[lg policy] Unique Russian dialect continues to exist in Alaska

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at GMAIL.COM
Sat Mar 29 14:33:42 UTC 2014

Unique Russian dialect continues to exist in Alaska
July 16, 2013 Lidia Shushina, Gazeta.ru

An ancient Russian dialect has somehow managed to survive in Ninilchik,
Alaska. Mira Bergelson, professor of linguistics at the Moscow University,
traces back its history.

An antiquated dialect of Russian is still spoken in Alaska. Mira Bergelson
-- professor of linguistics at Moscow University, philologist, and expert on
regional dialects -- discusses how this dialect has been preserved, how it
first arrived in Alaska, how it was learned and how it escaped the social
class mutations forced upon Russian as spoken in the Soviet Union.

Gazeta.ru: Please can you tell us more about the expedition you and your
husband, Andrei Kibrik, made to the Alaskan settlement of Ninilchik?

Mira Bergelson: Well, it's more than just one expedition -- it's an entire
project that I've been involved in, and it all began when my husband,
Andrei Kibrik, and I were in Alaska in 1997.

Mira Bergelson: "You can imagine how our eyes lit up -- Russian that had
been preserved from the 18th century!"

Even before then, Andrei had been studying the Athabaskan group of
languages for some time, and he received a Fulbright Scholarship to
document one of the most remotely located of Athabaskan languages in
Alaska, Upper Kuskokwim.

He'd been invited there by Michael Cross, director of the Alaska Native
Language Center. While we were there, Michael mentioned that, since the
days of the Russian-American Company in Alaska, there have been settlements
on the Kenai Peninsula where Russian remains the native language.

You can imagine how our eyes lit up -- Russian that had been preserved from
the 18th century!

Later, we were in a different part of Alaska -- inland, in the village of
Nikolai. The people there are Athabaskans and have been Russian Orthodox
believers since back then too; that's why the village is named Nikolai,
after St. Nicholas.

Andrei was making his survey of the Upper Kuskokwim language, when,
suddenly, we were approached by activists from the settlement of Ninilchik.
They were descendants of the very first settlers.

The people were a bit older than us -- the generation that had already
stopped speaking Russian themselves, but remembered how Russian was still
spoken when they were kids.

Russian, and everything connected with Russia, is a cultural legacy for
them. And, just as there's huge interest among native peoples in many parts
of America in their own history, these people, too, want to preserve their

The people desperately wanted to capture the language, because they
realized that it was dying out.

They asked us if we could compile a dictionary of their language. The first
thing we did was to compile a glossary of names, because names reflect the
way a people interacts with the world around it.

We specially collected names of objects and real things that surround this
or that ethnic group. However, it's impossible to do much with a language
if you don't have a way to record its sounds.

Of course, it's a dialect of Russian, but it has consistent phonetic
differences from the Russian used in Russia today.

We ended up having to choose a transcription method. You see, it's a
dialect with no written form of its own. The generation with whom we'd come
into contact had never written in Russian.

They'd gone to the English-speaking school, which opened up in the 1930s to
replace the Russian Orthodox Parish School that closed down in 1917.

Their Russian was native -- the primary language they'd learned as kids.

So Andrei made a phonetic listing of their habitual differences from
standard Russian, and we wrote about this in a number of articles that
appeared in connection with our dictionary project. We are also documenting
the grammar and other special features. The principle differences are
changes in the gender structure.

This was our first expedition; and then, for a number of years, we had to
put the project on hold. In the mid-2000s, one of the advocates of
recording the cultural heritage of Ninilchik, Wayne Leman -- who is a
specialist in the Cheyenne language -- picked up the task of collecting the
vocabulary of Ninilchik Russian.

However, he doesn't speak Russian himself, so it's very hard for him to
record its sounds, and the material he collected all had to be
double-checked by native speakers.

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This all left us which a huge number of questions -- as a result of which we
made an application to the Russian Humanitarian Science Foundation last
year and successfully received a grant from them.

In October 2012, we were able to return to Ninilchik and double-check
almost the entire dictionary. Now, if only we can secure some time "in the
field," then we will be able to complete the dictionary project. It will be
a multimedia dictionary, including photographs and sound.

Gazeta.ru: Did you detect any changes in the language between 1997 when you
began and your second expedition?

M.B.: We were able to compare the data from 1997, which we collected with
the help of Leonty Kvasnikov -- our wonderful collaborator, who sadly died
in the intervening years.

The thing here is that the Ninilchik language existed -- and continues to
exist -- over a very small area, in just one village. When Russia sold
Alaska to the U.S. in 1867, the village became cut off for 20 years; not a
single ship entered the Cook Inlet.

The village population never exceeded two or three hundred people. That's
very few people. It's here where individual differences become massively

There are a lot of idiolectic words in this language: The name for
something becomes a proper name, and each of these names has its own story
that becomes a cultural legacy.

The pronunciation norms in one family could differ from those in another,
simply because, in one family, the man, who began a family with a local
woman, might have been from one part of Russia, while, in another family,
the man might have been from some other part of Russia. There was a large
influence of bilingual Alutiq northern peoples too.

But the only language in the settlement of Ninilchik for 80 years -- until
the English-speaking school was opened -- was Russian. Separated from its
own homeland, however, the language began to develop certain rules of its

In 2012, we were able to meet new collaborators, who have their own
phonetic peculiarities. Even so, it all fits alongside the system we had
already written up.

To complete our work now, we need to make a fresh expedition, as soon as
possible: Our collaborators there are around 90 years old. These are very
modern American seniors, and they know about Skype, but the technology
doesn't really help.

You have to be able to listen extremely carefully, ask questions several
times -- and personal contact is vital when working with nuances of lexicon
and cultural context.

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It's clear that they don't have a complete grasp of the language: They
drift off into English, but they still remember Russian phrases. Our job is
not to let a single one of these grains slip through our fingers unrecorded.

This is all of great value, because it's an ecumenical part of the Russian
language and an absolutely unique part. It's unique because it was cut off
from the language's "mainland" for a long time.

It's unique because, for some while, this dialect was surrounded by Native
American languages, and then by English.

Ninilchik Russian was witness to a huge number of processes of the
historical evolution of expressive idiom and socio-linguistic problems.
And, of course, it's a cultural legacy. It can tell us the kind of life
these people led.

Today, they feel that they are a native-born Americans; but, until the end
of the 19th century, those who spoke Russian felt that they were Creoles,
and that theirs was the native culture of Alaska.



 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com

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