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Author: Marina Chumakina

Linguistic fieldwork in the Russian Federation

Linguistic fieldwork in the Russian Federation

Surrey Morphology Group, despite being a relatively small research group, nevertheless conducts linguistic fieldwork on all (inhabited) continents. Countries where members have worked over the years include Australia, Bulgaria, Canada, Colombia, Kenya, Mexico, Namibia, Nepal, Nigeria, Russia, Serbia, and Vanuatu. Fieldwork in every region has its peculiarities, not necessarily connected to the linguistic properties of the language(s) studied, and it is the peculiarities of one such region which I would like to discuss today.

My personal fieldwork experience has involved several different regions of Russia, in the republics of Daghestan, Mari-El, Komi and Khakassia. Each of these regions has been fascinating in its own way, but Daghestan takes the lion’s share of the fieldwork I do. It is a mountainous region in the south of Russia stretching from the Caspian Sea to the Caucasus. It has borders with Azerbaijan and Georgia to the south, and within the Russian Federation it is next door to Chechnya. Medieval geographers described the Caucasus as “a mountain of tongues”, and with good reason. There are over forty languages spoken in this relatively small territory (just 50,300 sq km), and most of the linguistic diversity lies within an even smaller mountainous region in the south of Daghestan, involving languages of the indigenous Nakh-Daghestanian family.

I wrote before about the linguistic interest of the language I have worked with the most, Archi (in many respects a typical representative of the family), but today I want to talk about social and cultural aspects of the work.

Culturally, Daghestan is a relatively homogeneous region; traditionally people lived in small villages, bred sheep and grew sturdy grains like rye and barley. Before the 20th century, many villages were organised as follows: there was one central village where people got together during summer months while the sheep were in the alpine pastures and did not need shelter during the night, and in winter months the people would go to smaller hamlets where the sheep (split into smaller groups) were kept in the houses or in underground sheepfolds made in the caves. The name for these winter sheepfolds is the same across several Daghestanian languages, so we can safely assume this was common practice for a long time.

Daghestanian shepherding

After the Revolution of 1917 and the creation of the Soviet Union, many people got the opportunity to drive the sheep to regions with a milder climate near the Caspian Sea, and these shepherding practices ceased to exist. The smaller hamlets either disappeared or grew into proper villages, and in the latter case developed some dialectal differences. The people like to notice those differences but at the same time they still often perceive the conglomerate of the central village and the “hamlets” (which in some cases are even larger than the central village) as a single village.

Besides sheep breeding, Daghestanian people grew grain, and traditionally they would roast grains and make flour out of them. That flour can be mixed with water and then eaten directly, and in some villages they still make this “shepherd’s food” (they call it “old time instant noodles”). There were also many traditional crafts, among which are the silver products of Kubachi, wood inlaid with silver from Untsukul, Lezgian knitted slippers and earthenware from Balkhar.

From a sociolinguistic point of view, the Daghestanian languages were in a much better state during the 20C than many other smaller languages of Russia. Although only a handful of Daghestanian languages were recognised by the state and therefore taught at school, children in smaller language communities remained monolingual until well into their teens. Most Daghestanian people belonging to smaller language groups also speak the language of a larger Daghestanian neighbour (such as Avar, Dargwa or Lezgian) and one national language, whether Russian, Azeri or Georgian, although in the last 50 years Russian has been steadily coming to replace the others. The first thing that strikes a linguist who comes to Daghestan (especially if that linguist has experience of working with small languages in other parts of the Russian Federation) is how proud the people are of their languages, how ready they are to share them, how much delight they take in their complexity. Indeed, since they all speak at least one other language, they can well see that their languages are more complex, at least phonetically (for example, Archi has 70 consonants).

Some places in Daghestan have kept their traditional ways better than others: thus, in 2004, when I first came to Archi, I was really fascinated to see many women wearing traditional clothes and jewellery not only on special occasions but every day.

Living in people’s houses, I could see that they used traditional cots for babies and had retained most of the old practices connected with childbirth. For example, right before having her first baby, the woman goes to her mother’s house and stays there for the first 40 days of the baby’s life, being completely looked after (very often she just stays in bed). After 40 days, she moves back to her and her husband’s house in a very colourful procession: the whole thing is called “moving of the cot”.

Moving the cot

But maybe the most important cultural characteristic of Daghestan is the living cultural practice of protecting one’s guests. Stemming from old times when travelling in the Caucasus mountains was not always safe, if one happens to come to a Daghestanian village one will be invited into a house, given food and shelter and will become kunaks with the master of the house. Kunak is not easy to translate. It means ‘guest’, but also ‘friend’. So I can say “I have a kunak in that village” meaning there is a person there who once was my guest (or vice versa) and now we are friends, so I can always count on having food and shelter in his house as much as he can in mine. In former times it was a duty for the master of the house to protect his kunak such that if anything were to happen to him, the perpetrator of the bad deed would answer to the house where the guest was staying. This system is still very much alive in Daghestan, and once I had eaten or slept in somebody’s house, I knew that I would be safe in that village and probably the neighbouring ones too.


Seasonal thoughts

Seasonal thoughts

As spring slowly but surely begins to announce itself with snowdrops, primroses and daffodils, we may ask how much variation there is in the concept of the seasons from one language to another. As Encyclopedia Britannica informs us, “the seasons—winter, spring, summer, and autumn—are commonly regarded in the Northern Hemisphere as beginning respectively on the winter solstice, December 21 or 22; on the vernal equinox, March 20 or 21; on the summer solstice, June 21 or 22; and on the autumnal equinox, September 22 or 23. In the Southern Hemisphere, summer and winter are reversed, as are spring and fall”.

Many languages spoken in Eurasia conform to this division into four seasons. But what other options are there? Leaving aside jokes about places where a single season lasts all year round (Russia: white winter and green winter; Quebec: beginning of winter, end of winter, beginning of next winter; New York: almost summer, summer, still summer, Christmas…), there are languages which really do distinguish between two seasons only: the dry season and the rainy season. Indonesian is like this, having musim hujan ‘rainy season’ and musim kemarau ‘dry season’. In Mandinka (a Mande language spoken in Guinea, northern Guinea-Bissau, Senegal, and the Gambia) the seasons are sàmaa ‘rainy season’ and tìlikandi ‘dry season’. In Wolof (Niger-Congo language spoken in Senegal, The Gambia, Mali and other countries) the seasons are nawɛt ‘rainy season’ and nɔɔr ‘dry season’. Rainy seasons stretch roughly from June to October, while dry seasons take up the rest of the year. Two-season languages are generally spoken close to the equator.

Three-season languages also exist. In Ancient Egypt the year was divided into three seasons: Inundation, when the Nile overflowed the agricultural land; Going Forth, the time of planting when the Nile returned to its bed; and Deficiency, the time of low water and harvest. In some varieties of Turkish there are three seasons only: kış ‘winter’, bahar ‘spring’ and yaz ‘summer’, although other speakers use a four season system: kış ‘winter’, ilkbahar ‘spring’, yaz ‘summer’ and sonbahar ‘autumn’, where bahar can also be used to designate an unspecified intermediate season.

Finally, there are languages which have more than four seasons. For example, in Hindi (an Indo-European language spoken in northern India), six seasons are distinguished: vasant ritu ‘spring season’ (March-April), greeshm ritu ‘summer season’ (May-June), varsha ritu ‘rainy season’ (July – August), sharad ritu ‘autumn season’ (September-October-mid November), hemmat ritu ‘pre-winter season’ (November-December) and sheet ritu ‘winter season’ (January-February).

In Polish, besides wiosna ‘spring’, lato ‘summer’, jesień ‘autumn’ and zima ‘winter’ there are the words przedwiośnie (‘before spring’) and przedzimie (‘before winter’). Interestingly, some Polish speakers say that the latter word is now obsolete while the former is used widely. In Russian, there is a word предзимье (predzim’ye) ‘before winter’, but no other words to designate such ‘in-between’ seasons.

But having different number of seasons from the ‘standard’ is not the only possible way for languages to stand out. Have a look at this linguistic puzzle: it was originally composed (in Russian) by Irina Chesnokova for use at the Moscow Linguistics Olympiad, and it recently appeared in a collection of the best Olympiad puzzles (Традиционная Олимпиада по лингвистике. 49 лучших задач. [The Traditional Linguistics Olympiad. 49 problems], Moscow, 2020).

It is all about how the Manx language refers to various kinds of time period. Problem. Manx is a language belonging to the Celtic branch of Indo-European, spoken by about 1800 people on the Isle of Man. Consider these phrases in Manx and their unordered English translations:

1.     Jerrey Geuree A. June
2.     mean oie B. January
3.     Toshiaght Souree C. midnight
4.     oie gyn cadley D. February
5.     Jerrey Souree E. July
6.     cadley geuree F. winter sleep (hibernation)
7.     Toshiaght Arree G. May
8.     Mean Souree H. sleepless night


  1. Match the Manx phrase (1-8) with the corresponding English translation (A-H)
  2. Translate into English: Mean Fouyir, gyn jerrey
  3. Translate into Manx: April, October

As is rightly emphasized on the website of the  International Linguistics Olympiad – which, incidentally, is going to be held on the Isle of Man this year, “no prior knowledge of linguistics or languages is required: even the hardest problems require only your logical ability, patient work, and willingness to think around corners”. For those who want to try and solve the problem for themselves, I will give the solution below, underneath a picture of a hellebore, the first flower to open in our garden at the end of winter:


Solution to the problem.

In the middle column I give the literal translations, and in the right column are the actual equivalents of the names of the months:

Jerrey geuree end of winter January
mean oie middle of the night
Toshiaght Souree beginning of summer May
oie gyn cadley sleepless night
Jerrey Souree end of summer July
cadley geuree winter sleep (hibernation)
Toshiaght Arree beginning of spring February
Mean Souree middle of summer June
Mean Fouyir middle of autumn September
gyn jerrey endless
Jerrey Arree end of spring April
Jerrey Fouyir end of autumn October

As we can see, the crucial point in solving of the problem is to realise that the seasons in Manx do not match up with the seasons in English: in Manx, January counts as the end of winter, not the middle, September is the middle of autumn, not the beginning, and so on.

What do we lose when we lose a language?

What do we lose when we lose a language?

By the end of this century we are likely to lose half of the world’s six thousand languages. With each lost language a whole world of thought, customs, traditions, poems, songs, jokes, myths, legends and history gets lost. Knowledge of local plants, herbs, mushrooms and berries, their medicinal and culinary uses disappears, together with names for small rivers, mountains, valleys and forests. And this is only a tiny fragment of what we lose when we lose a language.

For a linguist, a loss of a language is first and foremost a loss of system with a unique set of properties and rules which make it work. If there are any universal principles behind the architecture of human language, our only hope to figure them out is by studying the multitude of languages still existing on the planet. And endangered languages – those that we were lucky enough to have time and resources to study – show us time and again how vast is the range of linguistic variability. For example, it has been thought and stated by linguists and psychologists that grammatical tense can be marked by verbs only, as hundreds and hundreds of languages behave this way. Then we discovered that Kayardild, a morbidly endangered language of Australia, marks tense on nouns as well as verbs, making us reconsider this ‘universal’.

Archi, a language spoken in one village the highlands of Daghestan (Caucasus, Russia), is an endangered language which I have been working on since 2004. There are only about 1300 speakers of this language and, as far as we know, there never have been more than that. Yet for centuries it was spoken in the Archi village (below) and passed to younger generations without being under any threat.

Being so small, there was never a writing system invented for Archi – people in the village did not need to write to each other, and all communication with the outsiders happened in one of the larger languages of the area. Until the 1940s this was Lak, then Avar (two large languages of Daghestan), and in the past 40 years, these have been increasingly replaced by Russian. Archi people lived a hard but self-sufficient life keeping sheep in the mountains for themselves and for trading (the alpine pastures within walking distance of Archi village make their lamb hard to compete with) and growing grains, mostly rye, on terraces: narrow strips of land dug into the steep mountain slopes. These grains were just for their own consumption, as it was too hard a job to grow any more than they needed to survive.

We cannot even say that the arrival of television, mobile phones and the internet – which happened more or less at the same time in Archi – is responsible for language decline. It is just that  life in the mountains is very hard, so the Archi people start moving to the cities, abandoning their traditional way of life and their language. Since I started working with Archi, two of the village’s primary schools have been closed and others are struggling as young people continue to leave. Kids abandon Archi as soon as they go to school or nursery in town, and their parents tend to follow suit. Older people in the village still wear traditional dress and keep up traditional skills, but the younger generation is moving away from these traditions. And when the last school closes in the village and no more children live there, the language’s fate will be sealed.

What will we lose once Archi is lost? We will lose a verbal system which boasts the largest number of verb forms registered – Archi verb has up to 1.5 million forms. With this, we will forever lose the opportunity to figure out how the human brain can operate such a humongous system; we won’t be able to watch children learning such a complex language, going through stages of acquisition, making telling mistakes and the overgeneralisations (like English kids do when they go through the stage of producing forms like goed, readed, telled, eated etc). We will have the knowledge that a system such as the Archi verb existed, but we will never know how it functioned.

We will lose a system of deictic pronouns (like English ‘this’ and ‘that’) which had five words in it. These mark not just the proximity to the speaker (like English this), but also the perspective of the listener, and the vertical position in regard to the speaker (see below). Even if these are not unique as lexical items, the whole linguistic system in which they operate is unique. We don’t know yet how these pronouns work in stories as opposed to conversation, and at the moment we have no good techniques to find this out.

jat this, close to the speaker
jamut ‘this, close to the hearer’
tot ‘that, far away from the speaker’
godot ‘that, far away and lower than the speaker’
ʁodot  (the first sound is a bit like the French pronunciation of r) ‘that, far away and higher than the speaker’


We will lose a system where subject and object in the sentence work differently from what we are used to in European languages. In most European languages, the subjects of transitive and intransitive verbs have the same form (as in He arrived and He brought her along), while the object gets a different marking  (She arrived vs. He brought her along). In Archi, the subject of an intransitive verb such as ‘arrive’ is marked the same as the object of a transitive verb such as ‘bring’:

Tuw qa ‘he arrived’

Tormi tuw χir uwli ‘She brought him’.

This is called Ergative-Absolutive alignment, and was first brought to the attention of  linguists by the Australian language Dyirbal, which is now already dead. Several other linguistic families of the world use the same way of making sentences, including Archi. As not many Dyirbal materials have been recorded, it is Archi and other endangered Daghestanian languages that have been making linguists reconsider universals about subject, object and verb relations.

This is only a glimpse of the impact that endangered languages have on linguistics as a discipline. In the last few decades, linguists have become much more aware of how invaluable endangered languages are and how fragile their futures, and more and more efforts are now directed to documenting and – whenever possible – preserving the linguistic diversity of the world.