Karaim

This piece is part of our blog series on endangered language learners.

Learning Karaim

Karaim learner Marina Tchistaia, Toronto 2016.

Karaim learner Marina Tchistaia, Toronto 2016.

What can you tell us about the language are you studying?

Karaim is a Turkic language spoken originally by ancient Turkic people, the Kipchaks. They lived in Eurasian steppes and during the medieval times were part of various Turkic confederations and empires. By religion, they are the followers of the Jewish religious movement, Karaism, which recognizes only the Old Testament (Tanakh) and does not accept the oral law (Talmud).

From their historical homeland, a number of Karaim families were resettled in the 14th century in Lithuania. Another group of Karaims migrated in the 16th century to Halych (Poland). The Karaims who remained in Crimea became subjects of the Ottoman Empire and then, after the Russian-Crimean Wars, were subjects of the Russian Empire. Thus, the Karaim language historically did not have its own single geographical territory and developed into the three dialects of the respective communities: Northwest (Trakai), Southwest (Halych), and Southeast (Crimean). Both Western dialects have been profoundly influenced by Slavic (Polish and Russian) and Baltic (Lithuanian) languages, and the Crimean dialect has almost merged with the Crimean Tatar language.

Typically for a minority language, Karaim has been practiced primarily as a community language for internal communication and religious practices. Nevertheless, the language, and especially its Northwest dialect, has survived for more than 600 years. Presently, all Karaim dialects are highly endangered. The Crimean and Halych dialects are practically extinct, and Trakai Karaim has about 40 speakers all of whom are 50 years old or older. However, Karaim communities in Trakai and Crimea are trying to revitalize this language.

Why did you choose to study this language?

My discovery of Karaim as a language and culture is connected with my grandfather who passed away many years ago. Although verification of his exact ethnicity is a matter of time and involves a complex archival search, I became very interested in this language and, maybe because of it, in linguistics in general.

What is your ultimate goal?

I believe that any language is a different way of perceiving the world. Looking “through” an endangered language gives you a unique way of enriching your knowledge or “feeling“ of the world.

As Karaim is highly endangered, I really want to do something to help to save it from extinction. Ideally, as one of the ways to do this, I am thinking of an app or an online learning tool which would be accessible to anyone interested in learning the language. There are a growing number of examples of how new technology and the Internet are used to save and revitalise endangered languages. I think Karaim should have its chance as well and I would like to master it enough to be able to participate in this work. I see online communities as an accessible and democratic way of promoting and sharing and, in this way, saving endangered languages.

What are your study tools?

I should consider myself lucky, as unlike many endangered languages, Karaim has grammar books composed by Soviet scholars – Musaev (1964) and Prik (1976) for the Crimean dialect; an easy-to-use self-study book by Mikolas Firkovičius (1996) – Mień karajče ürianiam [I learn Karaim];, and even a collection of recorded natural monologues by native speakers (Spoken Karaim CD, Csató & Nathan, 2002). This way, I have the resources for developing all the “receptive skills” (i.e. reading and listening).

Some would say that your time would be better spent learning a large, global language. Why do you choose to study a small, endangered language?

Besides the reasons mentioned above, for me, Karaim presents a special research interest. I was amazed that even learning several roots and inflections enabled me to understand their equivalents in other Turkic languages. As Karaim preserved the archaic features of Old Turkic, it may give clues to solving many puzzles of the development of Turkic languages in particular and languages in general.

Living in Toronto gives you a clear view on how some minority languages and cultures disappear, but how others continue to thrive and even expand. With globalization, the ways kids grow up and the ways a language can be transferred have changed. Young people may have various motivations for learning a non-dominant language. For example, my Canadian Russian-speaking daughter takes classes in Polish and is interested in learning Korean just because she likes what these cultures have to offer and has experienced a welcoming attitude. The key here lies in inclusiveness and going beyond the perception of a language as a property of a closed community.

References

Csató, E.A. and D. Nathan. 2004. Spoken Karaim. [Interactive multimedia CD-ROM].
Firkovičius, M. 1996. Mień karajče ürianiam. [I learn Karaim.] Vilnius: Danelius.
Musaev, K.M. 1964. Grammatika karaimskogo jazyka. Fonetika i morfologija. Moskva.
Prik, O. 1976. Ocherk grammatiki karaimskogo yazyka: krymskiy dialect. Makhachkala: Daguchpedgiz.

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