The Soyot Language

Bibliography on the Soyot Language

Self-ethnonym of the Soyot – Soyyt (сойыт). Buryat, among whom they live dispersed, call them Khoyöd һоёд. To neighboring Tofalar they are known as Khaazuut (һаазуут). This name derives from Soyot ethnonym Khaazuut (һаазуут), used as the name of the largest Soyot clan. Their other clans – Irkit (иърһит) and Onkhot (оъңһыт) – are not so numerous.

According to the evidence of old residents of Okinskiy District, both Soyot and Buryat, relatively recently, approximately 350-400 years ago Soyot representing clans Irkit, Khaasuut and Onkhot moved from the vicinities of Khabsugul Lake, Mongolia, where they led nomadic life on the territories of Darkhat Somons Khankha and Uuri, and also in the area of Rinchinlkhumbe Mountain considered to be a sacred protecting mountain. After crossing Mongolian borders Soyot started settling in Tunka and, partially, in Zakamenka. However, since there are almost no places favorable for reindeer herding there a part of Soyot which adopted animal husbandry and settled in Tunka and Zakamenka merging with local Buryats. As for reindeer herders, they moved to Oka, to the mountain range dividing Oka River and Irkut River, in the region lacking reindeer moss and food. This is the way Soyot came to Oka.

In Darkhat region of Mongolia, situated to the west from Khubsugul Lake there are still Turkic-language reindeer herders living, whom Mongols called Tsaatan (цаатан) (literally, a reindeer herder), and also Uigar, that is Uighur, and sometimes Uigar Tsaatan, Tsaatan Uighur (literally, “reindeer herding Uighur”). Tsaatan Uighur per se call themselves by name Tukha (myъha), which is very close to Tofalar ethnonym – Tofá, compare, for instance, with Tuvinian name – Tyva-Dyva. Besides, Oka Buryat, along with Urynkhad (literally, “Urynkhay”) use expression Uigar Khelten that is “Uighur speaking” to name Tuvinian and Tofalar. It speaks for the fact that memory of Buryat people associates the present Turkic ethnic groups with ancient Uighur. Clan composition of Tsaatan and also of other reindeer herding groups of Darkhat ,originated from Sayan Turkic reindeer herders, also includes Irkit, Khaasuut, Onkhot clans. Obviously, modern Oka Soyot trace their origin from these Sayan Turkic reindeer herders.

Soyot call their language Soyot Tyl (сойыт тыл). This is a Turkic language. According to all its classificatory characteristics, it corresponds to Tofalar language. Moreover, it is very close to the languages of Tsaatan Uighur and Uryankhay Uighur of Mongolia. This provides grounds for inclusion of Soyot language, along with Tsaatan and Uraynkhay Uighur languages, into so called taiga area of Sayan group of Turkic languages (see article «Тофаларский язык» (“Tofalar language”)). According to N.A. Baskakov classification, this language should be included into Uighur Tukyuy subgroup of Uighur Oguz group of Turkic languages. Native speakers of taiga area are mostly reindeer herders and hunters (except for Uryankhay Uighur of Mongolia which have had the same economic type as Mongols pursuing animal husbandry for a long time), unified, along with the common language, by a similar type of nomadic hunting and reindeer herding economy and original material culture, which facilitated their adaptation to nomadic life in mountainous taiga environment.

The relation of Soyot and Tofalar languages is proved not only by our personal impressions obtained during the examination of Soyot language, Tsaatan Uighur and Uryankhay languages but also by a number of evidences by scientists which had an opportunity to study Soyot. For instance, according to the statement of B.S. Dugarov who studied the ethnogenesis of Oka Buryat and Soyot, M.A. Cбstren during his visit to Tunka Soyot in the XIX century wrote that they spoke: “…the same Turkic dialect as Karagas (that is Tofalars – B.R.)” (Дугаров 1983: 99). The active use of their Turkic language by Soyot back in the XVIII century was mentioned by G.D. Sanzheev who in the late 1920s studied Darkhat and the population of Darkhatskiy District, referring to the evidence of Anton Fredrik Bushing, a German geographer of the XVIII century who in his book “Description of the Land” (published in Hamburg in 1787) asserted that Tunka Soyot have the same language as Karagas (that is Tofalar – B.R.) of Nizhneudinskiy District (uezd) (Санжеев 1930: 13-14). Professor of Irkutsk State University B.E. Petri, who in 1926, on the instructions of the Committee of the North, hold a special ethnographic expedition on the studies of economy, every day life and culture of Soyot wrote about their language as still remembered by old men and extremely close to Urynkhay and Soyot languages (Петри 1927: 19). By the way, Soyot, Soyon and Uryankhay were terms used in old Russian literature until the 1920s to call Tuvinian who were not distinguished from Tsaatan and Tofalar.

The spread of the Soyot language was limited to Soyot communities who until the 1930s were still leading traditional hunting and reindeer herding way of life in Ilchir location of Okinskiy District of Buryatia, situated at the dividing mountain range in the upper reaches of Oka and Irkut rivers. In the 1930s they were brought to lead sedentary life, settled in villages Sorok, Khurga, Bokson, and also in Orlik and at numerous small-scale animal husbandry farms, mixed up with Oka Buryat. Soyot had to retrieve to animal husbandry of the local Buryatian type breeding yaks (sarlyks), khaynyks, cows, horses and, to some extent, ship while adopting from Buryats their way of life. At the same time an intensive process of Buryatification of Soyot started. Until the 1960s the kolkhoz reindeer herd was preserved for transportation purposes and provision of hunters living in mountain taiga during the hunting season. However, in 1963, by the decree of the Government of BASSR (Buryatian Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic) reindeer herding in Oka was liquidated as allegedly unprofitable branch of animal husbandry.

In the past, following the resettlement of Soyot into Buryatia, Soyot language has come to actively contact with the language of Oka Buryat, while a number of words was borrowed from it. At present Soyot language contacts both Buryat and Russian languages. While Soyot lead nomadic life, their language contacted neighboring Turkic languages – Tofalar and Todzhu Tuvinian, as well as with Tsaatan Uighur of Mongolia. Besides, there are numerous loan words from Medieval and contemporary Mongolian in Soyot language, which serve as an evidence of the past contacts of Soyot with Mongol.

Modern Soyot is a numerically small people of Russia. Until the 1990s only around 500 people considered themselves Soyot. Officially, they were not distinguished from the Buryat population of the present district. Their long-term struggle for their recognition as an independent ethnic group resulted in the Decree of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of Buryatian Republic enforced on April, 13 1993. Soyot national village council, presently, Soyot village administration with the center in Sorok was formed on the territory of Okinskiy District. In 2000 by Decree #255 of the Government of Russia Soyot of Buryatia were included in the universal list of indigenous numerically small peoples of Russian Federation. In this document the population of Soyot equals to 1973. According to the data of 2001 their number grew to 2002 people. This constitutes almost 42% of all the population of Okinskiy District of the Republic of Buryatia.

Modern Soyot language which was remembered by several old men just recently and which we managed to witness in the 1970’s and even to hear in the early 1990s during our trips to Oka, according to its structure, is a typical Turkic language, closest to Tofalar language of Russia and to the language of Tsaatan Uighur and Uryankhay Uighur of Mongolia. Soyot language is rather monolithic, with neither dialects nor sub-dialects. Only occasionally the representatives of different clans were heard to use varied pronunciation of some words, for instance: баъшы // баъһи ‘his head, қаъшан // қаъһян ‘when’, маъшыына // маъһиина ‘machine’, etc., which is an evidence of diverging, independent origin of Soyot clans.

Soyot language, as well as Tofalar, has, besides 4 hard row vowels а, о, у, ы, 6 soft row sounds э, ə, ө, ү, и, i, pronounced in the same manner and represented in the same words. These vowels are used in the form of three types of phonemes – short, clear and short pharyngealized and long clear. At the same time the length is symbolized by the double-written spelling of a respective vowel letter and pharyngealization – by the hard sign following this letter. Thus, vocalism of both Tofalar and Soyot and Tsaatan languages is represented by 30 phonemes. Interchange of these phonemes transforms the meaning of words. For instance, кээр ‘he/she/it will come’ - кəəр ‘he/she/it will crumble’, ас ‘get lost’ – аъс ‘hang’ – аас ‘mouth; jaws’.

Consonantism of these languages is represented, beside consonants б, п, в, ф, т, д, с, з, ш, ж, ч, л, р, й, к, х, г, ц, ш, pronounced as the corresponding Russian letters, by 5 additional specific consonants, for symbolization of which certain letters were taken from the alphabets of the languages of Russia’s peoples: қ, ғ, ң, ҷ, h. Examples: қарақ ‘eyes’, қараған ‘rhododendron’, hем ‘river’, чараҷаң ‘sable’, доңған ‘he got cold’.

Pharyngealization of vowels has a dramatic impact on the character of the interchange of the following consonants. At the same time, for instance, consonant п following clear short and long vowels is transformed into в: қап ‘sack’ – қабы // қавы ‘his sack’, following pharyngealized sounds– into п, ф, h: қаъп ‘catch with the mouth’ – қаъпар // қаъфар // қаъhар ‘he/she/it will catch with the mouth’; in the first case ш is transformed into ҷ, (баш ‘ulcer’ - баҷы ‘his ulcer’), in the second one - into or is left in the form of voiceless strong ш (баъш ‘head’ -баъhи // баъшы ‘his head’).

According to its grammatical structure, Soyot language is affiliated to agglutinative and analytic languages. The morphonological structure of Soyot has a universal Turkic character: the word consists of the root morpheme, word-formative, form-building and word-inflecting affixes, joining the root in this exact consequence. Formation of new words is made both in affixal and non-affixal ways. The composition of the word classes and parts of the speech is the same as other Turkic languages – the class of notional words with the group of denominative and demonstrative words, the classes of function, modal, affective and illustrative words are distinguished. Denominative words have the same grammatical categories – the noun doesn’t have the categories of the number, the possessiveness, the case, the definiteness/indefiniteness. There is no grammatical gender category. The verb has aspects, voices, moods. In the framework of the latter the verb is agreed according to the person.

The vocabulary is basically universal Turkic. A significant number of archaic word forms, deriving from the ancient Uighur language, is registered. There are many loan words from Buryat, as well as from Medieval Mongolian language. Some words have recently been introduced into Soyot from the Russian language.

Syntactic structure preserved its ancient Turkic type, which has almost no conjunctions, and participles and adverbial participles are used instead of subordinate clauses.

The writing of Soyot is Cyrillic-based as well as the writing of the languages of other Turkic peoples of the former USSR. For specific Soyot phonemes the letters with diacritical signs were adopted. Letters қ, ғ, ҷ, һ, ң, ө, ү, ә, i were added to the Russian alphabet. The length is symbolized by a doubled letter, pharyngealization – with the hard sign inserted after the letter.

Soyot language is well developed and adequately reflects the type of their traditional economic activity, every day life and culture. In the 1970s during the dialectological expedition to Okinskiy District around 5 thousand Soyot words and the main data on the grammar of Soyot language were recorded from Soyot old men; the sound structure of this language was determined. In 2001, by the request of the Government of the Republic of Buryatia, the administration of Okinskiy District and the Association of Soyot People, the writing for the Soyot language was developed by us; orthographic rules were worked out and Soyot-Buryat-Russian dictionary, published in 2003, was compiled. It included all Soyot vocabulary collected and translated by us not only into Russian but also into Buryat with the use of vocabulary of Oka Buryat dialect. By present a manual of Soyot language has been compiled for the elementary grades of Soyot schools; the compilation of Soyot ABC book and other school textbooks is in progress. The governmental bodies of the Republic of Buryatia made a decision on teaching Soyot in the elementary grades of Soyot schools since 2005.

The status and social functions of Soyot language has not been defined yet. Although, it was recognized as a national language of Soyot, it is still in the process of revival and has not become the language of communication of all Soyot or their part. It became a language of instruction in elementary grades of Soyot school. The success of its revitalization and preservation depends both on the will and desire of Soyot themselves and the level of its state support.

The Soyot language has been studied rather poorly.


Translated into English by O.A. Povoroznyuk

© IEA RAS, 2005
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