The Itelmen Language

General Information

Bibliography on the Itelmen language

The main ethnonym of the ethnic group is Itelmen, coinciding with self-ethnonym итəнмəн. It was used earlier, while ethnonym Kamchadal is also occasionally used in other language at present.

Genetic Affiliation

Genetic affiliation of Itelmen language has not been identified exactly. According to one hypothesis, this is an isolate language; according to another one, it forms an independent branch within Chukchi-Kamchadal family, as opposed to the other branch, including Koryak and Kerek languages.

Itelmens, living on Kamchatka Peninsula, are considered to be its aboriginal population; other peoples, who inhabit (or inhabited) Kamchatka - Koryak and Ainu – came their later. By the beginning of the XVIII century Itelmen counted from 12 to 15 thousand people; their language is divided in three mutually comprehensible dialects (western, eastern and southern). By the beginning of the XIX century, as a result of a number of epidemics, Itelmen population decreased to 15-20 hundred of people. Until the beginning of the XX century only one – western dialect of three Itelmen dialects survived. Today Itelmens live, mostly, in two villages of Tigilskiy District – Kovran and Verkhnee Khayryuzovo; some Itelmen families also live in other localities of the district.

Number of Native Speakers

According to the census of 2002, 375 people had a command of Itelmen language; however, their knowledge of native language was much poorer than that of Russian. According to other data, already back in 1989, no less than 100 people had a command of the language.

Dialects, Subdialects

Present day Itelmen language (former western dialect) is divided into two mutually comprehensible dialects – southern and northern (Sedanka).

Linguistic Characteristics of the Language

Itelmen language is agglutinative and inflexional; besides, prefixes and suffixes, circumfixes, as well as reduplication, are quite wide spread. The noun has 12 cases, two (or three, including “common”) numbers, the category of possessiveness. The verb has two moods, two aspects, three tenses and polypersonal conjugation (agreed with the object in the person and number). The language is nominative; characterized by usual word order — SOV. Subordinate predications are usually expressed with non-finite verbal forms; compound sentences are rare.

Socio-Linguistic Description of the Language

The transmission of the language from parents to children stopped over 60 years ago; at present only the oldest generation has a command of the language, while remaining bilingual (Sedanka Itelmen besides, Itelmen and Russian, have a command of Koryak). Writing based on Latin was introduced in 1932 and abolished in 1935; in 1988 writing based on Russian alphabet was introduced, an ABC book, textbooks for elementary schools, school Russian-Itelmen and Itelmen-Russian dictionaries (all based on the southern dialect) were published.

In 1989 Union of revitalization of Itelmen people “Тхсаном” (“The Dawn”) was established. There are also other public organizations. There are radio broadcasts in Itelmen.

History of Studies of the Language

First records of Itelmen language were made by S.P. Krasheninnikov and included in his «Описание земли Камчатки» (“Description of Kamchatka Land”). They count approximately 200 words, each translated in three dialects, which existed at that time, and one text. Later, during the XVIII—XIX centuries, travelers, who visited Kamchatka, made records of separate words. Considerable linguistic material is included in book «По западному берегу Камчатки» (“Along the Western Shore of Kamchatka”) by V.N. Tyushov.

In 1910-1911 41 texts in Itelmen were recorded by W.I. Jochelson. Later, studies of Itelmen were conducted to this or that extent by W.I. Bogoras, S.N. Stebnitskiy, I. Shadrin (Itelmen by the ethnic affiliation ), T.A. Moll, A.N. Zhukova, K.M. Braslavets, D. Worth, E. Kasten, M. Durr, R.S. Georg. The main contemporary works on Utelmen language and its fullest descriptions belong to A.P. Volodin.

The description is based on the following works from the list provided above [Володин 1976; 1994а; 1995/2002; 1997] and the Indigenous Minority Languages of Russia website.

© IEA RAS, 2005
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