The fate of Forest Enets – a short comm ent

Florian Siegl florian.siegl at gmx.net
Tue Apr 24 17:07:39 UTC 2007


Dear all, 

I have just returned from fieldwork on Forest Enets on the Taimyr 
Peninsula (22.11.06 - 19.04.07). As several subscribers of this list 
teach introductory courses to Uralic linguistics this short comment is 
intended to provide them with fresh data on the current linguistic 
situation.

*Socio-linguistic survey of current Forest Enets*

·       Forest Enets (further FE) is currently still known in Potapovo 
(about 20 individuals) and in the district capital Dudinka (about 6 
individuals). Several speakers have left the Taimyr Peninsula and 
therefore are not included in this number as they probably have no 
chance to speak their language any longer at all.

·       Some speakers of FE are said to live in Tukhard. According to 
one of my Forest Enets consultants who frequently travels to Tukhard as 
she is employed in the district administration, about 10 more speakers 
of FE should live around Tukhard.

·       The youngest speaker of FE I’m aware of is 44 years old; the 
oldest speaker is 61 years old. There are no L1 speakers in the 
generation +60; at least two Tundra Nenetses in Potapovo in the 
generation +60 have some limited knowledge of FE but do not qualify as 
competent speakers (In Tukhard all speakers are said to be at least 50 
years old too).

·       Nobody younger than 40 speaks or even understands FE (in fact in 
Potapovo, nobody born in Potapovo and younger than 40 speaks anything 
else than Russian, regardless of ethnic background)

·       As has been assumed earlier, FE is moribund. At current the 
language is already functionally extinct and probably has been 
functionally extinct for at least a decade.

·       There is no monolingual speaker left; several speakers of FE are 
actually trilingual in FE, TN and Russian. All trilingual speakers have 
a clear preference for TN.

·       The once existing radio program was shut down in 2003, at 
current the only visible sign of FE in local media is a page of news in 
FE published more or less regular once a month on a Wednesday in the 
local newspaper Taimyr www.taimyr24.ru/gazeta 
<http://www.taimyr24.ru/gazeta>.

·       Revitalization attempts in Potapovo (which have started in the 
early 1990s) have not produced any L2 speakers; currently the language 
is not taught in Potapovo.

·       The local Taimyrskii College in Dudinka still offers courses in 
FE language and culture taught by a native Forest Enets speaker. However 
the teacher retires in May and most probably the FE program will be 
closed as there is nobody who could continue this work. Unfortunately 
also this program has not produced any new L2 speakers.

*Some personal comments*

·       Whereas the overall number of FE speakers equals about 20-25 
individuals (this excludes Tukhard) it is obvious that linguistic 
competence varies profoundly. Based on direct and almost daily contact 
(linguistic elicitation, socio-anthropological work and recording 
spontaneous speech) I’m tempted to say that only 4 fully competent 
speakers of FE remain. The best speaker died shortly after I left 
Potapovo in March.

·        “Traditional folklore” such as epic and mythological legends is 
no longer remembered. The last renowned story teller died in 2003.

·       Those Forest Enetses who still care about their language are 
aware that in 10-20 years from now the language will be gone forever.

·       Forest Enets and Tundra Enets are not dialects of one language; 
they should be considered as two independent languages. For those 
knowing the FE revitalization handbook Rodnoe slovo (2002) I went 
through the Vorontsovo sketch with speakers from Potapovo and probably 
with one exception compound tense-mood forms as attested in Tundra Enets 
do not exist in Forest Enets. **

* Speech communities, linguistics and fieldwork*

The Forest Enets intelligentsia in Dudinka is wondering why there is so 
few primary material published albeit almost all Forest Enetses alive 
have been serving as consultants for linguists in and around Potapovo or 
Dudinka starting with Irina Sorokina in 1969. According to their 
understanding they have received almost nothing in return which would 
have assisted them in compiling materials for language revitalization. 
Personally I share their concerns, the former practice of doing 
fieldwork for the sake of science is a concept antiquated by now. 
Language endangerment has resulted in the emancipation of native 
speakers who no longer see themselves as “something” to be studied. 
Whereas this trend has started in other parts of the world already in 
the late 1970s this understanding has arrived in Russia by now. Nowadays 
one has to justify one’s work and speakers of endangered languages have 
become critics of scientific practice. A central consultant of mine in 
Potapovo initially asked me why she should tell me “the old stories” 
again as “everything I know or found worth to tell I have told many 
times to…” which was followed by a list of researchers. When I tried to 
explain her that almost nothing has been published which was my decision 
to get started with Forest Enets she asked me frankly why this has 
happened. “Isn't this something you have to do? Isn't this part of your 
work?” This is just another instance of what other researchers have 
predicted two decades ago:

„/I would also like to express the hope that more effort might be put 
into producing dictionaries of Australian languages than has been case 
to date. Although many fieldworkers (including Bible translators and 
literacy personnel) have extensive lexical files, the number of adequate 
published dictionaries is scandalously low. Aside from the large Pintupi 
dictionary by the Hanses, I do not know of a single published dictionary 
which makes any pretensions of being comprehensive. In particular, ’the 
academic’ linguists have essentially contented themselves with long 
grammatical studies, squeezing out ’theoretical’ conclusions of various 
sorts, and have as yet published few or no texts and no adequate 
dictionaries. I suspect that the next generation of linguists, not to 
mention the Aboriginals themselves, will judge their predecessors 
harshly for this behaviour, which not only renders meaningless the 
linguists’ professions of providing support for Aborginials but is also 
self-defeating even for purposes of theoretical analysis.“ /Heath, 
Jeffrey 1982 Nunggubuyu Dictionary. Canberra. AIAS. p. IX//

//Principally the situation in Uralic linguistics outside the 
historical-comparative framework is similar. There are still no modern 
grammars (“/long/”/ grammatical studies/) for the majority of Uralic 
languages and for several languages well known to the subscribers of 
this list I personally doubt that long grammatical studies can be 
expected. In the Forest Enets case, linguists are already /judged 
harshly for their behavior/.

 
Florian Siegl,

Documentation of Enets and Forest Nenets
DOBES Tartu-Göttingen

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