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Mira Bergelson on the Fascinating World of Ninilchik Russian

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Mira Bergelson on the Fascinating World of Ninilchik Russian


Mira Bergelson

Few know that Russian-speaking people can still be found in Alaska. They consider themselves American citizens but their language is a connate dialect of Russian that has been preserved since the 18th century. The Russian village of Ninilchik is located on the Kenai Peninsula on the shores of Cook Inlet. The settlement was founded in 1847 and its residents are descendants of mixed marriages between Russians and local natives. Some of them still bear the names of the first colonists: Kvasnikov, Oskolkov, etc. The settlement's relative isolation was conducive to the preservation of the Russian language: there was a functional Orthodox church here and also a parochial school that had been open until 1917. Starting in the 1930s a policy of assimilation for the indigenous population of Alaska was pursued. They opened an American school here and old-timers remember that they made the kids wash their tongues with soap for speaking a vernacular dialect (Russian in case of Ninilchik). In recent years the trend has reversed: everyone to the contrary wants to remember their roots and the cultural heritage of their people. Meanwhile no more than 20 elderly people in the village can speak this Russian dialect to some degree. Professor Mira Bergelson from the Department of Linguistics and Information Technology of the Faculty of Foreign Languages and Regional Studies at Moscow University talks about her research.
— It is known that together with your husband Andrej Kibrik you visited the village of Ninilchik in Alaska. Could you say a few words about it?

This was not an ordinary expedition but rather part of a major project which I am part of. This is how it originated: my husband Andrej Kibrik and I traveled across Alaska in 1997 and this was Andrej’s project. I visited the local university on another occasion related to studying the pragmatics of communication and later accompanied him in Alaska. By that time Andrej had been learning Athabaskan dialects for quite a long time and he used the Fulbright research grant to document one of the least accessible Athabaskan dialects spoken by the fewest number of people in the Alaskan heartland: the Upper Kuskokwim dialect.
He was invited to describe it by Michael Krauss, director of the Alaska Native Language Center. During our stay in Alaska Michael mentioned that since the days of the Russian American Company in Alaska some settlements have been preserved on the Kenai Peninsula, where people spoke Russian indigenously. He pointed to several articles by historians that described the background of those settlements as well as to a couple of manuscripts by the Irish Slavicist Conor Daly who came here for field work as a post-graduate student of Berkeley University in California. Later he abandoned linguistics and these works were never published.

Our eyes certainly lighted up: how did it happen that Russian survived since the 18th century?
Later we moved to the Alaskan heartland, the village of Nikolay, up the Kuskokwim River Valley, inhabited with Athabasks (they have been Orthodox believers since those days; hence the settlement's name Nikolay), where Andrej tried to describe the Upper Kuskokwim dialect. We were approached by some people from the village of Ninilchik, descendants of the first colonists.

These were mainly people slightly older than us – the generation who do not speak Russian but remember their ancestors speaking Russian when they were young children. This language and all traditions related to Russia is but part of their cultural heritage. And now the indigenous folks in many places of North America are interested in preservation of their past and in finding some information about their roots.

These people wanted to somehow transcribe this language, since they understood that it was dying and this is so indeed. Ninilchik Russian is one of several thousand threatened languages on our globe.

They invited us to come and asked us to compile a dictionary of their language. In the first place, we made up a dictionary of proper nouns, since these reflect people's everyday life in their habitat. We picked all kind of names and nouns: objects, realities that form the environment of this or that group. But you certainly cannot do anything with a language unless you understand how its sounds should be transcribed.

This is certainly a Russian dialect with some regular distinctions from contemporary Russian.

We were to deliberate on the notation, choose a proper transcription or spelling system, for this dialect has no writing system of its own: native speakers or the generation we came across 20 years ago never wrote in Russian, and already went to an English school that opened in the 1930s in place of a Russian parochial school that was closed in 1917.

Their Russian is their mother tongue they learned to speak at an early age. For various reasons we preferred the Latin script to Cyrillic for notation, to make it easier for people for whom the dictionary was drawn. Andrej came up with a phonetic description of regular differences from standard Russian, which we later analyzed in several articles in view of our dictionary project. We also described grammar and other particulars. The principal distinction noted even by Conor Daly is a change in the structure of genders.

This was our first expedition and then we actually put that project off into cold storage for many years. In mid 2000s one of the activists working on the preservation of Ninilchik cultural heritage, Wayne Leeman, an expert in Cheyenne, continued the work of collecting the words in Ninilchik Russian. He does not speak this language so it's difficult for him to record what he hears: the materials he collected needed to be checked with native speakers.

Village of Ninilchik

As a result we piled a large number of questions and so last year we applied for an expedition grant and obtained it from the Russian Humanities Research Foundation. In October 2012 we were in Ninilchik again and had enough time to check practically the entire dictionary, but we had to leave because of family circumstances. At any rate, we would not have been able to finish all the work at that time, but now, if we could have more time for field work and communicate with native speakers, we could have finished the dictionary project, making it worthy of expert attention (people of Ninilchik understandably do not care much for the subtleties of our linguistic analysis).

The dictionary expanded, with verbs and other parts of speech added to it; what's more, this will be a multimedia dictionary where photos and sounds will feature, even though the sounds are to be thoroughly refined and this poses the key technical challenge. On the whole this will be a multimedia product that must be accessible for people in an interactive form, among other forms, in order to give an opportunity to those who are interested to know more about "Alaskan" Russian (and Ninilchik Russian is a fragment of "Alaskan" Russian that had survived in Alaska for at least 150 years).

— Do you notice any changes in the dialect since 1997, the time of your second expedition?

We compare our current data with those we gathered with Leonty Kvasnikov, our outstanding but regrettably late source of information, in 1997.

The point is that Ninilchik has always existed within a limited space – a single village that had actually been isolated for the 20 years prior to 1867, when Alaska was sold: not a single ship sailed into the Cook Inlet and generally the number of its native speakers never exceeded 200-300 people and this is a very small population.

So individual differences are tremendously important: there is a lot of idiolect matter in this language: some names become proper nouns and each proper noun has some story behind it, which is part of the cultural heritage. The pronunciation norms within one family may differ from the norms in another family, because in one family the Russian element – a man who married a local woman – came from one Russian region – and another one from a different region. Bilingual representatives of Alutik, an Eskimo ethnic group, also wielded a great influence during a certain period.

Yet the first and only language of Ninilchik for 80 years before the opening of an English school there had been Russian. Isolated from the Russian mainland, that language followed its own development paths.

In 2012 we met other sources with their own phonetic peculiarities, but the latter fit nicely into the system we already described.

We need one more expedition to complete our work and we should be in a hurry given that our sources are all 90 years old or more. They are very progressive folks: they know what Skype is, though technology would be of little use in this case because of different time zones. And it is impossible to do this work through Skype, for you should hear them very well, ask them to repeat some phrases many times; in addition, personal communication is quite significant, for it reveals lexical and cultural contexts: the records of our sessions with aborigines show that human interaction is very important.

They have to recall many things. It's clear that they are not fluent in that language and occasionally switch to English, but they remember some phrases and it's a very important and delicate moment, when you need to create the right setting for an informant that she might recall as many things as possible, while our business is to carefully record everything. This is important not only because that is the subject of our studies, but also because this is part of the Russian language oecumene, and then its rather unique part. Surely a lot of Russian dialects exist and some of them can be less understandable from the perspectives of standard Russian you and I speak, but the uniqueness of that dialect is that it had existed a long time in complete isolation from the "big land", being surrounded first by the Eskimo and later by the English environment. Moreover, on the example of Ninilchik Russian one may see very many processes of historic evolution of the idiom, sociolinguistic problems, and then certainly the cultural heritage: you may thus get to know something about those people's way of life.

Now they consider themselves indigenous Americans but in the late 19th century those who spoke Russian felt themselves more like Creoles: they considered themselves the bearers of Alaska's aboriginal culture.

Lydia Shukshina


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