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.

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/.