The year 2022 has been declared the Year of Folk Art and Intangible Cultural Heritage of Peoples in Russia. The languages of indigenous small-numbered peoples remain an important element of the country’s culture, while some of them are endangered.

What is the state of the languages of the peoples of the North today? When did a writing system appear in the Nenets language? What actions do scholars take to preserve these languages? Alexander Mikhaylovich Polikarpov, Doctor of Philological Sciences, Professor, Head of the Translation Studies and Applied Linguistics Department at the Northern (Arctic) Federal University (NArFU), Member of the Board of the Union of Translators of Russia (UTR), Head of the Council for Translation Activities using the Languages of the Peoples of Russia under UTR Board, answers these questions.

Alexander Mikhaylovich Polikarpov, Doctor of Philological Sciences, Professor, Head of the Translation Studies and Applied Linguistics Department at the Northern (Arctic) Federal University

Alexander Mikhaylovich Polikarpov, Doctor of Philological Sciences, Professor, Head of the Translation Studies and Applied Linguistics Department at the Northern (Arctic) Federal University

Photo: NArFU

— What languages are classified as the languages of the indigenous peoples of the North? How many languages are there? How widespread are they? Are there corresponding linguistic maps and an understanding of how the languages are distributed across the Arctic?

— There are 40 indigenous small-numbered peoples in Russia, and almost half of them speak indigenous Arctic languages. These findings were introduced at the International Seminar on the Preservation and Promotion of the Languages of the Indigenous Minorities of the Arctic. The seminar was held in Saint Petersburg in mid-March. At this seminar, the linguistic maps of the languages were presented. These maps are currently developed and revised in Russia. It is the Institute of Linguistics of the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS) that has been actively engaged in language mapping lately.

The latest 2010 population census data show that 44,640 Nenets live in Russia, and approximately 22,000 Nenets, that is, about half of them, speak their native language. At the same time, the preservation of the Nenets language differs significantly across the regions. We actively cooperate with the Ethnocultural Center of the Nenets Autonomous Okrug, our neighboring region. Only 700 people speak the Nenets language there. Language preservation is a serious problem in this region. The situation is significantly better in the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug.

Interestingly, the residents of the Nenets Autonomous Okrug put the stress on the first syllable, that is, they say the Nénets language, while the residents of the Yamalo-Nenets Okrug ― on the second syllable, they say Nenéts. In fact, both variants are correct, as it is the so-called “usus,” common usage of linguistic units in a particular speech community.

― Are there territories where not only the Nenets language but languages of other peoples of the North are likewise widely spread?

― Surely, such territories exist. However, I have to say I am not a big expert in all the languages of the ethnic minorities of the North. I am only beginning to explore this complex subject.

Let me explain why I became interested in these languages. I am from the North: I was born in the Pinezhsky district of the Arkhangelsk Region. This is the depth of the country that is called a “crossroad of cultures.” A conglomerate of the peoples of the North was formed in Pinezhye as far back as ancient times: the nomadic Nenets engaged in reindeer herding used to visit this area, the Komi people lived here, and later the Slavs came here. The very names of the settlements in Pinezhye inspire long considerations. For example, I was born in the Shardonem village. This is a Finno-Ugric name that comes from the hydronym “Sharda,” which is the name of the river that flows there, and the word “nem” meaning “cape” in the Finno-Ugric languages. Therefore, the name of the village means that it is a cape on the bank of the Sharda River. There are a lot of similar names you can reflect upon. It got me interested at the time.

Александр Поликарпов с участницами ненецкого молодежного ансамбля песни и танца "Хаяр"

― How were the Nenets languages formed and developed?

― The Nenets are an ancient nation that emerged in our North in the 1st millennium BC. Historians can tell you about their rise in more detail, while I study their language.

I am the Head of the Translation Studies and Applied Linguistics Department at NArFU. In 2012, we launched a project on the history of translation activities in the North of Pomorye. In particular, I was interested in translations from the languages of the peoples of the North into Russian. It is noteworthy that the Nenets language did not always have a writing system. It was developed not in the Soviet period, as it is often said today, but a bit earlier.

While working on this project on the history of translation activities, I found out that local interpreters of northern languages, including the Nenets language, existed in the North of Pomorye as far back as the 17th century. For example, there was a prospector Foma Kyrkalov from Mezen and his task was to explore ore deposits in Novaya Zemlya. Foma Kyrkalov had to act as an interpreter from the Nenets language to explain to the members of his expedition what locals were saying.

Historical sources helped us establish that the first attempt to Christianize the Samoyeds and, in particular, the Nenets took place in 1822. Arkhangelsk Ecclesiastical Administration sent priest Feodor to the tundra. As they said, he was supposed to “influence” the Samoyeds and convert them to Christianity through persuasion. In 1825, prior of the Siya Monastery Archimandrite Veniamin accompanied by a deacon who was familiar with the Nenets’ customs went from Arkhangelsk to Mezen and introduced the Nenets to Christian teaching there.

The writing system of the Nenets language began to rise from that moment. Christian missionaries used to go to the Kaninsky tundra, Bolshezemelskaya tundra, and Malozemelskaya tundra. In 1828–1830, Archimandrite Veniamin studied the Samoyed language and translated the Bible into it. Their writing system did not exist at that moment, so he created it.

We found this information on the Christianization of the Samoyeds and translations of the Bible into the Nenets language in the state archive of the Arkhangelsk region. The study into the history of translation activities in the North of Pomorye made me interested in the Nenets language, so I suggested creating a professional retraining program for teachers. We plan to train teachers who are native Nenets speakers so that they teach it in schools as the native language of the indigenous people of the Arctic.

― What is the state of the languages of the peoples of the North today? Is it fair to say that there is a certain crisis in this field?

― Yes, such a crisis is noticeable with the languages of many indigenous minorities, including the Nenets language. No matter how hard we try to initiate programs for their preservation, the problem remains.

For example, schoolchildren take the Unified State Exam (USE), which is in Russian. This is why indigenous parents teach their children in Russian, otherwise the children will not get higher education. On the one hand, it is good that the Russian language unites us, as it is a powerful means of interethnic communication. On the other hand, the number of teachers of indigenous languages decreases along with the spread of Russian.

Previously, Nenets language teachers were professionally trained only at the Institute of the Peoples of the North of Herzen State Pedagogical University in Saint Petersburg. Today, few people go to study there, so the shortage of teachers is clearly pronounced. Moreover, there have been no opportunities for regular professional retraining. They could provide professional retraining for school teachers of the Russian language and literature so that those would teach the Nenets, but this was not done. We plan to fill this gap.

― At what point, did the decline of the languages of the indigenous small-numbered peoples begin? After all, in the Soviet times, they were actively developed and there was support for the writing system development …

― Indeed, the Soviet Union paid serious attention to indigenous small-numbered peoples. For example, the creation of the first Nenets alphabet book is an achievement of the Soviet regime that strived for preserving a multinational state.

In my opinion, the crisis of these languages ​​emerged during the Perestroika period that brought chaos to many fields. UTR has recently appointed me the Head of the Council for Translation Activities using the Languages of the Peoples of Russia. At our meetings, we always note that the scope and quality of the literature and translated literature of ethnic minorities are significantly lower than those maintained in the Soviet times. I would like to see a more serious approach to the publication of literature translated from the languages ​​of indigenous small-numbered peoples, as these are our cultural traditions and history. If we preserve these languages ​​through the development of literature, our history and culture will be mutually enriched.

― Is there anything from the languages and culture of the North that we definitively lost during this crisis?

― Some languages rapidly disappear, for example, the Aleut language. It is not exactly the language of the North. It refers to the Far East. The last native Aleut speaker passed away in Russia not long ago. Today this language is used only in Alaska. There are a lot of other disappearing languages. This problem is typical of not only the languages of the North.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) reports that even the Udmurt language is one of the endangered languages. The situation is even more serious in the North: for example, the Veps language in Karelia raises serious concerns, although some enthusiasts try to preserve it.

The situation in the Komi Republic, our nearest neighbors, is quite a favorable one. The language is preserved there owing to philologists and regional authorities. They carry out activities to support and develop the language along with the Finno-Ugric linguistic community.

― How do indigenous languages reflect the culture of peoples? Are there native Nenets poetry and prose?

― Yes, of course, culture is reflected in these languages. We study this at the NArFU. Last year, I began working with a postgraduate student. She will research how Nenets folklore should be translated into Russian. She has already participated in an expedition to collect Nenets folklore materials in the Kaninsky tundra. She plans new expeditions, including those to other regions where the Nenets language is used. She collects Nenets folklore, records oral speech, and selects written texts for translation. Among other things, Nenets folklore includes folk tales and legends.

― Is studying the languages of indigenous peoples, in particular, the peoples of the North, more of a field job or a desk job?

― We need to conduct as many expeditions as possible these days. The Nenets language, its linguistic forms, and varieties as well as Nenets folklore disappear very quickly. If we fail to prepare digital evidence of this culture within the next 15–20 years, the bearers of folklore traditions can die out completely: young people do not know old folk tales and legends. Therefore, we need to record as many of them as possible now.

This is what the first expedition of the Ethnocultural Center of the Nenets Autonomous Okrug would specifically target. Research in the field of Nenets folklore was carried out in the Nenets Autonomous Okrug. The obtained records with translations allow for further research. The Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug takes a lot of measures to preserve folklore. It cannot be said the collection of materials capturing the cultural manifestations of indigenous peoples is in a dire situation, but this process should not be abandoned.

― My question might be too pragmatic but given the small number of indigenous minorities throughout Russia, why would we want to preserve their languages? After all, there is Russian that unites us all. What do we risk if the languages of these small-numbered peoples are lost?

― We can lose a connection with our history. Part of this history is still preserved in the languages of the peoples who have lived in the territory of Russia for a long time. A language is a means of storing information about peoples, their history, culture, psychology, and mentality. If we lose the language, we will not be able to understand, for example, why we encounter conflicts or do not understand each other.

The languages of indigenous peoples, including those of the North, were created to communicate and store a large amount of information about interactions with other peoples. Borrowings from languages go in different directions. This field is studied by contact linguistics, and it is a very promising field of science.

As I have already mentioned, I come from the Pinezhsky District of the Arkhangelsk Region. I speak the Northern Russian dialect that is common there. In my childhood, I absorbed dialectal words and certain vocabulary units the meaning of which I did not always understand. Now, studying the Nenets language, I am trying to delve into the question of what exactly unites the Russian and Nenets languages. I find very interesting cases of borrowing in the Nenets language from Pinezhsky dialects.

In Pinezhye, people say “baskoy,” which means “beautiful.” Recently, I have come across the Nenets word “paskoy,” and it also means “beautiful.” I started studying how it was borrowed. It turned out that it came to the Nenets language from the Pomors. In addition, the word now has more connotations in the Nenets language than for example, in the language used in the Pinezhsky District.

I have another example of the mutual influence of the Russian and the Nenets languages. I found the word “lesak” in the Nenets language. We have a similar word, “leshak,” in Pinezhye. This is the name of the forest spirit, our mythological Leshy. The Nenets word “lesak” means “devil.” Native Nenets speakers say this word was also borrowed from the Russian northerners. In this way, through dialects and idioms, words pass from one language to another.

― How sophisticated is the Nenets language? What are its key features?

― The Nenets language comprises tundra and forest varieties. Scientists’ opinions vary on whether they are dialects or separate languages. However, I believe that they are dialects, although they differ significantly from each other. Only two thousand people speak the forest Nenets language in Russia. The remaining 20 thousand Nenets speak the Tundra variety. It is important to understand that the tundra Nenets language is also heterogeneous, and experts distinguish separate dialects within this language.

There are more cases in the Nenets language as compared to Russian, that is, there are seven cases. In addition, they do not fully match the cases of the Russian language. This creates additional difficulties when one studies the Nenets language, and it is easier to be born with it.

We develop a program to train teachers who are native Nenets speakers in teaching this language to schoolchildren as their native language. At the same time, the Nenets study the Russian language, too and so when teaching the Nenets language, we should keep in mind the idea that children will speak two languages. Now, some Nenets children do not speak Nenets, and some of them do not speak Russian, so there is a need for a flexible approach to education. Of course, when teaching the Nenets language, we will focus on the majority, and the majority speaks the tundra dialect.

― Your program implies teaching the Nenets their language. Am I right?

― Yes, we are going to organize our work in such a manner that native Nenets speakers will teach the Nenets language to Nenets teachers.

― If to preserve the Nenets language we must first train Nenets teachers in teaching it, the situation must be catastrophic…

― It is true. The situation with Nenets language teaching does not look very good. The Nenets Autonomous Okrug is an area that is densely inhabited by the Nenets, but only about 700 native speakers remain there. Therefore, children need to study this language from kindergarten, while it is still alive.

To teach this language effectively, teachers must be able to use modern technologies so that they implement digital technologies instead of only using a piece of chalk and a blackboard wiper. To achieve this, we developed the one-year retraining program “Teaching the Nenets Language and Culture of the Nenets in the Context of Digitalization.”

― How did the project appear? When do you plan to launch this program?

― If there are no obstacles, the program should be launched in January 2023. We have been working on this project for three years and have gone through several stages of discussion.

The first step towards the creation of this project was a meeting on the affairs of the North and indigenous small-numbered peoples held by the Parliamentary Association of the North-West of Russia in 2019. I presented the program and received support during this meeting.

The primary preparatory stage of the program has already been completed: we explained the role of the program in scientific terms. The second preparatory stage of the program should be completed this summer: we are going to monitor the state of Nenets language teaching. We plan to organize an expedition to the Nenets Autonomous Okrug and Komi to find out what happens in schools, how children learn the Nenets language, and what textbooks they use. Teaching activities should begin in January 2023.

We do not want our retaining program to be implemented as a mere formality. We see its huge potential. We plan to develop a model that would unite the representatives of the Nenets language throughout Russia. After all, we are not the only ones engaged in professional retraining or advanced training courses. There are first-class institutes in Taymyr where representatives of the indigenous small-numbered peoples of the North undergo advanced training courses and professional retraining. The Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug has advanced training programs as well.

At the NArFU, we have everything ready to start implementing our professional retraining program. For example, we take part in the network project “Digitalization of the Linguistic and Cultural Heritage of the Peoples of the Arctic” together with Ammosov North-Eastern Federal University in Yakutsk and other universities.

We have experience in cooperating with federal universities in applied linguistics and professional pedagogy in the context of digitalization. Our network project “Scientific Interaction of Federal Universities in Applied Linguistics and Professional Pedagogy in the Context of Digitalization” unites all federal universities. In addition, we explore linguistic problems through the lens of digital technology development as part of our professional retraining program in the Nenets language. Today one cannot learn languages ​​simply from textbooks. It is necessary to use up-to-date tools and approaches.

― Do you plan to transfer this idea to other languages after your project on the Nenets language is launched?

― Yes, when we elaborate this model in the Nenets language, we will be able to extend it to other languages in the form of teaching guidelines. It is very important to me as the Head of the Council for Translation Activities using the Languages of the Peoples of Russia under the Board of UTR. UTR also works on interregional projects.

― How do you envision the future of the languages of indigenous small-numbered languages? Is it an optimistic picture or an alarming one?

― I cannot be entirely optimistic for if you look at everything with the hope for the best, your ideas will not be realized. You need to maintain a balance.

Today we see that the languages ​​of the indigenous small-numbered peoples are in a poor state. The United Nations declared the International Decade of Indigenous Languages in 2022. During this period, we should accurately evaluate the state of these languages, preserve, and develop them if possible. Extinct languages can only be regretted. However, I also believe that these are projects rather than discussions about the preservation of languages that will help us. That’s why I started working on the retraining program we have been discussing. If this brings tangible results, we will be able to use this experience to save other languages.