The Ket Language

General Information on the Language

The Main Ethnonym of the Ethnic Group

Bibliography on the Ket Language


Self-Ethnonym of the Ethnic Group


Names of the Language

  • Ket
  • Yenisei-Ostiak
  • Ostyganna qa’

Latikova (Tyganova), Olga Vasilievna (born in 1917), the eldest person among the Ket
Photo © O.A. Kazakevich, 2004, Sulomay settlement

Genetic Affiliation

The Ket language is practically the only living representative of the Yenisei family. The last reliable fixation of its nearest relative Yug dates back to the 1970s. Other related languages – Pumpokol, Arin, Kot (Assan) – stopped being used in the 18-19th centuries. Specialists suppose that the Yenisei languages are related to the North-Caucasian and Sino-Tibetan languages.

The Geographical Spread of the Language

The Kets live in the middle reaches of the Yenisei and its tributaries from the Podkamennaya Tunguska river in the South to the Kureyka river in the North. The main areas of the Kets' dwelling are the Turukhansk district of the Krasnoyarsk region (816 or 55 % of all the Kets of Russia), and the Baikit district of the Evenki Autonomous Area, that is also situated in the Krasnoyarsk territory (211). About one third of the Ket population of the Turukhansk district reside in Kellog (228), the other are dispersed in the settlements Maduyka, Goroshikha, Baklanikha, Surgutikha, Vereshagino, Verkhne-Imbatsk, Bakhta. Since the beginning of the 1990s rather many Kets moved from the villages to the district centre Turukhansk (In 1999 there were about 80 Kets there) and to the large settlement Bor (71 Kets). Only in three settlements - Kellog, Serkovo and Sulomai - the Kets build the majority of the population. In the other settlements they represent a minority. Some of the Kets live in towns and cities in the Krasnoyarst territory, mostly in Krasnoyarsk.

Number of Native Speakers

The ethnic group strength in 1989 in the USSR was 1113 people (1089 people in Russia); the population census of 2002 counts 1494 Kets. According to our estimation done on the basis of a series of sociolinguistic surveys led in the settlements of the Turukhansk district and Evenki autonomous area in 1999-2005, there are no more than 150 Ket speakers left to-day, whereby not all of them are full speakers. In the materials of the last census (2002) we find the number 485 which is. unfortunately, far from the reality.

Language Contacts

  • Yug
  • Selkup
  • Evenki
  • Enets
  • Russian

Dialects and Subdialects

Ket is represented by three local dialects: the Northern Ket, the Middle Ket, and the Southern Ket. The dialect differentiations are relatively small. At the same time the speakers of different dialects clearly distinguish their own dialect from the local varieties of their neighbours and often keep their own dialect for the only correct one.

Linguistic Description


Vowels: 11 vowels, which are opposed in height (high – i, y, u; mid closed – е, ъ, о; mid opened – ε, , ; low – ä, а, (å)) and in tongue position (front – i, е, ε, ä; central – у, ъ, , а; back – u, о, , (å)). Consonants: plosives – p, b, t, d, k, g, q, , ; fricatives – (v), s, s´, (γ), , h; affricates – č, j; nasals – m, n, n´, ; laterals – l, ľ; vibrant – r.

Prosodic characteristics

In the Ket four syllable tones are found. Most clearly tones are distinguished in isolated monosyllable words; in polysyllable words tones are preserved only in stressed syllables.

Ket is an agglutinating-synthetic language in which all types of affixation - prefexation, infixation and suffixation are used. In the noun declension suffixation is used, in the verb conjugation it is mostly prefixation and infixation.

Parts of speech

The following parts of speech are present in the Ket language: noun, verb, adjective, adverb, pronoun, numeral, postposition, particle, interjection. Conjunctions are borrowed from Russian.

The noun has the selective vowels of class (male / female / ting), and the declensional categories of number (singular / plural), case (11 cases: Absolute, Genetive, Dative, Elative, Determinative, Locative-Personalitive/Locative, Instrunental-Comitative, Prolative, Caritive, Vocative).

The adjective has the declensional category of number (singular / plural) and can join the markers of predicativity.

The verb has the categories of Aspect (perfective / imperfective), actionsart (iterative/ inchoative /terminative / translative, etc.), voice (transitive / intransitive, active / passive-resultative / causative), mood (Indicative / Imperative / Irreal / Exortive), tense (Present-Future / Past), class, person (1st, 2d, 3d), number (singular / plural). In the conjugational paradigm of the Ket verb the markers of subject, direct object and indirect object are present.

Negation is expressed by the particles bъn’ and ata (used with the verb in Imperative).

Semantics and Grammar

The counting system is decimal, with some rudiments of the pentamal and septimal systems.

The most part of the borrowings reflect ancient language contacts and cannot be identified with a particular source language. It is only stated that some of these borrowings have parallels in the Nostratic languages and some in Sino-Tibetan languages. Among later borrowings Selkup borrowings can be distinguished and also some Turkic. The latest borrowings are from Russian.


Ket is a nominative language, though some scholars find relicts of ergative and activ syntactic structures in it.

In the sentence the verb dominates and tends to reflect in its morphology structure its arguments. The most common word order is ‘subject’ - ‘direct object’ - ‘predicate’, or ‘direct object’ - ‘subject’ - ‘predicate’ with the modifier preceding the head word.

The question is marked with the help of question words and intonation.

Sociolinguistic Characteristic of the Language

Legal Status, the Present Day Situation of the Language

The Ket has status of language of an indigenous minority people of the Russian Federation.

In the Turukhansk district of the Krasnoyarsk territory and in the Baikit district of the Evenki autonomous area Ket has a status of a protected language.

Writing and Orthography

The first Ket alphabet on the basis of the Latin graphics was developed in the 1920s, and in 1934 N.K. Karger compiled and published the first Ket alphabet primer for the Middle Ket dialect, but at that time it practically was not used. The Ket language got its writing system much later, at the end of the 1980s when another alphabet on the Cyrillic basis was developed and an alphabet primer fpr the Southern Ket dialect was compiled by G.K. Verner and G.H. Nikolayeva and published first in Krasnoyarsk (1988) and then in Leningrad (St.-Petersburg) (1991). Ket began to be taught at primary school as a subject. Since then textbooks for the second, the third, and the fourth grades, and a Ket-Russian and Russian-Ket school dictionary have been published. It should be mentioned that the only sphere of the use of the Ket graphics to-day is education. Outside this spere the Kets write in Russia.

Social Functions of the Language

Traditional spheres of the functioning of Ket are family, hunting and fishing, and oral lore.

In the past Ket was intensely used in the religious practices (the Ket were and partly still are animalists, and for contacts with other worlds and spirits they had shamans, those who possessed spirits-helpers and were able to cross world borders with the help of their spirits). Now among the Kets there are no practicing shamans left, and only very few elderly people still remember shamanic incantations heard in their childhood.

The data of the population censuses fixate steady diminishing of the percentage of the Ket claiming Ket to be their mother tongue from 74,9% in 1970 to 60,2% in 1979 and finally to 48,8% in 1989. The survey lead V.P. Krivonogov in 1992-1993 gave even a lower percentage (35 %), and his survey done 10 years later showed that the process of language shift among the Ket is speeded up. The percentage of those who can really speak their ethnic language is even less: many of those who claim Ket to be their mother tongue can only say some sentences in it or even cannot say anything at all: for them as for many other representatives of indigenous minority population of Siberia claiming the ethnic language to be their mother tongue is just a badge of their ethnic identity.

To-day Ket is spoken by no more than 15 % of the Ket population. The Ket speakers mostly belong to the elder generation (over 50), and it should be mentioned that not all representatives of the elder generation are able to speak Ket. In the middle generation (35-50 years old) Ket speakers can also be encountered but much more seldom than in the elder generation. The youth and the children, as a rule, don’t know Ket, but for a couple of words. All the Ket speakers speak also Russian. In the elder generation in the villages Surgutikha, Baklanikha, Verthere, and Kellog there are still some tri-linguals speaking Ket, Russian, and Selkup, and among the Northern Kets some speak Evenki.

Education is the only official sphere where Ket is used. Teaching Ket as a subject started enthusiastically at the beginning of the 1990s at local schools of some villages. According to the data of the Krasnoyarsk territory educational authorities, in the 1992-1993 school year Ket was taught in the primary school degrees in the villages Kellog, Goroshikha, Vereshagino, Surgutikha, Baklanikha, and Sulomai. In Kellog it was also taught as an optional subject in the secondary school degrees. At that time there was a hope that teaching Ket at school might help to slow down the process of language shift. With the time the enthusiasm fell down and in some villages teaching Ket stopped partly because of the lack of encouraging from the side of the district educational bodies, partly because of the local teachers’ incompetence in Ket and poor results attained by the Ket classes. But unfortunately, up to now the teaching appeared to be practically ineffective. and its influence on the language situation is solely symbolic With the time the enthusiasm fell down abd school teaching In some villages it stopped partly because of the lack of encouraging from the side of the district educational bodies, partly because of the local teachers’ incompetence in Ket and poor results attained by the Ket classes. In the 1998-1999 school year Ket was taught only in three villages. In 2001-2002 the number of school teaching Ket grew up to eight, according to the territorial report sent to the Ministry of education, in some schools Ket was taught up to the degree 9. Of course, the growth of the number of schools where Ket is taught is a good thing, but our surveys show that the teaching remains ineffective and has, so to say, a purely symbolic value. School teachers of Ket are meant to be prepared at the Institute of the Peoples of the North at Hertsen Teacher Training University in St Petersburg. But as far as we are informed, if a student entering the university does not speak Ket (and to-day among the Ket students of the university there are neither full speakers, nor even half speakers of Ket) s/he won’t speak Ket graduating from it, which means that the young teacher won’t be able to teach the language properly.

Speaking Ket has become most unusual and is now perceived as rather “unnatural” by the members of the Ket communities. The youngest speakers of Ket are over 35-40, but even those who are still competent in their ethnic language use Ket very seldom. No Ket parents speak Ket with their children; the natural intergenerational transmission of the language has stopped since the 1970s-1980s. To-day young Ket parents are simply unable to speak Ket with their children as they cannot speak it themselves. In some families parents (or grandparents) try to teach their children (grandchildren) a little bit of Ket but all they teach is a limited set of everyday words (e.g. nouns for body parts, animals, instruments, etc.). The attitude towards the ethnic language among the Kets is ambivalent: about 70% of our informants expressed a positive attitude towards their ethnic language, saying they need it when they live in their native village, whereas 30 % said that Ket was absolutely useless. Most of those who proclaimed the uselessness of Ket were born in the 1950s and are to some extent competent in Ket. The economic situation in the Ket villages visited during the survey is most deplorable; most of the Kets live in poverty and are frustrated since they can see no prospects either for themselves or for their children. Unfortunately for the Ket communities, the most active members of the Ket population just try to leave their villages and to settle down in the district centre where language shift and assimilation processes are much more rapid.

History of Studies of the Ket Language

The study of Ket began in the middle of the XIXth century by M.A. Castren. In the second half of the XXth century a real break-through was made by scholars in synchronic and diachronic linguistic description of Ket. Never the less, up to now Ket remains among the most popular object of linguistic research due to the complicated structure of its verb morphology.

Sound Sample of the Ket Language

A cuckoo tale (text (pdf)] [mp3 (394 kB / 1 мин. 41 сек.) listen]


Dorozhkin, Aleksandr Vladimirivich (born in 1958)
Photo © O.A. Kazakevich, 2005, Surgutikha settlement

Tyganova (Baldina), Nina Kharlampievna (born in 1928)
Photo © O.A. Kazakevich, 2005, Kellog settlement

Projects of the Language Studies

At the Laborotary for languages of the peoples of Siberia the work at a dictionary of Ket-Russian Dictionary, grant of the Institute of Max Plank (project leader E.G. Kotorova).

At the Institute for Phylology of Siberian section of the Russian Academy of Sciences the work at the Ket folklore volume in the series “Folklore of the peoples of Siberia” is being done (project leader N.M. Grishina).

Two projects are being realized at Research Computer Centre of Moscow State Lomonosov University:

  • “A Multimedia database of Ket”, grant of the Russian Foundation for the Humanities, 2004-2006, № 04-04-12028v, (project leader O.A. Kazakevich; some materials can be found on the Web sites and;
  • “Interaction of the segmental and supra-segmental levels in the phonetic systems of Siberian languages (a case study of the contacting languages of the Middle Yenisei and adjacent territories)”, grant of the Russian Foundation for Fundamental Researches, 2005-2007, № 05-06-80234 (project leader O.A. Kazakevich).

Translation provided by the author (O.A. Kazakevich)

© IEA RAS, 2005
This website was created with support from UNESCO Moscow Office