Azerbaijan: Languages Under Threat

"Living witnesses" to country's history slowly dying out as people turn their backs on the hardship of life in the mountains.

Azerbaijan: Languages Under Threat

"Living witnesses" to country's history slowly dying out as people turn their backs on the hardship of life in the mountains.

Customers who make the long and difficult journey to the teahouse in the remote mountain town of Kuba speak as many as 15 different languages, all ancient and unique, and all in real danger of becoming extinct.

Kuba, which lies 200 kilometres north of the capital Baku, is believed to be home to more distinct tongues than any other area of the country.

Despite their enormous importance to Azerbaijan's history and ethnography, they've been largely ignored by academics and only three - including Lezgin, the most widely spoken - are taught in school.

Legislation allowing ethnic language-medium education has been in place since the early Nineties, but only the larger minorities such as the Lezgins have been able to take advantage of this right.

Azerbaijani education ministry official Avaz Yusifov explained, "Other languages are not taught because none of the locals have ever asked for it. If we receive a collective request, we will provide the necessary funding, although it will be extremely difficult to find teachers."

Many other languages have been passed on orally between generations, but are now facing extinction.

The numbers speaking each language in Kuba region vary from the widespread Tat (30,000 speakers), Lezgin (20,000) and Khinalug (6,000), to the less common Budug (2,000), Kryz (1,800), Elik and Aput (1,500 each), Djek (1,300), and Yerguj (1,000). Most are related to the Caucasian languages spoken in neighbouring Dagestan, rather than Azerbaijani.

Many of the languages are named after the remote villages where they are spoken exclusively, but depopulation has meant that the numbers speaking them is dwindling every year.

Budug village council chairman Aslan Davudov told IWPR that the condition of the road network was to blame for the area's plight. "All the shops in mountain villages have closed, forcing people to drive 50 km to Kuba to buy their groceries," he said.

"The road is in a terrible condition. We need to revitalise our infrastructure at least to the standards of the Soviet era. There were more than 500 homesteads in Budug in the Fifites. Now there are only 50 left, and half of these people are already making plans to escape the poverty here."

The ancient languages are of little interest to researchers. A few years ago, a young French scholar named Giles Authiler spent four years going from village to village, studying the grammar of Kryz and other local tongues.

Locals recall that Authier warned about the danger of losing these languages, calling them the living witnesses of Azerbaijan's history.

Bearing this in mind, some villagers have taken it upon themselves to act as guardians of their mother tongues.

Adygezal, an Azerbaijani language teacher from Budug, left his home a decade ago for a job in Narimanabad, close to Kuba. But now he has started a project to teach Budug in his spare time.

The project has been approved by the Kuba district education department, and is currently awaiting permission from the central authorities. "If we lose Yerguj and Budug today, Khinalug and Udi tomorrow, we will lose track of our own history, and we'll have no one to blame for it but ourselves," Adygezal told IWPR.

The neighbouring village of Yerguj has already been abandoned, with its last resident moving out around eight years ago.

Its language, which was a dialect of Kryz, is effectively extinct. Now scattered across the district and farther afield, older Yerguj villagers rarely use their mother tongue anymore, even though they still remember it, while younger former residents prefer to speak Azerbaijani.

Kamil Pirijev is a reporter for Radio France International in Baku.

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