The Chukchi language

The Chukchi language is a language of Chukchi-Kamchadal or Chukchi-Koryak group included in Paleo-Asiatic languages.

Bibliography on the Chukchi Language

Chukchi ethnic group doesn’t have a single self-ethnonym: reindeer herding Chukchi call themselves Chav-Chyv (чавчыв) (pl. Chav-Chyvat (чавчыват)), also see below, settled Chukchi living on the Bering sea shoreline and in villages scattered along the shore of the Arctic Ocean call themselves Anklyt (ан’к’альыт) (sing. Ankalyn (ан’к’альын)) “maritime” or “coastal” (from Chuk. anky (ан’к’ы) “the sea”). In the early 1930s the ethnonym Luoravetlan (луораветлан) and the term Luoravetlan language (луораветланский язык) (from Chuk. Lygoravetlan (лыг’ораветлан) “a real man” used as one of Chukchi ethnoyms) were introduced instead of terms “Chukchi” and “Chukchi language”; however, these names were not adopted and have not been used since the late 1930s.

For the first time Chukchi were mentioned in the records of the late 30s of the XVII century at the time when Russian explorers began settling in the regions within the river basins of Indigirka and Kolyma. In the 40s of the XVII century after the foundation of Nizhnekolymskiy stockaded town (1642), the first trade contacts were established with Chukchi living in the region of Chuanskaya Firth. Following S. Dezhnev’s navigation across the Bering Strait and foundation of Anadyr stockaded town by him (1649), the territory populated by Chukchi gradually was entirely involved in the sphere of Russian state administration activities: the process of exploration of North-Eastern Asia and establishment of Russia’s national boundaries in Asian Artic was complete by the 80s of the XVII century.

Photo © A. Vakhrushev, 2001, Uelen

Documents of the second half of the XVII century and the first half of the XVIII century contain important data on Chukchi ethnography and Chukotka onomastics (anthroponymics and toponymics). In the 40s of the XVIII century some data on Chukchi ethnography were collected by S.P. Krasheninnikov, in the end of the XVIII – by I.I. Billlings, G.A. Sarychev, K. Merk, in the 20s of the XIX century – by F.P. Vrangel. In the beginning of the XIX century Orthodox missionaries started their activities on the territories populated by Chukchi. One of them, Andrey Argentov, who was doing his military service in Western Chukotka for over 15 year collected materials on the folklore and ethnography of Chukchi and also complied Chikchi-Russian dictionary with grammatical commentaries. In the 60s of the XIX centuries the work by L. Radlov containing the description of interrelations of Chukchi and Koryak languages appeared in print. In the end of the 60s records of Chukchi words were made by G. Maidehl during his travel across Chukotka, valuable observations on Chukchi ethnography and first detailed description of Chukchi counting system also come from his record. In the 90s of the XIX century and in the beginning of the XX century materials on Chukchi ethnography and collection of their every day life objects were gathered by N.L. Gondatti and N.P. Sokolnikov. Since the 90s of the XIX century scientific activity of V.G. Bogoraz aimed at the studies of Chukchi traditional culture, description of Chukchi language and collection on Chukchi folklore starts. V.G. Bogoraz also held a comparative study of Chukchi, Koryak and Itelmen languages; substantial collection of Chukchi folklore, voluminous descriptions of Chukchi material and spiritual culture, as well as of their mythology were prepared and published by him, a grammatical essay of the Chukchi language (see book “Языки и письменность народов Севера”, ч.III. М.-Л., 1934 (The Languages and Writing of the Peoples of the North, vol.III, Moscow-Leningrad, 1934)) and Chukchi-Russian dictionary published posthumously in 1937 were also written by him. V.G. Bogoraz was the first Russian writer to introduce representatives of Chukchi people as characters of literary pieces (“Чукотские рассказы” (Chukchi Stories), “Восемь племен” (Eight Tribes), “На каменном мысу” (On the Stone Cape) and the last novel “Воскресшее племя” (The Resurrected Tribe) describing the period of socialist reforms in the North). In the 20-30s the studies of Chukchi language and ethnography were started by V.G. Bogoraz’ apprentices – G.I. Melnikov who studied the issues of phonetics, P.Y. Skorik – the author of Russian-Chukchi dictionary and two-volume grammar of Chukchi language, T.A. Moll who compiled Chukchi-Russian dictionary (in co-authorship with P.I. Inenlikaem), I.S. Vdovin, who authored a number of textbooks of Chukchi language for elementary school and numerous works on the ethnography of Chukchi and Koryaks, L.V. Belikov who collected and studies Chukchi folklore and taught Chukchi language in a university. In the late 30s-40s Chukchi folklore was recorded by O.E. Baboshina, a compiler of book “Сказки Чукотки” (Chukotka Fairytales) (1958). In the 50-60s V.V. Leontiev and P.I. Inenlikey proceeded to the study of Chukchi language, folklore and ethnography. From the late 70s Chukchi language was studied by A.S. Asinovskaya (phonetics), S.I. Sokolov (syntax), I.V. Kulikova-Kemerultyne (lexis), I.A. Muravieva (comparative historical phonetics, morphology and vocabulary); Chukchi myths were presented as a focus of attention in monograph “Палеоазиатский мифологический эпос” (Palaeoasiatic Mythological Epos) (1979) by E.M. Metelinskiy. Toponymics of Chukotka was collected and interpreted in a etymological aspect by V.V. Leontyev.

Self-ethnonym of Chukchi чавчыв deriving from Russian “Chukchi” used as name of the ethnic group has no convincing interpretation. In the sources of the XVII – early XVIII centuries term “Chukchi” was applied to reindeer Chukchi чавчыват while different groups of settled coastal Chukchi had a variety of other ethnonyms (Aknemilla, Namollo (акнемила, намолло) from Chukchi nymylyn (нымыльын) “a village dweller”; Shelagi (шелаги), Chavany (чаваны) derived from Chaunskie Chukchi self-ethnonyms Chulylyt (чулылыт) or Chalyt (чалыт) and others).

According to Population Census 1989, number of Chukchi was 15107 people while 10636 or 70,4% of them thought of their native language as Chukchi, 4278 or 28,3% - as Russian, 193 – as other languages. In 1959 there were 11727 Chukchi; 94% of representatives of this ethnic group considered Chukchi their native language.

The overwhelming majority of Chukchi lives on the territory of Chukotskiy Autonomous District situated in the extreme north-eastern part of the Asian continent. Since 1991 Chukotskiy Autonomous District joined Magadan Province, presently an independent subject of Russian Federation. Approximately 100 Chukchi live in the north-east of Kamchatka in the northern districts of Koryak Autonomous District, several hundreds of people – in Magadan and its vicinities, approximately 600 people – in Nizhnekolymskiy District of Republic Sakha-Yakutia (formerly, before the 50s of the XX century, Zapadnaya Tundra Region of Chukotskiy Autonomous District).

In its phonetic and grammatical system Chukchi language is close to Koryak language. In comparison with it Chukchi language is characterized by sequential vowel harmony according to which vowels are divided into two rows – “weak” (vowels и, у, э, ы) and “strong” (vowels ы, э, о, а); the attribution of vowels э и ы to this or that row is defined by morphonological combination of a morpheme with those vowels. Morphemes associated with vowels of “strong” row cause mutation of the word-form irrespective of its position in the word-form and its grammatical status (they can both be roots and suffixes). Korayk consonants demonstrating interdialectic correlations т ~ j in Chukchi language corresponds to consonant p (compare Chuk. рыркы ‘seal’ - Chavchavan Koryak – йыйка, Palana Koryak – ыйка, Alyutor Chukchi - титкан).

Differentiation of bilabial consonant w and labiodental v characteristic for the Koryak language is absent in Chukchi. Koryak pharyngeal г’ correlates to a guttural occlusive consonant in Chukchi. Morphological structure of the Chukchi language is agglutinative with suffixal or prefixal-suffixal character of agglutination, with prefixes used in nominal formation. There are two forms of the number – singular and plural – in the sphere of morphology of the noun in the Chukchi language. The noun has two declensions characteristic for personal and non-personal nouns. In the verbal inflection two types of conjugation are found: subjective and subjective-objective with subjective-objective forms differentiated by the person, the number of the subject and the object. The Chukchi verb is characterized by contraposition of two series of verb forms expressing perfect and imperfect actions and differentiating in all temporal and modal forms. The category of tense includes the forms of the present, past and future tenses, the category of declension – the forms of indicative, imperative and subjunctive moods. There are two opposite types of constructions characteristic of the syntactic structure of the Chukchi language: the nominative construction with intransitive verbs and the ergative construction with transitive verbs. The function of the ergative case in Chukchi is played by instrumental case. The word order in the sentence is rather free with the predicate drawn to the beginning of the sentence. Lexical composition of the Chukchi language is quite close to the vocabulary of the Koryak language. Chukchi language speakers think that Chukchi and Koryak are mutually understandable, however, this does not pertain to the Kerek language (part of Kereks used to have a command of Chukchi).

In contrast to Koryak language representing significant dialectic differences Chukchi language does not reveal any territorial variation. Minor phonetic distinctions are characteristic of the speech of Chukchi of Bilibinskiy District, morphological peculiarities were noticed in the speech of Khatarskiye Chukchi (the south of Beringovskiy District) while some specific features were also found in the speech of Chukchi of Providenskiy District. Minor lexical distinctions are characteristic of the language of reindeer herding Chukchi and in the language of coastal Chukchi of eastern Chukotka, to which a number of English words was introduced in the XIX and in the beginning of the XX centuries.

At present the Chukchi language is a means of every day life communication between family members of older and middle age (from 40) generations and also the main means of communication in production teams working in the sphere of traditional activities among different territorial groups of Chukchi (reindeer herding brigades, sea mammal hunting brigades), as well as in small-scale workshops in national villages involved in reindeer leather and skin processing, sewing clothes and boots and doing handicrafts. The knowledge of the Chukchi language is preserved among city dwellers. Here the Chukchi language is used as a means of communication with older countrymen, with village dwellers; in this environment cases of the functioning of Chukchi as “a secret language” were registered; however, the Chukchi intelligentsia is mainly characterized by the use of the Chukchi language in a limited sphere of professional activities (in schools, kindergartens, and among the staff of educational administrative and methodological sphere, national mass media, partially, culture).

A significant number of the ethnic group, high population density of its communities and the fact that transformation processes in economy and culture of peoples of the North spread out to Chukotka later that to other Northern regions determine a higher degree of preservation of the Chukchi language as compared to other languages of numerically small peoples of the North. Among older village dwellers (mainly, among people older than 55-60) there is a high percentage of individuals having no or a poor command of Russian – such individuals usually bear traditional personal names or don’t have patronymics registered in documents (the majority of Chikchi traditional personal names were transformed into surnames). The command of the native language among Chukchi living both in cities and villages is better than that of other peoples. The Chukchi language played a role as a means of interethnic communication among the Eskimo (Inuit); the command of the Chukchi language is characteristic of Evens of Bilibinskiy and Anadyrskiy districts of Chukotka whereas some Chukchi living in these districts know the Even language. The Chukchi language enjoyed a rather stable use in the multilingual environment of Nizhnekolymskiy District, Yakutia. The command of Chukchi was also characteristic of Chuvans; language skills of the people of older generation have remained strong among them up to the present day. In the 30-50s the knowledge of Chikchi was wide spread among newly arrived specialists, mainly, teachers, as well as doctors and veterinarians, and, to a lesser degree, among other specialists. Nowadays, dominating bilinguism resulted in a decreased number of individuals speaking Chukchi among the newly arrived population, although the knowledge of Chukchi is found among sovkhoz employees living in national villages, among representatives of other professions requiring the use of indigenous population’s language. Passive command of Chukchi is characteristic of many old residents of the autonomous district who came to Chukotka in the 50-60s.

The missionary activity of Russian Orthodox Church among Chukchi started in 1805. Among missionaries preaching in Chukotka the most outstanding one was A. Argentov who lived in western Chukotka from 1842 to 1857: along with Christianization of Chukchi he was actively studying their language, folklore and culture; the materials collected by A. Argentov were partially published during his lifetime, and have partially been kept in archives. Since the 40s of the XIX century priests started their missionary activity among Chukchi living in the Anadyr River Basin. An orthodox church in Markovo village erected in the middle of the XIX century in the place of former Anadyr stockaded town was remaining the only church in Chukotka for a long time. The first experiments with the translation of texts of public worships into Chukchi were recorded back in the 20’s of the XIX century: according to recent investigations the first book in Chukchi was printed in 1823 in edition of 10 copies. The first dictionary of Chukchi language compiled by M. Petelin was published in 1898. In the first half of the XX century among Chukchi experiments with the creation of mnemotechnic systems similar to logographic writing were carried out with the use of Russian and English writing samples as well as trademarks of Russian and American goods. Among such inventions the most significant popularity was gained by so called writing system of Tenevil living in Anadyr River basin; a similar system was also applied by Chukchi tradesman Antymavle from Eastern Chukotka. Officially, Chukchi written language was created in the beginning of the 30s based on Latin graphics with the use of the Universal Northern Alphabet. In 1937 Chukchi Latin-based alphabet was substituted with an alphabet on the Cyrillic basis with no auxiliary characters, however, the Latin-based alphabet was being used in Chukotka for some time. In the 50s the following sings were introduced to the Chukchi alphabet: к’ to convey the uvular consonant and н’ to convey the velar consonant (in the first variants of the Cyrillic-based Chukchi alphabet the uvular consonant did not have a special sign and the velar consonant was rendered with the help of нг digraph). In the early 60s typefaces of these letters were changed into и ; however, the official alphabet was used only in centralized editions of textbooks whereas in local editions in Magadan and Chukotka alphabet with some types substituted with the apostrophe was in use. In the late 80s letter л (л with a tail) conveying Chukchi unvoiced lateral l was introduced to the alphabet; however, it is used only in educational literature.

The origin of Chukchi literature is traced back to the 30s. In this period authentic poems in Chukchi language (by M. Vukvol) and self-records of the folklore with the author’s corrections (F. Tynetegin) emerge. In the 50s literary career of Y.S. Rytkheu starts. The late 50-60s of the XX century are associated with the golden age of authentic Chukchi poetry (V. Keulkut, V. Etytegin, M. Valgirgin, A. Kymytval, etc.) which finds its continuation in the 70-80s (V. Tyneskin, K. Geutval, S. Tirkygin, V. Iuneut, R. Tnanaut, E. Rultyneut and many others). Chukchi folklore was collected by V. Yatgyrgyn, also known as a prose writer. Present day authentic prose in Chukchi is represented by the works of I. Omruvye, V. Veket (Itevtegina), as well as of a number of other authors. Specific feature of development and functioning of Chukchi written language that should be stressed is a formation of active working group of translators performing translations fiction into Chukchi which included such writers as Y.S. Rytkheu, V.V. Leontiev, researchers and teachers – P.I. Inenlikey, I.U. Berezkin, A.G. Kerek, professional translators and editors – M.P. Legkov, L.G. Tynel, T.L. Ermoshina and others whose contribution, to a large extent, promoted the development and improvement of Chukchi written language.

Textbooks for the first – the fourth grades of the elementary school, 90 in all, have been published in Chukchi. In the 90s textbooks for the fifth-sixth grades and the programs of the Chukchi language for the first-ninth grades inclusively were prepared. Over 200 names of original and translated fiction have been translated into Chukchi; until the early 70s educational and popular scientific literature was actively published (several tens of books were produced); until the mid-80s social and political literature and periodicals was published in Chukchi. Till the 50s books were published in Chukchi in Leningrad, in the 50s – in Khabarovsk, from the mid-50s till 1993 – in Magadan, presently there exists independent publishing house “Chukotka” in Chukotskiy Autonomous District.

Until 1953 some materials were published in Chukchi in district newspaper “Советская Чукотка” (“Soviet Chukotka”) (published from 1933, from 1993 – under the title of “Крайний Север” (“The Far North”)) as well as in regional newspapers. In 1953 publication of newspaper “Мургин нутэнут” (“Our Land”) in Chukchi started: until 1989 this newspaper had been published as a translated version of Russian-language district newspaper supplemented with original materials, since 1990 till 1994 – as an independent newspaper, since 1995 – as a monthly supplement or a page in district newspaper “Крайний Север” (“The Far North”). Chukchi district radio has 4-5 hour broadcast per month in Chukchi, district television – 1 hour telecast per month. Until 1995 re-publication of radio broadcast materials in a national newspaper has been widely practiced.

During long time Chukchi language was being a subject taught in the first-fourth grades of the elementary school. In 1993 a decision was made to teach Chukchi in the first-eleventh grades of national schools; however, not all district schools have material resources sufficient for it; only textbooks of the Chukchi language for the first-fourth grades have been prepared. In some schools Chulchi language is being taught as an elective subject in the high school with the use of textbooks for the elementary school. Chukchi is also being taught in nursery schools in national villages. Chukchi is taught as a subject in Anadyr Higher Pedagogical Training School, in national college in village Cherskiy (Yakutia), in International Pedagogical University in Magadan and at the Department of the Far North of Russian State Pedagogical University named after A.I. Hertsen. The data on the years and schools in which Chukchi was used as a language of instruction are lacking.

In spite of the fact that statistically the Chukchi language has been characterized by relatively favorable indices of the percentage of representatives of Chukchi ethnic group considering Chikchi their native language (70%) – according to 1989 data, in this index Chukchi took the forth place among the peoples of the North ranking only after Nganasans (83%), Dolgans (82%) and Nenets (77%), in the aspect of functioning of Chukchi language linguistic situation has some positive trends. They are directly connected with the liquidation of “unpromising villages” in the 50-60s, the increased number of newly arrived population of national villages, with insignificant amount of teaching of Chukchi language at school and insufficient methodological basis for learning of the native language, increased proportion of urban population, shifts of professional staff, mostly, an increased number of reindeer herders and sea mammal hunters and a growing number of representatives of the ethnic group involved in non-traditional activities (employees of the administration of different ranks, teachers, cultural sphere employees, doctors), also with unfavorable demographic changes in the traditional family structure (increasing number of broken and interethnic families), inconsistent regional educational politics, with the education paradigm varying from one generation to another one (different educational levels and different socio-cultural contents of the educational process), which results in a generation gap and disturbed multi-age environment of the native language functioning. Social stratification of the ethnic group leading to isomorphic social structure of indigenous and newly arrived population significantly undermines prestige of the active use of Chukchi according to all main criteria; for each following generation this process is expressed in decreased level of command of the native language. An extremely negative factor which accounts for the loss of the native language among Chukchi is stagnant methodological thought and practice of teaching of the Chukchi language resulting in the lack of efficient compilation of new textbooks in the native language and innovative educational and methodological approaches to its teaching, which could contribute to efficacy of teaching Chukchi in pre-school, school and higher education institutions. Altogether, a positive trend in the development of literary art and culture has become wide-spread improvisation songs uniting literary art with musical composition and the activity of musical and choreographic groups (work of G. Tagriny, O. Geuntonau, I. Tymkyl, V. Tymneviey and other authors).

Recommendations aimed at the preservation and development of the Chukchi language should consider ethnically favorable factors such as significant number of the ethnic group, formation of geographically restricted ethnic communities and concentration of the majority of Chukchi population within the borders of their autonomous district, high percentage of people having command of the native language, relatively good condition of the territories of traditional land use, traditional economy, way of life and ethnic spiritual culture. It, mainly, concerns the introduction of the Chukchi language as a subject in all schools, in the first-ninth grades or in the first-eleventh grades and provision of the school educational process with the necessary set of new textbooks and educational and methodological materials for teachers. Teachers’ manuals should be provided to accelerate the process of teaching Chukchi language in the pedagogical training school, colleges and universities, and also to establish appropriate conditions for retraining and trade-improvement courses for Chukchi language teachers. Teaching Chukchi language in pre-school institutions requires standard manuals for educators, sets of visual aids and methodological materials. In order to propagate the knowledge of Chukchi, as well as to learn Chukchi individually in home environment and to support the level of command of this language of all interested in it, development of audio- and videocourses of the Chukchi language for district and regional radio and television broadcasting seem to be useful and expedient measures.

In higher and special secondary education institutions for humanities with a stable contingent of Chukchi students a course of the Chukchi language aimed at mastering the language and promoting skills of the language use should be introduced. Among the most useful measures in the sphere of Chukchi written language are the spread of the samples of Chukchi folklore, the masterpieces of Chukchi writers of the past and active support of literary men writing in Chukchi, especially, those representing younger generations. An important direction of practical activity contributing to the growth of prestige of traditional culture remains large-scale propagation of the knowledge of the traditional culture and the art of Chukchi people which in the Chukchi case harmonically correlates to the propagation of traditional folklore and language (in this respect past experience of such work based on gathered materials on traditional bone carving art and applied art of Chukchi is useful). Measures taken for preservation of the language and culture should correspond with support of traditional Chukchi economy on the scale of national production teams with different forms of organization and property and also with consistent material support of national villages. In the modern conditions a significant form of activity is the development of regional educational infrastructure which facilitates preservation of the integral language environment and ensures efficient funding of educational sphere from the territory’s budget. Altogether, the practice of the language policy in relation to the Chukchi language demonstrates inefficacy of such forms of activity as republication of educational literature with no fundamental updating, extensive editorial policy which in its essence is aimed at reprinting of the literature of the recent years and issuing newspapers having no readers’ demand, over-organization of educational and methodological literature and groups of authors charged with development of textbooks, the lack of control of such groups of authors as to the deadlines and quality of work on such books, excessive protectionism in relation to the staff of administrative and educational system represented by indigenous people. Strategically, professional specialization of students in philology, studying at the departments of linguistic theory, mathematical linguistics, structural and applied linguistics of Moscow State University and St. Petersburg State University, should be advisably provided in relation to Chukchi and a number of other languages of the North (Nenets, Khanty, Mansi, Evenk, Even, Nanai, Koryak).

In the situation relatively favorable for linguistic field work studies of the grammatical structure and the lexicon of the Chukchi language, compilation of a new descriptive grammar, voluminous Chikchi-Russian and Russian-Chukchi dictionaries containing 10-15 thousand words and targeted at the popular reader and Chukchi-Russian and Russian-Chukchi academic dictionaries with the vocabulary of 25-30 thousand words is the most urgent issue for Chukchi people. Since Chukchi folklore is still present in the every day life of older and middle age generations, maximum possible number of samples of Chukchi folklore of different genres should be documented by linguists and folklorists within the shortest possible time.

Translation provided by the author (A.A. Burykin)

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