About the Yukaghirs

The modern Yukaghirs inhabit the extreme North-East of Siberia and constitute one of the smallest ethnic groups in Russia. Their language is traditionally classified as genetically isolated, but some researchers have discussed the possibility of its genetic relationship with Uralic. If Yukaghir and Uralic are genetically related, the Uralo-Yukaghir relationship is considerably more distant than the relationship between the two branches of Uralic (Finno-Ugric and Samoyed) and probably goes back to the virtual Uralo-Yukaghir proto-language which can hardly be less than 8000 years old.

Several centuries ago there used to be several Yukaghir idioms, but by the time the systematic study of Yukaghir began at the end of 19th century only two varieties had survived. They are usually referred to as Kolyma (or Southern) and Tundra (or Northern) Yukaghir and are spoken by the Kolyma and Tundra Yukaghirs, respectively. The distances between the habitats of these two groups is large and contacts between them are rare. The Kolyma Yukaghirs mostly live in the Verxnekolymsk district of the Yakut (Saxa) Republic of the Russian Federation. The main settlements are Nelemnoe (on the river Jasachnaja) and Zyrjanka (on the river Kolyma). A few Kolyma Yukaghirs live in Srednekolymsk in the Srednekolymsk district of the Yakut (Saxa) Republic, as well as in the settlements of Sejmchan and Balygychan in the Serednekansk district of the Magadan Region. The Tundra Yukaghirs live in the Nizhnekolymsk district of the Yakut (Saxa) Republic. The main centers of population are the settlements of Andrjushkino (on the river Alazeja) and Kolymskoe (on the river Kolyma), while a smaller group lives in the settlement of Cherskij.

Speakers of the two Yukaghir idioms do not usually identify themselves as members of one ethnic group, unless they have read or heard that they are related. Their languages are quite different from each other and almost entirely mutually incomprehensible. Most obvious are differences in vocabulary, because Tundra Yukaghir was strongly influenced by Even. In the first half of the 19th century the Tundra Yukaghirs and Evens to the West of the Kolyma were almost all bilingual, which has resulted in the existence of many Even loan words in Tundra Yukaghir, including words of basic vocabulary. There are also systematic differences in phonology, morphology and syntax. Traditionally, the two Yukaghir idioms were treated as dialects, but at present most researchers prefer to consider them closely related languages and speak about "a Yukaghir language family" rather than "the Yukaghir language". This documentation only contains materials from Kolyma Yukaghir.

The Yukaghirs are autochthons of the North-East of Siberia, but their territory and population have considerably decreased during the last few centuries. By the end of the 17th century they numbered about 5000 people, and occupied a much larger territory than now. The reasons for their decline include economic competition with the other peoples who appeared in their territory in the last few centuries, in particular the Evens; the smallpox epidemics which ravaged Yakutia in the 17th century; armed conflicts with the Evens, Koriaks, Russian Cossacks, and later with the Chukchee; and a matrilocal system of marriage, which allowed the creation of ethnically mixed groups. These factors contributed to the total disappearance of some tribes and the amalgamation of the others. A large number of Yukaghirs have undergone assimilation by neighbouring peoples. Assimilation by the Evens was especially noticeable among the western groups of Yukaghirs, while some eastern groups switched to using Koryak or Chukchi during the 18th and 19th centuries. Due to the large number of ethnic groups in the area, multilingualism was widespread and is still noticeable among the older generation of Yukaghirs.

The Russians first met the Yukaghirs in the late 17th century. The Russian language began to spread over all of the territory in the early 1930s, although the Yukaghirs from the lower and upper Kolyma had already in the 19th century undergone partial russification. With the arrival of the Soviets russification became especially extensive, first on the upper Kolyma, and later on the lower Kolyma. Yukaghir settlements became permeated by Russian officials and specialists, and Russian became the principal language of communication with the new populations. At present Russian is the only language spoken by all Yukaghirs. All Yukaghirs speaking Yukaghir are bilingual, with Russian as their second or sometimes their first language. The position of Yakut is now less strong, but most Yukaghirs have some command of Yakut as well.

The 1989 official census recorded 1112 ethnic Yukaghirs, 697 of whom lived in the Yakut (Sakha) Republic. This indicates that the number of Yukaghirs has been gradually increasing, since in 1979 there were officially 835 Yukaghirs. However, this data cannot be taken at face value and must be only an estimate. The main reason is the great ethnic mixture in the region. Ethnic self-consciousness is ill-defined, and sometimes people are not sure to which group they belong. Moreover, the father of a child born in the region is often not known at all. A common pairing might be a temporary worker from Russia or the Ukraine, and a mother who is a half or a quarter Yukaghir. The child of such a union would usually be registered as Yukaghir. Second, like the other minority peoples of the Russian North, the Yukaghirs have until recently enjoyed some economic privileges over the local Russian and Yakut population, so registration as a Yukaghir is economically advantageous. In this situation some Yakuts or even Russians have registered themselves as Yukaghirs, whether or not they are of Yukaghir descent. Finally, the lower number of Yukaghirs in the 1979 census in comparison to the 1989 census may be explained by the fact that the policy of the local authorities was to diminish the number of Yukaghirs, typically in favor of Yakuts.

According to the 1989 census, 397 Yukaghirs have some command of Yukaghir, and 356 people called it their first language. For most other Yukaghirs their first language is Russian, and for the youngest generation it is normally their only language. This data should also be treated with care. Though some Yukaghirs recognise Yukaghir as their mother tongue, this does not mean that each can really speak it. The degree of language competence may vary from speaking Yukaghir fluently to knowing only a few words, or perhaps not knowing it at all. Many who claim their mother tongue to be Yukaghir may simply mean that Yukaghir is the language of their ancestors, or the language of the ethnicity he or she officially recognises as his/her own. According to unofficial estimates, in the late 1980s there were about 150 competent speakers of Tundra Yukaghir and about 50 speakers of Kolyma Yukaghir. The average age of fluent speakers for whom Yukaghir is their first language is 64 for Kolyma Yukaghir and 60 for Tundra Yukaghir. These people acquired the language in early childhood from their parents and/or grandparents, and it was the only (or the main) language spoken by all (or most) of the adults surrounding the child.

The situation differs between the Tundra and the Kolyma Yukaghirs. Basically, the language of the Kolyma Yukaghirs is almost one generation ahead of the Tundra Yukaghirs on the road to decay. Before the 1940s the Tundra Yukaghirs lived as reindeer herders in small, semi-nomadic monolingual groups of two or three families, and met other ethnic groups only occasionally. They began to settle down as late as 1941, when the settlement Andrjushkino was founded. On the other hand, the Kolyma Yukaghirs had already started living in multilingual settlements in the 1930s, and new populations frequently arrived in their area. As a result, the natural transmission of the language from parents to children largely halted among the Kolyma Yukaghirs as early as the Second World War. Although parents typically express interest in promoting their mother tongue, they speak Russian with their children even if they themselves know Yukaghir. Now Kolyma Yukaghir is only spoken by a few elderly people. The situation with Tundra Yukaghir is better, especially in Andrjushkino, although in last 20-30 years it has also lost its position.

The Yukaghir languages have no official status and fulfill limited functions. They are not used in legislation, business, theater, religious ceremonies or the mass media, except for occasional broadcasts on local radio. Their use is strongly connected with the traditional activities of the population, and is typically practised only in the taiga during hunting and fishing, and on the tundra during reindeer herding. Only some Tundra Yukaghirs still use the language in their family life in the settlements. Teaching of the language at school started in the early 1980s, but is not effective, at least for the Kolyma Yukaghirs. The language is a mandatory subject for all children from Yukaghir families in grades 1-8, but there are no qualified teachers and no systematic teaching programs. For the Tundra Yukaghirs the classes are reported to be more effective, but even there most children learn Yukaghir as a foreign language, and do not acquire a good command of it during their school years. Only those children who have relations living and carrying out their traditional activities in the taiga or on the tundra have the opportunity to learn their ancestral language in a natural way.

Unlike the other minority languages of the Russian North, there were no attempts to create a writing system for the Yukaghirs in the 19th century or in the 1930s. A writing system was created in the 1970s and 1980s by the linguist and author Gavril Kurilov, a native speaker of Tundra Yukaghir. The writing system uses the Cyrillic alphabet with some additional symbols and is based on a phonemic principle similar to that used in the Yakut writing system. In 1987 this system was accepted as the official Yukaghir orthography by the Yakut Ministry of Education. The writing system has mostly been used in publishing the works of Kurilov himself, which includes original poetry and short stories and some translations from Russian, as well as for dictionaries and teaching materials. It was also used for the Kolyma Yukaghir short stories of Vasilij Shalugin, together with transcriptions of folklore and teaching materials for that idiom. The works of these authors can be thought of as attempts to create an original Yukaghir literature.