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Aberdeen to Kamchatka

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17 October 2012


Dr Alexander: 'this picture was taken during my second trip to Palana in November 1997.  I was trying to get a boat to the village of Lesnaya 100km to the north before the coast froze up, but it didn't work out'. 

Anthropologist Dr Alexander King is poised to rebase from Aberdeen University in Scotland to the Kamchatka Peninsula to seek to record two endangered dialects of Koryak before they die out. 

He will record them for posterity in a ten month project involving the recording, transcribing and translation of more than 150 hours of speech using the latest digital technology. 

The Koryak people have ancient origins and may have been the first commuters to go to and fro between the extreme east of Russia and Alaska. 

Dr Alexander King

Dr Alexander, pictured together with Anna and Dima Kichigilan with one of their daughters. May 1998 , Srednie Pakhachi. 

Dr King's work is funded by the Endangered Languages Documentation Programme.

The academic arrives with his family this month and says winter is the ideal time to get talking to the few people that use the dialects which only a handful of younger people use. It is only at this time of year that people have time to talk, he said. 

'It is only by having careful documentation of the full span and variety of human language that we can really know what is possible and impossible in human speech and thought,' he said.

One of the dialects is spoken by reindeer herders who are ethnically Chukchi, while the other is spoken by fishermen living on Penzhina Bay.

'What little we know about these dialects is that they are markedly different from others in the Koryak language, which is spoken by around 2500 people in the easternmost extremity of Siberia', he said. 

'There are still around 100 if not more people speaking Sredny Pahchi dialect,' he said. 'That's in the villages of Sredny Pakhachi and Achaivayam.

'The people are Chukchi but long ago,around one hundred years ago, they shifted to speaking the dialect of Koryak. So this dialect is similar to the official Koryak language but it has some interesting differences. And we want to study them more closely.'

Dr Alexander King

Dr Alexander King

Working with Tatiana Yatylkut, native speaker of Chauchu Koryak in Pakhachi which Dr Alexander plans to document, and, below,  together with local community 

The other dialect, known as Nymylan, has even fewer speakers. 'The number of speakers in a few dozens - 30 or 40 at the most I think,' he said.

'This is the time of year when people are happy to sit around and talk to the linguists, tell their stories and help them learn a language. During summer time they are very busy preparing for winter fishing, collecting berries'.

Originally from Washington state in the US, Dr King has travelled several times previously to Kamchatka.

'My first time there was in 1995 and then I spent all together one and a half years in trips in 1997-1998. And then shorter three month trips in 2001 and one month in 2011. My previous research was more focused on Koryak culture and traditions in a more general way. 

'I've done a little bit of linguistic work in the past but mostly my work was ethnographic. So now it's a new topic for me. I have colleagues who are already there. One friend and colleague Valеntina Dierik, a linguist and a native speaker of one of Koryak dialects.'

Dr Alexander King

Dr Alexander, right, with linguist Valеntina Dedyk who speaks one of Koryak dialects

He said it is important to record the languages - and integral part of the history of the Russian far east - 'before they die out'.

'I think that local authorities support me in my project. When I was there in 2011 the governor of the region, I didn't meet him personally but my friends told me, he was very interested in helping Koryak people to develop their community and culture and the local authorities always expressed positive attitude towards my previously ethnographic and now linguistic work.

'I do speak Russian. It takes me maybe a week to be there to remember all the words and things but I've never actually used a translator.'

This time his wife Christine and children Xavier, nine, and Theo, six, are travelling with him to Palana, where the family will live - which will be quite a change from Scotland, where both the boys were born.

Dr Alexander King Dr Alexander King

Contrast: Dr Alexander in Scotland with his wife Christine and sons Xavier and Theo, and working together with local Kamchatka fisherman

'I'm taking all my family with me this time. It's the first time to Russia for my boys who are aged six and nine. My wife has studied Russian language as her undergraduate degree. 

'She has much better accent then I do and speaks it more beautifully. She helped me to learn the language before my trip  in 1995 and also went with me for most of my trips in 1997 - 1998 and 2011.'

Dr Alexander added: 'She's very enthusiastic about seeking people she hasn't seen for over ten years. My boys sometimes are exited - and sometimes are anxious. I think it would be difficult for them of course but they seem to be excited about the adventure. 

'They speak a few words of Russian. My wife and I are trying to teach them a few words during dinner and they also have a  Russian language computer program that they have to study 15 min every day before playing computer games.'

The boys will attend school in the town and 'we play to stay in an ordinary flat with two or three rooms at the most'.

Dr Alexander King

Family of Vasili and Nina Milgichil with two of their children and Dr Alexander, right. They speak Penzhina Bay dialects of Koryak that is very little studied, and will be playing a key role in Dr Alexander's project. 

'It will be very different to Scotland, with winter temperatures plummeting to minus 30 degrees, but we'll all adapt and when we return, the snow over here should be much easier to contend with', Dr Alexander said. 

'We are slowly introducing them to Russian and they like hearing their names in a new language. We may even get them speaking a bit of Koryak.'

It is the first time the two dialects have been properly studied since they were identified in 1901. The project will entail an eight week expedition to visit the rare language speakers in their own localities. 

'At least some 30 languages in the region of Siberia can be seen as endangered,' according to UNESCO.

'In most cases, the situation can be defined as critical and requiring expeditious measures to revive and develop (them)'.

Comments (3)

Great luck Dr Alexander!!
Elena, Siberia
31/10/2012 00:55
SO interesting what the children make of it. Real culture shock for them. I hope they see it positively.
Kate, Madrid
26/10/2012 00:36
Sounds really fascinating. Best of luck with your project.
Mao Oliver-Semenov, Cardiff/Kransoyarsk
25/10/2012 20:40

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