Olga Kazakevich

Research Computer Centre, Moscow State Lomonosov University

The functioning of the indigenous minority languages in the Yamalo-Nenets autonomous area, Turukhansk district of the Krasnoyarsk territory and Evenki autonomous area

Yamalo-Nenets autonomous area, Turukhansk district of the Krasnoyarsk territory, and Evenki autonomous area build a continuous area, in which representatives of six indigenous minorities of Siberia reside: the Nenets, the Khanty, the Mansi, the Selkup, the Ket, and the Evenki. The borders of the area don’t coincide with the borders of traditional dwelling of these minority ethnic groups: outside this area the Tundra Nenets live in the Nenets and Taimyr autonomous areas and in the Murmansk region, the Khanty, the Mansi and the Forest Nenets live in the Khanty-Mansi autonomous area, and the Evenki live in the republics Sakha (Yakutia) and Buriatia, in the Khabarovsk territory and in the Amur, Irkutsk, and Chita regions.

Table 1. Ethnic groups strength in the area

Region / Ethnic group Yamalo-Nenets autonomous area Turukhansk district Evenki autonomous area All the three regions Russia
Ket 15 816 211 1042 (70 %) 1494
Nenets 26435 12 26447 (64 %) 41302
Mansi 172 0 172 (2 %) 11432
Selkup 1797 369 0 2166 (51 %) 4249
Khanty 8760 1 8761 (31 %) 28678
Evenki 15 188 3802 4005 (11 %) 35527

It is seen from the table above that the area is the main territory of dwelling for the Ket and the Nenets, a little bit more than a half of the Selkup live there, as well as almost one third of the Khanty and 11 % of the Evenki of Russia where as for the Mansi the area is quite peripheral.

In 1993 a series of sociolinguistic surveys of settlements with indigenous minority population in the area was started. By now 18 settlements have been surveyed. The description of the functioning of minority languages in the area is based on the results of those surveys; other information sources were also used.

All the minority languages of the area function in the situation of almost total bilingualism of their speakers. Representatives of indigenous minority peoples of the North who cannot speak Russian are very scarce to-day. They can be found only in the elder generation or among small children in the families of reindeer herdsmen leading nomadic life (among the Tundra and the Forest Nenets, the Khanty, the Evenki). All the Selkups and the Kets speak Russian. The transmission of the ethnic language from parents to children is still preserved among the Tundra and the Forest Nenets, the Khanty grazing reindeer, as well as in two Selkup and one Evenki local groups. Among the Ket the intergenerational transmission of the ethnic language stopped in all local groups of the Ket about twenty-forty years ago.

In all the surveyed villages Russian occupies a dominating position not only in all official communicative spheres but also in non-formal communication, including family communication. The ethnic languages of indigenous population are primarily used in traditional trades: hunting, fishing, reindeer breeding. The preservation of intergenerational language transmission correlates with the preservation of traditional economy: just in the communities in which rather many families spend much of the year in the tundra or in the taiga (the Forest Nenets of the village Kharampur, the Evenkis of Sovetskaya Rechka, the Selkups of Ratta) the ethnic language transmission is still preserved. In the whole, the survey reveled general trends unfavorable for autochthonous languages and cultures. At the same time the surveyed villages represent a vast spectrum of various language and ethno-cultural situations from comparatively stable in Sovetskaya Rechka (Evenkis), Kharampur (Forest Nenets), or Ratta (Selkups) where the children are still able to speak their ethnic languages to Surgutikha, Baklanikha, Vareshshiagino, or Sulomai (Kets) where ethnic language speakers are all over 50-60 years old. It is interesting that beside objective factors (such as the proportion of the autochthonous population in the settlement, preservation of reindeer breeding, presence of school in the village infrastructure, etc.), the development of the situation in a particular village can be influenced by some subjective factors, in particular, some events in the history of this village.

In many of the surveyed villages the ethnic language of the indigenous population is taught at school, but unfortunately, the teaching is practically ineffective and its influence on the language situation is solely symbolic.

The survey revealed a widespread contradiction between what people say about their attitude to their ethnic language and what they actually do in practice as far as language use is concerned. The majority of the indigenous minority population of the area express a positive attitude to their ethnic languages, parents say they want their children to speak the language of their ancestors. At the same time the language actually spoken with children, even in most monoethnic families is Russian. If the ancestral language is regarded as desirable for children, it is Russian that is considered obligatory: parents want their children to feel at ease at school.

The collected data shows that a non-trivial typology of language and ethno-cultural situations among indigenous minorities of North can be fruitfully developed only on the level of a settlement and not on the level of a minority ethnic group as a whole. Even in one and the same district the difference between settlements in regard of the preservation of autochthonous languages and cultures can be pretty considerable. Attempts to give an ‘average’ estimation of the language situation in a region remind measuring an average temperature of the patients in a hospital. Only a precise knowledge of how the things are going in every particular settlement can contribute to developing adequate measures aimed at supporting and preserving linguistic diversity of that settlement and thus of all the region.

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