those means would include the provision of modern text-books not only covering the grades for which the Soviets established Abkhaz as the medium of instruction in Abkhaz language-schools but to be introduced (gradually no doubt) for grades beyond the traditional switch-over point to Russian. This extension of the curriculum of tuition through the medium of Abkhaz will depend on crucial foundation-work on the creation of suitable terminology and the preparation of new text-books by local linguists and specialists in the subjects taught through the medium of Abkhaz, as well as on the availability of a sufficient body of suitably qualified teachers in both the language and the subjects concerned. At a time when finding both teachers and the money to pay them to cover just the barest essentials of education is no easy matter, this may seem a pipe-dream, but, as I said at the outset, I am talking about ideals. If nothing is done to improve education in Abkhaz, it will prove impossible to establish a truly Abkhazian educational system, especially when many take the view that standards are higher in Russian language-schools and think that children will be best set up for life, if they simply undergo their entire education in Russian. This is a dangerous view, as it is a powerful first step towards complete russification of the young. And one of the beliefs to be inculcated is the recognition that, for Abkhazia to retain its identity, the Abkhaz language has to have pre­eminence, whilst Russian has to be assigned nothing higher than the status of main1 foreign language, subordinate in importance to the mother-tongue.

If what I have said so far applies to Abkhaz language-schools, ^hen, as far as other schools in the republic are concerned. Abkhaz should be a compulsory subject for study for a certain number of hours per week upto whatever grade is judged appropriate by local educationalists, but I see no reason why this should not continue to the end of secondary education.

Apart from observing that primers, aids to the learning of spelling, and children's books in general should be of good quality, I have nothing to say about the nature of books for the teaching of the language. The reason for this is that, firstly I am most familiar with grammars for teaching a language not to native children but to foreigners, and secondly 1 have no memory of being taught English grammar during my years at school. Indeed, when I began Latin at the age of eleven, our Latin teacher told us that we would learn all our English grammar from him as we were introduced to the intricacies of this classical language. And this was true — English grammar was never taught to children of my generation. In a monolingual culture such as that essentially still prevailing in most parts of England, it is simply assumed that the children know the language because they have been speaking it at home from birth. This brings me to the most important observation one can make in the field of language-learning: if Abkhaz-speaking parents do not speak the language to their children and give them the fullest possible grounding in it in the years prior to their starting school, they are depriving their children of the most precious of gifts, namely the key to participating freely in all aspects of Abkhazian culture and thus becoming full members of the Abkhazian community. Abkhaz-speaking parents must be encouraged at every possible opportunity to take pride in their ancestral tongue and understand how crucial it is to pass on their knowledge of it to their children. Expenments have demonstrated that children can learn very easily in their early years any number of languages to which they are exposed — there is no need to feel that they should be exposed only to Russian in those first years of life for them to achieve fluency in this foreign language that they will undoubtedly need for the foreseeable future; exposure to both Abkhaz and Russian will cause them no difficulties, and, if their Abkhaz is weak or non-existent in the early years, circumstances are sadly likely to ensure that matters will not improve later in life, whereas the same is not true if the weakness at the first stages of a child's development is in Russian. In other words, early relative weakness in Russian can be easily corrected, but the same does not apply if the weakness is in Abkhaz.

So, how to persuade parents of this crucial truth? It is appropriate at this point to turn to the media.

2. Media. Many people hold to the simplistic belief that, if a language has survived difficult historical crises, it can probably continue to do so, even where it has minority status in a multilingual community. But since the middle of the 20th century we have been living in a world where instant-communication thanks to radio and TV has come to play an ever increasing role, and the now current universality of computers with access to the Internet has only speeded up this change in environment. In order to make full use of what has become an all-pervasive aspect of modern technology one really needs to be proficient in English, which has consequences for foreign-language teaching in local schools and at the university in Abkhazia. But then there is the role of TV for general entertainment, and the importance of this cannot be overstated, for viewers will be drawn to the most attractive broadcasts: just as they will read the most interesting newspapers, journals and books. Since the basic choice at the moment within Abkhazia is between Russian and Abkhaz across the mass-media, it is essential that the quality of Abkhaz-language output be maximally improved. During the Soviet period, when citizens had access to only the Soviet media, the quality of publications and broadcasts was of no real significance. That is no longer true, and it is far from encouraging that so much of what characterised Soviet attitudes still pervades official Abkhazian publications and the TV broadcasting 13 years after the collapse of the USSR. Standards in both areas should be raised, with more appealing news items and more attracting programming being offered to readers and viewers. And, assuming that the number of readers and viewers can be at worst kept steady and at best increased, one of the really important campaigns that the media could run would be to convince the Abkhaz-speaking part of the population of the unique advantage that they alone can bring to the task of preserving the language for future generations, which is to say that they simply should take every opportunity they can to speak it to their infants and children. If the language goes, Abkhazian culture, everything understood by the term 'apswara1, will ultimately perish as well. Most Abkhazians are aware of the fate that overtook their sister-language Ubykh in 1992, but perhaps to bring home the nature of the danger that now faces their own language, they need to be reminded of a starker fact: it is estimated that somewhere in the world on average one language follows Ubykh to the grave every two weeks... And all one needs to do to prevent this happening is open one's mouth and speak to one's children. Nothing could be simpler. I ask: can more broadcasting time and newsprint please be devoted to this topic?

3. The diaspora. As is well known, the majority of the world's population of Abkhazians lives outside the historical homeland, predominantly in Turkey. During the years of perestrojka a most welcome development was the establishment of closer ties between the home- and diaspora-communities with mutual exchange-visits, and, of course, much assistance came from the diaspora during the war. It seems to me, . however, perhaps wrongly, that the forging of ever closer links has not proceeded over recent years as one might have hoped. But what can be said of the language-issue in particular? As the result of a new law promulgated in Turkey in 2002, minorities there now have the right to teach their languages in that country, and there are groups there who wish to take advantage of this right for both Abkhaz and Circassian. I myself took part in a conference in Istanbul in October 2002 where I advised those concerned with these matters seriously to consider deciding in favour of roman-based scripts for the teaching of both these languages, just as I had previously spoken on this theme in Sukhum shortly before the war in July 1992. Regardless of which script relevant language-planners ultimately favour, there is now a wonderful opportunity for collaboration between interested parties in Turkey and those with valuable experience of teaching Abkhaz here in the homeland. It seems to me that, somehow, efforts should be co-ordinated between the relevant organisations on both sides of the Black Sea specifically to determine how best to co-ordinate and advance measures to instigate and/or widen the teaching of Abkhaz to ethnic Abkhazians both at home and abroad. Without support from Abkhazia, the enthusiasm stirred by legal changes in Turkey in 2002 might wither, whilst the knowledge that the majority Abkhazian community abroad are actually taking measures to preserve the mother-tongue might spur the home-community to think more soberly about, and act with greater determination in, this patriotic venture.

Abkhazia's other languages

If what has been said thus far represents some musings in relation to the present state of, and future possibilities for, Abkhaz, we have to remember that Abkhazia, like most regions in the Caucasus, is a cosmopolitan area with a heterogeneous population. What official decisions might be taken about the other languages spoken here? The Russian and Armenian populations have their needs catered for by the provision of schools teaching through the medium of these languages. And their continued existence, with the above-mentioned introduction (or, if they already exist, consolidation) of classes in Abkhaz, is to be supported. But one huge problem remains — the Kartvelian residents of the republic.

If I may deviate from the main theme for a moment. I would like to mention Georgia's Draft Language Law. which was made public in the autumn of 1988. It was probably when I first became acquainted with this document that I realised there would be trouble with the Abkhazians (and other minorities), because, with its restrictions for entry into higher education requiring applicants to pass a test in Georgian language, it was obvious that this was discriminatory against those ethnic groups whose young members could not pass such as test (e.g. the Abkhazians), and indeed it was so interpreted by various minority-groups inside Georgia. And this was only one example of the exclusive nature of the Georgian state that was being designed by political leaders in Tbilisi at that time — this deliberate alienation of the various minorities was one of the main reasons for the failure of the post-Soviet Georgian state —. but. as our theme is language, this is the aspect I choose to stress. It seems to me that a prime, if not the only, ingredient for a successful state is an overarching principle of inclusivity. which should dictate that the needs of all its citizens are met. Distasteful as it may be to many Abkhazians, it has to be recognised that the Kartvelians living here, primarily in the Gal District want to be educated through the medium of Georgian, and. in my humble opinion, they should be allowed the right to be so educated. That said, we all know that the vast majority of Abkhazia's Kartvelians are Mingrelians (not Georgians — I am assuming that most of those present do not confuse these two categories, as happens on the other side of the , Ingur). and most of these Mingrelians speak their own native language, Mingrelian. 1 have long argued, quite independently of the Georgian-Abkhazian dispute, in favour of the provision of some level of teaching of Mingrelian as a means of buttressing the survival of this sadly neglected language. This is a highly contentious issue within (ieorgia. because of the widespread inability there to distinguish between language-rights and independence-movements — I personally would advocate a radical federalisation of the Georgian polity, with wide political rights for the regions (including Mingrelia. Dzhavakheti. and Ach'ara). and. had such a reformation been part of the goals of those calling for Georgian independence from the late 1980s instead of the rabid nationalism that all too easily found a fertile soil there, maybe the wars in S. Ossetia and Abkhazia could have been avoided. But, to return to my central argument. Abkhazia was willing to make a contribution to Mingrelian culture, when in 1991 Gedevan Shanava's Mingrelian translation of Rust(a)veli's The Man in the Pantherskin' was published here — K'ak'a Zhvania's translation had been banned by Tbilisi during the 1966 800th anniversary celebrations of Rust(a)veli's birth. And after the war. the trilingual newspaper 'Gal' was instituted in Abkhaz. Mingrelian and Russian, a development I wholeheartedly support, though I would have adapted the script somewhat and. naturally, would have made the content less 'Soviet' and consequently more interesting. So. with reference to schooling for the Mingrelians of Gal, I would suggest offering a bargain: the Abkhazian state will give full support to tuition through the medium of Georgian on two conditions: (a) teaching OF Mingrelian must be included in the curriculum for ALL grades; (b) no Georgian historical textbooks will be tolerated as long as anything like the distortion of the history of the Western Caucasus inherent in such nonsensical theories as that of P'avle lngoroq'va. still so widely believed and disseminated (see Shnirelman 2001), is propounded in them.

The advantages of this approach could and should be: 1. Abkhazia is seen both internally and in international eyes as an essentially inclusive state, willing to recognise the cultural/educational rights of all its citizens; 2. a legitimate grievance of an important part of the population should disappear; 3. a spur will be given to Mingrelians in the Mingrelian homeland to think about how they too might secure parallel rights for Mingrelian in Georgia; 4. the survival of Mingrelian will be helped; and, most importantly from the Abkhazian perspective, 5. if ethnic tensions are lessened in Abkhazia and the state can secure the support of all of its citizens, the future of the Abkhaz language itself will be better safeguarded. Is not this a worthy and overwhelmingly patriotic aim?

Reference Shnirelman, V.A. 2001. The Value of the Past: Myths, Identity and Politics in Transcaucasia. Osaka: National Museum of Ethnology.




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