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Эржена Хилханова проходит сейчас годичную стажировку в университете Джорджа Вашингтона по лингвистике и социологии. Её научная карьера имела крутые, но по сути логичные повороты: от германистики (а именно, стилистики немецкого языка) до дискурсного анализа (диссертация была посвящена изучению лингвистических механизмов (вос)производства идеологии в дискурсе СМИ). В последнее время занимается исследованием языка, культуры и этнической идентичности. По натуре - трудоголик; в свободное время общается с друзьями, а также увлекается фитнессом и шоппингом (скорее в обратном порядке). Любит кино и любое не-пассивное времяпровождение. На наш взгляд, проблемы, описанные в статье Эржены очень актуальны и для народа Саха.


Erjen Khilkhanova, Dorji Khilkhanov

The Changing Dynamics of Language and Ethnic Identity Link

by Russian Minorities: the Buryat Case Study



Throughout the ethnic revival of the last twenty years, many researchers have tried to interpret the link between ethnic identity and language in the new changing world. Much of the debate surrounding this issue has been turning around a dilemma: is language a salient marker of ethnic identity or not. Some researchers have argued that language has little actual significance to questions of ethnic identity (Renan 1990, p. 16). For others, the opposite is true: language is an intrinsic and determining feature of ethnic identity, ‘core cultural value’ (Smolicz 1993; 1995). There are many other theories between these two extremes, which we intentionally leave beyond the scope of this paper (see, for example, May 2001). Our theoretical framework in this paper will be mostly a ‘primordial’, sociopsychological account of ethnicity, not a ‘situational’, instrumentalist one (more about the polarization between ‘primordial’ and ‘situational’ perspectives, see May 2001). In particular, we utilize Berry 's acculturation theory primarily focusing on acculturation processes in the present-day Buryatia.

Acculturation Strategies in the Soviet Union

Berry (1990) has identified four alternative acculturation strategies that minorities can use when they come into contact with the majority: 1) integration, 2) assimilation, 3) separation, 4) marginalization. In integration, some degree of cultural integrity is maintained while one moves to participate as an integral part of the larger social network. In assimilation, original cultural features (language, religion, etc.) are given up completely in favor of those of the majority. In separation, the opposite is true; that is, no features of the majority culture are accepted, and only the original minority culture is valued. In marginalization neither the majority nor the minority can offer a satisfactory identity. In terms of language, this could mean the loss of the original language without simultaneous sufficient acquisition of the dominant language.

During the Soviet period, when the dominant (Russian) group was presented as the integrated mainstream and its values and culture were considered the standard, the assimilation strategy was clearly widespread. The ethnic identity construction was complicated in the former Soviet Union due to the efforts of the Communist party to create a phenomenon of a collective identitySoviet people’, which was supposed to replace ethnic identities according to the ideology of internationalism. These efforts were mostly successful and resulted in a unique modification of a multiple identity whereby both majority and minority identified themselves as members of a particular ethnic group on the one side, and as ‘Soviet people’ on the other side.

Buryat Ethnic Identity Today

The number of the Buryats in Russia is 417,4 thousand. Accordingly, they are located approximately in the middle between the most large ethnic minority, such as Tatars  (5.5 million) and the peoples of the far North, some of whom count only few hundred representatives.

Our analysis is based on statistical data that demonstrate results of two surveys carried out in this region in 1991-1992 and 1994. The first survey was conducted among the adult population of the entire ethnographic Buryatia, which includes the Ust-Ordynsk Buryat autonomous district of the Irkutsk region and the Aginsk Buryat autonomous district of the Chita region in addition to the Republic of Buryatia . 

Generally speaking, Russian is utilized for external (public) communication purposes, whereas Buryat - for internal (private) ones. In sociolinguistic terms such situation is usually described as diglossia, which is a long-term and widespread complementary distribution of functions between the languages of a speech-and-writing community. In the case of Buryat language diglossia is a part of an exclusive circle: on the one hand, functional limitation of the indigenous language, especially of its lexicon, forces the language users to switch to the language, which can serve communication needs of the modern society more effectively. On the other hand, the regular code switching hinders from the indigenous language development, whereas each language can develop its polyfunctional potential only under the condition of constant creative work of language community members. Of course, other factors are also important for language maintenance and development (e.g., language policy and planning), but we will touch upon this particular issue later.

Summing up the statistical data, we can conclude that even today, many years after the Soviet Union collapse, the level of mother’s tongue proficiency among minorities in Russia varies from the absence of any proficiency, passive proficiency (understanding, but not speaking) to bilinguism and diglossia. At the same time, the majority of the population masters Russian to a greater or lesser extent. The main tendency is that Russian continues to be lingua franca for the vast region of modern Russia . In particular, the language situation in the Republic of Buryatia reveals a clear trend towards diglossia, which, in our opinion, is less desirable for indigenous languages’ preservation and development than bi- or multilinguism, as the latter means the equal level of language proficiency in two or more languages.

The question is: why the situation with the Buryat language has not been improved in the time of global ethnic revival? Can we even contend the existence of ethnic revival in Buryatia? The situation is particularly remarkable in comparison with the situation with small languages in other regions of the world nowadays. Fishman (1999) points out the possibility of attitudinal-functional mismatch in terms of language and its connection with ethnic identity. It means that at the same time that English is the world’s superlanguage (if not “killer language”, as some would have it), more small languages are being read and written today than even before. Unlike the Russian case, in Europe alone, there were no more than thirty-one standardized languages of literacy at the beginning of the century, whereas there are more than a hundred such today. From our point of view, the current situation can be explained only in terms of identity matters, which will be considered in the following section of the paper.

New Changes in Language and Identity Link 

Certainly, the ethnic revival has had an impact on the current ethnolinguistic situation in Russia . Nowadays, indigenous languages are considered as cultural basis and symbols of ethnic identity and national unity. You will hardly find a person among minorities who would neglect the importance of the mother tongue now. Nevertheless, such an attitude rarely leads to the real process of language acquisition. In the Buryat case, urban Buryats, who predominantly grew up within the Russian culture, feel the need to learn Buryat, but do not do it; often such a need is absent at all. As a matter of fact, ethnic awakening among Buryats exists mostly at the level of self-categorization, in the realization of their belonging to this particular ethnic group, but not in real actions toward indigenous language acquisition.

Explaining contradiction between the Buryats’ self-identification as members of the Buryat ethnic group, on the one side, and the real Buryat language acquisition, on the other, we do not consider such cases as ethnic nihilism or irrelevance of ethnic identity for some minority members. More relevant for our investigation are cases, when the “adequate” ethnic identity correlates with ignorance of the mother tongue. According to the Berry ’s alternative acculturation strategies’ theory, modern Buryats demonstrate two variants of strategy: integration and strategies’ combination.

In the first case (integration), Buryats identify themselves with their ethnic group and do not reject their historical, ethnic and cultural heritage. They have learned new cultural knowledge (first of all, the majority language) for successful integration into the all-Russian society and have selected relevant ethnic-cultural markers. If the language is such a relevant marker it is preserved. In this case we have as a result a bilingual person with bicultural identity, which is quite typical for Russia . But if language is not included in the relevant markers’ set, we have the phenomenon when a person identifies him- or herself as a Buryat without knowing the Buryat language. The fact proves that an ethnic group in general and every single person can maintain their ethnic identity when an original cultural base and conception of unity with their ancestors who spoke the same language is preserved.

The existence of many (especially young)  people among Buryat minority group who do not know not only the native language but also many native customs, traditions and other cultural markers shows that we can speak only about the very base of culture. It means that from many cultural components (religion, habits, mentality, traditions and so on) a definite set of relevant ethnocultural markers remains when ethnic identity survives. The language can be included or excluded from this set. The Buryat example demonstrates that many Buryats in fact have excluded the native language from these markers.

In the second case of strategies’ combination Buryats as a rule try to have economic assimilation (in job), linguistic integration (through bilinguism or diglossia), and marital separation (through endogamy).

Thus, the Buryat case shows that ethnic identity can survive the loss of the indigenous group language if other original cultural components remain. Moreover, a widespread attitude among many Russian minorities is not intentional but nevertheless virtual exclusion of the native language from the relevant ethnocultural markers set. Of course, this attitude is not only the matter of social psychology, but also a question of economic and social reasons. As far as one wants to gain benefits such as good education, job perspectives and integration into a greater socio-economic space of Russia , one has to master Russian. Hence, the proficiency in Russian is a vital necessity, whereas proficiency in Buryat is the only optional ethnic identity marker.


The global ethnic revival has had a certain impact on the current ethnolinguistic situation in Russia . For the Buryat minority, the assimilation strategy, widespread among minorities in the Soviet Union has been replaced by the integration strategy and strategies’ combination (economic assimilation, linguistic integration, and marital separation). In both cases native language is identified as a significant cultural marker of the Buryat ethnic group. However, along with the actual language use and maintenance, the trend to abandon the language as an irrelevant ethnocultural identity marker, which started during the Soviet period, continues now. The trend is so strong that we can claim that language for Buryats has more symbolic, unifying value and its abandoning does not affect the ethnic identity itself.

The Buryat case shows that ethnic identity, in fact, can survive the loss of the indigenous group language. In some sense, the language has been sacrificed to all the historical challenges and pressures put on minorities in Russia throughout the last two centuries. This ethnic identity pattern was probably the only possible way to survive and to preserve the ethnic identity.



Berry , J. W. (1990). Psychology of Acculturation. In Nebraska Symposium on Motivation: Vol. 37, (pp. 201-235). Cross-Cultural Perspectives, J.J.Bremen (ed.) Lincoln : University of Nebraska Press.

Dyrkheeva, G. A., Budaeva, B. S., & Basheeva, T. P. (1999). Buryatskii yazyk: sovremennoye sostoyaniye (soziolinguisticheskiy aspect). Ulan-Ude : Izd-vo BNZ SO RAN.

Fishman, J. A. (1999). Sociolinguistics. In J. A. Fishman (Ed.), Handbook of Language and Ethnic Identity (p. 156). New York : Oxford University Press.

Humphrey, C. (1994). Casual chat and Ethnic Identity: Women's Second-language Use among Buryats in the USSR . In Burton , P., Dyson, K. & S. Ardener (eds.). Bilingual Women. Anthropological Approaches to Second-language Use (pp. 65-79). Oxford : Berg.

May, S. (2001). Language and Minority Rights: Ethnicity, Nationalism, and the Politics of Language. London : Longman.

Renan, E. (1990). What is a nation? In H. Babbla (ed.), Nation and Narration (pp. 8-22). London : Routledge (original, 1882).

Smolicz, J. The Monolingual Myopia and Minority Rights: Australia ’s language Policies from an International Perspective. Muslim Education Quarterly 10, 44-61.

Smolicz, J. Australia’s Language Policies and Minority Rights. In T.Skutnabb-Kangas and R.Phillipson (eds.), Linguistic Human Rights: Overcoming Linguistic Discrimination (pp. 235-252). Berlin : Mouton de Gruyter.




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