Apart from an English-language refrain, they perform their song in their ethnic language Udmurt. This has thrown this little-known language into the spotlight.
There is not a lot of information about Udmurt available. I haven’t had an opportunity to consult that old warhorse, Vinogradov’s Языки народов СССР Yazyki narodov SSSR, ‘Languages of the Peoples of the USSR’ (Moscow: Nauka, 1967), but there is a certain amount of information available in Comrie’s The languages of the Soviet Union (CUP 1981), in Ethnologue, in Omniglot, and in Wikipedia.
All agree that Udmurt (aka Votyak) is a Uralic language, in the Permic or Permian branch of the Finno-Ugric group. Its closest relatives are thus Komi-Permyak and Komi-Zyryan/Zyrian. It is related, but less closely, to Finnish and Estonian, and even more distantly to Hungarian. There’s a family tree of the Uralic languages here.
The number of speakers of Udmurt is reportedly just under half a million.
The Wikipedia account of the language contains just a single gnomic sentence on its phonology:
The language does not distinguish between long and short vowels and does not have vowel harmony.So what, you might think — it also doesn’t distinguish between aspirated and unaspirated consonants and does not have lexical tone. We need to know what it has, not what it doesn’t have. The vowel harmony point is worth making, though, since most other Uralic languages do have vowel harmony.
Thankfully, Wikipedia does give us a consonant chart, a vowel chart, and information about the writing system and its relationship to pronunciation. The consonant system appears to be pretty unremarkable. Among the consonants Wikipedia lists ɲ (or nʲ) and ɕ ʑ (or sʲ zʲ), though these appear to be just positional co-allophones of n and s z; there are also distinct ʃ ʒ tʃ dʒ. The vowel system is reportedly as follows. I wonder if there’s really a distinction between ə and ʌ — as far as I can see, both are represented by the same letter in spelling.
…which brings us to the writinɡ system. Like other languages of the Russian Federation, Udmurt is written in Cyrillic. As usual for such languages, the Russian alphabet has to be supplemented with various special letters or letters bearing diacritics. Udmurt uses just the diaeresis diacritic, with five extra letters Ӝӝ Ӟӟ Ӥӥ Ӧӧ Ӵӵ. The first two stand for affricates, Ӧӧ for ə ~ ʌ. It is not clear from our meagre sources what the effect of the diaeresis in Ӥӥ is meant to be, given that both it and plain Ии seem to stand for i. The use of Ӵӵ seems to imply that tʃ is indeed distinct from tɕ, the latter being written plain Чч.
It is hard to avoid the conclusion that in the 1930s, when Soviet minority languages were being equipped or re-equipped with alphabets and standardized Cyrillic writing systems, Stalin carefully ensured that no two languages had quite the same set of special letters. That’s why we now have an “Extended Cyrillic” section in Unicode (U+048A Ҋ to U+04FF ӿ), and a “Cyrillic Supplement” (U+0500 Ԁ to U+0527; I can only display them up to U+0513 ԓ).
As well as this provision for the minority languages, Unicode now caters for Old Church Slavonic and Old Cyrillic in “Cyrillic Extended-A” (U+2DE0 to U+2DFF) and “Cyrillic Extended-B” (U+A640 to U+A697), containing characters I can’t display to you but which if you’re interested you can inspect on the Unicode site.
Meanwhile, I’m looking forward to hearing some spoken, or at least sung, Udmurt.