Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Activists Work to Recover and Promote a Distinctly ‘Siberian’ Language

Paul Goble

Baku, May 15 – Supporters of Siberian regionalism are seeking to strengthen that movement by promoting a distinctly “Siberian language,” one based on Old Believer and Cossack dialects, government-standard Russian and borrowings from the indigenous Turkic and Paleo-Asiatic nationalities.
This “Siberian” language was spoken in the 18th and 19th centuries, its advocates say, but unlike Ukrainian and Belarusian, it did not become a literary language as a result of the lack of development of the region, the absence of a pre-existing Medieval tradition, and the weakness of regionalist national-Siberian movements” (
Over the past several years, however, a group of enthusiasts has advocated its restoration as part of a broader effort to re-enforce Siberian regional consciousness. And despite the opposition of many Russians there, they have achieved a certain number of successes, including the establishment for a brief time of a Wikipedia page in Siberian.
The current drive was begun by Tomsk linguist Yaroslav Zolotaryev on his blog,, in 2005. His articles led to the formation of an online community ( and a number of often artificial efforts to form a modernized “Siberian language.”
But after these first false steps, the group has managed to assemble a dictionary of approximately 20,000 words from dialect dictionaries, and that has allowed members of the group to argue that “the Siberian language” is quite distinct from “literary Russian.” Indeed, the group says, this collection is “quite sufficient for the functioning of a unique Siberian language.”
The group translated a number of articles into Siberian and composed numerous “original texts,” and then last year, “despite [what it leaders say was] strong resistance, a section of Wikipedia was opened in the Siberian language, an achievement that the online community sees as having legitimized their efforts.
But instead of being a step forward, the Siberian page on Wikipedia produced such an outburst of anger from Russian nationalists -- who used “flashmobs, threats, and the persecution of activists of Siberian Wikipedia,” Zolotaryev says -- that the Siberian Wikipedia was closed but later posted on another site:
Nonetheless, the activists are not discouraged. They continue to use the Siberian language to compose complex texts and translate others, animated by the belief that their efforts are a 21st century follow-on to the actions of those in the Czech and Ukrainian national revivals of the 19th.
In the words of Zolotaryev, they believe that “language defines the thought of an individual, and therefore someone who thinks in his own national language of course returns to his native roots, begins to think and feel as they really did and not as some [official in St. Petersburg or Moscow] says they did.”

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