Samoyedic Languages on the Verge of Extinction at Fenno-Ugrica

During last week, we released the monographs in Nenets and Selkup available in our Fenno-Ugrica collection. Sven-Erik Soosaar, a researcher of Tundra Nenets at the Institute of the Estonian Language (EKI) gives us a brief overview to this material and discusses the status of Samoyedic languages, which are at the edge of extinction, or have already perished.

A valuable resource of the Samoyedic languages has been made available for the researchers. The Samoyedic languages, which are spoken in Western Siberia and Northern Europe is the smallest branch of the Uralic language family. Several of these languages have already gone extinct and most of the remaining languages are critically endangered. The only Samoyedic language which is not in the immediate danger of extinction is Tundra Nenets, which has still about 20 000-30 000 speakers. According to the latest census, the number of speakers is decreasing fast. This suggests that the younger generations are losing the language and the work on revitalisation has to be started in order to save the Nenets language from the fate of other Samoyedic languages. For instance, Tundra Enets has only about ten speakers left. The other Nenets language, Tundra Nenets, has about 1000 speakers and it is also severely endangered. The differences in phonetical and lexical level make the use of Tundra Nenets literary language impossible for Forest Nenets speakers – their own literary language was created only in the 1990’s and wasn’t included in this collection due to the copyright issues.

54 monographs in Tundra Nenets from the years 1903 to 1956 are digitized and made publicly available at Fenno-Ugrica collection. The oldest of these titles is a translation of missionary biblical stories from 1903. In this book, every Nenets word is glossed with Russian translation below. The other books are mainly primary school textbooks, which were originally published between 1932 and 1956. These publications reflect the tumultuous period in the life of the peoples of the Soviet empire. The orthography in earlier textbooks is based on the Latin alphabet, but from 1937 onwards, the Cyrillic based orthography is being used. Among the digitized books, we find some translations of literary works from Russian, most notably the tales of Alexander Pushkin. Dictionaries from the years 1936, 1937, 1954 and 1955 are also in the collection. Interesting curiosities are two speeches of Stalin from 1939 and 1940, which were translated into Tundra Nenets. In these texts, we can see the attempts to use Nenets in a style quite different from the traditional literary works and translations of Russian fiction. The use of Russian words for depicting the concepts of modern society instead of the missing Nenets counterparts is indicative for this type of texts.

12 books in Selkup have been digitalized (plus one Russian translation of a Selkup primary). Regarding the small number of material published in Selkup, this is already a major part of Selkup literary corpus. The oldest books digitized are from 1879 – a textbook and a book on religious holidays. These titles contain a reading primary and the earliest attempts of missionaries to translate biblical stories into Selkup. Parallel text in Russian is also provided. Selkup translations are heavily influenced by Russian, both at the lexical and syntactic level. The dialect of these texts, Central Selkup spoken in and around the village of Narym is practically extinct for today, there may be no more than five elderly speakers left. The other books are written in Northern dialect, which is the only dialect spoken, albeit only by about 1000 people today. The school books of 1930’s are written in Latin orthography. This endeavour did not last long and the primary and arithmetics textbook of 1940 are already written in Cyrillic-based orthography. The latest book in this selection is a primary textbook from 1953. A valuable resource is the first grammar of Selkup by Georgi Prokofyev, which was published in 1935.

The materials in Samoyedic languages at the Fenno-Ugrica collection reflect the history of Samoyedic literary languages from early attempts in the 19th century through the enthusiasm of 1930’s to the middle of the 20th century, which witnessed the slow path to the extinction of native languages being supported by the Soviet political and school system. This collection presents a worthy material for the researchers of Samoyedic languages, especially those interested in literary language development.

/ Sven-Erik Soosaar

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