How to save the Itelmen language?

Oct 9, 2014 by

[This post was originally published in March 2012. Thanks to Jonathan Bobaljik and Tatiana Degai for their assistance in working on this post!]

East_Siberia_peoples_mapAs mentioned in my earlier 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’.



Related Posts

Subscribe For Updates

We would love to have you back on Languages Of The World in the future. If you would like to receive updates of our newest posts, feel free to do so using any of your favorite methods below: