What is Dagestan

Dagestan is the area with the highest language density in the entire Caucasus, which, in turn, has the highest language density in Europe. More than 40 languages are spoken in a territory of about 50 000 km2. The majority of languages spoken in Dagestan belong to the East Caucasian (Nakh-Dagestanian) language family. In addition, three Turkic (Kumyk, Nogai, Azerbaijani) and two Indo-European (Tat and Russian) languages are spoken in the area. For linguistic overviews of Daghestan see van den Berg (2005), Koryakov (2002), Tuite (1999), Hewitt (1981), Wixman 1980), and Geiger et al. (1959). East Caucasian languages form a deep-level linguistic family, comparable to Indo-European in terms of its diversity (Authier & Maisak 2011).

Most Dagestanian villages are situated in the highlands. The distance between adjacent villages is usually between 3 – 8 kms, which makes them mutually accessible by foot or by horse.

How multilingualism in Dagestan is shaped

Historically, the economic and social ties between adjacent villages were strong, even if adjacent villages located at walking distance from one another often have different native languages or strongly divergent dialects. Interethnic communication required a shared language.

Before the advent of Russian, Turkic languages (especially Kumyk) were used in communication between different ethnic groups in some areas, because the lowlands were dominated by speakers of Turkic languages (Wixman 1980: 108-19). Avar, an East Caucasian language, was another lingua franca, used in some parts of northern to western Dagestan. Residents of southern Dagestan used Azerbaijani in their inter-ethnic communication. Before the mid 20th century, there was no lingua franca common to all Dagestanians (Chirikba 2008: 30).

The main pattern of language contact was neighbor multilingualism. In adjacent villages, people communicated between themselves in the language of one of the villages rather than in a third language. In addition to the language of their own settlement, highlanders thus often spoke the language of their adjacent village(s), and additionally another language commonly used in the area. Bilingualism with distant major languages, both within Dagestan and across its borders (Chechen, Azerbaijani, Georgian, Russian), was more restricted.

The establishment of the Soviet administration in the 1920s, and especially from the mid-1930s, Russification launched a major sociolinguistic change. Russian was the first language to be established in the whole of Dagestan as a single lingua franca and the language of written administration (Dobrushina & Kultepina 2020). The vitality of local languages is not yet impaired in the highlands, but neighboring multilingualism is in obvious decline. Most people under 20, or, in some villages, even up to 40, use Russian when communicating with their neighbors from other villages. The traditional patterns of neighbor multilingualism in Dagestan are highly endangered.

Our approach to multilingualism

The focus of this project is on multilingual areas. We aim at getting information about the multilingualism of local people, that is, the languages they can speak in addition to their native language.

The information for the project is collected using the method of retrospective family interviews, a methodology designed to obtain quantitative data about bilingualism in the past (Dobrushina 2013). In this approach, respondents are interviewed not only about their own language inventory but also about the inventories of their elder – often deceased – relatives. Only those relatives with whom the respondent overlapped in terms of life-span, and whom they claim they remember clearly, are included in the database. This allows us to reach back into the 19th century, as early as people born around 1850, with data thickening from the 1880s on. This time span covers the situation in the village before the drastic social changes of the 20th century. In the vast majority of cases, we interview our consultants in Russian. The data collected are then put together in a spreadsheet, aggregated, processed and put on the map.

We are indebted to our consultants in the Dagestanian highlands for generously sharing their (and their relatives') stories and for their extraordinary hospitality and tireless efforts to facilitate our research.

What you will find on this site

This site contains the database on Dagestanian multilingualism with a search interface. You can use different parameters (particular villages, neighborhoods, years of birth, genders, native languages, and second languages) and build your own graphs and diagrams. The online database is constantly updated. As of July 2024, the site contained information about the multilingual repertoire of the residents of 60 villages.

About the Atlas

We plan a printed edition of The Atlas of Multilingualism of Dagestan. The volume will present the quantitative data on multilingualism in a number of Dagestanian neighborhoods and their qualitative analysis. It will cover a wide range of interethnic contact situations, and thus will open ways to cross-case quantitative comparison world-wide.

Each chapter of the book will treat one geographic cluster containing two to four neighboring villages. It will include a paper which describes the economic and social aspects of a particular cluster, and will report results of our sociolinguistic survey. Apart from the description, each chapter will contain several maps.

Additional chapters are envisaged to discuss general topics such as the level of Arabic literacy in different parts of Dagestan as transpired from our research, the distribution of several major languages as L2 (Avar, Kumyk, Azerbaijani), and gender patterns of multilingualism.

Two sample chapters are included in Dobrushina N., Daniel M., Koryakov Y. Atlas of multilingualism in Daghestan: A case study in diachronic sociolinguistics // Languages of the Caucasus. 2020. Vol. 4. P. 1-37.

Publications derived from the project

How to cite the project

If you use the data from the Atlas in your research, please cite as follows:

Dobrushina, Nina, Daria Staferova, and Alexander Belokon (eds.). 2017. Atlas of Multilingualism in Dagestan Online. Linguistic Convergence Laboratory, HSE. (Available online at https://multidagestan.com, accessed on 2024-07-13.)