Circassians: Victims of Ethnic and Linguistic Genocide by Emre Başok

21 May Circassians
Every year, on 21 May, Circassians hold marches in memory of those who died in the Caucasus Wars.

Emre Başok 
Doctoral student in Applied Linguistics at The Ohio State University

May 21st is the day when Circassians living in more than 50 different countries gather to commemorate the 1864 Circassian genocide that was carried out by the Tsarist Russian empire. This year Circassians around the world won’t have their annual gatherings due to the COVID-19 pandemic on the 156th anniversary of their forgotten genocide. These commemorations aim to bring awareness to an ethnic genocide carried out against their ancestors, but as a Ph.D. student in Applied Linguistics and a native Circassian speaker, I wonder have Circassians also suffered from linguistic genocide?

Circassians are native of the Northwestern Caucasus and they lived in their homeland until 1864, which marked the end of their hundred-year-old battle with the Tsarist Russian regime in the Caucasus in a very tragic way. Once the legendary nation in the Northwestern Caucasus Mountains, Circassians became a forgotten nation after the 1864 genocide in only a century (Richmond, 2013). More than 90% of the native Circassians in their homeland were wiped out during their expulsion and genocide, even though some historians have insisted on calling it a migration. In his book Death and Exile: The ethnic cleansing of Ottoman Muslims, American historian Justin McCarthy2 says that around 2 million Circassians had to migrate to the Ottoman Empire. Their forced expulsion from their homeland was a result of Tsarist Russia’s policy of establishing a “Caucasia free from Circassians” (Aksoy, 2008).

Once exiled from their homelands, Circassians this time faced a linguistic genocide. In article III of the United Nations Genocide Convention cultural genocide is defined as “prohibiting the use of the language of the group in daily intercourse or in schools, or the printing and circulations of publications in the language of the group” (Capatorti, 1979). Even though the 1864 genocide went unnoticed, the linguistic genocide that Circassians have been experiencing caught UNESCO’s attention. UNESCO declared Circassian language (both Adyghe and Kabardian) as a “vulnerable” language in their 2010 Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger. In the Atlas, a language is defined as “vulnerable” when its use is limited to certain domains, such as the home.

Throughout their 156 years of residence in Turkey, Circassians had several educational initiatives which unfortunately were affected by nationalist language policies. The first Circassian school that was opened in 1910 was also the first co-education school in Turkey’s history, but it was closed only after four years. The first Circassian newspaper “Guaze” was first published in 1911, which was shut down by the state in 1914 (Dogan, 2019). After the declaration of the Turkish Republic in 1923, Turkey has transformed in every aspect as a new secular republic, but the nationalist language policies adopted during the Ottoman Empire has continued for many years. For many years, they were called “Caucasus Turks” and Circassians who denied that label and claimed that Circassians are not Turks were jailed as they were seen as a threat to nationalist ideologies.

I was born in a small Circassian village in Turkey where the only non-Circassian person was the school teacher. My parents, who went to school in the 1960s, were not allowed to speak Circassian at all. Speaking Circassian meant punishment by the teacher whose job was implementing the nationalist language policies of the state. Circassian language has been defined as vulnerable in the language endangerment list of UNESCO as a result of nationalist language policies that limited its use only to speakers’ homes.

Circassian is increasingly under attack (Goble, 2019) in the homeland by Russia’s language policies. The 2018 bill that Russian Duma has adopted will have a profound impact on Circassian language. The bill has made every language except Russian an optional course with only two hours of instruction per week (Hauer, 2018). The adoption of this bill represents the language ideologies of the Russian government and is a good example of the linguistic genocide on Circassian language.

In Turkey, which has the biggest Circassian diaspora in the world, historically Circassian language has been severely impacted by the nationalist language policies. Finnish linguist Kangas (2000) says that people who are not happy with the metaphor ‘language murder’ are happy with ‘language death’ since it sounds more natural like dying from old age. In the case of Circassian, it has been murdered by states’ language policies both in the homeland and in Turkey. No matter what linguists argue about language disappearing/death/or murder the future for Circassian language is grim.

1) Richmond, W. (2013). The Circassian Genocide. Rutgers University Press.
2) McCarthy, J. (1995). Death and exile: the ethnic cleansing of Ottoman Muslims, 1821-1922. Darwin Press, Incorporated.
3) Arslan, E. Z. A. (2008). Circassian Organizations in the Ottoman Empire (1908–1923) (Doctoral dissertation, MA Thesis, Bogazici University).
6) Doğan, A. (2019). Circassian Immigrants’ Educational Activities in the Ottoman Empire and Educational Publications in Guaze Newspaper. Vakanüvis- International Journal of Historical Research 4(1), 142-165.
9) Skutnabb-Kangas, T. (2000). Linguistic genocide in education--or worldwide diversity and human rights?. Routledge.

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