The Nivkh language

General Information on the Language

The Main Ethnonym of the Ethnic Group

Bibliography on the Nivkh language

The Nivkh (formerly the ethnonym “gilyak” was used). The word “nivkh” originates in the ethnic group self-ethnonym, meaning ‘man’. Until the 1930s the ethnonym “Gilyak” was used, coming from the name given to the Nivkh by the neighbouring Manchus. In Tungus-Manchu languages the word “Gilyak” means ‘people using big boats with sculls’.

Self-Ethnonym of the Ethnic Group

© D.A. Funk, 1999, Nogliki, Sakhalin Island

  • Ньивхгу (Amur dialect)
  • Ньигвнун (East-Sakhalin dialect)

Alternate Language names

  • The Nivkh language
  • The Gilyak language (obsolete)

Name of the Language


Genetic Affiliation

The problem of the genetic affiliation is not solved yet, there are numeral hypothesises on similarities between the Nivkh language and Tungus-Manchu, Turkic, Chukchi, Mongol, Chinese and Native American Indians languages. Today the Nivkh language is considered to be isolate and is conventionally related to палеоазиатским языкам.

The Geographical Spread of the Language

The Nivkhs live on Sakhalin Сахалинской области (villages Nekrasovka, Nogliki (north of Sakhalin Island), the Poronay region (south of Sakhalin Island), in Khabarovsk district (cites of Khabarovsk, Komsomolsk-on-Amur, Nilolaevsk-on-Amur, Aleevka village on the Amur). The Nivkh are settled scattered. At the moment the biggest groups of the Nivkh are gathered in Aleevka village on the Amur, in Val, Nogliki and Nekrasovka villages on Sakhalin, as well as in the Poronay region of the Sakhalin district. The Nivkh living in the Khabarovsk district on Amur almost lost their language, the Nivkh language being talked mostly in the Aleevka village. After the World War II a small number of the Nivkh moved to Japan (Hokkaido Isl.).

Number of Native Speakers

The Nivkh are one of 26 ethnic groups-members of the Association of numerically small indigenous peoples of The North and Far East. In 1989 the number of the Nivkh was 4 700, but only 23, 3% spoke their native language, the others having switched to the Russian. According to the 2002 census the number of the Nivkh is 5162. The Nivkh language is used by 688 people.

Language Contacts

Russian, Japanese, Even, Orochi, Nanai, Ulchi languages

Dialects and Subdialects

It was assumed formerly that the Nivkh language consists of two dialects: the Amur and East Sakhalin dialects, divided into subdialects. Substantial phonetic, morphologic and lexical difference between the dialects was registered. 1997 the scholar E.Yu. Gruzdeva proposed to distinguish four dialects according to their geographic spread: the Amur, North Sakhalin, East Sakhalin and South Sakhalin dialects.

Linguistic Description

The Nivkh language is agglutinative, synthetic. It has a complicated system of regular vowel alternations. The stress is non-fixed and mobile, it is a distinctive feature. The language has eight parts of speech, there are no adjectives, their semantic equivalents are quality verbs. In the Amur dialect nouns, pronouns and numerals have 8 cases, in East Sakhalin – 7. The verb has categories of voice, mood, aspect, tense (future and non-future), number, person and negation. The language has nominative syntactic structure. Simple clause prevails over complex sentences. Basic word order – SOV. The issue of the existence of incorporation remains disputable.

Sociolinguistic Description of the Language

Legal Status, the Present Day Situation of the Language

The Nivkh language is a language of a minority indigenous people of RF. The writing system is newly created.

The state of the Nivkh language was strongly affected by the forced resettlement of the Nivkh from old small coast villages to bigger ones in the early 1950s. In these bigger settlements the Nivkh are a minority among residents (0,4% – in Poronaysk, 4,6% – in Nogliki and 0,4% – in Okha in 1989) This demographic situation is reflected by the linguistic situation. 99,5% of the Nivkh claimed the Nivkh language to be their mother tongue in 1926, 77,1% in 1959 and only 22,2% in 1989. The Nivkh language is mostly known only by the elderly generation. Nowadays all the Nivkh language speaking Nivkh are bilingual, speaking also fluently Russian, as they live amongst Russian population.

V.M. Sangi
Photo © D.A. Funk, 1999, Nogliki, Sakhalin island

Writing and Orthography

The orthography for the Nivkh language was newly created, the script is Cyrillic. There is a unified orthographic system based on phonematic principle.

1932 the writing system for the Amur dialect on the basis of the Latin script was created. In 1932-1937 a Nivkh primer, elementary school textbooks were printed, 1935 on the basis of this script 11 issues of a newspaper “Nivkhskaya Pravda” were published, but soon this script was considered inconvenient from 1953 Cyrillic script was used. 1979 the writing system for the East Sakhalin dialect was created on the basis of the Cyrillic script.

The Nivkh language can be considered as not entirely developed literary language. The norm in it is not formed.

The first works (fairytales, stories, tales and autobiographies) appeared after the creation of writing in early 1930s. Literature in the Nivkh language is represented by reading books, two Pushkin fairytales translations, done by E.A. Kreinovich back in the 1930s, and several V.M. Sangi works (a total of about 20 works). Folklore works are represented by myths, legends, songs gathered and published by V.M. Sangi, Ch. Taxami, L. Tyvus.

Social Functions of the Language

In education the Nivkh language is taught as a subject until the 3 grade in three primary schools and two secondary schools of the Sakhalin and Khabarovsk district. It is taught for future teachers at Институте народов Севера of the Russian State Pedagogical University (RSPU) by A.I. Hertsen in St. Petersburg.

The Nivkh language also functions in the sphere of literature and folklore. There is a small number of original works published, literary and folklore. The language is also used in educational literature: there are primers, reading books and primary school textbooks published. The Nivkh language is used restrictedly in families, private life, personal contacts, traditional economical activities, national rituals and generally by the people of elder generation, the younger generation does not know the language or has bad command of it. The Nivkh language is becoming less and less used among the younger generation.

History of Language Studies

The first report on the Nivkh (Gilyak) language was made 1886 by N. Zeland at a meeting of the Ethnographic Section of the Moscow University. First publications of the Nivkh vocabulary examples were made, according to R. Jakobson, by a Frenchman L. Furet (1857 г.) and a Japanese K.Okamoto (1868 г.). The Nivkh language materials were gathered during A. Schrenk and P. Glen’s expeditions in 1854-1856, afterwards the data were processed by V. Grube. Later scholar grammar and vocabulary studies and description were carried further by Russian and foreign scholars: L.Ja. Sternberg, B.Pilsudsky, E.A. Kreinovich, V.Z.Panfilov, V.N. Saveljeva, Ch.M. Taxami, E.Ju. Gruzdeva, A.A. Burykin and others.


The Nivkh folklore is a distinctive phenomenon of the Nivkh language culture. The folklore language is archaic. According to V.A. Rushakov the folklore is better represented in the East Sakhalin dialect in records done in the late XIX c. by L.Ya. Sternberg and B. Pilsudsky. Folklore data in the Sakhalin dialect gathered by E.A. Kreinovich remain unpublished. L.Ya. Sternberg distinguished two main genres of the Nivkh folklore: epic narrative and lyrics. To the epic genres belong the following: кершайн, тылгунд, настунд. Кершайн is a short narrative, characterized by absence of protagonists’ names, there only toponyms mentioned in this genre. Тылгунд is near in form as well in matter to myth. Works of this genre relate about the origin of the world, man, flora and fauna, deities, spirits etc. The narrative is apprehended as a real event. According to scholars this genre is the mostly evolved and perfect. Настунд is a genre of heroic poems. The narrative is improvisational and is performed by shamans in a specific melodic way. The protagonist of the poem is a man accomplishing numerous heroic deeds on its own. To the lyric genre belong love and joke songs, lullabies, as well as shaman songs, incantations, prayers etc.


Photo © D.A. Funk, 1999, Nogliki, Sakhalin island

Photo © D.A. Funk, 1999, Nogliki, Sakhalin island

Specialists studying the language

  • Gruzdeva Elena Yuryevna

    Institute of Linguistic Studies, RAS. Address (office): 199053 Tuchkov Pereulok, 9, St. Petersburg, Russia

  • Ozolinya Larisa Viktorovna

    Dr. Sc. in philology, senior research fellow. United Institute for History, Philology and Philosophy of the Siberian Department of RAS, Institute of Philology, Department of Tungus-Manchu studies. Address (work): Russia, 630090, Novosibirsk 90, ul. Ak. Lavrentyeva, 17. Phone (office): +7 (3832) 350567, fax: +7 (3832) 301518

Academic centers studying the language

  • Institute of Linguistic Studies, RAS

    Address: 199053 Tuchkov Pereulok, 9, St. Petersburg, Russia. Phone: (812) 3281611

  • Russian State Pedagogical University (RSPU) by A.I. Hertsen
  • Institute of the Peoples of the North. Address: 198097, Prospekt Stachek, St. Petersburg, Russia. Fax: +7 (812) 312-1195. E-mail:, Website

  • Arctic Centre, University of Groningen

    P.O. Box 716, 9700 AS Groningen, The Netherlands Phone: +31 (0)50 3636834, E-mail:

Projects of the Language Studies

  • Project «Sound Patterns of Arctic Languages». Scholar: Hidetoshi Shiraishi (Chiba University, Japan). Financed by the Ubbo Emmius Fonds. Supervisors: Prof. Dr. J. Nerbonne, Dr. T. de Graaf, Dr. D. G. Gilbers. This research project consists of two academic activities that will be carried out simultaneously:
    1. A description of the phonology of Nivkh within the framework of Generative Phonology
    2. Construction of a linguistic database of Nivkh
    Address: Department of Linguistics, Postbus 716, 9700 AS Groningen. Phone: +31 50 363 5982. E-mail: Homepage:,,

The following sources were used to compile this information:

  1. Письменные языки мира. Языки Российской Федерации. Т. 2. М., 2003,
  2. Языки народов России. Красная книга. М., 2002,
  3. Красная книга языков народов России. М., 1994,
  4. Лингвистический энциклопедический словарь. М., 1990.

Translated into English by A.N. Bitkeeva

© IEA RAS, 2005
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