The Nganasan Language

General Information

Bibliography on the Nganasan Language

The main ethnonym of the ethnic group – Nganasan (нганасаны), derived from the Nganasan word meaning “a man”. Similar to other northern numerically small peoples of the North, when the word meaning “a man” was used as a self-ethnonym, such word was introduced in the 1930s. Such word usage, however, has never been registered among Nganasan; self-ethnonym of the Nganasan is Nya (няа).

Photo © Yu.B. Simchenko. IEA RAS Archive

Such ethnoyms as Tavgi («тавги»), Tavgyitsi (тавгийцы) (originating from Nenets and Enets ethnonyms of Nganasan) were used earlier; correspondingly, the language was called Tavgi («тавгийский») or Samoyedic Tavgi («тавгийско-самоедский»). Until the mid-XX century Nganasan was considered a Nenets dialect.

The language belongs to the northern group of Samoyedic branch of the Uralic languages.

The nomadic traditional territory of Nganasan includes inland areas of Taimyr Peninsula, stretching from the northern borderline of forest-tundra to the foothills of the Byrranga Mountain Range. In the 60-80s Nganasan were resettled to three villages located to the south from Dolgan ethnic territory – Ust-Avam, Volochanka and Novaya. Some Nganasan live in the cities of Taimyr (Dudinka, Norilsk, Khatanga).

The population — 834 people (2004). According to the recent census data, around 500 people have a command of the language.

Traditionally, Nganasan have been neighboring tundra Enets, Dolgan and Evenk. The knowledge of these languages was also characteristic of Nganasan. Intensive contacts with the Russian language have started in the post-war period.

The Nganasan language is usually divided into two dialects – Avam (the majority of the speakers, presently living in villages Ust-Avam and Volochanka); and Vadey (presently spread in village Novaya). Avam dialect sometimes is also divided into sub-dialects. In practice, the differences between the dialects are limited to the pronunciation of sound j (in Avam dialect it transformed into d’, in Vadey it was preserved) and to some differences in vocabulary, which can not hinder mutual understanding.

Linguistic Description

The Nganasan language is, mostly, agglutinative, characterized by complicated morphonological rules. There is a double system of interchange of consonants, a double system of vocalic harmony, a number of other morphonological mechanisms. The stress is put on the penultimate syllable. There is no prefixion; beside suffixes, there is a developed intraclitic system. The noun has three numbers and seven cases and is characterized by the category of possessiveness. The verb has agreement in the person and the number; three types of conjugation depending on the definiteness of the object; around ten moods (including a developed system of evidential forms); there are numerous non-finite forms; compound sentences are practically absent.

Sociolinguistic Description of the Language

Photo © Yu.B. Simchenko. IEA RAS Archive

Resettlement of its speakers to multiethnic villages (intensively taking part approximately from the 60s to the 80s) was a milestone in the history of Nganasan language. The older generation was brought up in tundra and its representatives (in spite of the fact that many of them were taught in boarding schools) have a full command of the language and (to a lesser extent) are familiar with the traditional culture. Younger Nganasan were brought up already in villages, where Russian language was used exclusively; thus, they don’t know or almost don’t know either the native language or the traditional culture.

At present Nganasan older than 60 have a good command of the language. Consequently, the main sphere of the language use is the communication within this age group. All presently living Nganasan can easily use Russian; there are, obviously, no monolingual speakers left.

In the 90s two variants of writing (both of them Cyrillic-based) at once were suggested for Nganasan language. One page supplement in Nganasan was published in newspaper «Советский Таймыр» (Soviet Taimyr) (later — «Таймыр» (Taimyr)) approximately every month. Several books of Nganasan folklore were published. Until the recent time local radio has had broadcasts in Nganasan.

Since the 90s Nganasan has been taught in three schools of three mentioned above villages; developed methodical works, an ABC book, textbooks for elementary school, school Nganasan-Russian and Russian-Nganasan dictionary are being published.

History of Studies of the Language

For the first time Nganasan was registered in the translation of “Our Father” recorded by N. Witsen between 1664 and 1667. In the XVIII century the lists of Nganasan words were published in the works by F.Y. Stralenberg and P.S. Pallas.

The first description of Nganasan grammar (along with the data in other Samodian languages) was provided by M.A. Castrйn. The data were collected by him during the expedition of 1845-1849. The grammar and the dictionary were published in St. Petersburg in 1854 and 1956, already following the death of the author.

The next brief essay of Nganasan language written by G.N. Prokofiev was issued only in 1937. In 1970 a small text and brief data on Nganasan grammar were published by T. Mikola.

In the 70s and the following years the studies of Nganasan language were notably activated. In 1979 the first detailed Nganasan grammar, written by N.M. Tereschenko, appeared. Extensive lexical material was collected by E.A. Helimski (not published).

The main works on Nganasan language of the recent time belong to, beside N.M. Tereschenko, to K.I. Labanauskas, N.N. Kovalenko, E.P. Boldt, E.A. Helimski, M. Katzschmann, B. Wagner-Nagy.

Sound Samples of the Language

  1. The beginning of the folklore text. The narrator – V.B. Kosterkina. The record by J.-L. Lamber (1997). During the story a Nganasan listener is present; inserted remarks belong to him. [mp3 (30 s / 462 Kb) listen]

    Təti Bajkü Huŋgulyrə təti s’iti is’üə ibahu n’erəbtükü’ n’emybty’aδy
    Baykuy Khunguly was said to have two wives in the beginning

    Tahariai’ ŋamiad’ümə n’emybty’amty koδa’a.
    Later he killed one of the wives.

    Hüəti d’altəirkəbahugəj
    All the time, they say, they (the wives) were jealous of each other.

    Ənty Syruküiŋaŋku… Syruküiŋaŋku koδa’a, D’anaküiŋaŋkuδu kou’ə.
    Syrukyuinanka…he killed Syrukyuinanka, Dyanakyuinganka was left.

    Tahariai’ kaŋkəgüə təndəmtu kotubi’əgətətu tahariai’ bən’d’ə d’iamtu əndy’ə… d’iamtu təndə turhəδa’aŋutu bən’d’ə.
    Some time later, after he killed her, her brain…he squeezed all her brain out.

    [N’igətymə d’indi’.]
    [I have never heard (this fairytale) before.]

    Təti, taharia tətirə n’inyδy tuu’ə
    Suddenly her brother came.

  2. An extract from the dialogue. Two women (ES and EN) are talking; discussing their acquaintance and his relative. The record was made in November 2003. [mp3 (25 s / 98 Kb) listen]

    ES: Təti Rozat’egümü tətə… təti… tənini t’etua l’üə’sa’a ŋukegəə’, l’üə’sa kuəd’ümuδu, maat’eküə bəjkunaŋku, ku’ ərəkərə-mənu n’ilyty’a.
    This Rosa has many Russian visitors; her Russian husband, some old man living very poorly.

    Tətirə təni kona’a, n’üət’i tahariabə mid’i’ə təndə, detskij domtə, [bə…] n’üə…
    She came there, put her children in there, into an orphanage, [EN interrupts], children …

    EN: Syty n’üət’i.
    Her children

    ЕS: Əə’, syty n’üəgəit’u, təti Roza is’a… Roza…
    Her children, it was this Rosa herself…Rosa …

    ЕN: Əə’, əə’… Rozagümü n’intuu ŋad’aδu?
    Yes, Yes … Isn’t Rosa his older sister?

    ЕS: Ŋad’aδu? [əə’] Təndə Rozatu matənu sot’urakəbahu huajmuj
    Sister? [EN: yes] He there, in Rosa’s home, they say, soles untaiki (high fur boots).


Photo © Yu.B. Simchenko. IEA RAS Archive

Making of traditional dress
Photo © Yu.B. Simchenko. IEA RAS Archive

Translated into English by O.A. Povoroznyuk

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