Time to Decide for Ob-Ugric Languages: How Many Written Varieties Does a Language Need?

From time to time, we do invite researchers to share their views on the materials, which have been published in our Fenno-Ugrica collection. This time, mme Merja Salo from the University of Helsinki discusses the current state of written Ob-Ugric languages.

/ Jussi-Pekka

The National Library’s new, uniquely extensive Ob-Ugric materials illustrate the early stages of the orthographies of the Khanty and Mansi languages from the early to mid-20th century. This collection could greatly benefit both academics and the language communities themselves. In the following paragraphs, I will provide some background information on the languages in question, as well as their many, partly concurrent, partly consecutive orthographies.

The two Ob-Ugric languages, Khanty and Mansi, form the easternmost branch in the family tree of Finno-Ugric languages. At the moment, the last few thousand speakers of these languages live on the taiga in western Siberia, on the banks of the river Ob and its many tributaries. The area where Khanty and Mansi are spoken is wide and sparsely populated; the people live in small villages far apart from each other, and their dialects vary wildly, particularly in the case of Khanty.

Like so many other Russian minority languages, the age structure of Ob-Ugric language speakers does not bode well for the language. The younger generations adopted Russian decades ago, for a number of reasons. Ob-Ugric higher education is only available in pedagogy, and there are no jobs in this field in the cities. Young teachers are unwilling to return to the remote, difficult to reach villages to live in inhospitable circumstances. However, small editions of literature in these languages are constantly being printed, thanks to profits from oil. Most literature in Khanty and Mansi is currently not available for sale, since the books are given out for free or sent to schools. Such generosity is too late to change the situation, however, since the use of the written languages rests on the shoulders of a few enthusiasts, and Khanty and Mansi are taught as foreign languages at schools, if they are taught at all.

The first Khanty materials entered the academic consciousness in the 1840s, when the Hungarian Antal Reguly collected songs in northern Khanty varieties. Shortly after this, in 1849, M. A. Castrén published his grammar and dictionary on the Irtysh and Surgut dialects. In the late 19th century, some religious literature intended for the Khanty population was published, initially written in a mixture of the northern dialects. In 1903, the first translation of the New Testament was printed in the Vakh dialect of Eastern Khanty, but this marked the culmination of the religious missionary work. Its results were less than impressive, as most Khanty could not understand the texts, which were written in extreme dialects. It was only after the Russian Revolution that the effort to establish written varieties for many of the minority languages in Siberia began. Political propaganda pamphlets were published in these languages, as was, e.g., the Constitution, parts of which are now in the Fenno-Ugrica collection. During the 20th century, educational material for the Khanty was published in as many as five dialects: those of Shuryshkar, Kazym, Middle Ob (no longer in use), Surgut and Vakh. Of these, the two former ones are varieties of the northern written language, and the two latter of the eastern written language. In fact, the dialects of the Khanty language form a continuum similar to that of the Baltic Finnic or Sàmi languages, and it is not an easy task to determine where the border between dialect and language lies. To complicate matters further, historically, speakers of Southern Khanty could have been positioned between the two current dialect groups, but they are likely to have become fully Russianised. The possibility to create a uniform written Khanty for all has been put forward, but the differences between the Northern and Eastern dialects are too great for this to be feasible. Even among the Northern written varieties alone, differences in vowels and, to some extent, sibilants, render unification impossible. The differences among the Eastern written varieties are even greater.

The new Khanty collection in Fenno-Ugrica features several rare religious booklets which have been unattainable for researchers until now. Similarly, the new collection enables the easy comparison of textbooks by different authors, particularly from the 1930s. The rich material could support research, for example, on the orthographic development of a single variety of Northern Khanty or on the different varieties of written language present in the textbooks for a particular class or year.

In 2012, the decision was made to unify the orthographies of the existing four written varieties of Khanty. The decision was drafted over several meetings, which were far from unanimous. The quarrel is between two schools of thought: the old, reasonably functional orthography utilises vowel diacritics for additional clarity in textbooks, and the new, phonology-based orthography deviates from the system familiar from Russian in which the quality of the vowels is apparent in the consonants, which must consequently have both a plain and a palatalised version indicated with a diacritic. Such new consonant diacritics in Khanty are available in few font sets, and the proponents of the new orthography have promised that using all of them will not be necessary in all cases. This means that the vowel diacritics will be needed less, but the separate letter j will be used heavily. At the moment, it seems that the Khanty newspaper and textbook community will have to submit to the revised system dictated by academic authorities.

For Mansi, the situation has been easier throughout its history. Since 1868, religious literature intended primarily for the people has been rarely printed. In 1903, a primer was printed for Mansi speakers in the northern region of Priuralsky. However, the Mansi were largely illiterate until a written language, based on the northern Sosva dialect, was created under the supervision of Valeri Tshernetsov, and textbooks and story books began to be published in the 1930s. In those times, some books were also published in the Latin alphabet. One textbook from 1937 uses a highly irregular method to indicate long vowels with two letters, but already in 1938, a more conventional orthography was adopted. One of the curiosities in the Fenno-Ugrica collections is the story “Two hunters” written by Panteleimon Tsheymetov under the pseudonym Yevrin Pantelei in 1940. It seems that for a time, there was an attempt to create a parallel written language based on the eastern Konda dialect (or perhaps, combining both dialects), which this work represents.

Another interesting chapter in the history of pedagogy in the region are the word-for-word Russian translations of Khanty and Mansi textbooks, created to help teachers working in the field. One cannot help but wonder how the monolingual Russian teachers managed to do their jobs using such textbooks, particularly since their pupils did not initially speak any Russian!

Merja Salo


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