Indigenous Languages

  Arienne M. Dwyer 
Associate Professor 
Linguistic Anthropology
Ph.D., Washington 1996 | Fraser Hall, #638 | (785) 864-2649
Research Areas:Linguistic anthropology, typology, field methods, media archives, endangered-language documentation;China, Inner Asia

Dr. Dwyer works with communities that are in danger of losing their languages. She began her lecture by talking about demography and linguistics, then went into more depth on the anthropology of the region. Used two websites that provide a lot of resources:

Siberia is rather low in linguistic diversity compared to areas like Nepal, but this is in part a reflection of population density.

Map of soviet population density showing that Siberia is low in population density.

Linguistic map of Asian Russian Federation language families from

Siberia’s languages—about 44

Eskimo-aleut: bering sea, chukotka

Aleut, yupik


Altaic: mostly Altai Mountains, Mongolia, China

Altai, Tyva, Buriat, Evenki, Khakas, Yakut

Large family, extreme nomadism, spread from arctic sea to the Bosporus ? at edge of Europe (she was trained as an Altaiist)

Named after the mountains



Alutor, Chukchi, and Koryak


Uralic- lower Yenisei; Enets, Khanty, Mansi, Nganasan, Selkup

(Finnish, Estonian, Hungarian)


Yeniseian: Ket, Yukaghir

Not everyone agrees that it is a family

Named after the river

Some consider Ket to be an isolate


Isolates; Nivkh (Gilyak)-spoken on Sakhalin, and Amur River


Two examples of languages that are in danger:

1. Nivkh

Language isolate on Sakhalin and amur

Speakers: 690  (optimistic estimate)

ethnic population: 2000 amur, 2700 Sakhalin (1995 M. Krauss)

Ethnic population 5162

Amur and e Sakhalin dialects difficult mutual intelligibility to explore relationships between languages—you can look at many different trees depending upon how you view different sources


2. Ket

Speakers 190

Total poulation 1494

Nearly extinct

Even though it is

Now think may be related to Navajo, athabascan languages. It is not similar to the many groups that tit is in contact with in Siberia


Sociolinguistic conditions

Legal status of the languages

Most are recognized minorities within the Russian federation; some also recognized in China

A factor that is a big determiner of whether a language survives is legal status of language

Some areas of some languages have “protected status” in Russia (e.g. for Ket: in one part of Krasnoyarsk and one part of the Evenki area)

Recognizing minority status may or may not be significant, protected status allows funding for education and preservation programs

Ket is more protected in some areas than others

Most important is that speakers want to maintain it, but many external factors imfluence—prestige, will get job, writing system (no guarentee but if no writing system there is no chance without one)

With Ket only written in elementary school, otherwise write in Russian

Nanai—very little to no education available

Nivkh—taught until grade 3


Social fundctions of the language; hunting fishing storytelliong

But is it used in education, work, higher education

People shift to dominant language for economic opportunities. This is done intuitively, can cause loss of language in one generation

If small population more vulnerable

Lack of language development—vocabularies need to be developed for modern development


Dersu Uzala (1975)

Ethnolinguistic identity

Differemt perspective on movie; made by Japanese director, it is clearly an outsiders view of what Siberia was like at the turn of the 19th century. Russian army explorer relying on native guide, stereotypically native, hierarchical relationship, become “friends” but friendship is complicated by power differential, and one is colonial power other is indigeous Siberia representatives. Relationship embodies why languages in Siberia are disappearing. Late 19th-early 20th century Siberia. Hunting and trapping, mineral resources, timber, all this encroaching. Colonialist project to take over territory, like what happened in north America a couple of centuries before (expansion and settlement). Protagonist of movie is part of that narrative. Interactions often guide-visitor relationship. Unequal partnerships impacted culture and language use—speak Russian in film, colonizer makes local people speak their language, sometimes creole but not usually. The guide—nowhere in the film is his ethnicity mentioned. May be Goldi (outsider name) is Nanai (in China, “hezhen”). Nanai is officially recognized in China. 4000 speakers, 12000 population in Russia some secondary schooling, in China none 

Derivation of "dersu uzala"

tungusic dersen “pure, genuine”

Tungusic urse=people

The name, when looked at from the perspective of comparative linguistics gives the general impression of “pure people”, the noble savage, symbolizes unspoiled nature. He is played by the actor Maksim Muzuk, a Tyva (Turkic) “ethnic,” not someone of the specific group being portrayed. The character uses curses, spells and shamanism. For the film makers, the actor just has to be “ethnic”, not of the correct group. Early in the movie, his costuming associates with shamanism, this also plays out with subplot with animals (killing the tiger in particular). Siberia in the imagination of many Russians was actually like this, fictional rendering is educational about the way in which Russians encounter Siberia.

Soviet vs Chinese policies—Chinese based on Stalinist nationalty policy but with different results

Russia—a lot of people value what the Soviets did for education, the system was valued positively so language is a positive. Double edged sword, contributes to disappearance of language.

Religious persecution—1940s Russia and 1960s China saw the banning of shamanism and indigenous practices, and with that, many linguistic practices were lost

1960s both countries—nomadism forcibly ended, settled in communes