Three reasons why Hebrew revival scenario would not work for Crimean Tatar in Ukraine


Every language enthusiast is familiar with the story of the revival of Hebrew. A language, that seemed to be non-spoken for thousands of years has been successfully revived by a group of enthusiasts. Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, who started the movement of the language revitalization, is and probably will always be a knight in shining armor setting an example for those trying to preserve endangered languages all over the world. A figure of the devoted scholar, who almost single-handedly revived Hebrew is indeed a source of inspiration. The official legend says that within forty years between 1881-1921, a core of young, fervent Hebrew-language speakers was formed on the territory of the modern Israel due to the enormous efforts of Ben-Yehuda’s followers, while Hebrew became the unique symbol of their linguistic nationalism.  The Hebrew revival story has become a language revival model du jour.

Eliezer Ben-Yehuda

Eliezer Ben-Yehuda

Acknowledging truly titanic efforts of Ben-Yehuda, we cannot and should not forget the fact, that the Hebrew revitalization process could not be successful if it was not for certain social, political and economic circumstances. That is why modern linguists working on revival of other languages should not expect laid seeds to grow very soon. Ukraine with its four Turkic languages (Crimean Tatar, Karaim, Urum and Krymchak) is a great playground for an ambitious linguist. All four of them are endangered, with the Crimean Tatar language having the best chances to survive. Three of the four ethnic groups speaking these Turkic languages (Crimean Tatars, Krymchaks and, to a some extent, Karaites) share a common history with the Jewish people. Karaites are believed to profess a form of Judaism that, nevertheless, do not accept Talmud; while Krymchaks are Orthodox Yahudi (with slight differences reflected in their “rite of Kaffa”) by religion; and, as such, many of them were massacred under the German occupation of Crimea in 1942-1944. Karaites were not viewed as Jews by the Nazi German authorities; nevertheless, there is a documented evidence that, at least, 470 people from this small Turkic people were not spared during WWII. Ironically, Crimean Tatars were deported on the premises of collaboration with Nazis and regained the right to return to the homeland only in 1989 (although 197 Crimean Tatar families were granted this right in 1968-1970). Like Jewish people, Crimean Tatars had to struggle for the right to settle down on the land that has been successfully taken over by the predominantly Slavonic population.

Of the four indigenous Turkic ethnic groups populating Southern Ukraine, Crimean Tatars have the best chances to preserve and develop their language. According to the census of 2001, there were 248,193 Crimean Tatars in Ukraine. Boasting 15 national schools where Crimean Tatar is supposed to be the primary language of education and a fairly large percentage of active speakers (87.3 per cent of Crimean Tatars recognized Crimean Tatar as their mother language), along with the ethnic mass-media (two official newspapers in Crimean Tatar, FM and TV channels), the Crimean Tatar language should quickly regain its status among the people speaking it. It only awaits a new Ben-Yehuda, right?

The answer is yes and no. Crimean Tatars desperately need language enthusiasts, who would live and die for the cause. Without people passionate enough to promote the language on the everyday level and people who have a vision and a plan on how to do that language will remain in hibernation, or even die. However, Crimean Tatars have a group of stellar linguists, who have single-handedly written textbooks and dictionaries and have taught the language at schools and community centers. Moreover, they have two universities (Crimean Engineering and Pedagogical University and Tavrida National University), where Crimean Tatar is taught as major and minor. This grants that Crimean Tatar people have plenty qualified linguists at all times. However, the Crimean Tatar language is recovering way too slow, despite the efforts of qualified and enthusiastic linguists. Perhaps, there is a missing link? Why is it not working for Crimean Tatar yet as it has worked for Hebrew?

In my opinion, there are several circumstances that predetermined the success of Hebrew. Firstly, Hebrew was a true lingua franca for Jews coming from different parts of the world. Their languages included but were not limited to Yiddish, Ladino, Mugrabi, Russian, Polish, German, English, Arabic, French, Turkish, Italian, Farsi and Turkish. Being able to communicate the same language was an absolute necessity rather than choice. However, due to a long-term occupation by Russia and later Soviet Union (since 1783), Crimean Tatars living in Crimea have slowly but surely adopted Russian as lingua franca. Needless to say, it is nearly impossible to find a Crimean Tatar in Crimea not being able to speak Russian, while there are thousands of those who do not know their mother tongue at all. It will be fair to say that a significantly large part of the Crimean Tatar population in Crimea views their mother tongue as a ceremonial language. Yes, some road signs are bilingual (Ukrainian/Crimean Tatar), yes, it is used in mass-media, but, eventually, most of the Crimean Tatar people use Russian much more often in their daily life.

This language tokenism can be attributed to the fact that the Crimean Tatar language, has been stigmatized by the colonial policy of the Russian and especially Soviet government. While in deportation, Crimean Tatar language was not recognized by the authorities as an existing independent language. Soviet propaganda purposefully called it ‘Tatar’, another Turkic language that, nevertheless, stands quite far apart from Crimean Tatar. Speaking and writing Crimean Tatar was strongly frowned upon and discouraged by the authorities.  As a result, Crimean Tatar language has lost its importance and prestige in the eyes of the Crimean Tatar people.

The differences between the two languages only start at this point. From the very beginning it was planned that Hebrew would become an official language for the future state of Israel, which was diligently carried out by Ben-Yehuda’s followers. Israel’s statehood, granted in May, 1948, predetermined the success of Hebrew as an official state language. State status is an important instrument that can help languages develop, which the world history has numerous examples to. Official state language status made it mandatory for all to learn. Political will enforced on the citizens of Israel was a great stimuli to learn Hebrew. The situation is quite contrary in Crimea. Crimean Tatar still does not have a status of a regional language (while Russian has this status in many regions of the country) which would enable Crimean Tatars to use it in written or oral form as official. In the situation, where Crimean Tatar population merely constitutes 13 per cent of the entire population of the region, a choice is usually made in the favor of the dominating language, which, in this situation, happens to be Russian. The situation with the Crimean Tatar language, in fact, is very familiar to the speakers of the indigenous languages in Great Britain. Although not prohibited anymore, vice versa, encouraged and heavily supported financially, languages like Scottish Gaelic, Cornish or Welsh still struggle for revival simply because everybody else around them speaks English anyway.

Finally, Hebrew has always been around. A thought that Hebrew was a dead language and required artificial resurrection might not be correct per se. According to Jewish scholar Chaim Rabin, ‘It would hardly be an exaggeration to say that… in 1879 over 50% of all male Jews were able to understand the Bible (and) daily prayers… and some 25% of all male Jews to read Hebrew book of average difficulty… allowing for a much higher proportion in Eastern Europe.’ Hebrew pertained a sacred meaning to Jewish people. It was simply more than a way of communication, it was a language given by God. As such, Hebrew has always had a very special meaning for Jews. Therefore, it would be unfair to claim that Ben-Yehuda revived Hebrew from a scratch – many Jewish people knew it as a written language already. Hebrew in 1880 could be best described as a ‘half language’, a written language used along with spoken languages of the countries Jews populated. This situation was not very uncommon at those days and is essentially a phenomenon known as ‘diglossia’. A status of the language of the sacred book definitely helped Jews to preserve and develop Hebrew.

The Crimean Tatar language, however, has always been destitute of the religious meaning, as Arabic remains the language of Muslims’ holy book, Quran. Viewed as important, but not absolutely necessary, and, if given a choice, Crimean Tatar language is often neglected by Crimean Tatars in favor of already established languages like Russian.

Crimean Tatar language does not bear a special religious, economic or political value for the people speaking it, and thus, is losing a strategic battle to dominating languages. It does not mean that the situation cannot be changed though. As I mentioned earlier, political will imposed on the population of the region can strengthen the position of Crimean Tatar. If Crimean Tatar is granted official status that will make it mandatory to know it, at least, on the territory of the Crimean peninsula, it will empower the language and people speaking it. It will give them a legal, political and economic reasons to learn the language. Thus, I believe that any official status granted to Crimean Tatar will improve its chances for preservation.

Ben-Yehuda was a truly outstanding man of remarkable persuasiveness, but efforts of a single person, even if followed by a group of the most devoted adepts, will give little effect, if there is no room for the language to develop and grow. The same way, Crimean Tatar will truly develop only when the language for Crimean Tatar population will mean more than just a ceremonial language of ancestors per se or a declaration of the people’s ‘otherness’.

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One thought on “Three reasons why Hebrew revival scenario would not work for Crimean Tatar in Ukraine

  1. Good article. Thanks. I wholly agree. A language cannot be revived unless the people have a desire to learn it and a practical need or usage for it. The greatest push is really of no avail if people are not convinced that it will benefit them to learn the language. Best of luck with your work on Crimean Tatar.

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