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Activists mark Circassian Language Day in Russia and Georgia

16 March 2017
The Circassian Language Day was marked at the Tbilisi State University (Sulkhan Bordzikashvili/ OC Media)

International Circassian Language Day, which is marked by Circassians in Russia and abroad, was celebrated in the North Caucasian republics of Kabardino-Balkaria, Karachay-Cherkessia, and Adygea, and in Georgia’s capital of Tbilisi on 14 March.

The day commemorates the publishing of the first Circassian alphabet on 14 March 1855 in Tbilisi by well-known Circassian educator Umar Bersey. The alphabet was Arabic-based. Nowadays, Circassian uses a modified Cyrillic alphabet.

This year’s celebrations come a day after a controversial incident in Kabardino-Balkaria. According to Kavkaz.Realii, Circassian activist Muayed Chechenov, who chairs the Coordination Council of Adyghe Public Associations in Kabardino-Balkaria, used his native tongue — Circassian — for official correspondence with the tax office. Despite Circassian being an official languages in the republic, the authorities accused the man of ‘stirring up ethnic hatred’ and insulting tax office employees, who didn’t know Circassian.

According to Russia’s 2002 census, 633,000 people speak Circassian in Russia. The majority of them use the East Circassian literary standard — also known as Kabardian — which is one of the official languages of Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachayevo-Cherkessia. West Circassian, or Adyghe, is one of the official languages of Adygea.The language is also spoken by the Circassian diaspora across Turkey, the Middle East, and Europe.

According to UNESCO’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger, Circassian is a vulnerable language. Suret Anchek, Circassian language specialist from the Institute of Humanitarian Studies of Adygea told OC Media that the danger of Circassian language extinction was not acute. However, she remarked that after the fourth grade, Circassian was only taught as one separate subject at school.

‘Circassian is normally taught in Adygea, no one prevents this, but the teaching happens only in the first four grades. Then lessons continue in Russian. We have a problem with knowledge of the language in cities, but not in the villages’, Achek said.

In Adygea, the Education Ministry organised various competitions and quizzes in Circassian. According to the ministry, the number of people wishing to study Circassian, is increasing, with more than 22,000 people studying the language in Adygea’s schools.

Similar events were organised in Karachay-Cherkessia. Aleksandr Okhtov, Chairman of the Union of Circassian (Adyghe) Public Associations of Karachay-Cherkessia, said in an interview with RIAKChR that it was necessary to take measures in order to preserve the Circassian language.

‘The preservation of the language is, first of all, the preservation of culture. This is very important not only for the Adyghe people, but for any others. It is necessary to work every day so that our children can speak and write in their native Circassian language and pass it on to their descendants’, he said.

Circassian Language Day was also marked in Tbilisi with a presentation of a book about Circassian culture by Nugzar Antelava, lecturer at Tbilisi State University.

Merab Chukhua, head of Circassian Cultural Centre in Georgia, told OC Media that the day was marked in Tbilisi annually. He also said that the situation of Circassian in Russia was worse compared to other native languages of other North Caucasian republics.

‘They [Circassians] know the language more or less, but I cannot say that the language is in good condition, as the language is not used at an official level. The situation is better in Chechnya in this regards, as we see that government sessions are held in Chechen’, Chukhua remarked.