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‘We Have Not Yet Fully Understood How Languages ​​Work, and We Are Already Losing 90% of Their Diversity’

‘We Have Not Yet Fully Understood How Languages ​​Work, and We Are Already Losing 90% of Their Diversity’

Why might a grandmother and her grandson not understand each other? Why would linguists want to go to Dagestan? Is it possible to save the less commonly spoken languages of small nations and Russian dialects? Nina Dobrushina, Head of the Linguistic Convergence Laboratory answered these questions in an interview with HSE News Service.

On How the International Laboratory Began

At the School of Linguistics, where most of us work, a fruitful symbiosis between theoretical and computational linguistics has developed. We have, on the one hand, people who are engaged at a very high level in linguistic subfields such as typology, sociolinguistics, syntax. On the other hand, we have many colleagues who are able take advantage of the new opportunities that technology provides. Our students are able to programme, create electronic databases, and develop convenient ways to automatically analyse language data.

In recent years, we have developed several promising projects related to the languages ​​of Dagestan and northern Russian dialects. Both projects examine the changes that occur in languages ​​when they come into contact with other language communities.

Finally, we also had a lot of good students who we wanted to support in their love of linguistics.

Then we got lucky - Johanna Nichols, a renowned linguist from the University of California at Berkeley, agreed to come to Moscow. Her research interests include Slavic studies and Caucasian studies, and she speaks Russian. She lives and works in Berkeley, but she often travels to Europe and collaborates with other scholars. For many years, Professor Nichols worked at the Max Planck Society Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig for several months a year. But recently, the linguistics department there was closed. So, the invitation caught her at the perfect time – she was available to come and spend some time in Russia.

It was also at this time that HSE opened a competition for new international laboratory proposals. We wrote a lengthy proposal and were awarded a grant to create our lab.

Since linguists do a lot of field work (laboratory staff make more than a dozen expedition trips a year), it is important for us to have continuous funding. We receive most of our funding from HSE, but we also receive funds in the form of grants from outside sources (last and this year, for example, we received grants from the Russian Science Foundation).

Why the Lab is Designated as International (in Russian)

Strictly speaking, research should generally be international in nature. Johanna Nichols suggested that we not include this designation in the English name of the lab. So far, very few scientists and researchers from other countries work in Russia. Our staff includes international colleagues. First of all, there is of course our supervisor, Johanna Nichols. Secondly, Samira Verhees, a researcher from the Netherlands, has been working with us from the very beginning. In addition, we actively accept post-docs. Last year, Chiara Naccarato from the University of Pavia joined us, and this year Leandr Ezequiel Koile from Argentina is working in the lab.

We are also collaborating on projects with several other researchers from abroad. Professor Nichols has invited some, and we have invited others with whom we have common research interests. We work with some over Skype and others come to work at the lab. Our network is constantly expanding. We have a permanent partner from Lyon, and several partners from Jena and Helsinki.

Students as an Important Part of the Laboratory

We have grown a lot over the past three years. In the beginning we had five to six ‘adults’ and eight students who were research assistants. Now we have about thirty people. Most are students and young researchers. For us this is commonplace; at the School of Linguistics, students are very actively involved in research.

We need students, because our lab does a lot of work with collecting data, digitization, and computing data. But many of our students are already involved in working on publications.

Recently, our lab had an article accepted to the Language Variation and Change journal that had fifteen authors! And 8 of them were students, without whom the article would not have been possible  

The laboratory enables us to provide support for student travel. If a student has a paper accepted to a prestigious conference, we pay the travel costs. Several people attend summer schools every year, and most participate in expeditions. We have provided support for about twenty student trips abroad over the past few years.

All our assistants study in programmes in the School of Linguistics. We recruit most of our students through an open call: we send an email with information about openings to HSE’s undergraduate and master’s mailing lists and select our future interns from among those who apply. The main criterion, of course, is an interest in linguistics. The rest depends on the specific task: sometimes it is necessary for a person to be willing to work with statistics, sometimes programming skills are important, and sometimes we might need someone to do a purely linguistic task.

Students are required to attend our weekly seminars. I consider this a prerequisite. The university, after all, puts in a lot of effort in getting students interested in research. Seminars are an important teaching tool; they show how the research field works and how it is developing.

What the Laboratory Does

All languages ​​are constantly changing, and one of the reasons for their transformation is mutual influence. This is called language contact. Convergence occurs when a language is influenced by a different language. Broadly speaking, we examine the mechanisms of speech evolution that result from interaction with other languages.

The laboratory deals with the languages ​​of Russia: numerous languages ​​of Dagestan, Adyghe, Abaza, Even, Mari, as well as Russian dialects and Russian as a non-native language

We focus on quantitative methods. In order to analyse something, you need a lot of information: databases and corpuses of texts. Moreover, it is most interesting to study language contacts based on texts written in languages ​​and dialects that do not have a written tradition. They better retain traces of contacts with other ethnic groups. So, we need a corpus of oral speech – electronic collections of texts with a search engine to navigate them.

The creation of such cases requires considerable effort: you need to record the texts in the field, transcribe them in special programmes that align the text with the sound, and parse the texts. We are also doing this; we are working with colleagues from other universities and institutes and helping them to make cases from the materials that they have collected. Over the past three years, the laboratory has created nine new corpuses. The first was the Ustya River Basin Corpus, which we developed together with Ruprecht von Waldenfels of the University of Jena and launched even before we opened the laboratory. This is the first and thus far last audio corpus of a Russian dialect (I think even of a Slavic language in general) of this size – it has almost a million word forms.

How to Collect Data on Expeditions

We collect data for our research and for corpuses in the field: in expeditions that we organize together with the School of Linguistics. We travel in groups of several to 10-20 people, depending on the place and conditions of the trip. I, for example, travel to Dagestan. Each member of the expedition has his or her own task: one, for example, deals with the structure of interrogative sentences, the other with case forms, and the third writes a dictionary. Preparation for the expedition begins in Moscow: students receive their topics, study them, and prepare surveys.

In practice, it looks something like this: in the mountain village where we come, we find local residents and ask them to translate prepared sentences from Russian into their native language. The translation is written in a special transcription, and then we analyse it: we look at where the noun is, where the predicate is, what form the verbs takes, and so on. In addition, we simply record stories and dialogues of people with a recorder, and then we transcribe them with the help of native speakers.

Translating and parsing texts for hours on end is pretty boring. People get tired quickly. It’s necessary to find someone who is assiduous and patient

This is especially important if we plan to conduct the research over a period of several years, so we usually pay our translators.

While on expeditions, every evening we organize a seminar: someone gives a report on what they managed to learn or record, and what conclusions can already be made, while the rest of the group listens and offers new questions. As a result of the trip, students write reports, which they often turn into conference papers, or, sometimes, articles, or book chapters.  

Dagestan: the Lab’s Main Field

Dagestani languages ​​are my main research interest. I have been studying this region since I was a student. I went there on an expedition for the first time when I was 19 years old together with the prominent linguist, Alexander Kibrik of Moscow State University.

Researchers of our lab travel to the high-mountain villages of the region four to five times a year, both in large groups with students and small groups of two to three people. I travel there in the spring and summer. Usually we select a place in advance and contact the locals: we ask them to find us a place to stay and send a car for us at the airport. All it takes is getting to know one person for an entire village to know about your arrival. People in Dagestan are hospitable, welcoming, and friendly, so it is nice to both visit and work there. The students, like us, really like it there.

Among the researchers of our laboratory, the largest group is involved with this region.

Dagestan has more than 40 languages, and almost all of them are strong, compared to many other places: in the villages everyone speaks their own language, including children

There are areas where you can walk three kilometres to get from one village to another where people speak a completely different language. People have been living in close proximity for many centuries, or millennia, and interacting with their neighbours. Their languages ​​are also in contact.

Thanks to many years of expeditions to Dagestan, we have created a rich database of multilingualism in the region. From this database it is clear what languages ​​the inhabitants of different mountain villages were familiar with and what proportion of the population knew this or that language. This information is already being used to investigate the typology of multilingualism in small language communities, and to compare the situation of Dagestan with other regions of traditional multilingualism. Last year in Lyon we had a conference about multilingualism.

Now we are beginning to compare this information with the actual language material. One of our tasks is to see if there is a correlation between the level of bilingualism and the number of borrowings in the languages. This is a difficult task – it needs a lot of preparatory work. To adequately compare borrowings in different languages, a rigorous methodology is needed. And, as far as we know, no one has performed such a task. There is a large volume of literature devoted to borrowings, but not from this standpoint. When languages ​​are compared in terms of vocabulary, it is native vocabulary that is usually examined—concepts that are preserved in the language, rather than those that are replaced by borrowings. We have selected words that are relatively often borrowed. And we are not interested in obvious lexical borrowings such as computer- or movie-related words.  We need words that may have been borrowed from nearby neighbours, and not from Russian or English. Our interns Ilya Chechuro and Samira Verhees together with Michael Daniel are working on this project, and they have already had some interesting findings.

This year we are starting a study of the connection between the geography of Dagestan and the natural habitats of the Northeast Caucasian languages. We are investigating whether it is possible to map the current settlement of language groups in accordance with to mountain ranges, rivers, ravines.

How Languages ​​and Dialects ‘Fade Away’ and What Threat This Poses

Many small languages ​​of Russia and Russian dialects are dying. They are only spoken by older people. We are losing cultural heritage at a tremendous pace, without even having time to document it, because linguistics is a very young science. We have not yet fully understood how languages ​​work, and we are already losing 90% of their diversity. This is a very unfortunate. It's great that the university provides an opportunity to do such things without thinking about daily bread.

For example, we have an article coming out soon that is about the rate of the loss of dialectal forms in the village of Mikhalevskaya in the Arkhangelsk Region, based on the material in our Ustya River Basin Corpus. We travelled there over the course of several years, made recordings, studied the dialectal features, and compared how the speech of young people differs from that of the older generation.

In the same house, for example, a grandmother and a grandson speak very differently. Only a database such as ours can allow you to quickly find out how the grandmother spoke. There will soon be no more living speakers of the dialect.

There is an equally great threat to the extinction of the languages ​​of small nations. In order to fight this process, it is necessary, in particular, to support rural life – this is where people speak small languages. In Dagestan, villages are now empty, and languages ​​are dying along with them. Of course, there are many other places in Russia where this process is already irreversible, because it is happening terribly quickly: all it takes for a language to disappear is one generation that doesn’t speak it.

It seems that this problem is not so big and important for society, but in reality, the world has never experienced such a huge loss of linguistic diversity. But language is also an ethnic and cultural identification, and without it, a sense of ethnic or cultural belonging is eroded. This process also has an impact on social life. Where does it lead? Certainly to an impoverishment of culture. As for the other consequences, we cannot yet say.