Language of the week: Selkup

The Selkup language is an endangered Samoyedic language spoken in Siberia by the Selkup people. It is the only known language in the Southern Samoyedic group, now that the already extinct Kamassian and Mator languages have been proven to be actually closer to the Northern Samoyedic group and not the southern one, in contrary to previous beliefs. According to the Russian census in 2010, there are around 1000 speakers of the language, but the amount of fluent speakers and those, who actually use the language on daily basis, is believed to be much smaller.

Selkup is divided into two dialectal groups, and the most distant dialects are barely mutually intelligible. It’s easiest to tell apart the Northern Selkup, which is spoken by the rivers Taz and Turuhan. The Southern dialect group forms a “chain” of dialects divided into Tym, Narym, Ob, and Ket dialects. Sometimes Selkup is divided into three groups, Northern by Taz and Turuhan, Central, which involves mainly Narym dialect, and Southern spoken by Tšulym and Tšaja. The most southern dialects are practically extinct.

There are 39 letters in the modern Selkup alphabet, which was developed in the 1980s’ after changing back and forth between Cyrillic and Latin alphabet for over a hundred years. No common grammar has been developed, so most of the literature, that has been published in Northern Selkup is useless for the other dialects. Fortunately, there is some literature in Central and Southern dialects, too.

The Southernmost dialects are considered dead or dying, because the language isn’t transmitted to the children any more. Many of the Northern Samoyedic speakers have been assimilated to Russians, but the language is still alive and used in the everyday life in few villages.

Sources and more:

  • Pismennyje jazyki mira: Jazyki Rossijskoi Federatsii. Sotsiolingvistitšeskaja entsiklopedija
"Finno-Ugric", part one: Introduction

For starters, an illustration on what I mean by “dead authorities, old truisms and received knowledge”.

The term Finno-Ugric refers to the original core of the Uralic family: a relationship between Hungarian and its closest relativs (Ugric) on one hand, and Finnish and its closest relativs (Finnic) on the other. It is to this day also used simply as a synonym for the entire family.

These two senses differ once the Samoyedic languages are brought into the discussion. These are the easternmost Uralic languages, spoken as far as the Taimyr peninsula (Nganasan) and the Sayan mountains east of the Altai (the now-extinct Kamass and Mator). Unsurprizingly, they also were the last Uralic languages to be brought into Western consciousness, the last languages to be recognized as Uralic, and they remain the least-studied languages of the family.

Now here’s the thing: Samoyedic was for various reasons assigned as a primary branch of the Uralic languages, considered to be a sister group to all others, which would form the Finno-Ugric group. I have not studied the original 19th century arguments for this assignment (and I gess it might be possible to crank out an entire thesis on the topic), but I gather from later references that ethnographical motivations played a part. Research in the 20th century has emphasized the lexical distinctness of Samoyedic, although in the last few decades improov’d quality and availability of Samoyedic data has led to a considerable increase in Uralic etymologies for Smy material (see in particular Aikio 2002 and 2006; references at the last post of this series). However, as those who understand the cladistic principles used in “family tree” models know, to really show a bifurcation into Samoyedic and Finno-Ugric, what is needed are Finno-Ugric innovations. I will over the next few posts go over how this has never quite been successfully shown.

A “Language Nest” program has recently opened at the local kindergarten in the village of Potapovo, Krasnoyarsk Krai, Russia. The goal of the program is to maintain—and to some extent revive—the Forest Enets language, one of the many endangered native Siberian languages.

The Enets week ends today with an article, which assures us that the language still has some hope! It’s from 2012, but I was listening to a lecture about the Samoyedic languages recently, and according to the lecturer the program is till running.

Next week will be about the Livonian language.

Hanging out with Blü last wknd!! 😍🐶🐾☁️ what a freaking tornado! She’s an hyperactive teenager. Running around everywhere, always trying to find something to take on her mouth and play at La tagg (not kidding). And then she wants to cuddle. Aww une vrai maligne! We only have one thing in common: mood swinging! Haha poor little polar bear!! 🙈🐻🌻☀️
#babyboo #blüblü #samoyede #eltornado #polarbear #joueralatagg #cuddle #outside #walkingdownthestreet #dog #white #youngghost #youngghostclothing

Where I used to wander, my black mountains were left. In my tracks, in my own land, golden grass grew tall. My white mountains disappeared out of sight. I had strength, which I have no more, I had many children, I was left alone. I went astray from my parents, I was left alone. Where I used to fish, my lakes, too, were left, and I may never see them again. My goahti has already decayed, and its bark has shrivelled.
—  One of the only few known poems of the Kamassian people, whose language went extinct in 1989. Collected from the oldest woman of a Kamassian village by Kai Donner in 1914.
Etymology of Enets words

The closest language relative of Enets language is Nenets, more specifically its tundra dialect. The name Enets comes from Enets language: Enets people call themselves онаэ энечео (onae enecheo) or онай энчу (onaj enchu), ‘real men.’ Juha Janhunen has compiled some more Enets words, some of them collected twice first by Castrén in 1854 and 1855 and then by Tereščenko in 1966, 1971 and 1977. Changes that happened during 100 years can be seen in most examples, although Castrén and Tereščenko might have collected them from different dialects. The examples of dialectal differences listed by Péter Hajdú suggest that these samples are from the Baj dialect. (See previous post and the Enets word for crust on snow in both dialects.) Estimated Proto-Uralic form is marked by an asterisk.

*korå - Castrén: kuřa; Tereščenko: kúra, ‘male’

*kot - Castrén: kū‘ (gen. sing. kuro); Tereščenko: ko’ (gen. sing. kodo), ‘cough’

*nårå - Castrén: nářa; Tereščenko: nára, ‘crust on snow’

*päjmå - Castren: fē, ‘boot’

Enets language written

Taimyr, a Russian newspaper, publishes every Wednesday one page in Enets, Nenets, Nganasan or Dolgan language. Sometimes the page includes vocabulary or poetry, sometimes just news.

The Enets alphabet was created by N. M. Tereštšenko in 1986 and is still unofficial. Despite that, three books have been published in Enets: a small folklore collection, parts from the Gospel of Luke and a Russian-Enets dictionary for students.

The articles are from here: See ‘Ср’ for среда, Wednesday.

Language of the week project starts with Enets language

I have decided to start a project called Uralic language of the week. Every week I will search and post information and articles about one Uralic language or language group and the people who speak it.

The project starts today with Enets language, an endangered Northern Samoyedic language spoken in Siberia. According to the 2010 census there are only 43 Enets speakers in Russia, but the number might be bigger, because people are allowed to report only one mother tongue and most of the speakers are bilingual. One could think that Enets is a dying language, but  language nests have been founded to save the language. (More information about language nests:

Like its close language relatives, Nenets and Nganasan, Enets is an agglutinative and suffixal language. It has seven grammatical cases and a large amount of prepositions. Enets language is divided into two barely mutually intelligible dialects, Tundra Enets (сомату, ‘somatu’) and Forest Enets (бай, ‘bai’). The vocabularies of the two dialects differ significantly making mutual understanding difficult.

Enets uses Cyrillic alphabet with some additional letters: 

Аа Бб Вв Гг Дд Ее Ёё Ԑԑ Жж Зз Ии Йй Кк Лл Мм Нн Ӈӈ Оо Пп Рр Сс Ҫҫ Тт Уу Фф Хх Цц Чч Шш Щщ ъ Ыы ь Ээ Юю Яя

More about the language:

History of the Selkup people

The Selkups call themselves by the name söl’kup or shöl’kup, söl meaning country or land and kup meaning man – the men of the land. Previously they have been also called Ostyak Samoyeds, but the term Selkup has been in official use since 1930s’. From 13th century the Slekups were first under Turkic-Tatar rule and later under Russian rule from 16th century. In the 17th century the Selkups began to retreat from the area of Central Ob to Taz, Turuhan, and Yeloghuy.

The watershed of Ob. (Commons)

Taz river and the cities by it. (Commons)

Though the Selkups retreated far north and east to avoid Russian taxers, they couldn’t avoid the attempts of Christianization in the 18th century. The Selkups were given Russian names, and according to Kai Donner, in the beginning of the 20th century most of the Samoyeds living by Ket were seemingly baptized. Despite of that, Christianization had only a small effect on the people; the traditions remained. Donner even managed to record an old story of a warrior named Iitje, whose vocation is to fight against Pyynegusse, a man-eating monster, who lives in the north. Probably because of Christianization attempts he is also pictured fighting against foreign gods who threaten his people.

Hajdú writes, that traditionally tamed wild animals were used in hunting. For thousands of centuries humans everywhere have used dogs for hunting, but Hajdú claims that the Selkups also used bears. They captured a young bear cub – if it was left alive when they killed its mother – and raised it. Then they would make it attack an another bear and kill it. The Selkups also liked to keep tamed foxes or eagles around their homes, which Hajdú suspects to be related to their animistic religion. Fishing and reindeer-keeping were also an important source of income before urbanization took place and brought some problems along with it. Unemployment and alcoholism are common problems in the Selkup communities nowadays, and racial discrimination isn’t and hasn’t been unheard of, either. Language shift wouldn’t even have to be mentioned…

M. A. Castrén started studying the Ket dialect in the beginning of the 19th century, and G. N. Prokofjev published the first grammar of Selkup in 1935. Despite of the amount of time spent on gathering knowledge about the dialects and the language, its syntatic structure has remained unstudied.

The end of this post is with no doubt pessimistic, but last post, which will be published tomorrow, will address the future of the language and its appearance in the media. I hope I’ll be able to convey good news.


Enets vocabulary

In August 2011 Taimyr published some words in Enets along with the other articles. Here are the approximate transliterations and translations:

  • Family - mja ter.
  • Grandfather - disy.
  • Grandmother - kaza.
  • Mum - uma. (Proto-Uralic form is considered to be *ämä.)
  • Dad - acha.
  • Father - esi.
  • Mother - e.
  • Wife - mensi.
  • Husband - busi.
  • Uncle - chizejchi.
  • Aunt - abaa.
  • Children - echi.
  • Brother - inaa.
  • Sister - ne kasa.
  • Grandchildren - nje nje.

Péter Hajdú lists some dialectal differences in word pronunciation: (S = Somatu, tundra dialect, and B = Bai, forest dialect.)

  • Crust on top of the snow. S: naða; B: nara
  • Marsh, bog. S: nara; B: nada
  • Pen, fold. S: jūbe; B: jūfe
  • Nine. S: ēsā; B: nēsā
  • Ear. S: kū B: kō
  • To find. S: koa-; B: kua-

Péter Hajdú: Samoyedic peoples and languages 1962