Dynamics of language contact in the circumpolar region

(2017-2019, with support of RSF grant No. 17-18-01649)

See also: Project publications

Keywords: Circumpolar region, language contact, languages of Siberia and Far East, languages of Alaska, areal linguistics, sociolinguistics, historical linguistics, grammar, lexicon, phonology, traditional culture, oral history, linguistic maps

Tundra Nenets-Tundra Enets family Serguey Beregovoj and Marina Beregovja with their children, Tukhard tundra, Tajmyr, 2009


The central question of our project is ‘Are there any specific features of language contact in the circumpolar world?’.

A series of case studies devoted to specific contact areas in the North will guide us towards an answer. Besides, we are compiling a geographic database of all circumpolar languages that will be visualized with the help of dynamic maps, both online and printed. The database will provide a background for our case studies and will facilitate future linguistic research of the circumpolar world.

The case studies include the following traditionally multilingual linguistic areas:

  1. Middle and Upper Taz and middle Yenisey region (Olga Kazakevich, Elena Klyachko): Northern Selkup, Southern Selkup, Ket, Evenki, Russian;
  2. Tajmyr peninsula (Olesya Khanina, Valentin Gusev, Maria Amelina,Andrey Shluinsky, Olga Kazakevich, Elena Klyachko): Tundra Nenets, Tundra Enets, Forest Enets, Nganasan, Dolgan, Evenki, Russian-based pidgin Govorka, Russian;
  3. Lower Kolyma region (Maria Pupynina): Yukaghir, Even, Chukchee, Yakut, Russian;
  4. Kenai peninusula in Alaska (Andrej Kibrik, Mira Bergelson): Alutiiq, Dena’ina, Russian, English;
  5. Interior Alaska (Andrej Kibrik, Mira Bergelson): Upper Kuskokwim, Dena’ina, Koyukon, Ingalik, Central Yup'ik, Russian, English.

Besides, we have an extra case study on the Lower Amur and Sakhalin region (Valentin Gusev, Natalia Stoynova, Olga Kazakevich, Elena Klyachko) where Tungusic languages Nanaj, Ulchi, Oroch, Negidal, and Evenki are spoken along Nivkh and Russian. We take this linguistic area to check the relative importance of cultural vs. geographical features. The former are common for language communities of this region and the circumpolar communities mentioned above, while the latter are quite different.

Example of a map: Indigenous languages of the lower Ob’ river


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For every contact area we study sets of languages used and contexts of their usages, spot contact phenomena in the structures of these languages, and look for any possible correlations between different types of contacts and different types of structural changes involved. The analysis is mostly based on our own field data (with a series of fieldtrips planned for the duration of the project) and field data shared with us by specialists on the target languages, though we also refer to earlier published primary data where these are available. Where possible, we try to rely on multimedia data for the study of language contact: corpora of natural texts and phonetic wordlists.

A separate focus of our research is on local varieties of Russian attested by language communities of the circumpolar region (Natalia Stoynova). It has never been studied whether the noticeable divergence of the literary norm is the same all over Siberia or each indigenous language substrate produces slightly different results. The project will provide the answer to this research question backed by a tagged corpus of local varieties of Russian.

Selkup Ajvar Kamin, from Bystrinka, Purovskij area of Jamal Nenets Autonomous region, 2011


Forest Enets Anatolij Silkin, Potapovo, Tajmyr, 2008


Example of a map: Traditional Saami speaking lands


Andrey Shluinksy and Natalia Stoynova recording a Forest Enets Leonid Bolin, Tajmyr, 2010


Evenki Praskovja Chimirkan from Yukta, Evenkija, 2014


Ket brothers Ajvar Irikov and Alexandr Korotkikh, Kellog, 2015 


Forest Enets Leonid Bolin near Potapovo, Tajmyr, 2010