Dr. Brigitte Pakendorf

Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology
Department of Linguistics & Department of Genetics

The Linguistics Department at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology and the study of Siberian Languages

1 The Max Planck Society and the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology

The Max Planck Society for the Advancement of Science is an independent non-profit-making institution funded jointly by the German Federal Republic (Bund) and the individual German states (Lдnder). The Society’s focus is on highly innovative basic research, which is performed primarily in research institutes belonging to the Society itself. It was founded in 1948 with 25 research institutes as the successor of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society for the Advancement of Science. Currently, there are 81 institutes belonging to the Society, 78 of which are located in Germany. These are divided into three scientific sections, the biological-medical section, the chemical-physical-technical section, and the human sciences section [link].

The Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology (MPI-EVA for short) in Leipzig was founded in 1997. It was planned as an interdisciplinary institute with the aim of investigating the (pre-)history of humankind from several different perspectives. The close collaboration of the various departments at one institute is designed to lead to new insights into the history, variety and abilities of the human species in the context of its closest kin, the great apes. There are currently five departments in the MPI-EVA:

  • The Department of Developmental and Comparative Psychology, which studies infant behavioural and linguistic development as well as primate behaviour using experiments performed with captive primates;
  • the Department of Evolutionary Genetics, which focusses on the molecular comparison between humans and great apes, on the study of human prehistory using molecular genetic methods (molecular anthropology), and on the study of ancient DNA;
  • the Department of Human Evolution, which studies human prehistory from the fossil record;
  • the Department of Linguistics, which studies the diversity of human languages and its historical bases;
  • the Department of Primatology, which studies the behaviour of different great ape species in the wild through direct observation and in comparison with genetic and hormone analyses.

Each of the departments is headed by an independent director. The five directors fulfill executive duties as managing director of the institute on a rotational basis for two-year-periods [link].

2 The Department of Linguistics at MPI-EVA

The Department of Linguistics, which is directed by Prof. Dr. Dr. h.c. Bernard Comrie, is a relatively small department within the MPI-EVA as a whole. Currently, the department consists of seven scientists, three post-doctoral fellows and five doctoral students funded by the MPI-EVA, as well as several scientists, a post-doctoral fellow, and two PhD students who receive outside funding. In addition, the department hosts a large number of visiting scientists from all over the world for varying periods of time every year.

The Department of Linguistics is interested in two main areas of research: one is historical linguistics, with a focus on language contact and its outcomes, including the study of creoles and pidgins. Furthermore, some researchers at the department are exploring new ways of establishing genealogical relationships between languages and language families.

The other main area of research in the department is typological, i.e. the study of the variation of human languages based on large cross-linguistic samples to elucidate which features are shared between languages, in which features languages differ, and why. In this context, a large number of projects undertaken at the department focus on the description of under- or undescribed (and often endangered) languages from around the world. For instance, former PhD students of the department wrote grammars of undescribed languages in Bolivia (Mosetén, an isolate) and Brazil (Hup, belonging to the Guaviaré-Japurá family), while a current PhD student is working on a description of the Jarawa language of the Andaman Islands. A geographical focus is the Caucasus, with a grammar of Avar being prepared by native-speaker linguists in Makhachkala, while members and visitors of the department are working on Lezgian, Bezhta, Tsez, Khvarshi, Chechen, and Ingush. In addition, several languages of Indonesia are being described by the members of the Linguistic Field Station of the MPI-EVA in Jakarta [link].

Furthermore, the department is administratively involved in several projects funded by the Volkswagen Foundation (VolkswagenStiftung) DOBES (Documentation of Endangered Languages) initiative:

  • the documentation of the Turkic languages of the Altai-Sayan area of South Siberia (cf section 4);
  • the documentation of four indigenous American Indian languages of the Chaco area of Argentina;
  • the documentation of Western !Xõo of Namibia;
  • the documentation of the Panoan language Cahinahua of the Peru/Brazil border area.

3 The Volkswagen Foundation DOBES initiative

The Volkswagen Foundation (which is not affiliated to the car manufacturer) is an autonomous non-profit-making organization incorporated under private law established to further both higher education and research in the humanities, social and natural sciences, and technology. It was founded in 1961and is the largest organization of its kind in Germany.

The DOBES initiative provides funding for projects that document and archive linguistic and cultural material from severely endangered languages. The purpose of the initiative is to save the unique cultural knowledge and cognitive systems expressed through these languages for posterity. Furthermore, every project is expected to return language materials to the linguistic community that contributed to the study. The documentation funded by the DOBES initiative does not consist of a conventional descriptive grammar, but of processed digital audio and video recordings of as many types of text as possible. These processed (i.e. transcribed, translated and annotated) recordings are stored in a central archive established and maintained by the MPI for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen (http://www.mpi.nl/DOBES/). The idea behind the Nijmegen archive is to store the data for future generations and to make the data generally accessible (on request, and after a period of exclusive access by the contributing scholars) to researchers from different fields, in order to further interdisciplinary approaches to the study of human culture, cognition, and language (information in English on the DOBES initiative and how to apply can be accessed here).

4 The study of Siberian languages at the Department of Linguistics, MPI-EVA

So far, Siberia has not been a geographical focus of the Department of Linguistics; on the contrary, the majority of research projects have been located in the tropical and subtropical belt. However, the department is involved in three projects studying languages of Siberia, which shall be outlined briefly in the following.

1) The Department of Linguistics is funding the compilation of a comprehensive Ket-Russian dictionary with translations of the basic lemmata into English and German. This project is being undertaken by the ‘Department-Laboratory of Languages of Siberian Peoples’ (Кафедра-лаборатория языков народов Сибири) at the Tomsk State Pedagogical University under direction of Prof. Elizaveta Kotorova. Since the project’s coordinator Andrej Nefëdov will be presenting it in detail at the Round Table in Moscow, no more shall be said about it here.

Furthermore, in its support of research on the nearly-extinct Ket language and the already-extinct other members of the Yenisseic language family, the Department of Linguistics played host to a number of Ketologists for several months in the first half of 2005. One of the projects that was worked on during that period and that is supported by the MPI is the compilation of an etymological dictionary of the Yenisseic languages by Heinrich Werner and Edward Vajda.

2) The department is the host institution for a project funded by the Volkswagen Foundation DOBES initiative to document the Turkic languages of South Siberia (ASLEP = Altay-Sayan Language and Ethnography Project). The researchers involved in this project are two linguists from the US, David Harrison and Gregory Anderson, as well as a German phonetician, Sven Grawunder (who is currently a post-doctoral fellow at the Department of Linguistics). The languages concerned are those of the traditionally reindeer herding Turkic speakers of the Altay-Sayan mountain range: primarily the Tofalar, but also the Tožular as well as the Dukha living on the Mongolian side of the Sayan mountains. In addition, the members of the project have made some recordings of two Tuvan dialects spoken in Mongolia which are threatened by Khalkha Mongolian and Kazakh.

According to estimates by the researchers involved in the project, Tofa is on the verge of extinction, with maximally 40 speakers left (and probably not more than 20), the youngest of whom is around 60 years of age. This language, which is spoken in the Irkutskaja Oblast’, has been practically replaced by Russian. The Tožular, who live on the Tuvan side of the Sayan range, have adopted standard Tuvan in everyday life; estimates of the extent of competence in the Tožu dialect are difficult, since standard Tuvan and the Tožu dialect are very similar. Lastly, the Dukha are shifting to Khalkha Mongolian; there may still be approximately 200 speakers left, but amongst these are very few children.

This project was one of the first eight to be funded within the framework of the DOBES initiative, initially during the pilot phase of the initiative from 2000 – 2001, and then for an additional three years (the normal duration of funding awarded by the DOBES initiative) from 2002 – 2005. Although the funding provided by the Volkswagen Foundation is now coming to an end, all three scientists aim at continuing their documentary work among South Siberian Turkic languages.

3) I myself am working on a combined genetic-linguistic project to elucidate the prehistory of the Yakuts and establish both biological and linguistic contact. It is clear that the Yakuts, whose Turkic language and pastoralist subsistence pattern are alien to northeastern Siberia, must have immigrated to their current area of settlement. Furthermore, it is known from historical records that the Yakuts only recently expanded over the vast territory they now occupy. However, it is not clear whether the immigrating and expanding Yakuts actually intermixed with the indigenous Manchu-Tungus-speaking groups they encountered, or whether the latter were primarily pushed to the peripheral areas of the Yakut settlement. My aim is therefore to use molecular genetic data to study whether genetic admixture between the Yakuts and the Manchu-Tungus-speaking groups, and possibly Yukaghirs, took place, and to what degree this might correlate with influence on the Yakut language. For this, I spent a total of 10 months in the Republic Sakha (Yakutia) in 4 different districts in 2002 and 2003 to collect both genetic samples as well as language material [1]. I am currently analyzing both the genetic and the linguistic data to obtain a PhD degree in Linguistics from the University of Leiden.

Although the Yakut language is, of course, not endangered, it is endangering the languages of the Evens and Evenks settled in the Republic Sakha (Yakutia). This is mostly due to the numerical superiority of the Yakuts, who have the enormous benefit of receiving schooling, administrative services, and media of mass communication in their native language, services which are often denied to the smaller peoples living in close proximity to the Yakuts.

5 The archiving initiative at the Department of Linguistics, MPI-EVA

The Department of Linguistics is in the process of setting up a digital archive for documentary material of un(der)described and endangered languages. The aims of this archive are to ensure the long-term integrity of valuable data, i.e. to ensure that files are periodically converted to current data-formats. This kind of curatorship is necessary for digital data files, since computer systems (e.g. storage media and file formats) are continuously changing, and thus files that have not been used for a longer period of time become useless because they cannot be accessed anymore.

Two kinds of data will be archived:

  1. basic documentation materials, i.e. primarily digitized recordings, but possibly also digitized field notes or transcription files. This will be annotated with some metadata, e.g. who collected the data, the language name, and who has the intellectual property rights to the data (for instance, in the case of primary data from some Australian or North American Indian languages, this may be the community of speakers rather than the researcher).
  2. 2) web-based language materials, e.g. newspapers or personal sites written in indigenous languages that appear on the internet, a copy of which will be stored on the archive. The purpose of this is to salvage potentially valuable language material which has been painstakingly put out into the web, but which may not be permanently accessible for various reasons.

Another possibility being considered is to provide so-called ‘locker functions’, i.e. safe storage of valuable data for individual researchers. This would not be curated in the manner of the main body of the archive, and it would not be made publicly available. However, it would be understood that the stored data would become freely accessible in case of the sudden death of the submitting researcher.

It should be noted that in any case, only digital or digitized data will be stored. That is, any analog recordings would need to be digitized before submission, while field notebooks would need to be scanned.

Access to the archived data will probably be possible via personal requests to the archive manager. It will be up to the submitting researcher to set the access limits of basic documentary materials – though data will only be archived if it will be made accessible after a reasonable period of time. Access to the data harvested from the web might be more difficult to regulate, based on questions of copyright and intellectual property. This will probably have to be decided on a case by case basis.

Currently, the plan is to limit the archive to submissions from within the ‘greater Leipzig community’, i.e. to members of the Department of Linguistics at MPI-EVA, to long-term or recurrent visitors of the department, and to members of the Institute of Linguistics at the University of Leipzig. However, it may be that the archive could be extended in the future, depending on the demand for such services and on the financial means available for curating it.


  1. At this point, I would like to express my gratitude to the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research and the Max Planck Society for the Advancement of Science for funding, to the Institute of Health and the Institute of Humanitarian Studies in Yakutsk for administrative assistance and help with collecting genetic samples, as well as to all the people who shared their life stories with me, to those who helped me understand and translate these stories, and to all my hosts for their warm hospitality. [ back ]
WWW lingsib.iea.ras.ru
© IEA RAS, 2005
This website was created with support from UNESCO Moscow Office