Endangered language: how to preserve Crimean Tatar [qırımtatar tili]?

Endangered language: how to preserve Crimean Tatar [qırımtatar tili]?

According to the UNESCO classification of 2010, the Crimean Tatar language belongs to the endangered languages. By definition, the languages of this group are spoken exclusively by older generations. Although the parents' generation may understand the language, they usually do not speak it with their children and among themselves.  UNESCO identifies the mass deportation of native speakers to Central Asia as one of the reasons for this degree of risk for the Crimean Tatar language. However, according to experts of the Institute of Oriental Studies of the National Academy of Sciences, named after Ahatanhel Krymskyi, the actual degree of the threat of extinction of the Crimean Tatar language is now "critical". An additional danger to the preservation and development arose due to the temporary occupation of Crimea, where most native speakers live. 

In this article, we tell how the Crimean Tatar language found itself in this situation and what can be done to prevent the disappearance of the language.

How did Russia destroy the Crimean Tatar language?

Gulnara Muratova, a representative of the National Corps of the Crimean Tatar Language, says that the influence of the Russian state began with the first occupation of Crimea in the 18th century. After the Crimean War, the peninsula became part of the Russian Empire. Then there was the first wave of mass migration, mainly to Turkey. Many intellectuals and wealthy families left, and the people, mostly the working class, who remained, were hired for unskilled labour by Russian-speaking entrepreneurs and nobles. With the influx of Russians, Crimean Tatars had to learn and use Russian. 

In 1917, the stage of state formation took place — the Crimean People's Republic was proclaimed, and the first Kurultai of the Crimean Tatar people was held. The Ukrainian Central Rada recognised the Republic. In 1918, Soviet power came — the persecution of the Crimean Tatar intelligentsia and members of the Kurultai began, and the Bolsheviks closed mosques and religious schools. 

The Holodomor of 1922-1923 was especially devastating in Crimea — hundreds of thousands of Crimean Tatars died, which is a large number for small folks. 

In 1944, the Soviet authorities organised the deportation of the Crimean Tatars, which had the most significant impact on the further development of the Crimean Tatar language - people were utterly cut off from their natural habitat and had to use the language of the places of deportation: Uzbekistan, Siberia (Russia), Kazakhstan. There were no Crimean Tatar schools or universities. Young people born in deportation used their native language less and less, and communication was limited to the family circle.

During the return of Crimean Tatars to Crimea — the main wave was in 1985-1990 — there was a situation when there were no Crimean Tatar schools on the peninsula. After Ukraine gained independence, the state language was hardly used in Crimea, and government agencies mainly used Russian. Again, Crimean Tatars were forced to adapt to these conditions: to learn Ukrainian or Russian and send their children to Russian-language schools. Even at the time of independence and before the temporary occupation of Crimea, there were less than two dozen Ukrainian-language schools on the entire peninsula. There were even fewer Crimean Tatar schools: one in Bakhchisarai and one in Old Crimea (these are schools teaching in both Ukrainian and Crimean Tatar languages).

After the temporary occupation of Crimea in 2014, the Crimean Tatar language, if taught in schools, is an optional subject and one of the last lessons so that tired and hungry children do not attend these lessons. As a result, parents are often forced to give up the subject, even as an optional one. 

"As far as I know, there are still schools with the Crimean Tatar language of instruction in Crimea, but the number of graduates is a few dozen annually. Outside of school, children have no place to use the language except at home," Muratova says. 

Thus, the Crimean Tatar language is on the verge of extinction. What does it mean? The generation of grandparents still speaks it. Their children understand it, but they hardly speak Crimean Tatar with their children. Children do not speak their native language with each other or with their parents anymore. According to the data, the number of Crimean Tatar language speakers in Ukraine is 20-25% of the Crimean Tatar ethnic group or 70-90 thousand people.

Crimean Tatar language corps

On February 23, the Cabinet of Ministers of Ukraine adopted the Strategy for developing the Crimean Tatar Language for 2022-2032. However, one of the main problems is the lack of scientific and educational materials and a consolidated base for its study. Therefore, the Ministry of Reintegration initiated the National Corpus of the Crimean Tatar Language project, implemented with the support of the Swiss-Ukrainian EGAP Program and jointly with the Eastern Europe Foundation.

The corpus is an electronic database that contains texts in the Crimean Tatar language of various genres and historical periods. It provides the possibility of searching for words in the context of their use, searching for the use of words during certain periods, analysing the frequency of use, identifying neologisms, and repetition of words by a particular author or in a particular work.

"What is it for? Imagine you are a student or a linguistic researcher writing a research paper about a particular author. Instead of going to the library and looking for two hundred works, you go to the Corpus, select the author and analyse the parameters you are interested in. It can be a general study of the richness of the author's language, how many original words he uses in his works, the purity of their use, archaisms, neologisms, and so on," says the representative of the Corps. 

Gulnara Muratova says that the essential aspect for ordinary users — not linguists — is that the Corps will become the basis for introducing the language into the system of online translators. Several years ago, activists in Crimea wanted to introduce the Crimean Tatar language into Google Translate. At that time, they were already communicating with Google, but there needed to be a sufficient electronic database. In addition, there must be an extensive database for artificial intelligence to learn the language and use the algorithm for translation. A few dictionaries are not enough - you need examples of the use of the word in context. 

"In addition, the Corps is a necessary step for introducing Crimean Tatar in operating systems such as macOS and Windows. We are now filling out millions of Google forms and various questionnaires. When answering the question about the native language, Crimean Tatars have no option to choose their native language — we cannot choose Crimean Tatar. It is also absent in operating systems and, accordingly, keyboard layouts — now we use the Turkish layout with some additions," Muratova says.

To create a robust base, the researchers ask for help in collecting texts in Crimean Tatar. In the historical dimension, they are interested in

  • literature of the Crimean Khanate era;
  • sources of the period of the first occupation of Crimea by the Russian Empire;
  • Crimean Tatar revival;
  • literature of the deportation period;
  • modern literature.

Priority goes to archival sources, such as the newspaper "Terciman" and scientific articles. But any written sources in Crimean Tatar will be significant: folk tales, personal letters, newspapers, reference books, etc. You can send texts using the Google form (leave the link in the story).

"We are creating the Corps so that researchers, who are also few, have the opportunity to write textbooks, research the language, write scientific papers, as well as implement the language in operating systems because this is the only way to interest young people in their native language and explain that it is not an archaism - it is alive. It is important to prevent Crimean Tatar from turning into the next Latin. We do not want it to be just a language of textbooks taught at the university," concludes Gulnara Muratova.