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.

March xx, 1870

Researchers are almost sure that Hungary’s language is somehow related to Finnish and Estonian, which I find really cool!

I mean, she’s a real country, even if she’s now married with Austria. That means it should be possible for me too! “To marry Austria?” Estonia asked. No, of course not, to make this Grand Duchy thing to work!

(Estonia checked from the map how far away her place is)

I’ve never really met her, but Vis… Poland said she’s a really good friend of his uh, but Bessarabia mumbled that his big brother doesn’t like her very much.

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“Language Nest” Program to Nurture the Enets Language - Languages Of The World

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.

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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.
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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’

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