Эзендер! That’s “hello” in the Altaian language, one of the world’s small languages. About 68,000 indigenous people speak the language. As with other indigenous languages, Altaian reflects the unique environment of its speakers. In particular, it shows their close relationship with nature, knowledge of flora and fauna, centuries-old folk wisdom, spiritual practices, and collective experiences as a people.
Linguistically speaking, Altai is a Turkic language in the Altaic language group. Linguists don’t all agree about how this group fits in the global language “tree”. Altaian is divided into regional variants: Northern Altai, spoken by Kumandins and Chelkans in parts of Altai Krai, and Southern Altai spoken widely by Altaians, Telengits, and Tubalars in Altai Republic, where it holds official state language status alongside Russian.
Russian missionaries in the mid-19th century were the first to document it in written form, and the language was known as Oirot until 1948. Today, Altai is written with a Cyrillic script in Russia, with nine extra characters in addition to the usual letters of the Russian alphabet. Early colonization efforts were intensified during the Soviet era, when indigenous people were often denied the right to speak the Altaian language and practice their culture.
The Altai Republic (Russia) designates October 20 as Altai Language Day to call attention to the language and efforts to keep it alive and thriving. Preserving this language is critical to maintaining the region’s rich cultural and spiritual heritage as well as preserving the traditional ecological knowledge encoded in its vocabulary and traditional place names.
Children born to Altaian families often spend their early childhood speaking exclusively Altaian, only learning Russian and other languages when they start school at the age of seven. The language is spoken widely by indigenous Altaians throughout Altai Republic and, while many people speak both Altaian and Russian, there are some in more remote areas that exclusively speak Altaian.
Studying Altaian language in Russia
The government in Altai Republic has introduced initiatives to make literature, television programs, and films available in the Altai language, especially for children. The language is taught, usually alongside Russian, in the public school system throughout Altai Republic. Gorno-Altaisk State University has an Altaistics and Turkic Studies Department and there’s also the Surazakova Institute of Altaistics Research.
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