The Fast-Disappearing Ninilchik Russian of Alaska—And Some of Its Linguistic Peculiarities
Several followers of this blog and I have been discussing an article about the work of Andrei Kibrik (Moscow State University) and Mira Bergelson (The Higher School of Economics, Moscow) on “an antiquated dialect of Russian … still spoken in Alaska”, published in Russia Beyond the Headlines. (This article is a poorly translated excerpt of a Russian-language article in Gazeta.ru.) One of the readers asked me “what sorts of differences there are btwn modern Russian and this language”, Ninilchik Russian. Kibrik, Bergelson and their colleagues and students working on the fast-disappearing variety of Russian created a website dedicated to documenting the dialect. Here, I will briefly discuss some of the linguistic features of Ninilchik Russian, in the context of language contact and language attrition. But first, what exactly is Ninilchik Russian?
According to NinikchikRussian.com, “Ninilchik Russian has been spoken continuously in the village of Ninilchik, Alaska” located “on the west coast of the Kenai Peninsula … 100 air miles southwest of Anchorage, Alaska”. According to Andrei Kibrik (1998), the history of Ninilchik Russian goes back to the Russian American Company (RAC), a trading company that was later administered by the Russian navy. In addition to its commercial operations, particularly trade in furs, the RAC was actively involved in spreading Russian culture and the Russian Orthodox religion among the indigenous groups. The number of ethnic Russian working for the RAC in Alaska was never greater than a thousand men; these Russian traders and officers of RAC often married local women from Eskimo-Aleutian, Athapascan, and other Native American groups. As several retirees from the RAC decided not to return to Russia, they have founded the village of Ninilchik in 1847. At first, only five families lived in the village, but by the end of the 19th century, the number of villagers rose to over 80. Since 1867, when Alaska was transferred to the United States, Ninilchik existed in relative isolation, although cultural and especially religious connections with Russia continued to exist until 1917. In the 1930s an English-language school was opened in the village, and the use of Russian was strongly discouraged. At present, there are only a few speakers of this dialect left, mostly elderly speakers who rarely use Ninilchik Russian but remember how it was spoken when they were children. Their portraits, as well as some other images of the village and the way of life in Ninilchik, can be seen here. (The image on the left is a photo from NinilchikRussian.com, depicting Andrei Kibrik, Mira Bergelson, and one of the Ninilchik villagers.) Some recordings of words and short texts in Ninilchik Russian can be heard here. For a fascinating video lecture on Ninilchik Russian, see here.
In reading the descriptions of Ninilchik Russian and listening to the recordings, I was struck by the similarities between it and other forms of Immigrant Russian as spoken by immigrants and their children in the US and elsewhere (see Polinsky 1995, 1996, 1997, Zemskaya 2001, Leisiö 2001, Pereltsvaig 2004, a, b, c, inter alia). In both cases, the language dominant in the environment—typically English but also others—affects the speakers’ first language, Russian, especially in the areas of lexicon and the sound system. Also, the same grammatical subsystems of Russian, such as the gender system, appear to be particularly vulnerable to restructuring and attrition.
Consider, for example, the sound inventory of Ninilchik Russian, described by Andrei Kibrik (1998). Among its peculiarities is the realization of Russian phonemes /v/ and /x/ as /w/ and /h/, respectively, and the replacement of the trill realization of /r/ with the retroflex articulation. It is tempting to describe those changes as influence of the ambient English language; similar influences of the ambient language have been found in the phonetics of other Russian immigrants (Zemskaya 2001). However, Kibrik points out that this explanation may work for the articulation of /r/, but not for other phonetic features of Ninilchik Russian: the articulation of /h/ is somewhat different from that of English, while the pronunciation of /v/ as [w] neutralizes the contrast that exists in English (consider e.g. wine – vine). Thus, the influence of English cannot be the sole explanation for all the characteristics of Ninilchik Russian, some of which resulted from language-internal changes. (Kibrik also dismissed the influence of the two neighboring Native American languages, Athabaskan Dena’ina and Alutiiq, as a possible factor for these phonetic properties of Ninilchik Russian.)
As with the phonetic component, some of the lexical peculiarities of Ninilchik Russian can be explained by contact with English and other neighboring languages, while others cannot be. As discussed by Jessica Kantarovich (2012), some of the observable departures of Ninilchik Russian from Standard Russian are borrowings from English: for example, rababútsi ‘rubber boots’ and bèbička ‘baby’ (hear them pronounced here and here). English, however, was not the sole source of lexical borrowings in Ninilchik Russian; thus, Kantarovich documents borrowings from Athabaskan (e.g. kazna ‘lynx’, tajši ‘dried fish’, and k’inkašl’a ‘a type of berry’) and Alutiiq (e.g. mamaj ‘clam’, kal’uk ‘chamber pot’, ukud’ik ‘bumble bee’, and n’un’ik ‘porcupine’). Unsurprisingly, such borrowings from indigenous languages of Alaska are particularly common in the area of local flora and fauna, while many borrowings from English describe administrative terms (e.g. guvernant ‘government’). In addition to clear borrowings such as those mentioned above, Ninilchik Russian also has Russian words used with English meanings, for example fam’ilija, which in Ninilchik Russian means ‘family’ whereas its Contemporary Standard Russian (CSR) meaning is ‘last name’—parallel examples are found in other varieties of Immigrant Russian (cf. Zemskaya 2001, Pereltsvaig 2004c).
Another similarities between Ninilchik Russian and other varieties of Russian relatively isolated from the “motherland” dialects, such as the Russian of the first- and second-wave immigrants in the U.S. or the Russian in Finland (cf. Leisiö 2001), is the preservation of many “archaic” words not common in modern Russian dialects, such as šibka ‘much’ (cf. Russian šibko), nužnik ‘outhouse’, sahat ‘moose’ (cf. Russian soxatyj ‘moose’; hear the Ninilchik Russian word pronounced here). Some Russian words in Ninilchik Russian are used with archaic meanings no longer found in CSR: e.g. xudoj meaning ‘bad’ (as in malako xudoj ‘the milk is bad’), which in CSR means ‘thin’.
Yet other words are innovations internal to Ninilchik Russian, such as kaparúl’a ‘pick (n.)’ from CSR kopat’ ‘to dig’. Among such neologisms are also idiomatic terms built from CSR lexical items, such as d’eduška kamar ‘the particular species of large mosquitoes in Alaska’ (lit. ‘grandpa mosquito’) and bat’ik’ina sopl’i ‘snot berries’ (lit. ‘pop’s snot’). Among other lexical innovations, Kantarovich mentions words derived via suffixation of a diminutive morpheme, as in svin’-ok ‘piglet’ (lit. ‘pig-DIM’, or ‘little pig’); the diminutive suffix is also used to create nominalizations of existing verbs, as in ad’iwa-ška ‘clothing’ (from CSR od’evat’ ‘to wear’) and nad’iva-ška ‘slippers’ (from CSR nad’evat’ ‘to put on’). (It is curious that these nominal neologisms in Ninilchik Russian preserved the semantic distinction between od’evat’ ‘to wear’ and nad’evat’ ‘to put on’, which is all but disappeared in CSR.) The overuse of diminutive morphology in other varieties of Immigrant Russian is discussed in Polinsky (1996), Zemkaya (2001), inter alia.
Among the grammatical phenomena in Ninilchik Russian that have been described in some detail is the “decay in grammatical gender”, evidenced by non-standard gender agreement between nouns and their modifying adjectives, particularly “many cases of feminine or neuter nouns being modified by masculine adjectives” (see Kantarovich 2012), as in moj sobaka ‘my dog’, where the possessive pronoun is in the masculine form even though the noun sobaka is feminine in CSR. I have documented similar examples from the speech of children of recent Russian immigrants in the U.S. (Pereltsvaig 2004b). Note, however, that neither in Ninilchik Russian nor in other varieties of American Russian is the category of gender completely lost: in some cases, speakers use appropriately feminine forms of adjectives and other modifiers seemingly in agreement with nouns that are feminine in CSR. Yet, according to Kantarovich, Ninilchik Russian exhibits a loss of the neuter gender (i.e. the system is reduced to a two-way opposition between masculine and feminine); interestingly, I have documented the same phenomenon for American Russian as well (Pereltsvaig 2004b). Among other peculiarities of Ninilchik Russian paralleled by other varieties of Immigrant Russian are the decay of the case system, the predominance of the SVO order, and grammatical calques from English (cf. Leisiö 2001, Pereltsvaig 2004b, Polinsky 1995, Zemskaya 2001).
Kantarovich, Jessica (2012) The Linguistic Legacy of Russians in Alaska. Russian Contact and Linguistic Variation in Alaska, with Special Attention to Ninilchik Russian. Ms., The University of Chicago.
Leisiö, Larisa (2001) Morphosyntactic Convergence and Integration in Finland Russian. Ph.D. dissertation, University of Tampere, Finland.
Pereltsvaig, Asya (2004a) Aspect Lost, Aspect Regained: Restructuring of aspectual marking in American Russian. In: Paula Kempchinsky and Roumyana Slabakova (eds.) Aspectual Inquiries. Dordrecht: Kluwer. Pp. 369-395.
Pereltsvaig, Asya (2004b) Agreement in the absence of Agreement: Gender Agreement in American Russian. In: Danijela Stojanović (ed.) Cahiers Linguistique d’Ottawa. Special volume on Slavic psycholinguistics. 32: 87-107.
Pereltsvaig, Asya (2004c) Immigrant Russian: Factors in the restructuring of the aspectual system under attrition. The Proceedings of BLS 29S.
Polinsky, Maria (1995) Cross-Linguistic Parallels in Language Loss. Southwestern Journal of Linguistics 14(1 2): 1 45.
Polinsky, Maria (1996) American Russian: An Endangered Language? Ms., University of California San Diego. http://ling.ucsd.edu/~polinsky/.
Polinsky, Maria (1997) American Russian: Language Loss Meets Language Acquisition. In: Wayles Browne, Ewa Dornisch, Natasha Kondrashova, and Draga Zec (eds.) Annual Workshop on Formal Approaches to Slavic Linguistics. Ann Arbor, MI: Michigan Slavic Publications. Pp. 370-406.
Zemskaya, Elena Andreevna (ed.) (2001) Jazyk Russkogo Zarubezhja [Language of Russian emigration]. Moscow/Vienna: Wiener Slawisticher Almanach.
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