Identification. The Chuvash live in Russia, primarily in the Chuvash Republic but also in Tatarstan and Bashkirstan and in the Ulianov, Kuibyyshev, and Saratov areas, where they migrated in the seventeenth to eighteenth centuries. Some have also lived in Siberia and Central Asia since the nineteenth century. In the name "Chuvash," the first vowel is pronounced like the English u in "but." Its etymology is unknown. All attempts to link it to the tribal names "Suvaz," "Suvar," and "Sabir," mentioned by Arabic travelers in the tenth century, are phonetic dead ends.
Location. Chuvashia is bounded on the north by the Cheremis Republic, on the east by the Tatar Republic, on the south by Ulianov County, and on the west by the Mordvinian Republic and Gorki County. It is located at approximately 54°30′ to 56°30′ N and 46° to 48°40′ E. The capital is Cheboksary. Geographically, Chuvashia is a lowland valley of the Volga, Sura, and Civil rivers. Ninety percent of it is less than 200 meters above sea level, 10 percent is between 200 and about 400 meters, and 30.5 percent of the territory is wooded. In 1987, 50 percent of the forests consisted of pine, 40 percent were oak, and the remainder were birch and poplar. The climate is moderately continental. The mean temperature in January is —12.6° C; in July it is 19° C. With a growing season lasting 180 days, the region receives an average annual precipitation of 46 to 51 centimeters.
Demography. The population of the Chuvash then Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (ASSR) in 1987 was 1,330,000. The capital of the Chuvash Republic had, at that time, 414,000 inhabitants (up from 104,000 in 1959 and 216,000 in 1970). Since 1970 about seventy-nine ethnic groups have lived in Chuvashia. In 1979, 68.4 percent of inhabitants described themselves as ethnically Chuvash, 26 percent as Russian, 2.9 percent as Tatar, 1.6 percent as Mordvinian, and 1.1 percent as members of other groups. In the other territories of the USSR, 844,000 individuals identified themselves as ethnically Chuvash in 1970. Population density in Chuvashia in 1979 was 72 persons per square kilometer.
Linguistic Affiliation. The Chuvash people living in villages speak Chuvash, the only living language of the Bulgaro-Turkic Branch of the Turkic Group of the Altaic Family. Eighty-two percent of the Chuvash speak Chuvash as their mother tongue. The closest language is Volga-Bulgarian, which was extinct before the close of the fifteenth century. All Common Turkic languages are distant relatives of Chuvash. The majority of Chuvash people living in towns are bilingual in Chuvash and Russian; the younger generations prefer Russian. The Chuvash now use a modified variant of the Cyrillic alphabet created by I. Ya. Yakovlev in 1872. Its characteristic feature is the phonematic transcription of sounds. Chuvash texts written in Cyrillic without modifications existed 130 years before Yakovlev; the Arabic alphabet was used by Chuvash elders in the fourteenth century. Modern Chuvash has two dialects: the Virval in the north and the Anatri in the south of the republic, with Anatri the basis of the literary language. Chuvash has loanwords from ancient Samoyed, Persian, Arabic, Old and Modern Russian, Middle Mongolian, Volga Kipchak, Permian, and Volga Finnish.