Russian-Based Pidgins in Siberia

Oct 20, 2014 by

[This post was originally published in April 2012]


My earlier posts described the indigenous peoples of Siberia and their languages, as well as the Russian colonization and gradual cultural and linguistic Russification of Siberia. Russians first entered Siberia in the late sixteenth century, “with garrisoned forts established on the Irtysh river in 1586-87, on the Yenisei river in 1604, on the middle Lena in 1632, and on the Anadyr river in 1649” (Brigitte Pakendorf “Contact and Siberian Languages”, p. 719). During the Tsarist period, Russian settlers were concentrated in the more fertile southern districts of Western Siberia, and Russian interference in the life of the native peoples consisted predominantly of trade, the collection of the fur tax called yasak, and the conscription of indigenous peoples to provide transportation for Russian officials and explorers. Christianization of the locals was superficial at best. Nor were Russians interested in learning the languages of the indigenous peoples or in having them learn Russian; there were few bilinguals. This kind of contact situation was a perfect breeding ground for a creation and development of Russian-based Siberian pidgins.*

Unfortunately, little is known about most of these tongues, many of which are known primarily from historical records but are no longer in use. What is known about most Siberian pidgins comes from brief mentions by ethnographers or linguists, or by authors of fiction trying to imitate the speech of local Siberian characters. These descriptions are sketchy at best. Only three Russian-based pidgins have been documented in some detail: Russenorsk (aka Russian-Norwegian pidgin), Govorka (aka Russian-Taymyr pidgin), and Kyakhta Russian-Chinese pidgin. Unfortunately, Siberian pidgins were typically thought of as “broken Russian”, not worthy of particular mention, let alone of scientific study. Yet a closer look reveals that these pidgins are not “bad” forms of Russian, but independent languages with system of rules of their own. Some of these rules cannot be derived from standard literary, colloquial, or dialectal forms of Russian, or any language that has influenced the pidgin. For example, in Russenorsk the negation marker – either the Norwegian-derived ikke or the Russian-based njet – must appear as the second constituent in the sentence, as in moja njet lygom (literally ‘I not lie’) or på den dag ikke russefolk robotom (literally ‘on that day not Russians work’). In the latter example, the negation marker ikke appears in the second position, after the prepositional phrase på den dag ‘on that day’. While both Norwegian and Russian have rules for placing certain elements in the second position in the sentence, such rules apply to (finite) verbs in Norwegian and to the question-forming particle li in Russian. The patterns of the placement of negation markers in both Norwegian and Russian are distinct from what is found in Russenorsk. The Govorka and Kyakhta pidgins, spoken in Siberia, also have grammatical peculiarities that cannot be derived from Russian, as is discussed below.

Govorka is a Russian-based pidgin that developed on the Taymyr peninsula, primarily as a means of communications between the Russians and the Dolgans. The latter paid the yasak fur tax and to some extent also traded with the Russian settlers. The Dolgans also served as intermediaries between the Russians and the Nganasans, who exchanged sable furs for alcohol, tobacco, tea, and various tools. Eventually, the pidgin became the preferred means of inter-group communication between the Dolgans and the Nganasans themselves. Due to the go-between status of the Dolgans, the pidgin incorporates a number of words from their language, although most of its vocabulary is Russian-derived. Like other pidgins worldwide, Govorka is characterized by the absence of affixes to express number or case on nouns, or tense on verbs. Such grammatical notions are expressed instead by independent words, if at all. For example, in Govorka nouns that are neither subject nor object in a sentence are followed by the postposition mesto, deriving from the Russian noun for ‘place’. In utrom nganasan tut baba mesto govorit (literally, ‘in.the.morning Nganasan here woman “place” say’), mesto is a postposition that marks baba ‘woman’ as an indirect object, parallel to the English preposition to in “The following morning Nganasan says to his wife.”


The Russian-Chinese pidgin, often called Kyakhta pidgin or Maimachin speech, initially arose as the means of communication between Chinese and Russian merchants in the trading towns of Kyakhta and Maimachin (or Majmachen). Today, Kyakhta is an small town, population 20,000, in Buryatia. Maimachin across the border is also known by its Mongolian name, Altanbulag. At the time the pidgin developed, from the early eighteenth century to the early twentieth century, these two towns were an important trading portal between Russia and the Qing dynasty’s Outer Mongolia (see map). At that time, the Russians sold furs, textiles, clothing, hides, leather, hardware, and cattle, while the Chinese exported silk, cotton, tea, fruits, porcelain, rice, candles, rhubarb, ginger, and musk.** A derivative of the Kyakhta pidgin spread eastwards, along the Chinese Eastern Railway, all the way to Vladivostok and Harbin. Later, it also spread to the Lower Amur region, where it was used by a number of indigenous Tungusic-speaking peoples for inter-group communication. This latter use of the Russian-Chinese pidgin is depicted in Vladimir Arsenyev’s book Dersu Uzala, which formed the basis of a noted film by Akira Kurosava.

Although Govorka and the Russian-Chinese pidgin are separated by thousands of miles, they share some intriguing grammatical peculiarities that do not come from Russian grammar. Both pidgins feature the Subject-Object-Verb (SOV) rather than Subject-Verb-Object (SVO) word order, use postpositions rather than prepositions, and express plurality by a postnominal quantifier syo (derived from Russian prenominal vsyo ‘all’), as in kazku syo literally, ‘tale all’ for ‘all tales’ or simply ‘tales’. Even more curiously, the Russian-Chinese pidgin shares some grammatical characteristics with Russenorsk, such as using Russian feminine possessive forms of the personal pronouns moja ‘my’ and tvoja ‘your’ in all positions in a sentence, as in the Russenorsk moja kopom fiska (literally ‘my buy fish’) and the Russian-Chinese pidgin moja tajga xodi nada la (literally ‘my taiga go necessary was’ for ‘I had to go to the taiga’). Since a long-term contact between pidgins spoken in such distant locales is hardly a likely source for these similarities, what other explanations can there be?

One possible source for grammatical affinity among Russian-based pidgins in northern and southern Siberia could be the indigenous languages, speakers of which were instrumental in creating these pidgins. But two problems make this substratum theory unlikely. First, the grammatical features that characterize the indigenous languages of the Siberian sprachbund, such as vowel harmony, agglutinative morphology, and relatively large case systems, are not found in Russian-based pidgins. Second, both Russian and Chinese have the SVO order, but the Russian-Chinese pidgin has the SOV word order, unexplained by a recourse to any “parent” language. The SOV word order is also highly atypical for pidgins worldwide, which casts doubt on the bioprogram hypothesis of Derek Bickerton, who proposed that grammatical peculiarities of pidgins can be explained by a biologically pre-wired “universal grammar”. While all pidgins are characterized by a radical loss of morphological paradigms (that is, forms of words), word order is much more variable across pidgins. A third theory of monogenesis, namely that all Russian-based pidgins derive from a common earlier pidgin, runs into both historical and linguistic problems. However, a variant of this theory provides insight: a common source for Siberian pidgins, or at least a strong influence on all of them, was the so-called “foreigner speak”, a special register used by Russian tax collectors, traders, and others who were instrumental in creating these pidgins. This special way of talking to foreigners arose during the first encounters of Russian traders and settlers with Turkic-speaking groups, especially the Tatars. As a result, Russians perceived certain grammatical features, such as the SOV order characteristic of Turkic languages, as the proper way to speak to foreigners, regardless of the fact that other Siberian peoples and the Chinese traders in Kyakhta spoke typologically very different languages. Other “foreigner speak” features are: the use of postposition and postverbal placement of auxiliary verbs; the use of possessive pronouns like moja ‘my’ and tvoja ‘your’ instead of other forms; and the use of the Russian imperative forms of the verb ending in -j as the base forms in the pidgin. When the Russians started dealing with Tungusic- or Chinese-speaking peoples, they incorporated these features into various Siberian pidgins. Even in contemporary Russian, a way to caricature a foreigner who does not speak Russian well is tvoja moja ne ponimaj! – literally, ‘your my not understand’ – which involves possessive pronouns, SOV order, and the imperative form of the verb. The only difference between this contemporary  “foreigner speak” and the Russian-Chinese pidgin is that in the latter negation is expressed by netu placed after the verb, as in eta liba pomiraj netu, literally ‘this fish die no’ (for ‘this fish was alive’).

Support for the “foreigner speak” theory comes also from the vocabulary of the Russian-Chinese pidgin. People often speak to foreigners in a way similar to how they speak to children. In the case of Russian, it often translates into the heavy use of diminutive forms. Kyachta pidgin too has some words that derive from diminutives in Russian, although in the pidgin itself they are not stylistically marked. Examples include: zhenusheki ‘woman, wife’ (from zhonushka ‘little wife’), rjumasheka ‘shot glass’ (from rjumashka ‘little shot glass’), and beleneki ‘white’ (from belen’kij diminutive of belyj ‘white’). The pidgin also incorporates words from vernacular speech (in Russian, prostorechie) such as ali ‘or’, and from the trans-Baikal dialects of Russian, such as adali ‘exactly, as if’.

In addition to the sub-standard varieties of Russian, Kyachta pidgin has been influenced by (Mandarin) Chinese. One example of such influence can be seen in the abovementioned eta liba pomiraj netu ‘this fish is alive’: liba comes from the Russian ryba ‘fish’, with the Russian [r] replaced by [l] because Chinese lacks the r-sound. This does not apply consistently, though: the [r] is retained in pomiraj ‘die’. More generally, Kyachta pidgin – like Chinese – does not tolerate consonant clusters, which are broken by vowel insertion: for example, in shamapaneseki ‘champagne’, from shampanskoje, the mp-cluster is broken by an inserted [a] and the nsk-cluster is broken by two [e] sounds.

As for the vocabulary of Kyachta pidgin, as is typical of pidgins in general, most words come from one “parent” language, the so-called “lexifier language”, in this case Russian. Words derived from Chinese are few, and many of them are exclamations or onomatopoeia. Nouns derived from Chinese are recorded mostly in the Harbin variant of the language. Chinese influence is also apparent in the formation of words. One frequently employed derivational process is reduplication, common in the pidgin but not in Russian. For example, guljaj-guljaj meaning ‘to amuse oneself’, derives by reduplication of the Russian verb with the same meaning. Chinese calques also include compounds such as ruka-sapogi, meaning ‘glove’, from the Russian ruka ‘hand’ and sapogi ‘boots’. The Russian word for ‘glove’ is perchatka, while the Chinese counterpart is shou-tao, literally ‘hand-case’. Although the pidgin originated on the border with Mongolia, the influence of Khalkha Mongolian is minimal: only a handful of loanwords are recorded, among them bichi ‘to write’ from the Mongolian bichikhu of the same meaning. The verbal ending -khu also shows up in a couple of verbs derived from Russian stems, such as pikhu ‘to drink’ (from the Russian stem pi‑) and kushakhu ‘to eat’ (from the Russian stem kusha-). The paucity of Mongolian influences can be explained by the fact that Mongolians had little role in the trade with Russia under the Qing dynasty. The Amur-Ussuri variant of the pidgin also features a few words from the indigenous languages, such as aja ‘okay, good’ from the Udyge and amba ‘tiger, spirit of the taiga’ from Nanai.

An interesting sociolinguistic peculiarity of the Russian-Chinese pidgin is that it has been consciously standardized by the Chinese side, which apparently insisted on avoiding Chinese as a trade language. Chinese traders were required to learn “Russian”, but this label was actually applied to the pidgin. Phrasebooks and dictionaries were created; Russian-derived pidgin words were written down with Chinese characters. Although the Russian-Chinese pidgin never became a creole, in the sense of acquiring a community of native speakers, later forms of the language may be classified as an extended pidgin due to the degree of grammaticalization. In those later variants of the pidgin, auxiliaries, postpositions, and particles arose to express such grammatical meanings as tense, modality (possibility and necessity), negation, and case (grammatical relations). Various tenses were expressed by a combination of a verb, usually in the imperative form, and a postposed “auxiliary”, as in moja xodi byla ‘I already came before’ where byla expresses the meaning encoded in English by the past perfect (cf. I had come). Possibility and necessity are expressed likewise by postverbal mogu ‘can’ (from the Russian ‘I can’), mozheno ‘possible’ (from the Russian mozhno of the same meaning), and nada (from the Russian nado). Tense and modality markers can be combined as in moja tajga xodi nada la ‘I had to go to the taiga’ (literally ‘me taiga go necessary was’). Since the word order in the pidgin is consistently SOV, subjects and objects need not be marked morphologically. Some postpositions exist to mark other grammatical relations such as the comitative marker kompanija, from the Russian word meaning ‘company’, as in moja kompanija xodi ‘He went with me’ (literally ‘me with went’). Another postposition in the pidgin is the benefactive sepasibo from the Russian word for ‘thanks’, as in Ivana doma sepasibo ‘thanks to Ivan’s house’.



*These pidgins are considered Russian-based because they drew their vocabulary predominantly from Russian.

**Ginger imported from China was an all-important ingredient in the traditional Russian prjaniki cookies, similar to gingerbread.




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