The Koryak language

General Information on the Language

Self-ethnonym of the Ethnic Group

Bibliography on the Koryak language

The name «the Koryak» is applied to the ethnos that lacks a common self-ethnonym: the reideer herding nomad Koryak call themselves чав’чыв’ (Pl. чав’чыв’ав’), the settled Koryak living on the coasts of the Sea of Okhotsk and the Bering Sea call themselves нымылг’ын (Pl. нымылг’о). The self-ethnonym of the settled Koryak «Nymylan» and the language name «the Nymylan language» were used in early 1930s to designate the whole ethnos and its language instead of the traditional names «the Koryak» and «the Koryak language», but these names as well as other innovations in designating peoples of the North did not became widely accepted.

Language name

The main language name – the Koryak language. The name «the Nymylan language», based on the self-ethnonym of the settled Koryak, introduced in 1930s, was soon abolished.

Photo © M.Ya. Zhornitskaya. IEA RAS Archive

Genetic Affiliation

The Koryak language is one of the languages of the Chukotko-Kamchatkan language group, which is conventionally related to the Paleoasiatic languages. The Alyutor and Kerek languages are in the same group, the first is often considered a Koryak dialect. Further genetic relations of this group are not cleared.

The Geographical Spread of the Language

The Koryak in the northern and middle part of the Kamchatka Peninsula, on the coast of the Sea of Okhotsk and the Bering Sea, the majority of the ethnos live in the Koryak . A small part of the Koryak live in regions of the Kamchatka district, which are not included into the Koryak Autonomous Region (Bystrinsk and Sobolevo regions), more than 700 Koryaks live in the present North-Evenki regions of the Magadan districts, mainly on the Taigonos Peninsula (settlements Topolovka, Verkhnij Paren', partly Ghizhiga), about 100 Koryak live in the south-east of the Chukotka Autonomous Region. According to toponymy and historical sources in the second half of the 17 century the western boarder of the Koryak settlement was built by the river Tauy, presently it has shifted to the east to the Ghizhiga River.

Language Contacts

The Koryak language contacts nowadays with a number f Evenki dialects, but affects much more the Evenki language, rather than being affected itself. Up to the XVIII-early XIX the Koryak contacted intensively with the Itelmen, the Koryak language used as medium of communication between the Russian Cossack and travelers with the Itelmen. As a result the Itelmen language has many Koryak words, originating in different (at least two) dialects. There are some facts testifying contacts of the Koryak language and the Ainu language, who lived in the past in the south of the Kamchatka and the Kuril Islands.

Number of Speakers

According to the 1989 census the number of Koryaks is 8942 (1979 – 7900). In 1989 52,4 % of the Koryak called the Koryak language their mother tongue (69, 6% in 1979), Russian was called mother tongue by 46,8 % of the Koryak in 1989 (30,1 % in 1979). It is estimated that only 5,4% have a free command of their language.


The Koryak language in contrast to the Chukchi language, and the Alyutor and Kerek languages is characterized by considerable dialectal variety. Already in 1740s G.V. Steller distinguished in the Koryak language three dialects, including the Alutor. Nowadays the following dialects are distinguished in the Koryak language: Chavchuven, Paren, Itkan, Apukin, Palan, Karagin, Kamen. Sometimes the Alutor language is also called among the dialects of the Koryak language, whereas many scholars consider it to be a separate language of the Chukotko-Kamchatkan language group.

Linguistic Description


The Koryak language is near to the Chukchi language by its phonology and grammar systems. It has 6 vowels (4 in some dialects) and 20 consonants (the Chavchuven dialect lacks the vibrant р). The Chukchi language guttural stop corresponds in the Koryak language to the faringal г’: the Koryak language is opposed to the Chukchi in that it has an opposition between bilabial w (presently spelled as в’) and dento-labial (presently spelled as в), also by the presence of the palatal л’. The consonantism lacks voiced stops. The Chukchi and Koryak languages differ also in the vowel synharmonism rules: some morphemes and words of the Koryak language allow combinations of vowels from different synharmonic series, which is prohibited in the Chukchi language.


The Koryak language has an agglutinative morphological structure, it used suffixes as well as prefixes and confixes (combinations of prefixes and suffixes). It has an opposition between the dual and the plural (which the Chukchi language lacks, its plural marker -т corresponding to the Koryak dual marker), as well as specific case forms, absent in the Chukchi language. The verb has two conjugation types: subjective and subjective-objective, the subjective-objective forms distinguish person and number of subject and object. The verb has following tenses: Present-Past, Past Perfect, Past II, Future I, Future II. The mood category consists of Indicative, Imperative and Subjunctive.

Semantics and Grammar

Syntax. The syntax of the Koryak language is characterized of an opposition between two constructions: nominative construction with intransitive verbs and ergative construction with transitive verbs; the word order is relatively free.

Lexically the Koryak language is close to the Chukchi language, dialects of the settled Koryak, mainly the Palana dialects are close in their vocabulary with the Alutor language, which is sometimes considered to be a dialect of the Koryak language. Lexical relations of the Koryak and Kerek languages have not been studied.

Sociolinguistic Characteristic of the Language

Legal Status, the Present Day Situation of the Language

The Koryak language is the language of the main people of the Koryak Autonomous Region, but the promotion of its status is hindered by its dialectal variety. School instruction is conducted in the language of reideer herding Koryaks (Chavchuven), on which since 1930s the literary language is based. The intention to introduce the instruction in the dialect of the settled Koryak of the Bering Sea coast, ventilated in late 1990s is still not fulfilled.

Writing and Orthography

The writing system for the Koryak was created in early 1930s on the basis of the Latin script, as a modification of the Common Northern Alphabet. 1937 the Koryak alphabet on the basis of the Latin script was changed by an the alphabet on the Cyrillic basis without extra symbols (in this alphabet variant uvular к was denoted by х, and the velar sonorant by combination нг) , in the 1950s extra letters в’, г’, к’, н’ were introduced, the two later were changed in early 1960s by the «tailed к» and «tailed н». There are instructional works for the 1-2 grades of the primary school published in the Koryak language (more than 35 titles). There are more than 40 works of original and translated fiction, publicism and popular scientific literature – these books were published until the early 1950s in Leningrad, later in Khabarovsk and Petropavlovsk-Kamchatski. The main body of the fiction was published in the Chavchuven dialect, on which the literary language is based, but in the last 10 years attempts were undertaken to publish in the settled Koryak dialect (several books by K. Kilpalin). Periodical editions are restricted to several pages in the regional newspaper of the Koryak Autonomous Region from to time, and also separate materials in local press, where the local dialects were used. Reports on the existence of an alternative original pictographic writing system in the Koryak (A.F. Makeev) are unjustified.

Social Functions of the Language

Photo © M.Ya. Zhornitskaya. IEA RAS Archive

The Koryak language nowadays functions as the language of oral communication between representatives of the elder and middle generations, the command of the language in the younger generation is not high. The Koryak language is also used in professional communication in collectives dealing in the traditional activities (reideer herding brigades, fishing collectives), in small tailoring shops in settlements. The knowledge of the Koryak language is widespread among the Even of the northern part of the Kamchatka and Northern-Evenki region of the Magadan district. Some of the Koryak living in the Koryak-Even contact zone speak the Even language. In the 18-19th c the Koryak language was used as a communication medium between the Koryak and several Itelmen groups, the Koryak “yasyri” worked as translators in communication between the Russian and the Itelmen. The Koryak language is considered intelligible for the Chukchi living in the Bering region of the Chukchi Autonomous Region, whereas the Kerek language is not intelligible for the Chukchi, so the Kerek spoke the Chukchi language with the Chukchi. The Koryak are distinguished from other peoples with comparable quantity by the relatively high number of monoglots of the elder generation, i.e. people speaking the Koryak language and having no command of the Russian. But the gap between generations, different activities of different generations and their different educational status, age difference between the ethnos representatives living in the tundra or big settlements make it impossible for the elder generation to pass their language to their children and grandchildren. Another specific feature of the Koryak language is its territorial polyglossy, until 1960s it was usual for the Koryak to know neighboring dialects, which were used for communication if the own dialects of the speakers were not intelligible (there were cases registered when speakers knew 3-4 dialects)/ The Koryak language is taught as subject in the 1-2 grades of the primary school, in some schools it is taught optionally in upper grades. The Koryak language is taught as subject at the Teachers Training college in Palana, at the Faculty of the Peoples of the Extreme North in the Herzen Teacher Training University in St. Petersburg. The local radio broadcasts in the Koryak language for 3 hours a week. One of the most serious problems with the intensification of the instruction in the Koryak language is its dialectal variety. Among the factors that are detrimental to the language situation are: 1) gradual reduction of the number of elder generations Koryak speakers; 2) negative social conditions of the ethnos living, the settlements in traditional living zone of the Koryak being closed and their inhabitants being resettled to settlements with mainly newcomer Russian speaking population; 3) destruction of the traditional family, which gives the children and youth no possibilities to learn the language inside the family; 4) reduction of the number of traditional producing activities and the number of ethnos representatives involved into traditional activities, especially in reideer herding; 5) lack of professional and cultural motivation for the Koryak language acquisition by the younger and middle generation; 6) little effectiveness of the Koryak language instruction at the primary school.

History of Language Studies

The earliest information on the Koryak was acquired in early 1650s by S. Dezhnev on the coast of the Bay of Anadyr and by S. Stadukhin, who traveled in 1651-1656 across the territory inhabited by the Koryak from the source to the estuary of the Penzhina River and further west on the coast of the Sea of Okhotsk to the estuary of the Tauy River and later to Okhotsk. Earlier reports on the «Koryak people», found in documents of the 1640s probably relate to the settled Chukchi of the Arctic coast, the same probably holds true for separate records of the Koryak on the territory of the Yakutia in the first third of the 18 century. The first report on travels on the territory inhabited by the Koryak, that gives information of the settled Koryak and the reideer herding Koryak (whereas this phrase is contrary to the designation «Koryak» itself) is the work «Skaski» by Vladimir Atlasov, compiled in the late XVII - early XVIII cc. Big amount of data on the Koryak ethnography and dialects was gathered in the 1740s during the Second Kamchatka Expedition by S.P. Krasheninnikov and G.V. Steller, in the same time valuable data on the Koryak language and ethnography were gathered on the coast of the Sea of Okhotsk by Ya.I. Lindenau. In the 1840s lexical information on the Koryak language was gathered by I.G. Voznesenskiy, which has been afterwards used in the work of L. Radlov, dedicated to the comparison of the Chukchi and Koryak languages. In the late 19 c. the Koryak ethnography, folklore and language were studied by V.I. Iochelson, the author of the two volume monograph “The Koryak”, and V.G. Bogoraz, who compiled a grammatic description of the Koryak language compared with the Chukchi and the Itelmen languages. In 1920-30s the study of the Koryak language was continued by students of V.G. Bogoraz – S.N. Stebnizkiy, G.M. Korsakov, G.I. Melnikov, I.S. Vdovin, T.A. Moll, P.Ya. Skorik, N.A. Bogdanova, since the 1950s it is studied by A.N. Zhukova. Now she has published a Koryak grammar, a Koryak-Russian dictionary, a big Russian-Koryak dictionary, as well as students Koryak-Russian and Russian-Koryak dictionaries and the Koryak textbook for teachers training colleges. The language situation, as well as Russian borrowings into the Koryak and Russian words in Koryak dictionaries were studied by A.N. Badaev. The investigation of the Koryak vocabulary is carried on by V.R. Dedyk. student of A.N. Zhukova, a Koryak scholar. The Koryak ethnography in the 20 c. was studied by S.N. Stebnizkiy, I.S. Vdovin, I.S. Gurvich, V.V. Antropova, K.G. Kuzakova, V.V. Gorbacheva, Yu.V. Chesnokova.

The Koryak morphology and vocabulary are studied full enough, the syntax being less described. Not all dialects are recorded and described in enough detail. There are no experimental works in the phonetics of the Koryak language.

There are materials on the Koryak language and folklore in the Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography Archive RAS (Kunstkamera). A few audio records of the Koryak folklore are kept in the Audio Archive of the Institute of the Russian literature (Pushkin House) RAS. Data on the Alutor language and folklore were gathered in expeditions of the Department of Structural and Applied linguistics of the Philological Faculty of the Lomonossov Moscow State University.

Translated into English by A.N. Bitkeeva

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