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Conference report

Contribution to the International Symposium on Preservation of the Intangible Cultural Heritage
Beijing, 16 - 18 November 2004

Voices from the Past:
The Use of Sound Archives for the Study of
Endangered Languages

Tjeerd de Graaf
Frisian Academy, The Netherlands

Work of the Frisian Academy and the research group on Phonetics and Ethnolinguistics at Groningen University is devoted to the study of minority languages in Europe and the Russian Federation. The primary involvement of the Frisian Academy lies in the domain of history, literature and culture related to the West-Frisian language, an autochthonous minority language in the Netherlands with more than 300.000 speakers. Users of its nearest relatives, the East- and North-Frisian languages in Germany are less numerous and these languages are included into the list of endangered languages of Europe. This list increased significantly after the extension of the European Union with new member states in Central and Eastern Europe. Further eastwards, in the Russian Federation also a large number of endangered languages can be found. This conference contribution deals with existing and potential projects related to these endangered languages, in particular those based on the use of material from (sound) archives.
Projects in Europe
In the Frisian Academy the Mercator-Education project group has been established with the principal goal of acquiring, storing and disseminating information on minority language education in the European region. This group successfully implemented a computerised database containing bibliographic data and information about people and organisations involved in this subject. The Mercator regional dossiers provide descriptive information about minority languages in a specific region of the European Union. The information available, such as characteristics of the educational system and recent educational policies can serve several purposes. It is used by policy makers, researchers, teachers, students and journalists to assess the ongoing developments in European minority languages and serves as a first orientation towards further research as well as a source of ideas for enhancing the educational tools in their own region. Recently the Mercator group received a special grant for the creation of a virtual library with scientific material on minority and endangered language communities.
At present, an inventory of the languages in the new states of the European Union is being completed showing explicitly the position of ethnic minorities, which in some places can give rise to serious political problems. Our future Mercator activities include only the Baltic countries, but it is also important to collect information on the Russian Federation. This is where the historical and linguistic links of various language groups across the Eastern border of the European Union, such as for the Uralic languages like Finnish and Hungarian, will play a role in our activities. They show that European culture has many links with Russia and Siberia
Projects in the Russian Federation
Our research group on Phonetics and Ethnolinguistics at Groningen University pays attention to various aspects of the languages spoken in Russia. Information on this topic is available on the web site The multimedia web site The Languages of Russia provides access to information on the more than 100 languages spoken in the Russian Federation, many of which are endangered, some even on the verge of extinction. The study of these languages is essential in order to preserve this unique cultural heritage for future generations. The design of the site is such as to stimulate any person with interest in learning more about the languages of the peoples of Russia. Our aim is to make this web site an exhaustive source of information on the languages of Russia. The next step will be the preparation of multimedia teaching material to stimulate students to learn these languages, not only interested linguists, but also representatives of the related ethnic groups.
This contribution reports on a few projects which have been undertaken by our research group and elsewhere for the study of the minority peoples of Russia and for the description of the endangered languages involved. For this purpose data from archives have been used and combined with results of modern fieldwork in several parts of the Russian North, Siberia and the Russian Far East. Since 1992 these projects have been financially supported by the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO), the Organization INTAS of the European Union and the Sakhalin Energy Investment Company. We have collaborated with colleagues in Russia and Japan and part of the work is simultaneously related to Japanese research projects.
Historical data and sound archives
During a stay in the Sakha Republic (Yakutia) in 1994, local linguists in Yakutsk told us about the history of the Yakut language. They mentioned the fact that the first written informati­on on this language could be found in a book by the Dutch author Nicolaas Witsen, but that they were not able to read it yet. Witsen was an important Dutchman who had personal contacts with Peter the Great during the latter’s visit in 1697 to Amster­dam and who passed information about Western Europe to the Russians. On the other hand, the Western world learned much about Russia from Witsen's publicati­ons. His book Noord en Oost Tartarye first appeared in 1692 and it describes the eastern parts of the Russian Empire. In his book Witsen gives many details on the peoples of Siberia, their languages and cultures, and he provides the first maps of this part of the world. For many of the Siberian langua­ges, for example for Yakut and Tungus, word lists are provided. The fact that this book is written in 17th century Dutch makes it difficult for readers in Russia to get access to the interesting material it contains, such as the linguistic data on various languages. A few years ago, a group of Dutch scholars began preparing a Russian edition of this work. It has already been translated into Russian and is now being supplemented with comments and annotations by specialists on all details contained in the book. For this purpose we have set up an international research team with Russian specialists and with the financial support from the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research NWO we are able to continue our work.
Archives not only contain written material, but also other data such as sound recordings. In Russia the most important collection of these recordings can be found in the sound archives of the Russian Academy of Sciences in the Museum of Russian Literature (the Pushkinsky Dom) in St.Petersburg. These sound archives contain about 10,000 wax cylinders of the Edison phonograph and more than 500 old wax discs. In addition, an extensive fund of gram­ophone records exists and one of the largest collections of tape-recordings of Russian folklore. These represent the history of Russian ethnogra­phy and contain a wide range of materials. Many of these recordings form one of the basic collections used in our joint project with St.Petersburg. This project on the Use of Acoustic Data Bases and the Study of Langua­ge Change (1995-1998) has been finan­cially suppor­ted by the organizati­on INTAS of the European Union in Brus­sels.
We were able to reconstruct some of the many recordings in the Pushkinsky Dom and to make them available for further re­search, which is not only important for historical and cultu­ral reasons, but also for language description and for the study of possible direct evidence of language change. In a second INTAS project, St.Petersburg Sound Archives on the World Wide Web (1998 - 2001) part of the sound recordings have been placed on Internet and are now available for further study on a special web site.
For these projects we first completed the reconstruction of the sound archive material of the Zhirmunsky collection. Zhirmunsky was a famous linguist who worked in St.Peters­burg/Leningrad in the early years of the 20th centu­ry. One of his main interests was the study of German dialects spoken in Russia. In the period between 1927 and 1930 he recorded many utterances, in particular songs by German settlers, on gramop­hone discs. Withinthe framework of the INTAS project, these discs have all been copied onto tape and part of the material is now stored in a special database. Over the last ten years, it has become again possible to study the German dia­lects in Russia using existing linguistic databases and new fieldwork.
For our third INTAS Project on The construction of a full-text database on Balto-Finnic languages and Russian dialects in Northwest-Russia (2000 – 2003) we prepared an inventory of the Finno-ugric minority languages in the vicinity of St.Petersburg and the southern and middle parts of Karelia. They represent a specific linguistic picture of an area where endangered languages such as Vepsian, Ingrian, Votic, Ingrian-Finnish and Karelian and various types of Russian archaic dialects have been spoken in close proximity to one another up to this day. We hope to receive further financial support for the continuation of this work, which is important for the study of interethnic relations in this part of Europe.
The sound archives in St.Petersburg also contain important data on Yiddish, the language of the Jews in eas­tern Europe, which at the beginning of this century was used by millions of speakers in the Russian empire. In the archives we found an unpublished manu­script The Ballad in Jewish Folklore, together with material on cor­responding wax cylin­ders. The manuscript has been written in Russian by the ethnographer Sophia Magid and is dated 1938, which explains why at that time it could not be publis­hed. Together with specialists in St.Petersburg, we further explored the acoustic data in the sound archives and prepared the edition of the book. This took place in the frame­work of a project with the title Voi­ces from the Shtetl, the Past and Present of the Yiddish Language in Russia  (1998 - 2001), for which we have obtai­ned financial sup­port from the Netherlands Foundation for Scientific Research  (NWO). The follow-up of this work is now being realized via new research projects in Jerusalem and Potsdam.
Important activities related to linguistic databases in St.Petersburg concern the recordings of Russian dia­lects and minority languages in the Russian Federati­on, such as Nivkh, Tungus, Yakut and others. One of our aims is the construction of a phonetic database of the languages of Russia, which shall have many scientific, cultural and technical applications. Withinthe framework of the research program Voices from Tundra and Taiga (2002 - 2005) we intend to combine the data from old sound recordings with the results of modern fieldwork, in order to give a full description of the languages and cultures of ethnic groups in Russia.
The results of modern fieldwork and the reconstructed data from sound archives provide important information for the preparation of language descripti­ons, grammars, dictiona­ries and edited collections of oral and written literature. During fieldwork expeditions to Northern Yakutia and Sakhalin we have studied processes of language shift and language death of the aboriginal populations of Russia, which have provided us with a lot of interesting data.
Voices from Tundra and Taiga
In 2002 the Groningen research program Voices from Tundra and Taiga started a joint effort with Russian colleagues. The projects within this program study endangered Arctic languages and cultures of the Russian Federation, which must be described rapidly before they become extinct. Our earlier work on the reconstruction technology for old sound recordings found in archives in St.Petersburg has made it possible to compare languages still spoken in the proposed research area with the same languages as they were spoken more than half a century ago, which provided a fortunate start of this project. These sound recordings in the archives of St.Petersburg consist of spoken language, folksongs, fairy tales etc., among others  in Siberian languages.
In these projects the techniques developed earlier are applied to some of the disappearing minority languages and cultures of Russia: Nivkh (Gilyak) and Uilta (Orok) on Sakhalin and Yukagir and Tungusic languages in Yakutia. Our goal is to set up a phono- and video-library of recorded stories, and of the folklore, singing and oral traditions of the peoples of Sakhalin and Yakutia. Thus the existing sound recordings in the archives of Sakhalin and Yakutia will be complemented by the results of new fieldwork expeditions. The data obtained are added to the existing archive material in St.Petersburg and part of it will be made available on the Internet and on CD-ROM.
This research project and the related documentation is carried out in close co-operation with scholars in local centers such as Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk who participate in the archiving of the sound recordings and in fieldwork expeditions. They are trained at St.Petersburg State University, and specialists from St.Petersburg and the Netherlands also visit them in order to set up new centers for the study and teaching of local languages and related subjects.
Spontaneous speech and the reading of prepared texts is collected for (ethno)linguistic as well as for anthropological, folkloric and ethno-musicological analysis. These data are (video)recorded and analysed and they will thus illustrate the art of story telling and language use. The above described texts will be published in scientific journals and books with audiovisual illustrations on CD-ROM and/or on the Internet. The materials will thus become available for further analysis to scholars working in the field of phonetics, linguistics, anthropology, history, ethno-musicology and folklore. This information can also be important for the development of teaching methods for representatives of the related ethnic groups and for the conservation of their language and culture. For this purpose the new centers are equipped with computers, software, soundrecorders, literature, etc.
The results of modern fieldwork and the reconstructed data from sound archives provide important information for the preparation of language descriptions, grammars, dictionaries and edited collections of oral and written literature. These can also be used to develop teaching methods, in particular for the younger members of certain ethnic groups, who do not have sufficient knowledge of their native language in order to make them aware of their heritage. Our project will contribute to the documentation and to the preservation of Russia's cultural heritage. The database obtained will become available on the Internet and provide a possibility for the exchange of information with other institutions all over the world. This global collaboration will make it possible to learn about the cultures and languages of Russia and it can also provide new methods of teaching these topics. Some of ourprojects will illustrate the use of Internet for the introduction of teaching methods.
Using a phrase book for school children of Nivkh (Nivkhgu Bukvar’  by Chuner M.Taksami et al.) we recorded a native speaker during our fieldwork trip in 1990. The texts with the illustrations of the book are now shown on the Internet together with the acoustic data. The separate phonemes are also given on a special table and by selecting one of them the student can listen to various speech sounds. This has as an advantage that students are able to learn the distinction between various separate phonemes (e.g. four k-sounds) of Nivkh, which are variants (allophones) of one phoneme in Russian. One of our research students and his Nivkh colleague have published a series of books with Nivkh stories, songs and conversation in which for the first time the corresponding texts are recorded on a CD as part of the books. The series, Sound Materials of the Nivkh Language I - III (edited by Hidetoshi Shiraishi and Galina D. Lok) appeared as results of the Japanese program on Endangered Languages of the Pacific Rim (ELPR). This unique material is not only used by linguists, but also by the language community itself, where it can be applied for teaching purposes.
For Nenets the research group in St.Petersburg has developed a phrasebook where Russian phrases for everyday use are translated into the three main dialects of Nenets. This makes it possible to listen via Internet to spoken Nenets and to make a choice which dialect one should like to hear. Thus difficult problems related to the standardisation of the language (e.g. a common spelling for different dialects) can be solved on the basis of extensive material.
In the following section we shall see how various aspects of our research projects follow earlier UNESCO recommendations and contribute to the improvement of the language situation in the Russian Federation.
The 2001 Yakutsk UNESCO seminar and its follow-up
In the summer of 2001 I attended a UNESCO seminar on the Preservation of the Intangible Cultural Heritage in Yakutsk where we prepared a number of recommendations on the safeguarding of traditional culture and folklore in the region of Siberia of the Russian Federation, which are also valid for other parts of the world.
Our committee expressed its great concern about the situation related to most of the cultural heritage manifestations of the peoples living in the Russian North, Siberia and the Russian Far East, and more particularly with regard to the position of the languages, which are threatened with extinction. As is the case in many parts of the world, this heritage is endangered by economic, political and social forces such as socio-economic marginalization, transition processes, a global entertainment industry and other factors. Referring further to some of the recommendations of the committee, it can be stated that the following results have been obtained in the framework of our projects together with Russian colleagues:

  1. Recommendation: determine the status of a folklore archive as an object of culture with exceptional value.
    As a result of our projects we have made a surveyof the sound archives of the Russian Academy of Sciences in St.Petersburg and reconstructed parts of this historical collection, in particular data related to the languages of the Russian North, Siberia and the Russian Far East. It is important to give general support to this work in sound archives on a global level, since not only the languages are endangered or threatened with extinction, but also the sound carriers themselves. It has been estimated that due to the lack of proper storage facilities and the limited availability of funds this holds for more than 80% of the sound carriers in the world. 
  2. Recommendation: create and introduce specific programs aimed at the preservation, study and revival of the intangible heritage of the Siberian peoples and ethnic minorities whose traditional culture is in danger of disappearing.
    We have developed acoustic databases on language and folklore material based on texts and sound recordings from fieldwork expeditions. We also produce catalogues for this material, part of which becomes available on the Internet and on CD ROM. 
  3. Recommendation: The production of educational materials, based on the Siberian peoples’ intangible heritage, including publication of folkloric texts.
    We implement programs on the Internet and on CD ROM for the teaching of languages like Nivkh and Nenets and develop special courses and master classes for the representatives of minority groups where they can learn about their native language and become familiar with the available teaching methods. Information on minority language education in all parts of the world can be collected and distributed under a special UNESCO program. The European Mercator project is a good example of what could be accomplished. 
  4. Recommendation: Disseminate information about Siberian peoples and their traditional culture through a series of documentary films, TV and radio programs and publications in the media.
    Our website The Languages of Russia uses the medium Internet in order to provide this information. In the Netherlands special programs have been prepared for the national TV, such as a Frisian language documentary film The lêste lûden fan in taal (The last sounds of a language). In the period April – June 2002 an exhibition on the cultures of the Arctic peoples of Russia has been organized in the Groningen museum of ethnology.
  5. Recommendation: Develop partnerships among different institutions to take an active part in the production of full-scale programs connected to the preservation and development of the intangible heritage of Siberian peoples, paying attention to their specifics, acquired experience and technical and other possibilities.
    In 2003 with the UNESCO Ad Hoc Group on Endangered Languages we have submitted a report on Language Vitality and Endangerement to the International Expert Meeting on the UNESCO ProgrammeSafeguarding of Endangered Languages.This report also states that resources at all levels should be pooled and that joint projects in this field are necessary in order to raise the awareness about language loss and language diversity in the world.
    With our research program Voices from Tundra and Taiga we have established a contact between the academic centers in St.Petersburg with a long tradition of studying the languages of the Russian North and Siberia, and the regional centers such as those on Sakhalin, where these languages are spoken. It will be of great interest for our future work to undertake together with colleagues in China similar projects for a joint study of the problems of endangered languages and cultures and their possible revitalisation.

Groningen, November 2004

About the Author
Since 1990 Tjeerd de Graaf, has specialized in the phonetic aspects of ethnolinguistics. In that year he made his first fieldwork trip with a Japanese expedition to the minority peoples of Sakhalin. Since then he has contributed to various research projects with colleagues in the Russian Federation and Japan. Most of these projects were financially supported by special grants from the European Union and the Netherlands Organization of Scientific Research NWO. In 1998 he received a Doctorate Honoris Causa for this work from the University of St.Petersburg. Since 2002 he is a board member of the Foundation for Endangered Languages (Great Britain) and a research fellow at the Frisian Academy, which co-ordinates research on European minorities, in particular the language, history and culture of Frisian, one of the lesser used languages of Europe. In the first half of 2003 he spent a semester as visiting professor at the University of St.Petersburg and from February until May 2004 he worked as guest researcher at the Slavic Research Center of Hokkaido University (Japan).