Could Tyva become Tuva again?
by Paul Goble
Tuva, a republic in the middle of Asia known to most if at all by the diamond-shaped stamps it produced in the 1920s and 1930s and by the attraction it exerted on the late American physicist Richard Feynman, is currently the scene of an intense debate which highlights the extreme sensitivity of language questions on the post-Soviet space.
That is because the leaders of the state university there are considering going back to Tuva and its adjectival derivative Tuvin in their designation of that institution in Russian-language descriptions -- even though they plan no change in the name of the university in the republic’s titular language.
In the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, the people of what Russian and Soviet officials had called Tuva resolved to call their republic Tyva and themselves Tyvans, and when Kyzyl officials combined several institutes into a state university in 1995, they called it, even in Russian, the Tyvan State University.
Many ethnic Russians and even some Tyvan linguists have argued since that time that the university should be called Tyvan State University when people are using the Tyvan language but Tuvin State University when they are speaking Russian, the latter formulation being “more correct” from the point of view of Russian phonology.
And over the past 15 years, some instructors at that institution have taken to putting Tuvin State University on their business cards, even though the university leadership and the republic government have insisted on using Tyvan even when speaking Russian. But that may be about to change.
Sergey Ondar, the rector of the university, has said that he is planning in August to discuss with the faculty changing the name of his institution in Russian to the Tuvin State University, a change Russians and some Tyvans support on linguistic grounds but that other Tyvans say is an attack on their nationhood (www.tuva.asia/news/tuva/1866-tuvsu.html).
Mire Bavuu-Syuryun, a specialist on the Tuvin language, says she will welcome the change. Using Tuvin in the Russian language title is something “everyone had been accustomed to.” Indeed, she said, linguists had warned the Tyvan leadership that derivatives of Tyva would not sound right in Russian (www.tuva.asia/news/tuva/1908-bavuu-syuryun.html).
“But our politicians at the time didn’t listen,” she continues. They thought they could ignore the reality that “language lives according to its own laws; it does not depend on the will of politicians.” Other scholars agree, saying that “we cannot change the tradition” in countries which use Latin script where Tyva is called Tuva (www.tuva.asia/news/tuva/1907-tuvsu.html).
However, clearly many Tyvans are concerned that this change in the Russian-language name of their state university will presage further linguistic changes which they would find more unacceptable, viewing them as an attack on their national dignity. As a result, a local paper has announced a poll on the subject (www.tuva.asia/news/tuva/1897-tuvsu.html).
While Russian commentaries in Moscow acknowledge that “still not all residents of Tuva support the plans for renaming the state university,” the Moscow writers have been having a field day about this, suggesting that “any intelligent person in the republic” knows that in Russian the proper adjective is Tuvin, not Tyvan (www.fedpress.ru/federal/polit/vlast/id_188972.html).
Tyva as the name of the republic was “fixed” in the listing of the subjects of the federation in the 1993 Constitution, these commentators say, when people in places like Tuva were still living according to Boris Yeltsin’s suggestion that they take “as much sovereignty as they can swallow.”
But things did not end there. And in 2001, when the republic constitution was revised, both Tyva and Tuva were defined as having equal status, even though most institutions there when described in the republic language were called Tyvan, not Tuvin, an approach the Russian writers say led some in the republic into confusion.
Tyvans will thus be watching what happens next because, as officials in Kyzyl have told the Moscow media, “renaming must bear a natural character, where there is no place for political disputes. All the more so,” these officials point out, “because a change in name is a sufficiently long-term measure.”Paul Goble