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In 2021, members of the Linguistic Convergence Laboratory published three articles on the Russian language in Dagestan

Dagestan is a relatively new territory for the spread of the Russian language. At the end of the 19th century, very few people spoke Russian here. In addition to indigenous languages, which Dagestan is very rich in (linguists count more than forty languages ​​in this small territory), local people spoke Azerbaijani, Georgian, Chechen and Arabic. But there has never been a language common for all residents of Dagestan (the language of interethnic communication or lingua franca). Russian became the first such language for Dagestan.

In (Dobrushina & Kultepina 2021), we investigated how the knowledge of Russian spread so rapidly in Dagestan, from close to zero to almost complete, covering the entire population except for the oldest people. We looked at the biographies of people in a database that we collected during field trips, which spanned many years. We tried to correlate facts from biographies with proficiency (or non-proficiency) in Russian: the level of education (from "likbez" to higher education), mobility (whether a person left somewhere from their native village), occupation, and, for men, military service or the military experience during the Second World War. The picture turned out to be quite clear: Russian language came to Dagestan through schools, which were established in the 30s in every village, even the most remote ones.

Considering that there was no Russian population in mountainous Dagestan, and that the Russian teachers who were sent to rural schools after the war were few and usually did not stay long, it is not surprising that the Russian speech of the older generations of Dagestanian people has many interesting features, partly due to the peculiarities of their native languages.

One of the first tasks that were set at the Linguistic Convergence Laboratory when it was opened in 2017, was to create a corpus of Russian speech in Dagestan based on interviews recorded by members of the laboratory in the field (http://www.parasolcorpus.org/dagrus/). This corpus (DagRus) contains records of the Russian speech of the inhabitants of the mountainous regions of Dagestan, for whom one of the local Nakh-Dagestanian or Turkic languages ​​is their native language (L1), and Russian is the second language (L2). The texts in this corpus were used to trace some interesting linguistic features of the local variant of the Russian language.

One such feature, which is very prominent in the Russian speech of Dagestanian Highlanders, is the phenomenon of preposition drop (which is quite similar to what happens in sentences like John came the pub with me , found in certain British English dialects but not in the standard varieties, where a preposition is required: John came to the pub with me). A plausible factor that underlies this phenomenon, is that Nakh-Dagestanian languages lack prepositions: the meanings encoded in Russian prepositions are expressed by rich case morphology (including spatial cases) and postpositions (functional words that follow nouns, rather than precede them, as prepositions). Our lab members Anastasia Panova and Tatiana Philippova addressed this phenomenon in their paper entitled When a cross-linguistic tendency marries incomplete acquisition: preposition drop in Russian spoken in Daghestan, which was published in the International Journal of Bilingualism early this year. The large-scale quantitative study presented in the paper aimed to determine what factors condition and constrain the phenomenon of preposition drop and what kind of prepositional phrases allow it and to what extent. The authors collected a dataset comprising 2350 prepositional phrases extracted from sociolinguistic interviews with 47 speakers, and found that three factors are significant predictors for preposition drop. These are preposition type, fluency in Russian, and phonetic context.

The prepositions v ‘in(to)’, na ‘on(to)’ were found to be dropped most often. Furthermore, preposition drop was found to be most prominent in contexts that are unmarked in many languages of the world: those expressing certain spatial and temporal locations, including toponyms (names of villages, towns and cities) and similar cases (in particular names of prominent local institutions, such as kolkhoz, institute, or school ), and temporal expressions (reference to a specific year, for instance). Thus, preposition drop is not a random process. Rather, its patterns reflect tendencies attested in other languages.

In addition, preposition drop was found to be more prominent in the speech of people who display lower fluency in Russian. This is similar to one of the strategies adopted by people studying a prepositional language as a foreign (second) language in order to cope with incomplete acquisition of the prepositional system — to avoid prepositional marking in case of uncertainty. Thus, the prominence of preposition drop in the speech of Dagestanian highlanders was found to result from an interplay of two factors: a cross-linguistic tendency for certain spatial and temporal locations to be formally unmarked and incomplete acquisition of the Russian prepositional system on the part of native speakers of postpositional languages.

Another striking feature of Dagestanian Russian is non-standard word order, which is attested in some syntactic constructions. We analyzed one of them, namely the genitive construction (Naccarato, Panova & Stoynova 2021, “Word-order variation in a contact setting: A corpus-based investigation of Russian spoken in Daghestan”, Language Variation and Change). In Russian spoken in Dagestan, genitive modifiers are often preposed to their heads: cf. не любила дедушки сестру ‘she did not like her grandfather’s sister’, instead of не любила сестру дедушки. In the corpus, this word order pattern was attested in 103 out of 482 genitive noun phrases (ca. 21%).

The corpus data show that the preposition of genitive modifiers is especially typical of noun phrases expressing kinship (as in the example above). Some other features of the noun phrase are also relevant for the word order choice. Multi-word genitive modifiers are more prone to be preposed than one-word ones ( моего брата жена ‘my brother’s wife’), definite modifiers are more likely to occur in preposition than indefinite ones ( этой мечети камни ‘the stones of this mosque’). Interestingly, the word order choice is not sensitive to sociolinguistic factors: such examples as дедушки сестра ‘(her) grandfather’s sister’ are equally represented across speakers of different ages and levels of education. Therefore, we are not dealing with a result of incomplete acquisition of a second language as in the case of preposition drop, but with a more or less stable feature of the local variety of Russian.

The question arises what motivates this non-standard word order pattern. One might assume that it is copied from local languages in contact with Russian. Indeed, both Nakh-Dagestanian languages and Turkic languages spoken in Dagestan feature the preposition of noun modifiers, exactly as in such Russian examples as дедушки сестра ‘(her) grandfather’s sister’. However, such an assumption does not explain why this word order pattern is more widespread in some types of noun phrases and less widespread in others. In the languages of Dagestan, this is a neutral word-order pattern.

In Russian, word order is not strict, and this creates a specific problem for studies in contact-influenced word-order patterns. In contrast to such examples as подружилась аварцами , such examples as этой мечети камни are fully grammatical, and they are attested, though rare, in  the speech of Russian monolinguals too. In order to prove that in Dagestanian Russian they are much more frequent, we had to compare our Dagestanian data to data from monolingual Russian speakers. A big challenge was to find a text sample which is maximally similar to the Dagestanian one in terms of text types, genres, and topics, as well as in the sociolinguistic features of narrators. We used different collections of spoken texts created by Russian monolinguals, including several dialectal corpora. A small collection of sociolinguistic interviews with old residents of Moscow suburbs, modeled after those included in the Dagestanian corpus, was recorded specifically for this study.

The comparison with texts from monolingual Russian speakers shows that preposed genitives are really significantly more frequent  in Dagestanian Russian. At the same time, structural and semantic features favouring this word order pattern in Dagestanian Russian are relevant for the speech of monolinguals too. Thus, word order in Russian spoken in Dagestan is affected by contact influence of local languages, but this influence is strengthened in those contexts in which a non-standard word order pattern is possible in Russian itself.

Russian language is used by people on a vast territory. For many of them, Russian is not the first language, but, as in the highland villages of Dagestan, it serves for interethnic communication. Russian interacts with languages ​​of a different structure, is learned in different conditions — at an early or a late age, at school or on the street, from native speakers of Russian or from those who themselves learned it as a second language, and all of these factors influence the structure of each Russian variety. At the same time, as studies show, the result of these processes is consistent with the trends observed in other languages. This remarkable fact requires further investigation.