Is there more to Mordvinic than Erzya and Moksha?

Jack Rueter is not only a linguist, but also the primus motor of our project. During the past months, we at the National Library of Finland have been really lucky to work with him and create a collegial relationship with him. If I’d be a super hero, I’d like to take his enthusiasm as one of my extraordinary skills. In this blog entry, Jack reveals what material and why it was chosen to be digitized within this project.

I’ve been working with little languages in Russia and the former Soviet Union for a number of years now. One of the languages I work with is Erzya, spoken today by perhaps half a million people in the world. Some of the speakers are people I have come to know personally over the years. And, of course, Erzya is also one of the languages I speak at home on a daily basis.

As a linguist, Erzya is special for me.  It has been documented at different points in time and in different media. Erzya has been documented as a language in print since the beginning of the 1800s.  The entire New Testament was translated and published in the 1820s. Starting with the 1880s, extensive collections were made from various dialects of Erzya and Moksha, both Mordvinic languages. By the eve of the Great October Revolution, there were field workers, both foreign and native, collecting and documenting oral, musical, religious and other cultural traditions.

At the beginning of the Soviet era, Erzya suddenly became socially important. Like many other small languages, the Erzya language was converted into a medium of popular education, enlightenment and dissemination of information pertinent to the developing political agenda of the new Soviet state.

The “deluge” of popular Erzya-language literature, 1920s-1930s, suddenly challenged the lexical orthographic norms of the limited ecclesiastical publications from the 1880s onward. Newspapers published in various places were written in orthographies and in word forms that the locals would have no problems understanding. Schoolbooks were written to address the separate needs of both the adult population and school children. New concepts and old were introduced in the native language. It was the beginning of a renaissance and period of enlightenment, snipped in the bud.

The publication of open-access and searchable written materials from the 1920s and 1930s is a “gold mine”.  Historians, social scientist and laymen with interests in specific local publications can now find text materials pertinent to their studies.  The linguistically oriented population can also find writings to their delight: (1) lexical items specific to a given publication, and (2) orthographically documented specifics of phonetics.

One newspaper from Tengushevo, ‘The Voice of the Kolkhoznik’ (Колхозьникинь вальгий), caught my eye. It is listed as an Erzya-language publication. After closer inspection of a few pages, I identified word forms specific to the area, e.g. sazems for sajems ‘to take’, potnar for potmar ‘attic’, nanks for langs ‘toward, at’. The special word forms would indicate the local Shoksha language variant. Would an even closer look at the newspaper provide much desired material for further Shoksha research, a third Mordvinic variant of our era.

Now I’d really like to see those papers again. Maybe I’ll visit the Erzya of 1930s Dubenka for some briefing. This August (2013), I’ll be heading there for fieldwork.

Jack Rueter, Ph.D.
University of Helsinki

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