The Yukaghir language

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The History of the Yukaghir Language Study

Academician A. Shifner gave the first fragmentary information about the morphological system of the Yukaghir language in the second half of the 19th century. This genuine pioneer of the study of Yukaghir managed to explain correctly a number of morphological phenomena despite the multiple mistakes in writing and translation of some available to him Yukaghir words and phrases. In particular, he accurately explained the meaning of the case suffixes of noun and defined the personal inflexions of verbs.

The comprehensive study of Yukaghir began in the end of the 19th century and is associated with the name of the former member of the Narodnaya Volya (‘People's Freedom’) Vladimir Ilyich Yokhelson (1855-1935) that afterwards became a distinguished researcher of the Yukaghir material and spiritual culture. It was V. Yokhelson who made the first epitome of Yukaghir grammar.

In this work that represents the description of the phonetic and grammatical system of the Forest (Upper Kolyma) Yukaghir language V. Yokhelson in whole correctly determined the structure of Yukaghir sounds, explained the features of its functioning, and gave valuable information about the vowels harmony and stress. V. Yokhelson in many instances was also right in the description of the morphological system of the language, pointed at the peculiarity of the Yukaghir adjectives and numerals to be conjugated as in speech they often act as verbs. In the end of the epitome a short connected text was analyzed, due to this the peculiarities of the Yukaghir sentence composition were shown.

In the Soviet times Leningrad scientist Yerukhim Abramovich Kreynovich (1906-1985) that was repeatedly repressed in the years of personality cult did research on Yukaghir. Because of the horrible repressions his first work ‘The Yukaghir Language’ was published only in 1958. This paper begun already in 1934 represented the first experience of the description of the phonetic and grammatical system of the hitherto unknown Tundra (Lower Kolyma) Yukaghir language. It is especially valuable as Y. Kreynovich constantly compared data of the Tundra Yukaghir language with the corresponding materials of the Forest Yukaghir language according to the above-mentioned work of V. Yokhelson. It allowed Kreynovich to controvert with some conclusions of his great predecessor and to define it more exactly both in phonetic and morphological parts of his work. This work of Kreynovich is also useful as there is reflected almost everything comparative linguistics had concerning genetic relation of the Yukaghir language with the languages of the Finno-Ugric, Samoyed and other peoples. Moreover, there are a Yukaghir text with the Russian translation and also small dictionaries of the Forest and

Tundra Yukaghir in the end of the book.

It must be noted that the peculiar merit of Kreynovich in Yukaghir study is the establishment of the special morphological parameters that detach logically significant speech segments. For the first time he wrote about it already in 1955. Thereafter Kreynovich returned to this unique phenomenon of Yukaghir grammar in the work ‘Investigations and Materials on the Yukaghir Language’ which is the most important and valuable of all his works by the depth of penetration into the nature of Yukaghir. In that his last work Kreynovich wrote: “The distinctive feature of Yukaghir syntax is morphologically expressed actual division of the sentence. Some forms expressing it relate to the sphere of language and others – to speech. There is no simple unextended sentence that is out of actual division”. These scientists, namely, A. Shifner, V. Yokhelson and Y. Kreynovich laid the foundation of Yukaghir linguistics. Therein lies the lasting value of their linguistic works. The special period of the Yukaghir language study began in the late 1960s. It is from this time comprehensive working out of Yukaghir word-formation problems began, research subjects on syntax and genetic relation of Yukaghir with other languages amplified etc.

General Information About The Living Yukaghir Languages

The language of the Yukaghir according to the existent languages classification belongs to the Paleo-Siberian languages. In due time mainly genetically isolated (i.e. unconnected with the other languages) languages were referred to this group. Recent years investigations showed that Yukaghir doesn’t hold an isolated position among the languages of the Asian peoples as many of his grammatical and partially lexical elements are common with the Finno-Ugric and Samoyed languages.

There is the only question whether these common features are traces of their ancient cognation or the result of borrowings. It is the opinion of the most respected Yukaghir researcher of the Soviet period Y. Kreynovich that “the most important argument in favor of the genetic belonging of Yukaghir to the Ural languages” is the traces of two phonetic types of stems with the final vowels a (d) and e in Yukaghir. At the present time there are continued investigations aimed to finalize a question of the genetic relations of Yukaghir, and now we can speak quite definitely about the distant cognation of Yukaghir with the Finnic (Finnish, Lappish, Estonian, Karelian, Komi, Udmurt etc.) , Ugric (Khanty, Hungarian, Mansi) and Samoyed (Nenec, Enets, Nganasan) languages. The solution of this problem delayed not only because of absolutely insufficient knowledge of Yukaghir but also because preserved languages of the Yukaghir as the last remains of the disappeared language family actually bear the marks of isolation and dissimilitude to known languages.

As stated above, only the languages of Tundra (Lower Kolyma) and Forest (Upper Kolyma) Yukaghir are preserved nowadays. There are significant differences not only in phonetics and vocabulary but also in morphology of the languages of these closely related peoples. These differences were observed by V. Yokhelson and then by Y. Kreynovich. However unlike Y. Kreynovich, V. Yokhelson writing his epitome of the Forest Yukaghir language grammar had very poor data about the Tundra Yukaghir language. Probably that is why he coined above-mentioned terms ‘tundra’ and ‘Kolyma’ dialects of the Yukaghir language. Nevertheless already Y. Kreynovich that investigated phonetic, lexical and morphological features of the Tundra Yukaghir language noted in one of his works that in future it will be necessary to recognize these “dialects” as two individual languages”. The investigations of the last decades confirmed the validity of this Kreynovich’s suggestion.

Differences in vocabulary, morphology and phonetics of the Tundra and Forest Yukaghir languages are compounded by the long-term influence of the neighbor peoples’ languages. Thus, the Forest Yukaghir lived side by side with the Russian Cossack population for a quite long time. As a result of it they did not just enrich their language vocabulary with the Russian borrowings (cf. toboko ‘sobaka’ (dog), terike ‘starukha’ (old woman), kahinai ‘kazhdy’ (every), muorte ‘morda’ (fish trap, net), peryendye ‘pernaty’ (feathered) and other), but also transfigured several phonemes in the Russian manner (cf. kudyuul ‘nebo’ (sky) in Yokhelson’s work in the end of the 19th century and kuzhuul ‘nebo’ in modern Forest Yukaghir). Unlike them, the Tundra Yukaghir for a long time contacted with the Evens and as a result a number of Even words entered their language.

Differences in Tundra (hereafter: T.Y.) and Forest (hereafter: F.Y.) Yukaghir phonetics are explained also by the fact that in one of these languages unstressed o is pronounced as a, and in the other there is a retention of unstressed o. Cf.: lachyl (T.Y.) – lochil (F.Y.) ‘fire’, ybal – ybol ‘yedoma’, madul – odul ‘Yukaghir’, chamgul – chobul ‘sea’, ‘samgha – shobogo ‘plate’, amuch – omos ‘good’, maray – morooi ‘dressed’, chamuon – chomooy ‘big’ and many others. Moreover, we can often find such examples as yokhol (T.Y.) – yakhal (F.Y.) ‘Yakut’, myulmo (T.Y.) – alma (F.Y.) ‘shaman’ etc.

The languages of the Tundra and Forest Yukaghir are opposed also in the line of what sound is more typical – s or sh: saal (T.Y.) – shaal (F.Y.) ‘tree’, ‘stick’, saide – shayde ‘across’, seguy – shoguy ‘came in’, sahusem – shogushem ‘lost’, lolhasum – lolgoshum ‘boiled’, sisahach – shishagas ‘tore’, semrem – shegrem ‘brought in’, ‘put in’ etc. Therefore, the language of the Tundra Yukaghir is a- and s-pronouncing, and the language of the Forest Yukaghir is o- and sh-pronouncing.

There are no significant differences between the morphological systems of Tundra and Forest Yukaghir. It can be just noted that, first of all, in Forest Yukaghir suffix of the instrumental case =lek is used without the final k: saalek (T.Y.) – shale (F.Y.) ‘with a stick’, n’umud’ishkhek – nyumodyile ‘with an axe’, n’an – melek – n’anmele ‘by osier-bed’, ldyiler – ldyile ‘by nail’, ‘by hoof’ etc.; secondly, Tundra Yukaghir suffix of the positive form of the basic case =lek in Forest Yukaghir ends in consonant k: nyanmelek kechimeng (T.Y). – n’anmelek kes’imek (F.Y.) ‘I have brought an osier-bed’, saaker lyel (T.Y.) – shaalek l’el (F.Y.) ‘there are some wood’ etc.; thirdly, suffixes =yek (personal ending, 1st person, singular, indicative mood, intransitive verb) and =mek (personal ending, 1st person, singular, indicative mood, transitive verb) in Forest Yukaghir are used without the final consonants: nimehat keluyek (T.Y.) – numoget keluye (F.Y.) ‘I came from my home’, ninbelekmen’mek (T.Y.) – ninbelek men’me (F.Y.) ‘I took a desk for leather cutting’ etc.

As for vocabulary of Forest and Tundra Yukaghir there are some quite significant differences along with the above-mentioned differences in phonetics. For example, confer: yerpeye (T.Y.) – yeluozhe (F.Y.) ‘sun’, yuodii (T.Y.) – angdye (F.Y.) ‘eyes’, ugurche (T.Y.) – noyl (F.Y.) ‘foot’, al’ha (T.Y.) – anil (F.Y.) ‘fish’, ile (T.Y.) – aane (F.Y.) ‘deer’, yiem (T.Y.) – aam (F.Y.) ‘he did’, sahaney (T.Y.) – modoy (F.Y.) ‘sits’, maarkhuon (T.Y.) – irkiey (F.Y.) ‘one’, kiyuon’ (T.Y.) – atakhluoy (F.Y.) ‘two’, n’amuchenyi (T.Y.) – chakol’en’I (F.Y.) ‘red is’ and so on.

These lexical differences can’t be a big hurdle for the integration of these languages speakers into one nation, as the most important is that grammatical systems of the languages are almost the same. Pointed out lexical distinctions would enlarge the vocabulary of the common standard language through the simultaneous and active functioning of many synonymic words.

Kurilov G.N. The Modern Yukaghir Language.


  1. Dolgikh, B.O. Rodovoy i plemennoy sostav narodov Sibiri v XVII v. (‘Clan and Tribal Structure of the Peoples of Siberia in the 17th c.’). Moscow-Leningrad, 1960.
  2. According to the 2002 Russian census there were 1509 Yukaghir.
  3. Schiefner A. Uber die Sprache der Jukagiren. — "Mel. As. Tires du Bull. Hist.-Philol. Akad. Sci. SPb.", 1859, t. Ill, S. 595-612; Same author. Beitrage zur Kennthis der Jukagiren Sprache. — "Mel. As", SPb., 1871, t, YI, s. 409-446; Same author. Uber Baron Gerhard von taydell's jukagirische Sprachproben. — "Mel. As.", SPb., 1871, t. YI, s. 600-620.
  4. Yokhelson, V. Obrazcy materialov po izucheniyu yukagirskogo yazyka i fol’klora (‘Examples of Materials for the Study of the Yukaghir Language and Folklore’). Izvestiya Akademii Nauk, 1898, No 9 (2)
  5. Yokhelson, V. “Brodyachie rody tundry mezhdu rekami Indigirkoy i Kolymoy, ikh etnicheskiy sostav, narechiya, byt, brachnyye igry i inyye obychai (‘Nomadic Tundra Clans between the Indigirka and Kolyma Rivers, their ethnic structure, dialects, life, matrimonial and other customs’). Zhivaya Starina, 1900, No 10 (1-2).
  6. Yokhelson, V. Po rekam Yasachnoy i Korkodonu. Drevniy i sovremenny yukagirskiy byt i pismena (Along the Yasachnaya and Korkodon Rivers. Ancient and Modern Yukaghir Life and Writing’). Izvestiya Russkogo Geograficheskogo obschestva, 1898, Vol 34, No 3.
  7. Yokhelson, V. Materialy po izucheniyu yukagirskogo yazyka i fol’klora (‘Materials for the Study of the Yukaghir Language and Folklore’). St. Petersburg, 1900.
  8. Yokhelson, V. The Jukaghir and the Jukaghirized Tungus. Leiden — New York. 1926.
  9. Jochelson, W. Essay on the grammar of the Joukaghir language. — /Ann. New Jork Akad. Sci., 1906, t. XVI, No
  10. Translation into Russian: Yokhelson, V.I. Odulskiy (yukagirskiy) yazyk (‘The Odul (Yukaghir) Language’). In: Yazyki i pis’mennost’ narodov Severa. Moscow-Leningrad, 1934, Vol 3, pp. 149-180.
  11. Kreynovich, Ye.A. Yukagirskiy yazyk (‘The Yukaghir Language’). Moscow-Leningrad, 1958.
  12. Collinder, В. Jukagirisch und Uralisch. — Uppsala Univ., Arrskift, 1940; Same author. Comparative grammar of the Urallis languages. Stockholm, 1960; Bouda K. Die finnisch-ugrisch-samojedische Schicht des Jukagirischen. Ungarische Jahrucher, B.20, Berlin, 1940.
  13. Kreynovich, Ye.A. Sistema morfologicheskogo vyrazheniya logicheskogo udareniya v yukagirskom yazyke (‘Morphological Expression of Logical Stress in the Yukaghir Language’). Doclady i Soobscheniya Instituta Yazykoznaniya, Vol 7. Moscow, 1955.
  14. Kreynovich, Ye.A. Issledovaniya i materialy po Yukagirskomu yazyku (‘Researches and Materials on Yukaghir’). Leningrad, 1982, p. 175.
  15. Kurilov, G.N. Slozhnyye imena suschestvitel’nyye v yukagirskom yazyke (‘Compound Nouns in the Yukaghir language’). Leningrad, 1977.
  16. Kurilov, G.N. Pravila orfografii yukagirskogo yazyka (Spelling Rules in Yukaghir). Yakutsk, 1987.
  17. Nikolayeva, I.K. Rekonstrukcii yukagirskogo yazykovogo sostoyaniya (inlautny konsonantizm) (‘Reconstruction of the Yukaghir Language Status (Inlaut Consonantism)’). In: Yazyk, mif, kultura narodov Sibiri. Yakutsk, 1988.
  18. Nikolayeva, I.K. Problema uralo-yukagirskikh geneticheskikh svyazey (‘The Problem of Uralo-Yukaghir Genetic Relationship’). Dissertation abstract. Moscow, 1988
  19. Maslova, Ye. Sintaksicheskiye klassy imennykh grupp v yazykye tundrennykh yukagirov (‘Syntactic Classes of Nominal Groups in the Language of the Tundra Yukaghir’). In: Lingvisticheskiye issledovaniya. Problematika vzaimodeystviya yazykovykh urovney. Leningrad, 1988.
  20. Maslova, Ye. Sootnosheniye kommunikativnoy i sintaksicheskoy struktur v prostom predlozhenii yukagirskogo yazyka (‘The Correlation of Communicative and Syntactic Structures in Yukaghir Simple Tense’). Dissertation abstract. Leningrad, 1989.
  21. Kreynovich, Ye.A. Issledovaniya i materialy (‘Researches and Materials’). Leningrad, 1982, p. 5.
  22. Kreynovich, Ye. Yukagirskiy yazyk (‘The Yukaghir Language’). In: Yazyki narodov SSSR. Leningrad, 1968, Vol 5, pp. 435-452.
  23. Witsen, N. Noord en Oost Tartarye. Amsterdam, 1705.
  24. Pallas P.S. Sravnitelnyye slovari vsekh yazykov i narechiy, sobrannykh desniceyu vsevysochayshey osoby (‘Comparative Dictionaries of all Languages and Dialects Collected by Spear-Hand of a Highest Person’). St. Petersburg, 1787-1789: 1-3.
  25. Schiefner, A. Uber die Sprache Jukagiren. S. 595-596, 1859.
  26. Veenker, W. Zum Wortschatz dts Jukagirischen. — linguistica et Philologica, Gedenkschrift far Bjorn Collinder (1894-1983). Philjljgica Germanicf 6 (Wien. 1984), s. 571-583.
  27. Kratkiy slovar dvenadcati narechiy raznykh narodov, obitayuschikh v severo-vostochnoy chasti Sibiri i na Aleutskikh ostrovakh (‘Concise Dictionary of Twelve Dialects of Different Peoples Living in Siberian North-Eastern Part and on the Aleutians’). In: Puteshestviye Billingsa cherez chukotskuyu zemlyu ot Beringova proliva do Nizhnekolymskogo ostroga. St. Petersburg, 1811.
  28. Sobraniye slov chuvanskogo i omokskogo yazykov, sostavlennoy michmanom Matyushkinym (‘Words of Chuvan and Omok Languages Collected by Midshipman Matyushkin’). In: Pribavleniya k puteshestviyu po severnym beregam Sibiri i po Ledovitomu okeanu, sovershyonnomu v 1820, 1821, 1823 i 1824, eksdpedicieyu sostoyavsheyu pod nachal’stvom flota leytenanta Ferdinanda fon Vrangelya. St. Petersburg, 1841.
  29. Schiefner, А. See note 3.
  30. Jochelson, W. The Jukaghir and the Jukaghirized Tungus Leiden — New Jork, 1926.
  31. Angere, J. Jukagirisch-deutsches Wortebuch. Uppsala, 1957.
  32. Kreynovich, Ye.A. Yukagirskiy yazyk (‘The Yukaghir Language’). Moscow-Leningrad, 1958.
  33. Kurilo,v G.N. Yukagirsko-russkiy slovar’ (‘Yukaghir-Russian Dictionary’). Yakutsk, 1990. Note that when the dictionary was in press V. Feyenker came to Novosibirsk to specify with us lexical units of his manuscript "Tundra-jukagirischea Worterverzeichnis" and this work was published in 1989 in Hamburg. Finally we point out that abovementioned thesaurus with considerable additions was issued in 2001 in Novosibirsk by ‘Nauka’ publishing house.
  34. Osnovy finno-ugorskogo yazykoznaniya (‘Fundamentals of Finno-Ugor Linguistics’). Moscow, 1974.
  35. Tereschenko, N.M. Nenetsko-russkiy slovar’ (‘Nenets-Russian Dictionary’). Moscow-Leningrad, 1965.
  36. Dolgikh, B.O. K voprosu o naselenii basseyna Olenyoka i verkhoviyev Anabara (‘On Population of Olenyok Basin and Anabar Upper Reaches’). Sovetskaya Etnografiya, 1950, No 4. Kurilov G.N. The Modern Yukaghir Language.

The Yukaghir language (the only preserved) is often considered as genetically isolated. It is assumed there was a whole family of sister languages in the past. The genetic relations of the Yukaghir language are a complicated problem of comparative linguistics. A hypothesis of the cognation of Yukaghir with the Uralic languages became the most accepted, within the hypothesis the position of Yukaghir repeatedly changed.

Thus, Y.A. Kreynovich at different periods of work associated Yukaghir with either the Samoyed or the Finno-Ugric languages. At the present time a theory of Uralic-Yukaghir relationship is most thoroughly proved in the works of I.A. Nikolayeva in which she compares the Uralic reconstruction and the reconstructed proto-Yukaghir status with one another. However the comparative study of the Yukaghir vocabulary undertaken by Y.A. Kreynovich already in the 1950s allows to speak that the Yukaghir language vocabulary shows such parallels with the Tungusic languages that can’t be considered as borrowings from Even; some Yukaghir-Turkic and Yukaghir-Mongolian parallels are not explained as late borrowings from Yakut, there are also revealed lexical parallels of Yukaghir with the other Altaic languages and parallels with the Chukotko-Kamchatkan languages which most likely reflect the areal connections.

Perhaps, the original Uralic component of Yukaghir was affected in ancient times by different groups of the Altaic languages and also by Chukotka-Kamchatkan substratum. In the light of recent data a hypothesis of ancient Yukaghir-Iranic contacts is not confirmed, it was formulated in 1960s by A.P. Dulzon on the basis of Yukaghir toponymy formant analysis. At the same time an attention was recently turned to isolated Yukaghir-Nivkhi lexical isoglosses and it afforded a basis for an attempt of ‘paleo-Asiatic’ reconstruction (O.A. Mudrak).

On the basis of ethnogeographic criteria the Yukaghir languages are often qualified as Paleo-Siberian Languages. Ethnoses and ethnic groups related to the Yukaghir – the Khodyns, the Chuvans and the Anauls that in 17th-18th centuries inhabited the upper and middle reaches of the Anadyr were completely assimilated by the Chukchees, Koryaks and Russian old-timers of the Anadyr catchment area and the Kolyma lower reaches: one of the Russian-speaking groups of the old-time population inherited from the Yukaghir-speaking ancestors self-designation ‘the Chuvans’. The archaic name ‘Odul’ is based on the Kolyma Yukaghir self-designation (Wadul is for Tundra Yukaghir).

Some researchers consider it as Yukaghir dialect. Self-designation is etel’ (etal) (Chukchee ‘Yukaghir’). Ethnic group is 1 384 people (including 985 people in the Magadan Region). The language is lost. Chukchee (nomadic Chuvans) and Russian (settled Chuvans) ‘Markov’ dialect are spoken now.

The Yukaghir written language on the basis of Wadul was developed by G.N. Kurilov in the late 1970s and officially accepted in 1982. The standard language that is also based on the Yukaghir tundra dialect was created a bit later – in 1993.

The Yukaghir language has 7 short and 6 long vowels and 20 consonant phonemes. The morphological system is agglutinative, suffixal. Nouns, pronouns, cardinal numerals on l’e, nouns of action, and adverbs of place are declined. Adjectives are absent. The category of intransitive verbs includes qualitative base morphemes conveying the meanings of adjectives and quantitative base morphemes conveying the meanings of numerals in certain syntactic functions. Yukaghir has special grammatical forms to express logical stress. There are lexical borrowings from Russian, Yakut, Even and other languages.

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