Pluzhnikov Nikolay Vladimirovich

N.N. Miklukho-Maklay Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology


  1. By the present moment the problem of preservation of the native language of the “small-numbered” ethnic groups (numerically) small peoples of Russia (not only its North) has become a burning issue, particularly, as followed by a number of other drastic cultural problems. They can be summarized as “marginalization of ethnic culture” and, therefore, as re-orientation of the population dispersed on vast territories of our country, to another value system – formerly, of the federal character, and presently, of the global one (as marginal consumers).
  2. Reference to the ethnic history of (numerically) small peoples of Russia demonstrates the fact that many of them have already made a shift from one language to another one, so that this process itself doesn’t seem to be catastrophic. For instance, ethnonymic data of Southern Siberian region evidence that it was populated by peoples of Northern Samoyedic language family which now is found only in the Far North. Similar story was characteristic for peoples who spoke Yukagir Yukagir languages. The migrations of Evenks and Evens to their territories limited the zone of the spread of Yukagir language by Kolyma River basin. However, Tungus-speaking population of these territories situated to the west from Kolyma and up to the Taymyr inclusive (together with former Yukagir population) shifted to Yakut language early back in the end of the 19-th century. In the late 19-th – early 20-th centuries Kolyma River basin was populated by Yukagir-speaking groups of Evens, along with Yukagirs themselves.
  3. The given facts demonstrate naturalistic processes. If we consider this point of view the mentioned above languages could be hardly preserved in any form without changes in the environment and the way of life of the native speakers. At the same time we can hardly imagine that in these cases traditional ethnic culture was falling into oblivion and the re-orientation to another value system happened provided that the way of life and subsistence base did not change in their essence.
  4. According to the history of peoples of Siberia, the change of the way of life and the subsistence base with its cultural consequences more often took place along with the native language preserved as, for instance, it happened to Nenets supplanted to tundra by Ob Ugoric peoples and transformed into large-scale reindeer herders there. An analogical case with a drastic change of the way of life and subsistence base can be found among Chukchis (also connected with the transition to large-scale reindeer herding in the 18-th century). But in this case, according to materials of V.G. Bogoraz, mostly neighboring Koryaks suffered from whom Chukchi borrowed the first large herds of domestic reindeer along with reindeer herding.
  5. The modern problems appearing among (numerically) small peoples of the North with the loss of the language to some extent differ from those of pre-soviet past. (Numerically) small peoples obtained an opportunity for special and higher education lacking in their traditional culture. Therefore, internal monolithic ethnic environment disintegrated into different prioritized interests. In the aspect of preservation of the native language, this phenomenon had a disastrous effect on the traditional culture of the smallest peoples such as Nivkhs, Nganasans, Enets, Yukagirs, etc.
  6. Among more numerous small peoples such as Nenets, Komi-Izhemtsi, Evens, Chukchis, Koryaks and others the native language is preserved in the monoethnic environment that is the preservation of the language requires a necessary environment. However, it can be neither monoethnic nor monolingual (as, for instance, in the lower riches of Kolyma River where back in the mid 20-th century thrilingualtrilingual individuals could be found among the population). In this case languages should have clearly defined spheres of use in the public life with a certain balance of social priorities and a minimum of inter-ethnic marriages provided to it – the situation is quite unstable, however, considering different ways of life of ethnic groups living by each other’s side, is rather typical for Siberia.
  7. On the hand, the loss of the native language by small peoples of the North in the second half of the 20-th century can be presented as a historical process but to what extent this process should be considered natural is an open question since it also came as result of predetermined state politics both economic and linguistic one.
  8. What does the preservation of the native language of (numerically) small peoples of the North stand for? It, mostly, symbolizes ethnic identity. On the territories where the language was not preserved such symbolic function can be played by, for instance, different types of traditional activities (take, for instance, reindeer herding of Sakhalin Uilta) or, at least, reconstructed holidays (for instance, those of Itelmens).
  9. Can the present day native language of (numerically) small peoples of the North be inscribed in the system of rather real than symbolic values? – This is another open question since it has not only communicative but also cultural aspect (where any kind of folklore belongs). This cultural aspect of the language can be translated into other languages with the meaning conveyed; otherwise, the meaning can be lost. For instance, any (historical) legend or a small epic story can be translated into any language while a fairytale is translated with serious stylistic transformations, and still any song or an epic story song cannot be translated into a language of an alien culture at all (except that they are translated in an academic variant). The folklore of peoples of the North contains unusual examples that prove this rule. For instance, Nenets heroic epos was borrowed by Komi-Izhemtsi, as well as by Enets and Nganasans along with Nganasan reindeer herding, and later continued its independent development in the languages of Komi, Enets and Nganasans. To what extent are folklore records claimed in their native environment now? At the present moment, the same answer might be true for every place: they are not claimed at all. – Real life nourished by priorities of mass media communication is too far from them.
  10. Academic forces of the society can hardly change historical processes. Even if they are called unnatural they still will be irreversible. In this case teaching of a native language as foreign at school will not help since it already doesn’t exist in real life, it simply lacks the environment. However, for the historical science any language has its own inherent value. No one has ever thought of archeological investigations as meaningless. A non-literate language with its epic and ritual records reveals its potential richness not only in vocabulary and grammar but also in rich perception of its speakers. Thanks to the modern development of comparative historical linguistics, such material represents spiritual archeology of the culture and, therefore, it should be collected, documented and preserved. The pathos of this call is caused by the fact that the last generation of epic story tellers of many peoples of Siberia and the North is passing away with no materials left after them.

Translated into English by O.A. Povoroznyuk

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