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Languages in the USSR


Cyrillic
Cyrillic

Article 36 of the Soviet constitution of 1977 enshrined citizens’ right to use their mother tongues “and the languages of the other peoples of the USSR.” In fact, the Russian language was advantaged, though not to the exclusion of others. The Soviet Union had no official state language, but Russian was the preferred language of government and economics, the sole language of military command, and the medium of communication within the CPSU. It was taught in all elementary and secondary schools, together with indigenous languages in most minority areas, and it was the language of instruction in higher education in all the republics except Georgia, Latvia, and parts of Ukraine..

The hundreds of languages and dialects of the Soviet Union fell within several language groupings: the Altaic family of languages, which includes several branches of the Turkic languages (spoken in Azerbaijan, certain regions of the RSFSR, and the republics of Central Asia except Tajikistan); the Caucasian languages, a geographical group of about three dozen languages spoken in parts of the Caucasus (including Georgian, a unique, non-Indo-European and non-Turkic language); several branches of the Uralic family of languages (spoken in Estonia and northern regions of the RSFSR); and the Indo-European family of languages, including the distinct Armenian language, the subfamily of Baltic languages (spoken in Latvia and Lithuania), the subfamily of Slavic languages (primarily the East Slavic branch consisting of Russian, Ukrainian, and Belorussian), and the branch of Persian languages (spoken in Tajikistan).

Few non-Russians went so far as to contract a Russian identity or to feel Russian to be their native language. In only two of the non-Russian union republics did the 1989 census reveal more than 10 percent of the titular group to speak Russian as their native language: Ukraine (12 percent) and Belorussia (20 percent). Bilingualism was much more common.

Majorities in the titular nationality spoke fluent Russian in five of the union republics: Belorussia (80 percent), Ukraine (72 percent), Latvia (68 percent), Kazakhstan (64 percent), and Moldavia (58 percent). Russian fluency was between 30 and 50 percent for the titular group in seven republics and was less than 30 percent only in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Among urban dwellers, majorities of the titular nationality were bilingual in seven union republics and in no republic was the proportion less than 40 percent.

To some extent, bilingualism was aided by the state-imposed transfer of many languages to the Cyrillic alphabet, used for the Russian language. The Turkic and Tajik languages, originally developed in the Arabic script, were transcribed first into Latin and eventually into Cyrillic scripts under a program instituted in the 1930s. Some exceptions were made for languages proving too difficult to convert, notably the Armenian, Georgian, Yiddish, and three Baltic languages. For some minor languages, such as those of the native peoples inhabiting the far northern regions, the Cyrillic script was often the first to be used. "USSR" © Emmanuel BUCHOT, Encarta, Wikipedia.

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