The Nanai Language

General information on the language

Self-ethnonym of the ethnic group

Bibliography on the Nanai Language

Nanai (нанай), Nani (нани)

The name and self-name of the language

Hede Nai (хэде най), Bira Guruni (бира гуруни), Monai (монай) etc.

The name Gold language (гольдский язык) is now obsolete.

Genetic affiliation

The Nanai language is a language of the southern group of Tungus languages. The most closely related languages are Ulchi and Orok.

Geographical spread of the language

The main part of the Nanais lives in Khabarovsk province: in Nanaiskiy, Amurskiy, Komsomolskiy, Solnechnyi, Ulchskiy, Khabarovskiy rural districts and also in Primorskiy province: in Pozharskiy, Olginskiy districts, besides in Poronajskiy district of the Sakhalin province. In Chinese People's Republic the Nanais are settled in Heilunzjian province (between the Sungaris and Ussuri rivers).

Language contacts

In 19 century, at the beginning of 20 century contacts with the Chinese took place quite often (especially among the Bikin Nanais). In the 20 century Nanai came into contact with Russian.

Number of native speakers

According to 1999 data the number of the native Nanai speakers made up to 11,5 thousand people. According to the data of State Committee for the North this number was 12023 people.

Dialects and subdialects

There are three dialects: Upper Amur dialect, Middle Amur dialect and Lower Amur dialect. The Upper Amur dialect includes right-bank Amur, Sungariskiy (both function on the territory of Chinese People's Republic), Bikinskiy, Kur-Urmiiskiy subdialects. Middle Amur dialect includes: Sikachialjanskiy, Naikhinskiy, Djuenskiy subdialects. Lower Amur dialect includes Bolonskiy, Ekonskiy, Gorinskiy subdialects. The Naikhinskiy subdialect, most completely described, has a large number of speakers 4 thousand people.

Linguistic description

Phonetic laws

Nanai is characterized by the harmony and reduction of vowels, assimilation of consonants. There are 6 vowel phonemes, 18 consonant ones. The accent, as a rule, falls on the last syllable.

The Nanai language is a typical language of agglutinative-suffixal type. Morphemes settle down in a definite order: root + suffix of word-formation + suffix of derivational form-building + suffix of mixed word-formation (number, indirect belonging, personality/impersonality of participles, time and aspect of verb etc.) + suffix of relative form-building (case, possessiveness, person, number of verb, etc.) + suffixal particles.

Noun has categories of number (single and plural), possessiveness (personal and impersonal), subjective estimation, person/nonperson. Declination can be simple (seven cases) and possesive (personal-possessive and reflexive-possessive).

Adjective is morphologically unchangeable. It is divided into qualitative (this type can accept the intensifying form), quantitative and relative.

Numeral includes cardinal and ordinal numerals.

Pronoun is divided into categories: personal, reflexive-possesive, reflexive, attributive, demonstrative and interrogative pronouns.

Verb. There are verbal forms, participle, adverbial participle. Negative forms can be synthetic and analytical types.

Adverbs are divided into qualitative, quantitative adverbs, adverbs of comparison, place, time.

Interjections and imitatives are represented in the language.

Syncategorematic words include postpositions, conjunctions and words-particles.

Syntactic structure is typical for the Manchu-Tungus languages. The word order in the sentence is S-O-V. The attribute precedes the dependent member. Simple sentences are mostly used. For compound sentences conjunctionless link is characteristic, that means a combination of two simple sentences or constructions with participial, verbal-nominal or adverbial participles (in other words with dependent predicative).

Sociolinguistic characteristic of the language

Legal status, the present day situation of the language

The legal status of the Nanai language is language of an indigenous minority people of RF. Nanai is a title language of Nanai district in Khabarovsk province. It has a recent writing tradition. In 1931 there was approved a common northern alphabet based on Latin, later in 1933 it was replaced by Cyrillic. The first Nanai alphabet was worked out half a century before by Russian missionaries А. and P. Protodjakonovs on the basis of Russian alphabet. They translated into Nanai some books of religious content and also published Nanai folklore materials.

Social functions of the language

Nowadays the Nanai language is used mostly in household communication of representatives of older age. Once in two months a page in Nanai is issued in the local newspaper, in Troitskoe village TV programmes in Nanai are broadcasted. Starting from 1990 Khabarovsk and Komsomolsk-na–Amure TV broadcast programmes in Nanai.

History of Studies of the Nanai language

One of the first and the most interesting attempts to describe grammatical structure of the Nanai language was the work written by A. Brylkin that was issued as an appendix to I volume of R. Maak (1861). Considerable contribution to this language study was made by missionaries А. and P.Protodiakonov who collected valuable material of Nanai language . In 1900 in V. Grube's “Goldsk-German dictionary” materials on the Nanai and Ulchi languages written and processed by K.I.Maksimovich (1827-1891) were published. I.A. Dobrolovsky fixed a small number of speech patterns of Sungary Nanais, a dictionary and made some grammar notes. Some of them were published by V. Kotvich in 1909. In 1906-1907 K.D. Loginovsky during his expeditions wrote down some Nanai materials. In 1933 in L.J. Shternberg's well-known work there were published a Nanai-Russian dictionary and a brief grammar description. In the same year “Grammar tables” prepared by T.I. Petrova were issued. Two articles by A.N. Ulitin were printed, in the first of them the text of a fairy tale with grammar analysis was given, in the second the author attempted to analyze self-ethnonym of the Nanais. In 1935 T.I. Petrova published a concise Nanai-Russian dictionary with grammar sketch.

She wrote and published in 1941 “The sketch of the Nanai language grammar”. To the problems of the Nanai language V.A.Avrorin devoted his candidate and published in two volumes doctor dissertations, he also wrote a number of articles on the language problem. O.P.Sunik gave an attentive consideration to Nanai. Special description was made of Gorinsky dialect (A.P.Putintseva), Kur-Urminsky (O.P. Sunik), Bikinsky (L.I. Sem). M.A. Kaplan's work was devoted to the problems of Nanai folklore(Kaplan 1957). S.N. Onenko and N.B. Kiel devoted their lives to the description of theis native language, they left many interesting works.

Sample text in the Nanai language

Дэхи морин

Эйи аси ǯуэркэ:н балǯихачи, эм боадо. Туи балǯи: туи би:, туи балǯи:доачиа-тани эǯини–тэнии. Долбо-гдал то:кои долбо-гдал эугуи тами. Бэйумбэ бэичи:, сиагойи ва:чаини-гоани. Асини-тани: туи ǯоогдо биини-гоани эмучкэ:н пиктэ-дэ: ана:л-да. Туи бими, туи балǯими эм модан-гола эǯини чими: то:кохани. Пуǯин-тэни:, тэи удэвэни, ǯо: до:вани о:сира: силкочигора:.

Written down by S. Kazama from N.B. Geiker (Kazama, 2002).

English translation

Forty horses

A husband and a wife lived. The husband hunted since the morning till the evening, while the wife stayed at home. Once as the husband left the house, the wife came out into the yard, there a horse appeared. The horse told: “The devil came again, who killed your father. Though there were 40 horses, he ate up some of us. Is he eats all of us, he will come to you. That’s why I think we’ll escape with you. Tell your husband this”. The wife made a hole in the pan not to forget what the horse had told her.

Specialists studying the language

  • Stolyarov A.V., C.Sc. in philology, the head of department at the Russian Biblical society

    Address: St. Petersburg, ul. Mayakovskogo, 40. e-mail:

  • Zaksor L.Zh., teacher of the Nanai language

    Institute of the peoples of the North. Address: 198097 St. Petersburg, Prospect Stachek, 30

  • Kazama Sindziro

    Tokyo University for foreign languages (Tokyo, Japan)

Translated into English by A.N. Bitkeeva

© IEA RAS, 2005
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