Tatar is an ancient language and one of the two official languages of Russia’s Republic of Tatarstan. It is also an official minority language in Ukrainian Crimea. While efforts have been made to preserve it, new legislation threatens its continuing practice in Russia. So what will become of this ancient language?
The language dates back to the 13th century, to the days of the Golden Horde. At one stage, the mighty Turkic-Mongol empire covered much of Central Asia, Russia and Eastern Europe, which is why the language is indigenous to Crimea as well as parts of the Urals, and can be heard in pockets throughout these regions, including Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Finland and China.
Although Tatar is now mostly spoken in Tatarstan, dialects of the Turkic language are found in other regions, which were once Tatar strongholds. In particular, in Crimea. Crimean Tatar was the official language of the area until it was replaced by Otterman Turkish in the 17th century. It was brought back in the 19th century; however, Stalin’s mass deportation of Crimean Tatars effectively killed off the language. It was only revived in the area after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when indigenous Tatars returned to the peninsula and the Ukranian government gave it an official status as a minority language. However, it is currently recognised as an official language in Tatarstan.
Kazan Tatar is the dialect spoken in the Tatar and Golden Horde heartland of Tatarstan and is used by around seven million people in the region. Throughout history, the language has had many incarnations. Before the 9th century, it was written in the Orkhon alphabet, which is an old Turkic script named after a valley in Mongolia. It then switched to a version of the Arabic alphabet, which remained in use until 1920.
Between 1920 and 1939, updated Arabic and Latin scripts were tried out, until Stalin imposed a Cyrillic alphabet on the language. The second leader of the USSR feared potential allegiances between nations, which had the possibility to undermine the State. So, as a way to control the Republic of Tatarstan and to discourage relationships between the Republic and other Turkic-speaking countries, Cyrillic was used in Kazan Tatar until after the collapse of the Union.
Tatarstan reinstated Tatar as an official language in 1992 and the republic’s government has since striven to make it equal to Russian and to incentivise its usage, as part of safeguarding Tatar cultural heritage. As part of this push, the language was reintroduced into the education system as a compulsory subject in 1997, and in 2001, Kazan Tatar reverted back to using a Latin script. There are also a handful of tertiary degrees that are offered in the language. Despite efforts to encourage the use of the language, Russian still remains more widely spoken, and it appears there are more obstacles to overcome in efforts to preserve the indigenous language.
Up until November 2017, compulsory school curriculum allocated six hours a week to the language. Now, despite being an official language of the republic, Kazan Tatar will be taught as a two-hour class on the proviso there is written parental permission.
The decision to make the language an elective subject and only undertaken with parental approval was made after a Moscow-driven push to abandon mandatory traditional language lessons. The move has sparked concern among Tatar advocates who believe the decision will ‘undermine Tatarstan’s cultural identity’, and discourage the ‘learning of the language of [an] indigenous ethnic group’, which is against the Republic’s constitution. Some have even argued that the decision will be the end of the language itself, which remains to be seen.