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Home » Linguistic Geography, Siberia

How to save the Itelmen language?

Submitted by on March 29, 2012 – 5:04 pm 16 Comments |  

As mentioned in an earlier GeoCurrents post, the Itelmen are at the bottom of the list of Siberian native groups when it comes to the degree of indigenous language preservation: according to the 2002 census, only 12% of ethnic Itelmen speak their native language, and even this figure is probably too high, as we shall see below. Most of these speakers belong to the grandparental generation; for the last 40-60 years the Itelmen language has not been passed on from parents to children, placing it in the UNESCO list of “critically endangered” languages. So why have the Itelmen switched to Russian en masse and over a short period of time? What is being done for their language maintenance and revitalization? And why do these efforts meet with such modest success so far?

But before we consider those issues in detail, let’s briefly examine the history of the Itelmen people and their language. The Itelmen are a northeastern Paleoasiatic people, living on the Kamchatka Peninsula. They used to occupy virtually the entire Kamchatka, from the Tigil River in the north to Cape Lopatka in the south. According to some scholars, Itelmen lived on some of the northern Kuril Islands, where they had contacts with the Ainu, who, through mixed marriages and other means, influenced the Itelmen dialect of southern Kamchatka. Vladimir Atlasov, the first Russian explorer of Kamchatka, explorer, estimated the number of Itelmen in 1697 at about 20,000.

According to James Forsyth’s A History of the Peoples in Siberia, “like the other tribes of north-east Siberia, the Itelmen had no hereditary chiefs… lived in quite large villages surrounded by palisades as a protection against raids by neighboring clans… [and] used implements and weapons of bone and stone, knowing iron only from the rare objects which found their way to Kamchatka from Japan via the Kuril Islands”. In the summer, the Itelmen fished the Pacific salmon rushing up the rivers to their spawning grounds; salmon flesh and roe, as well as flesh and blubber of seals they hunted, were prepared for the winter by drying in the sun or smoking in pits. Dogs were their only domesticated animals. Women also gathered edible plants, made plentiful by the wet and, by Siberian standards, relatively mild climate. Inspired by frequent volcanic eruptions, earthquakes and tidal waves, the Itelmen believed in evil spirits living on the mountains; visiting such places was considered dangerous or sinful. Unlike most Siberian indigenous groups, the Itelmen had no shamans; “the old men and women who performed religious rites neither wore special costume nor beat a drum” (Forsyth, p. 133). Like the neighboring Koryaks (and Saamis in northern Europe), the Itelmen consumed fly agaric mushrooms as a means of inducing hallucinations.

The Itelmen language is related to other languages in the Chukotko-Kamchatka family: Chukchi, Koryak, and Kerek. The Russian explorer Krasheninnikov stated in 1743 that all the settled indigenous inhabitants of Kamchatka spoke the Itelmen language. He also identified three dialects, speakers of which understood each other perfectly well: “eastern” (spoken along the Pacific coastline and in the valley of the Kamchatka River), “southern” (spoken around the town of Petropavlovsk) and “western” (spoken along the western coastline of Kamchatka). But the use of the Itelmen language began to wither soon after Krasheninnikov’s visit. In 1745 Christianity was brought to Kamchatka by a special spiritual mission, and the baptism of the Itelmen meant a loss of one sphere in which their language was used. Outbreaks of smallpox and other epidemics, along with an influx of Russian settlers,  intensified the assimilation processes. Already by the nineteenth century, many nouns and proper names were eliminated from the language and replaced by Russian ones; as a result, all the Itelmen had come to be known by Russian first and last names. The three dialects had different longevities. The southern dialect disappeared first: in 1908-09, a Russian visitor described meeting only one old man, Feoktist Permyakov, who could understand and speak Itelmen. A sharp reduction in the number of speakers of the eastern dialect too occurred during the period of intensive colonization of Kamchatka by the Russians, while the western dialect survived the longest. The 2002 census registered 3,180 Itelmen, living mostly in the Tigilskiy District of the Kamchatka Oblast, in the villages of Tigil, Sedanka, Khairyuzovo, and Palana, with a large concentration in the village of Kovran. Of them, only 385 speak Itelmen, and perhaps fewer than 40 do so fluently. According to V.I. Uspenskaya, the oldest native speaker is 77 years old and the youngest is 51. Virtually all Itelmen – 3173 people – speak Russian. So why was there such a sharp reduction in the number of Itelmen and in the territory they occupy, as well as in the number of those who speak the indigenous language?

The decrease in the number of ethnic Itelmen started in the last years of the seventeenth century, with the arrival of the Cossack bands: where the inhabitants refused to submit to the invaders, the latter “attacked them, killing some and setting fire to their villages in order to terrorize them and make them submit to the Tsar” (as documented in Kolonialnaya politika tsarizma na Kamchatke, published in Leningrad in 1935, pp. 27-28). Peter the Great’s degree of 1697 forbidding the Russian colonialists from abusing or enslaving the natives was disregarded, and such practices continued, leading to a mass Itelmen rebellion in 1706. Attacks by Cossack regimens continued throughout the early eighteenth century. The Russians eventually prevailed, establishing a system in which the locals were obliged to procure sable furs and to provide labor for the Russian expeditions in the region. The conquest of Kamchatka was essentially completed by the crushing of the 1741-42 Itelmen uprising, leaving the southern and eastern parts of the peninsula firmly under the control of the Russian authorities. The region was then opened to settlement by Russians, who attempted to develop agriculture. War, epidemics, forcible assimilation, and mixed marriages took a dreadful toll of the Itelmen, whose numbers declined to 6,000 in 1767, and further dropped to just 3,000 due to a smallpox epidemic in 1768-69. By 1820, they numbered only 1,900, and by the end of the nineteenth century most Itelmen were thoroughly assimilated, spoke Russian, and were at least nominally Orthodox Christians. By the turn of the twentieth century no more than 58% of the Itelmen claimed to speak only the indigenous language.

The arrival of the Soviet regime did not improve the Itelmen situation. Quite the opposite: unlike many other indigenous groups, whose ethnic identity was initially supported by the new regime, the Itelmen were at the stroke of a pen deprived of their nationality. In 1925, the provincial Revolutionary Committee decided not to consider the more assimilated native inhabitants of the southern districts of Kamchatka as “Itelmen”, as they no longer used their indigenous language and they shared the way of life of the Russian peasants of the peninsula. Instead, they were reclassified as “Kamchadals”. This decision reduced the official number of Itelmen considerably, as from then on, only inhabitants of the western coastline in the Tigilskiy District, numbering just over 800, had “Itelmen” stamped in their passports.

The term “Kamchadal” is ambiguous. In the earlier historical and ethnographic literatures, it was used interchangeably with “Itelmen”. Elsewhere “Kamchadal,” is either reserved for ethnic Russians who settled in Kamchatka or used to denote those Itelmen who were assimilated during Tsarist times. Recent Russian censuses list Kamchadal and Itelman as separate ethnic groups; according to the 2002 census there are 3,180 “Itelmen” and an additional 2,293 “Kamchadals”. The census notes that a certain number of the Itelmen speak the Itelmen language  and that a certain number of the Kamchadal speak “the Kamchadal language”. However, it is unclear whether there is a distinct Kamchadal language, as opposed to a Russian dialect with some Itelmen influence (words, expressions, and perhaps some phonology).

During the later Soviet period the assimilation of the remaining Itelmen continued apace. Beginning in the 1950s, smaller villages in the Tigil region and the Kamchatka valley were declared “non-viable” and therefore amalgamated with neighboring settlements. The new, larger settlements were predominantly Russian-speaking. Together with massive construction projects, mixed marriages, and the rapid spread of literacy in Russian, the resettlement of the Itelmen led to an even quicker pace of Russification. But while the Itelmen lost their language, they did not thereby lose their national awareness. , The number of people claiming Itelmen nationality actually increased from 1,109 in 1959 to 1,370 in 1979.

So what prompted these ethnic Itelmen to abandon the language of their forefathers and switch to Russian? Many people tend to think of language death as being akin to Darwinian evolution, or “survival of the fittest”. Even members of the indigenous communities themselves often blame their language and its perceived “inadequacies”, such as lacking a written form, being too grammatically complex for children to learn, or not being suited for modern way of life. But as discussed in detail by Jonathan Bobaljik, none of these things by themselves cause the shift to the dominant, colonial language.

First, the lack of writing by no means dooms a language. Written language is a relatively modern invention going back perhaps 5,000 years old, as opposed to the 100,000-year or so history of spoken language. Until quite  recently, moreover, writing was limited to a select few people in certain parts of the world. All over the globe, languages continued to be transmitted perfectly well without any written grammars or dictionaries. Moreover, having a written form is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for one language to replace another. Essentially illiterate Russians managed to acculturate the so-called “lost middle Finns” – Merya, Meschera, and Murom – in the tenth and eleventh centuries, but the cultured, literate Romans never managed to impose Latin on the Celtic inhabitants of the British Isles (though they did in Gaul and elsewhere in their widespread empire). Having a written form is irrelevant to language shift because children learn their native language not from grammars and dictionaries but from hearing the language spoken around them. And as long as children are able to acquire a language from those around them and speak it natively, the language remains a living one.

Second, being “too grammatically complex,” has no bearing on inter-generational language transmission. As noted by John McWhorter What Language Is (And What It Isn’t and What It Could Be), languages that are transmitted in an unbroken chain from one generation to the next tend to get more and more “ingrown” and “disheveled”, meaning they develop complex grammatical patterns with numerous exceptions, as McWhorter illustrates with Ket, another Siberian indigenous language. It is true that many peoples who have spoken Ket and similarly ingrown languages have switched to less disheveled languages over the course of history, but they have not done so because those languages are “easier” or in any way superior to their native tongues. The process actually works in the opposite direction: when people switch en masse to a new language, they often make it “easier” by shifting to it.

McWhorter’s best illustration of this process comes from a comparison of Pashto and Persian. In the latter, past tense verbs are formed by adding the past tense suffix -id and an ending encoding one of the six person/number combinations. In Pashto, things are more complicated in several ways. Transitive and intransitive verbs have different rules for forming the past tense forms. Instead of just six person/number combinations, there are eight (“he” and “she” go with different verb forms, as do “they guys” and “they gals”). Finally, the stress may fall either on the root or the ending. Similarly, Pashto has two genders, four cases, and several declension patterns, whereas Persian has none of that. McWhorter attributes the relative grammatical “simplicity” of Persian to the fact that, being the language of the Persian Empire, it has been imposed on several generations of non-native adult learners, as imperial languages tend to be. Other examples of this “Persian conversion” phenomenon include English (which McWhorter calls “Germanic Jr.”), Mandarin Chinese, and possibly Latin.

It is also true that  “overall complexity”  — to the extent that it is a meaningful notion at all — is hard to assess. For example, Itelmen verbal inflection is much more complex than Russian verbal inflection, but Russian nominal and adjectival inflections are in many ways more complex than those of Itelmen.* As Jonathan Bobaljik correctly points out, “Russians exposed to Itelmen do not decide on these grounds that Itelmen would be easier for their children to learn, nor did children raised in multilingual communities grow up to speak a hybrid of the two, taking the simplest components of both”.

Finally, the argument based on adaptability fails too, as all languages, including Itelmen are malleable. Languages create new words and new forms of expressions either by borrowing from other languages or by using language-internal means. Itelmen too proved its adaptability by coining a large number of new words and by borrowing many others.  Recent loanwords are mostly derived from Russian, whereas older borrowings are from Koryak, Chukchi, the Eskimo-Aleut languages, and possibly even Ainu.

Implicit in all of these arguments is the assumption that a choice must be made by the community between Itelmen and Russian. However, bilingualism is a very common phenomenon worldwide. Studies conducted in the last fifty years confirm that bringing up a child with more than one language does not result in confusion. Quite the opposite may be true as some psycholinguistic studies indicate that individual bilingualism may promote a child’s cognitive development, improve creative thinking, hone language learning skills, and even promote the maturation of those areas of the brain responsible for inhibition and control. Continuing societal bilingualism does not hold the community back either, as the Swiss illustrate so well.

The bottom line is that speakers of one language switch to another language in a short period of time not due to some inadequacies of their own language. In the case of the Itelmen, the massive switch of the majority to Russian has to do with forcible assimilation on the part of the Russians, perceived ease of entering the social mainstream (getting education, jobs, etc.), and also the destruction of the traditional ways of life. These social, political, and economic reasons account for the sad state that the Itelmen language finds itself in today: only a small number of elderly people still speak the language. It is taught sporadically in kindergartens and elementary schools, but all language programs suffer from a chronic shortage of trained teachers, materials, and funding. The Itelmen community is not monolithic: though many people want to see the language revived, others do not. Some have invested enormous efforts into language preservation programs, but others have resisted them. Local Russian authorities consider the Itelmen fully assimilated rather than forming a separate ethnic group, and thus refuse to grant the Itelmen the privileges guaranteed to native peoples by law. This also helps to explain why revitalization measures have met only with limited success so far: they address the symptoms rather than the underlying causes of the problem.



* A transitive verb in Itelmen has literally hundreds of distinct forms, as prefixes and suffixes are used to indicate not only whether the action is in the past, present, or future (e.g. in English play vs. played), and who the subject of the action is (e.g. in English I play vs. He plays), but also who or what the object of the action is, whether there is one or more objects to the action, whether the action happened once or was repeated, and several others types of information. Russian does not express any of these pieces of information on the verb, except the “one time only” meaning, which can in some cases be indicated by a special suffix: for example, compare čixat’ ‘sneeze’ vs. čixnut’ ‘sneeze once’ and glotat’ ‘swallow’ vs. glotnut’ ‘swallow once’.


(Thanks to Jonathan Bobaljik and Tatiana Degai for their assistance in working on this post!)



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  • Peter Rosa

    No one wants to see languages disappear, of course, but in the grand scheme of things the loss of a language that has no literary tradition and was spoken by only a few isolated groups is a very minor tragedy.  I suppose I take a more utilitarian approach – a language is fundamentally a tool for communications, and when it no longer serves such a purpose it has outlived its usefulness.  

    • Asya Pereltsvaig

      It’s a very complicated issue indeed. On the one hand, you are correct: if the language is not useful for communication, why expend all these resources to keep it alive? On the other hand, languages are not just means of communication. It is also a vehicle of culture (think folk tales, legends, folk singing) and a crux of ethnic identity (for most groups around the world, anyway). So losing a language means more than just switching to a different communication medium. Furthermore, for us linguists such languages (as any other, really) are precious because they can have unique features and thus shed new light on what a human language can be like. So there are good reasons besides communication to want a language to survive. But there is a different side to this: what right we (non-indigenes) have to tell these people what language they should speak and therefore what economic (educational, etc.) opportunities they will have? If maintaining the traditional language keeps indigenes from the benefits (and not just the ills) of modernity, how can we prevent them from shedding the old language and adopting the new? No straightfoward solution, as far as I can tell, and opinions vary, to say the least. And that’s why I focused my post on why language shift happens and less on whether it is a good thing or not. Perhaps “Why Itelmen can hardly be saved” would have been a better title.

      • Peter Rosa

        Another issue is when is a dead language actually dead?  I’m thinking mainly of Cornish, the last native speakers died 100 years ago but the language has been revived to some extent.  

        • Asya Pereltsvaig

          Thank you for bringing up this question, Peter! The definition is that a language is “alive” if it has native speakers. Therefore, it is when the last speaker dies that the language is technically dead (although if just one speaker is left, the language can hardly be used, no?). For example, the Ubykh language died with its last speaker:

          As for Cornish, I am not sure to what extent is has been revived in this linguistic sense. Sources vary as to whether there are any native speakers, though quite a few people are said to be fluent in the language.

          • James T. Wilson

            I always find this interesting when thinking about earlier languages.  When did Latin die?  I have heard people refer to the literati of medieval Europe as writing in a dead language, though it was a language they were all perfectly comfortable speaking in and many of them wrote and spoke it better than they did their mother language.  Of course, we could say that the speakers of Romance languages are speaking new dialects of Latin, so it never died.  That seems a bit silly, but if Latin is dead, are Chinese and Arabic dead, since nobody speaks the classical forms of those languages from the cradle?

            As far as Itelmen goes, I suppose I should shed a tear for it, but if I did, I would be drowned in tears for Akkadian, Lycian, Gepid, Frankish, Caithness Norn, and every other language that was once a medium of communication and is now an object of study.

          • James T. Wilson

            I just thought of the other end of this question for you, Asya.  If that fellow in L.A. has raised his child speaking Klingon (or Tlingaan so the Klingons don’t get touchy like the Persians do) does that mean Klingon is now a living language, or would there need to be two children raised speaking the language?  In other words, does a native speaker communicating with second language speakers give birth to a language, as it appears to keep a language alive until the last native speaker dies, or does there have to be a community of native speakers actually to give it birth?  I think the answer to that question could give definition to when such revenant languages as Hebrew and Cornish came back into the world of the living and whether such constructed languages as Esperanto have ever lived at all.

          • Asya Pereltsvaig

            That’s an excellent question, James! Technically, one speaker is enough since the language is considered dead when the last speaker die. In practical terms, of course, it might not mean much if there is only one native speaker. In the best cases that we know of where a language was “nativized” — Hebrew, Esperanto, Nicaraguan Sign Language — there was always a community of native speakers + some fluent non-native speakers. The same is true of creolized pidgins. (For those who believe that creoles are nativized pidgins in the first place), theoretically it takes a natives speaker, but in practical terms a community to have a pidgin turn into a creole.

          • Asya Pereltsvaig

            Thank you for your thoughtful comments, James!

            I think a distinction should be drawn between languages that morph into new ones (as was the case of Latin into Romance) and languages that die because speakers shift into another language. But you are absolutely right that language death, even if defined only in this second sense, is not a new phenomenon at all. The Franks at least had a profound influence on French, which I blogged about here (and will blog again on GeoCurrents next week, in the GeoNote section):

            The Itelmen language is disappearing without having much trace left on any other language…

  • Peter Rosa

    The way I see it, a language is not completely dead even in the absence of native speakers if enough of its grammar and vocabulary has been preserved so that it could be revived if people so chose.  That’s what happened with Cornish, to use my prior example.  Although the last native speakers died around the beginning of the 20th century, enough was known about the language for it to be revived in recent years (albeit as a sort of cultural icon rather than an everyday language of communications).  Latin is another example even if you discount its ongoing religious use. 

    On the other hand, most of the non-written indigenous languages that have faded from use have indeed left without much of a trace.  They could not be revived, at least without a great deal of speculation.

    • Asya Pereltsvaig

      In the case a language has no native speakers but has some documentation left, it is effectively dead, but like you say, it can be revived. I am not sure if Cornish has native speakers — do you have any sources on that? One thing to be remembered is that a language is revived, as for example with Hebrew, it is never revived in exactly the same form. I’ve blogged about it in my other blog, in a series of posts that starts here:

      As for Latin, I am not sure what your point is?

      • Peter Rosa

        I don’t believe that anyone speaks Cornish as an everyday language.  As part of its revival, however, supporters of Cornish cultural heritage will speak it among themselves as a sort of ethnic pride. There’s also some bilingual signage, though once again that’s a matter of ethnic pride and not meant to be something people actually use.

        My point about Latin is that if some nation or ethnic group decided that it wanted to make Latin its language of everyday communications it could, in theory, be accomplished.  If I’m not mistaken the Vatican periodically issues an updated Latin dictionary to account for things such as automobiles and computers.

        • Asya Pereltsvaig

          My understanding too is that nobody speaks Cornish natively. So in effect, Cornish today has the status of Latin in the Middle Ages (if that). It can’t be said to have been revived, I am afraid. Cultural and linguistic revival is not the same thing, alas, although for the purposes of Cornish ethnic pride, cultural revival might be all that’s needed.

          And yes, I agree, if anyone applied themselves to the task of reviving Latin, it could be done. But crucially it would need to involve some enthusiasts who would speak Latin — and only Latin — to their children from birth on.

          • Peter Rosa

             if anyone applied themselves to the task of reviving Latin, it could be
            done. But crucially it would need to involve some enthusiasts who would
            speak Latin — and only Latin — to their children from birth on.

            I’m a bit puzzled why it would be necessary to raise children exclusively in Latin.  What confuses me is the status of Cornish’s geographical and linguistic neighbor, Welsh.  No one speaks Welsh exclusively, and more to the point I would be extremely surprised if any parents raise their children using only that language, yet Welsh is certainly not a dead language.

          • Asya Pereltsvaig

            Well, perhaps not exclusively, as one could also raise a bilingual child who would grow up speaking two languages natively: Cornish/Welsh/Latin/whatever + English/whatever. There are apparently some 30,000 monolingual speakers of Welsh, but they remain a minority of Welsh speakers. The point is that there is a huge difference between acquiring a language natively (i.e., from birth, in a natural process) vs. acquiring a language non-natively (later in life, by a more conscious learning process). Only if there is someone who acquired the language natively can a language be called alive.

          • Randy McDonald

            It’s my understanding that there are many children who are raised bilingually in Welsh and in English, but that much of the recent uptick in the percentage of Welsh-speakers is a consequence of people learning the language in schools. In that case, one really has to wonder whether Welsh is in a different situation from Irish: a third of the Republic’s population claims some fluency, but maybe a tenth of it uses Irish regularly. Against this, the Y Fro Grymaeg is a relatively and absolutely much larger and less fragmented territory that the Gaeltacht …

            In the case of Cornish, I’ve read press reports that some Cornish enthusiasts have raised children with Cornish as their mother tongue. Don’t quote me on that.

  • Tim Upham

    Itelmen has a great deal of loanwords from both Russian and the indigenous people south of them, the Koryaks. In fact there is high rate of intermarriage between the Itelmens and the Koryaks. But the Itelmen vocabulary words are as follows:

    Nomqen – Fat

    Niruaqen – Sharp

    Nm tqeh – Able

    Nqetoqen – Strong

    Niquqen – Width of a river.

    Mem – Hut

    P al – Hole

    Sik’ uk’ – Spider

    Ki – River

    Sto -al – Cedar Grove

    Uz -al – Bushes

    -Al – Grassy Area

    Eke-c – Girl

    N en eke-c – Child

    Ma a c – Young Fish

    -Ca – Sky and God

    -A n – Meat With Berries

    K’u -k’u – Claw

    Txun-txun – Night

    Txun-la – Dark

    Cux cux – Rain

    Kist-e n – Houses

    N nc-i n ‘ Fishes

    At – Home

    At-n – Village

    Re la – Falcon

    C-e n – Door

    Ckpc-e – Spoon

    It it-e n – Ringed Seals

    Jaja – Cloud

    Jaq-jaq – Seagull

    Kelme-kel – Cherry Tree

    Qomlo-qom – Bone Marrow

    Ponta-pont – Liver

    Qora – Reindeer

    U – Tree

    E – Squirrel

    Ojna – War

    Ca- – House

    C ca – Sun

    In Itelmen, words are made plural by adding the “n” sound at the end of the word. Also, many of these words, you can see what is the root word as well.