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The Languages of Siberia
Language and Linguistics Compass (2009)
  • Edward J. Vajda
Although Russian today is the dominant language in virtually every corner of North Asia, Siberia and the Northern Pacific Rim of Asia remain home to over three dozen mutually unintelligible indigenous language varieties. Except for Tuvan, Buryat, and Yakut, most are rapidly losing ground to Russian if not already critically endangered. Several more have already become extinct in the four centuries since the area's incorporation into the Russian state. From an ethnographic perspective, Siberian languages merit attention for their interplay of pastoral and hunter–gatherer influences and also for the fact that Siberia represents the staging ground for prehistoric migrations into the Americas. North Asia contains several autochthonous microfamilies and isolates not found outside this region – the so-called ‘Paleo-Asiatic’ (or ‘Paleosiberian’) languages Ket, Yukaghir, Nivkh, and the Chukotko-Kamchatkan microfamily, which includes Chukchi, Koryak, and Itelmen. Ainu, formerly spoken on Sakhalin and the Kuriles as well as in Hokkaido, and the three varieties of Eskimoan spoken in historic times on the Russian side of Bering Strait, likewise belong to the earlier, non-food producing layers of ethnolinguistic diversity in North Asia. All of these languages, aside from Eskimoan, are entirely autochthonous to the northern half of Asia. Siberian languages spoken by pastoral groups, on the other hand, belong to families represented more prominently elsewhere. Families, such as Uralic, Turkic, Mongolic, and especially Tungusic (the northern branch of the Tungus-Manchu family), became dominant in Siberia long before the coming of the Russians. As an extension of pastoral Inner Eurasia, Siberia displays many traits characteristic of a linguistic area: suffixal agglutination, widespread dependent marking typology, a fairly elaborate system of spatial case markers, and the use of case suffixes or postpositions to signal syntactic subordination. There are also notable idiosyncratic features, particularly among the so-called Paleo-Siberian languages. These include the areally atypical feature of possessive prefixes and verb-internal subject/object prefixes in Ket, the unique verb-internal focus markers of Yukaghir, the extensive numeral allomorphs that serve as nominal classifiers in Nivkh, and the reduplicative stem augmentation used by Chukchi nouns to express the absolutive singular (in contrast to plurals and oblique case forms, where the stem is simple). While North Asia has long been the preserve of linguists writing in Russian or German (including many Finns and Hungarians), since the collapse of the Soviet Union the number of English-language treatments of Siberian languages is increasing.
  • Ket,
  • Yukaghir,
  • Nivkh,
  • Chukchi,
  • Koryak,
  • Itelmen
Publication Date
January, 2009
Publisher Statement
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Citation Information
Edward J. Vajda. "The Languages of Siberia" Language and Linguistics Compass Vol. 3 Iss. 1 (2009) p. 424 - 440
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