Culture and Language in Altai

Russia, Siberia, Altai

Prepared by Maria Ostanina

English Teacher

English Language Department

Gorno-Altaisk State University, Russia



The demarcation of linguistic and geopolitical borders on the territory of Siberia doesn’t coincide, let alone the rest of the world. The general geographical concept of the Altai Republic in modern Russia includes the notion of the mountainous ranges of the Russian Altai, the notion of the administrative region of the Russian Federation, and the notion of the mixed population mainly represented by Russian and Altai peoples.

What is Altai?

The complex sequence of historical events that happened on the territory of Altai has caused too much confusion for people who live in the other parts of our country. In the 20th century the people of the Altai territory lived through the formation of the autonomous Altai region, changed by the administrative union of the Altai and Altai Krai (the neighboring region), the restitution of freedom by Altai as an autonomous unit of Russia and its new name, which is the Altai Republic. All these events contributed to the misunderstanding of what Altai is for many Russian citizens even in Siberia let alone in the rest of Russia. People keep constantly confusing the Altai Republic and the Altai Krai, and understand the Altai Republic as part of the Altai Krai or its variant name.

Moscow-centric Russia.           

Let’s mention that the general tendency among people today is to move from a rural area, where you are not much provided with opportunities to have a decent job and earn enough to make your happy living, to larger cities, where physical labor is substituted by mental work. All larger cities, if you look at the map of Russia, are beads of pearl which have been scattered across the country unevenly. In the Russian Federation all roads lead to Moscow, what leaves the rest of Russia in a disadvantageous position. No matter how much and how long people have been talking about political, economic, cultural monocentrism in Russia, today we have what suits the Center.

To live in Siberia can be advantageous.

And still Siberia being far way from the developed areas is a place to live for millions of people, who were born here and don’t want to leave it. Highly-urbanized areas and industrially developed regions can’t compete with vast expanses of land and forests, where nature (fortunately) hasn’t been yet destroyed. The life very close to nature taught people to be friendly to all creatures to whom nature has become home, too.


A place of cultural and linguistic diversity.

The overlapping and intercrossing of different linguistic and therefore cultural boundaries on the territory of Siberia resulted in the linguistic and cultural diversity of the region, what also contributed to the understanding of the geographical space of this region as a complex multilinguocultural space.

Historically many peoples came to live in the Altai and brought many languages and cultures with them. Altai, Tuba, Kazakh, Uygur, Mongolian, Shor, Chelkan, Yakut, Russian and many others languages together could not but influence themselves, being gathered in the same place, and cause changes in other languages and be affected by the rest of the encountered parlances. Moreover, the interaction of languages in many multicultural spaces often looks like the struggle for survival. Languages mingle, borrow notions, words and grammatical structures, they dominate over other languages, they can transform over time and they can die. They are known to belong to a family, to be derived from a parent language and to give a birth to an offspring language.



The modern Altai language situation.

Gorno-Altaisk is an administrative and the largest city in the Altai Republic. The population of Gorno-Altaisk in 2002 was 53,538 people. Among them 73% were Russians, 19% were Altai people, 1.8% - Kazhakh, 1% - Ukrainians. Less than 1% of the inhabitants were Germans, Armenians, Tatars, Azerbaijanians, Byelorussians, Kyrgyz and some other ethnicities.

About 79 per cent of Altai children are bilingual and are fluent Altai and Russian speakers. Unfortunately, the Altai language is not spoken by all Altai population. People who are not Altai don’t show much interest in learning the Altai language, although some can speak Altai because they grew up in an Altai-speaking environment.


Dialects of the Altai language in the Red Book.

The people whose native languages are the Telengit, Tuba, Kumandin and Chalkan dialects of the Altai language have been given a status of small-numbered indigenous ethnicity groups in 1993. Moreover, these four dialects have been registered in the Red Book of languages of Russia in 1994.

Altai language – Altaiс family.

According to modern comparative theories, it is believed that the Altaiс family comprises Turkic, Mongolic, Tungusic, Japonic and Korean language groups. The Altai language belongs to the Siberian Turkic branch. The relation between the mentioned groups of languages is proved by much evidence in both the structure of the languages and their words. The following is an example of lexical similarity within the Altaic family:

Dolg. ‘tuńak’ (hoof), Tuv. ‘dujuɣ’ (hoof), Kaz., Kirg. ‘tujaq’ (hoof), Alt. ‘tuygak’ (hoof), Old Jap. ‘tume’ (nail) 

Jap. ‘kokoro’ (heart), Kor. ‘kokăi-’ (heart of wood, core), Mong. ‘kökön’ (heart), Shor. ‘kögÿs’ (breast, middle of the back, reason, sense).

Words borrowed from Turkic by other languages.

The words of Turkic origin that are found in Russian language reflect the early historic contacts between these two big nations. Here are some examples.

Rus. ‘karandash’ (pencil) is from Tur. ‘karadash’ (black stone).

Rus. ‘barsuk’ (badger) is from Tur., Kaz., Balkar., Alt. ‘borsuk’ (badger), Tat. ‘bursyk’, ‘barsyk’ (badger).

Rus. ‘sabantuy’ (shindig) is from Tur. ‘sabantuy’, Bashk. ‘habantuy’ (fest of a plough).

Rus. ‘tuman’ (fog) is from Tur., Mid. Chagat., Kaz., Kirg., ‘tuman’ (fog, darkness), Turkish ‘duman’ (fog).

Rus. ‘kapkan’ (trap) is from Tat. ‘kарkаn’, Kyoktur. ‘kарɣаn’ (trap, loop).

Rus. ‘karaul’ (sentry, guard) is used since 1356, borrowed from Chagat., Tat., Kaz., Tel. ‘karaul’ (sentry, guard).

Colloq. Rus. ‘bashka’ (head) is from ‘baška’ (Dative case, singular) in Turkish, Azerb., Tat., Kypch. ‘baš’ (head).

English Aspen – Altai Аспак – Russian Осина.

An interesting example is the relation between words that now belong to distant language groups, which derived from one and the same root in Indo-European; for example, ‘aspa’ in the meaning of a horse. People had a special attitude towards horses long ago, and they still do. They treated horses as sacred animals, their life was highly dependent on them. Reins of the horse were traditionally tied to a post or a tree, which was believed to be a special tree as well. The word ‘aspa’ was later used in other languages to refer to the tree itself.


Eng. ‘aspen’,  Alt. ‘aspak’ (aspen), Rus. ‘os’ina’ (aspen), Pol. ‘osa’, ‘os’ina’ (aspen), E.-Luzh. ‘wоsа’, ‘wоsуnа’ (silver poplar) are from Ind.-Europ. ‘aspa’ (horse).


How new words appear in the Altai language today.

The Altai language has borrowed a large number of words from the Russian language, many of which have different origin. The borrowed words refer to various spheres, e.g. economics, politics, medicine, education, science, etc. There have been some attempts to create words artificially instead of borrowing them from Russian. Some of them are known to a limited part of population and are used only in newspapers.

Altai is less spoken every year.

The sociolinguistic studies of different researchers show that today the Altai language isn’t used more actively than it was used a few years ago. The main reasons for this are named to be TV news, newspapers, lectures, concerts, etс., in which the Russian language is mostly used.

Though the interviews with the Altai people also show that the Altai language is used more often in public places (at public gatherings, in stores, in the theater, etc.).

World famous literary works in Altai.

Very few translations have been done into Altai from other languages so far. Still there are some transtaionas of worldwide literary works. One of the contemporary translators into Altai is Brontoy Bed’urov, who has translated two books of Antoine de Saint-Exupery. The Little Prince is one of them. This book by Exupery has been translated into more than 200 languages and dialects of the world already. For collectors of The little Prince in all languages of the world this book in the Altai language is great news. The Little Prince in the Altai language is a real pride for all people in the Altai Republic. 

Altai national theater.

A very important role in the development and popularization of Altai culture and language among the population of the Altai Republic is played by the National Theater of the republic. The Altai professional singers and the national orchestra of the Altai Republic perform classic, folklore and modern music and songs. The citizens of the Republic wait for the concerts because they know that they can come and get the best emotions after hearing beautiful and professional work of the local talented composers, musicians and singers. 

A legend of a cedar


Once upon a time a tired hunter came to an old long-branched cedar tree in a faraway taiga to stay under that tree for a night. The cider was a very old tree. The time made its branches bend down, the tree trunk was covered with wrinkle-like lines, and there was a thick layer of coniferous needles on the ground that had fallen down during the cedar’s long life. The hunter found the cedar needles soft and warm as any bed, and fell fast asleep.

At dawn the man was woken up as his ear heard a moan of pain. The hunter listened breathlessly and heard a talk. It was that old cedar tree that gave him shelter, addressing to a young cider that grew next to him. The old cider was groaning and told the younger tree that it had become so weak that it could stand no longer.

The young tree asked, ‘Why don’t you fall down? It was yesterday that I had heard you say the same.’

The old cedar answered, ‘I would have fallen down yesterday, but an old hunter came and went to bed under my branches.’

The hunter had felt sorry for the old cedar. He got up to his feet, embraced the old cedar tree and stepped aside. The cedar staggered and dropped on the ground with relief.


Photos are available here



  1. Russian Etymology Dictionary —;
  2. Ancient Turkic Etymology Dictionary —
  3. Database query to Japanese etymology —
  4. Catalogue of works on Altaic languages —