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The Oirat Language
From a synchronic perspective, Kalmyk is the most prominent variety of Oirat. It is very close to the Oirat dialects found in Mongolia and the People’s Republic of China, both phonologically and morphologically. The differences in dialects, however, concern the vocabulary, as the Kalmyk language has been influenced by and has adopted words from the Russian language and various Turkic languages.
The literary tradition of Oirat reaches back to 11th century when the Uyghur script was used. The official Kalmyk alphabet, named Todo Bichig (Clear Script), was created in the 17th century by a Kalmyk Buddhist monk called Zaya Pandit. In 1924 this script was replaced by a Cyrillic script, which was abandoned in 1930 in favor of a Latin script. The Latin script was in turn replaced by another Cyrillic script in 1938. These script reforms effectively disrupted the Oirat literary tradition.
Above: "Ambekova Bogush (82) a renowned medicine-woman (medlgch) a descendant of the well-known bard Elyan Ovla, speaks about the Kalmyk past". [in Kalmyk]. Video credit Mátyás Balogh.
Kalmyk is now only spoken as a native language by a small minority of the Kalmyk population. Its decline as a living language began after the Kalmyk people were deported en masse from their homeland in December 1943, as punishment for limited Kalmyk collaboration with the Nazis. Significant factors contributing to its demise include: (1) the deaths of a substantial percentage of the Kalmyk population from disease and malnutrition, both during their travel and upon their arrival to remote exile settlements in Central Asia, south central Siberia and the Soviet Far East; (2) the wide dispersal of the Kalmyk population; (3) the duration of exile, which ended in 1957; (4) the stigma associated with being accused of treason, and (5) assimilation into the larger, more dominant culture. Collectively, these factors discontinued the intergenerational language transmission.
In 1957, the Soviet government reinstated the Kalmyk Autonomous Oblast and later reestablished the Autonomous Republic of Kalmykia. The Kalmyk people were permitted to return to the Republic in 1957, 14 years after exile. The Russian language, however, was made the official language of the Republic, and Sovietization was imposed on the Kalmyk people, leading to drastic cuts in Kalmyk language education. The Cyrillic alphabet became firmly established among the Kalmyks (and other peoples, too). For instance, books, periodicals, newspapers, etc., were published using it. By the late 1970s, the Russian language became the primary language of instruction in all schools in the Republic.
During the period of Perestroika, Kalmyk linguists, in collaboration with the Kalmyk government, planned and tried to implement the revival of the Kalmyk language. This revival was seen as an integral part of the reassertion of Kalmyk culture. In an important symbolic gesture, the Kalmyk language was declared an official language of the Republic, giving it equal status with the Russian language with respect to official governmental use and language education.
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