Komi is divided into three languages: Komi-Zyryan, Komi-Permyak and Jaz’va Komi (East Permyak). Together with their closest language relative, Udmurt⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠, these languages form the Permic group of languages.

There are around 234,000 Komi-Zyryans (or simply Komi), and around 160,000 of them speak Komi.

The first Komi literary language dates back all the way to the 1300s. Cleric Stephen of Perm (Stepan Khrap) or Saint Stephen (1340–1396) arrived in Komi in 1379 to convert the Komi to Christianity and created an alphabet used to write Komi known as the Abur (Anbur) script. The alphabet is partly based on traditional Komi symbols cut into trees to indicate ownership. The alphabet and texts written in Abur are also referred to as Old Permic. Saint Stephen translated liturgic and other religious texts into Komi.

The literary use of Komi ended for a while, but restarted in the 1600s, with the Cyrillic alphabet adopted for written Komi. Literary Komi was developed quite systematically during the 1900s. In 1918, a meeting of teachers was held, at which a decision was made to reform the literary language and adopt the dialect of the region of Syktyvkar, the capital of the Komi Republic, as the foundation of the new literary language. In the 1930s, there were plans in the Soviet Union to switch from the Cyrillic to the Latin alphabet. The Komis even adopted the new alphabet – only to abandon it around a year later. Since 1939, Komi has been written in Cyrillic with two additional characters from the Latin alphabet.

Komi-Permyak is linguistically classified as a dialect of Komi-Zyryan, but for political reasons Komi-Zyryans and Komi-Permyaks have been kept separate from each other in the linguistic as well as cultural classifications. There are around 94,000 Komi-Permyaks, with 60,000 of them native speakers of Komi-Permyak.

It is estimated that there are a few hundred Jaz’va Komis. Jaz’va Komi can be regarded either as a separate language or a dialect of Komi. In recent years, efforts have been made to revitalise the language, and publications in Jaz’va Komi have included an alphabet book.

The Finno-Ugric Cultural Centre of the Russian Federation has organised annual writer courses for young people to introduce participants specifically to writing as a profession: as an author, teacher or journalist. Many of those attending the courses have ended up studying Komi language and culture and finding a related job.

KYV POZ – language nesting in Syktyvkar

There is now a new kind of language nest – literally kyv poz in Komi – in Syktyvkar. This is a family club meeting in the House of Friendship once a month, inviting in particular parents who are interested in bilingualism and in looking after the Komi language in their family. After all, in the urban setting Komi is easily overpowered by the Russian language.

The kyv poz idea was launched by folklorist and Komi children’s games specialist Alexey (Öl'jöš) Rassykhaev, whose own children Egor and Rita – despite being urban children – have learned Komi as their native language. Alexey developed the language nest idea through the Komi “parliament”, Komi vojtyr; he himself heads the representation of the movement’s Syktyvkar section. He writes updates on kyv poz on the Šuda kotyr website (rassykhaev.blogspot.ru), and his wife, Elena, posts humorous anecdotes about Komi language in the everyday life of their family (erassyhaeva.blogspot.com/). To read more and to see photos of nest activities, visit https://vk.com/kyvpoz).

Kyv poz now also has its own logo: the tweeting little chick by an Ukhta designer was selected as the logo in a competition. – And how is kyv poz activity funded? The project took part in a funding competition and received a grant from the oil company Lukoil. This enabled the project to kick off at the beginning of 2018. Support was also provided by the Komi Ministry of Nationality Affairs.

The family meetups educate parents about the significance of bilingualism, feature lectures on research and provide a venue for discussions about practical problems. In the meanwhile, children get to learn the language and culture. The families always receive a small piece of homework to do before the next session: to learn a song or poem that will then be performed together. Of course, there are also some crafts and baking on the schedule, with one of the sessions featuring everyone feasting on shanga pasties made by the little language nesters themselves.

Kyv poz operates in the same way as the Finnish Schools outside Finland: providing parents with support in bringing up bilingual and multilingual children. Hopefully the idea will spread from the Komi capital to other cities – any why not to expat Komis, too. This could be inspired by the State-supported Finnish Schools, which operate in more than 100 countries and are attended by more than 4,000 expatriate Finns. In Russia, there is only one Finnish School (in St Petersburg), but in Germany there are almost 30.

PAULA KOKKONEN / M. A. Castrén Society Member Bulletin 1/2018. Based on the article Kyv poz published in Yologa magazine (12 January 2018, issue 1–2:4).


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