Category Archives: Samoyedic

Nenets-Nganasan comparison

In a Nenets course this fall, I’ve used a lot the Comparative Nenets-Nganasan Multimedia Dictionary compiled by St. Petersburg scholars Marina Lublinskaya and Tatiana Sherstinova, with headwords in those two languages and in Russian and English. The Introduction presents the two languages and their history in a fashion accessible to readers who don’t necessary have any prior experience with the Uralic languages.

But the most appealing part of the dictionary is that each listing has audio. The Nenets or Nganasan word is read aloud by a native speaker. See for instance the entry for ‘bear’, Nenets варк and Nganasan ңарка. These languages sound quite odd and exotic compared to most of the other Finno-Ugrian languages. Things get even more out there with words like ‘water’, which in Nenets и”(д) and Nganasan быˀ has a phonemic glottal stop.

Unpleasant herding tasks

I’m not really sure what to make of this passage in András Róna-Tas’ paper ‘Turkic influence on the Uralic languages’, found in The Uralic Languages ed. Denis Sinor (Amsterdam: Brill, 1988). Róna-Tás is describing borrowings between Ancient Turkic and Proto-Samoyed:

PS kåptə̂- ‘to castrate’, kåptə̂ ‘a castrated reindeer ox’ (Ne, Ng, En, Sk: JJ 60) ← AT qaptï (cf. OT qap- ‘to grasp with teeth or hands’, Clauson 580). The oldest and most extended way of castration is done by teeth (cf. Lehtisalo 1932, 114).

I will certainly be seeking out the Lehtisalo reference, the monograph Beiträge zur Kenntnis der Renntierzucht bei den Juraksamojeden published in Oslo in 1932.

Nganasan vowel harmony

Over at his excellent weblog Rénhírek, László Fejes has written several concise introductions to the vowel harmony of various Uralic languages. I’ve translated below his Nganasan description.

The Nganasan vowel inventory

We the following vowels in Nganasan: i, y, ü, u, e, ə, o, a. The majority of these can be compared to the similarly written Hungarian vowels, with the exception of the following: y (really i with a diacritic, but here y for typographical reasons) is similar to i, but but slightly further back (cf. Romanian â/î, Polish y, Russian ы); ə is similar to e, but further back (so it is not a ‘mumbled’ schwa, like in Mari, Khanty or Mansi; cf. Romanian ă, Estonian õ); a is similar to Hungarian á. These can appear as long vowels as well, in which case they are written double: ii, aa etc. Besides these there are also two diphthongs: ia and ua.

Nganasan vowel harmony

There is no tendency in Nganasan that requires that only palatal or velar vowels appear only in roots. Vowel harmony appears only in suffixes, and there it only relates to high vowels. In certain suffixes i/y or ü/u are involved in variation: these only appear if i or ü is present in the preceding syllable. However, this does not occur in all suffixes, but only thosse in which there is always i, y, ü or u.

Nganasan earlier had a different harmony as well. Traces of this are found only in two types of roots: each takes different variants of various suffixes. The rule applies in the U and Y root classes: from the vowels which are now present in them, one cannot tell which words belong to which root class. According to the root class the following pairs of alterations can be observed in the suffix vocalism: u/y, ü/i, a/y, a/i, a/ia. In the first two pairs the suffixes occasionally alternate according to roundedness, and in the remaining three according to height, that is, there is a difference according to height and front-back quality. There are suffixes where root alteration is combined with vowel harmony, so four suffix vowels are possible: i/y/ü/u.

According to scholars, the U and Y root classes leave traces of an earlier palatal-velar harmony. As for the relationship between the current active palatal-velar harmony and the earlier one, is still not clear.

Dating sound change in the ancestor of Chuvash

Chuvash, and its now-extinct sister languages, show r in many instances where the rest of the Turkic family shows z, e.g. Turkic buzagu ‘calf’ ~ Proto-Chuvash buragu (Chuvash păru). In his summary Nutshell Chuvash András Róna-Tas makes a convincing argument for the dating of rhotacism in the ancestor of Chuvash.

The argument depends on the word for ‘stirrup’. The word exists in Chuvash as yărana, and it must go back to an earlier form *iräŋä. The other Turkic languages have a cognate going back to either *üzeŋgü (South-West, Northwest and Turkestan) or *izäŋä (Baraba, Khakas, Tuvan, Yakut and Yellow Uighur). The sound change must have happened after the invention of the stirrup, and luckily archaeological data ascribes this to the last couple of centuries B.C. or the first couple of centuries A.D.

We can provide greater support for this dating by looking at loanwords from Proto-Chuvash into other languages in the area. The Common Samoyed word for ‘hundred’ is yür, cognate with Chuvash śĕr (< yür or ǰür). Therefore, rhotacism must have happened before the dissolution of Common Samoyed, traditionally dated to around the birth of Christ. Similarly, Hungarian borrowed its word for ‘calf’, borjú, from the ancestor of Chuvash. Therefore, rhotacism must have happened before the Chuvash-Hungarian contacts.

There is another, later process of rhotacism that can also be dated fairly securely. In some loanwords from Persian, Chuvash has r where Persian has d. To use as an example a word presented in my last post, Chuvash erne ‘week, holiday, Friday’ goes back to Persian adina ‘Friday’. After Islam entered the Volga-Kama region and its associated terminology was borrowed, Proto-Chuvash must have undergone the sound change d > δ > z > r. Here, too, Hungarian data can provide support, as the intermediate form can be seen in Hungarian búza ‘wheat’, ultimately from *bugδa. Therefore, the process must have begun after the encounter with Islam but before the end of Hungarian-Chuvash contact, or between the 7th and 9th centuries.

How unfortunate that Proto-Indo-European and Proto-Uralic disintegrated in a completely prehistoric era, leaving us no sure way to date the rise of their daughter languages. Turkic linguists are fortunate indeed.

Festschrift for Sammallahti now available on the web

The Sami-titled Festschrift for Pekka Sammallahti Sámit, sánit, sátnehámit. Riepmočála Pekka Sammallahtii miessemánu 21. beaivve 2007, published last spring as Mémoires de la Société Finno-Ougrienne 253, is now available online. There are a number of interesting papers here, published in Sami, German, Finnish or English. One of them in particular, Juha Janhunen’s ‘The primary laryngeal in Uralic and beyond’ is especially striking for its application of contemporary phonetic and phonological theory (and an updating of FU transcription) to a well-known Proto-Uralic mystery.

Eugene Helimski RIP

Eugene Helimski, one of the foremost Uralicists of our time and a tireless researcher of the Samoyed languages, has passed away in Hamburg.

25 декабря 2007 года в Гамбурге после тяжелой и продолжительной болезни скончался выдающийся исследователь – лингвист, один из крупнейших уралистов Евгений Хелимский. Хелимский работал в последние годы в Германии. Профессор опубликовал труды по самодийским и финно-угорским языкам, проблемам уральского и ностратического языкового родства, языковым контактам, теории генетической классификации языков, культурной истории Северной Евразии и шаманизму. Один из ведущих мировых специалистов по самодийским языкам.

Just before his death he wrote this poignant last message to the community of Uralicists:

A dictionary of Taz Selkup (with Russian translations) is basically ready, though its compiler Eugene Helimski continued working at supplementing and editing this dictionary till the last days of his life. The latest version of this document can be found on the Internet (as a MS Word document) at The website also contains a big systematized collection of papers by Helimski (books, articles, reviews, abstracts, handouts in form of .doc, .rtf, .pdf and scanned .jpg files).

The CoE’s report on the Finno-Ugrian and Samoyed peoples

The report drafted by Katrin Saks of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe on the situation of the Finno-Ugric and Samoyed peoples in Russia has now been published.

Before going into a long collection of statistics on populations, native-language publishing, congresses and so forth, there is an introduction which summarizes the general challenges facing these peoples. The report is admirably critical of the Russian state’s role.

Russian Federation education and media reforms, and the redrawing of boundaries for regional administration without taking into account native peoples needs are making it increasingly difficult for Finno-Ugric peoples to participate in the political process and to develop their languages and culture. Linguistic and cultural rights are seemingly being replaced by the ‘folklorisation’ of native peoples.

Writing on the Ura-List, Florian Siegl of University of Tartu takes issue with some of the population data:

The 2002 Census has 129 speakers for Enets (both Tundra and Forest Enets). Whereas I don’t have any data on Tundra Enets, not more than 20-25 people have command of Forest Enets and I personally doubt that the number of Tundra Enetses is that high at all.

This number once again reflects artifacts of quantitative data collection. It is easy to claim language skills but answering a simple question in Forest Enets actually shows whether a person has command of the language or not. In the early 1990s, a Russian sociologist did research in Potapovo (quantitative data collection) and claimed in his publications, that there are still children who acquire Forest Enets as their first language. These speakers should have come to age by the time of my fieldwork in 2006-2007 but I could not find a single one…

…Whereas there seems to be some kind of awakening nationality understanding among the (Forest) Enetses too, it is clear that there a currently at least two different concepts of being Enets. The first one is (simplified) an Enets is a person who speaks the language (generation of last speakers aged 46–61 I work with). The second one (simplified) an Enets may be anyone who feels Enets and has some Enets roots but does no longer speak the language. Whereas the language (at least Forest Enets) will be extinct in a decade or two, people who feel themselves Enetses will remain.

Comparative Nenets-Nganasan Multimedia Dictionary

This is a really cool resource of the kind I wish I saw more of: the St. Petersburg Institute for Linguistic Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences offers a Comparative Nenets-Nganasan Multimedia Dictionary which has Russian and English headwords as well. Just reading the introduction is worthwhile, as one can immediately see how the two languages differ, with, for example, initial /d/ being lost in Nenets and retained in Nganasan, and Nenets /w/ corresponding to Nganasan /m/.

In Helsinki

I arrived in Finland on Saturday and this morning came to Helsinki where I will be for one week. With daylight being too limited for much sightseeing and my linguistic curiosity insatiable, I probably will spend most of this time in the library. Today’s tour of the university’s Department of Finno-Ugrian linguistics was exciting. I had lunch with faculty members Tapani Salminen and Riho Grünthal (at the extreme left and right respectively of the photograph), and a graduate student whose name I sadly don’t remember. From left to right: Tapani Salminen, Christopher Culver, unknown graduate student, Prof Riho Grünthal.

Later I attended a session of Prof Salminen’s course on Enets. His lecture used an Enets translation of fragments of Luke’s gospel to elucidate the similarities of the poorly-understood Forest Enets language to his own concentration, Tundra Nenets, and their mutual descent from Proto-Samoyedic. (Incidentally, this Enets Biblical translation is published by in Stockholm by the Institute for Biblical Translation, ISBN 91-88394-99-9.)

I have picked up three Mari-related books. One, Poro Keče, is the most lightweight of recent Mari textbooks. The other two items are readers published by Suomalais-Ugrilainen Seura (the Finno-Ugrian Society) in Helsinki, Yrjö Wichmann’s Tscheremissiche Texte (from 1953) and Alho Alhoniemi’s Marin kielen lukemisto (1986).

The department was all the more welcoming because Mari is the theme of its display board.
A Mari-themed bulletin board in the Department of Finno-Ugrian Studies at the University of Helsinki

Nenets resources

Tapani Salminen at the University of Helsinki maintains a very useful Tundra Nenets homepage. It contains a copy of the chapter he provided to Routledge’s The Uralic Languages, the UNESCO Red Book report, and many interesting links. One Ferenc Válóczy provides a Forest Nenets to English glossary (hosted at Geocities, make of it what you will). Readers of Hungarian may enjoy this presentation of Nenets literature.

In general Uralic news, although it isn’t ready yet, one site worth keeping bookmarked and checking from time to time is the Database of Uralic Typology.