Echoes Across Siberia: What Indigenous Languages Can Teach Us About the Past

Northern Asia holds more than just breathtaking landscapes. It cradles a tapestry of cultures and languages dating back millennia, offering important clues to the region’s deep past. Preserving the vanishing voices of indigenous communities has never seemed more urgent.

The territory stretching between the Ural Mountains, Inner Asia, and the Pacific Ocean is vast enough to be a continent in its own own right, were it not attached to the rest of Asia. This region forms the lion’s share of today’s Russian Federation, the world’s largest state.

Isolated for much of the 20th century, northern Asia contains more trees than the Amazon rain forest, more grass than North America’s Great Plains and enough permafrost to alter the global climate were it to melt away. Few outsiders have visited this remote wonderland of ice, coniferous forests, endless plains, forested uplands, crystal lakes and mountain fringes. And fewer still understand the fascinating cultural and linguistic history of this beautiful land.

Recent and Ancient History

Modern humans lived in northern Siberia as early as 30,000 years ago. The languages and beliefs of these peoples will likely never be known. When Russian Cossacks first crossed the Urals into Asia’s vast taiga forest in the late 16th century, more than forty indigenous peoples lived in northern Asia. Most were pastoralists who nomadized with herds of domesticated animals. Others were hunter-gatherers.

Turkic and Mongolic tribes ranged across the steppes along Siberia’s southern fringe. Western Siberia was populated by reindeer-breeders speaking languages related to Finnish, Estonian, and Hungarian. In eastern Siberia beside the Lena River, where grass grows above permafrost soil in the world’s last remnant of the Mammoth Steppe, the Sakha (Yakut) Turks pursued a lifestyle of horse and cattle breeding brought from the steppes farther south. This region still holds the remains of mammoths and other Ice Age fauna.

“The steppes, forests, and tundra of Asia’s northern regions have a complex history stretching back thousands of years.”

Groups of Evenki and Even reindeer breeders nomadized across the rest of eastern Siberia. These Tungusic-speaking tribes originated far to the south in Manchuria, now the northernmost provinces of the People’s Republic of China. Alongside the sky-blue Yenisei River, Siberia’s geographic center, the Kets outlasted the spread of reindeer people as the region’s last remaining hunter-gatherers. Reindeer breeding likewise never penetrated certain remote corners of Asia’s North Pacific Rim.

Sakhalin Island and the forests near the Amur River delta on the mainland were home to Nivkh fisherfolk. Southern Sakhalin was populated by Ainu-speaking fishing groups who had spread from the Japanese Archipelago.  Salmon fishers or sea mammal hunters like the Itelmen, Chukchi and Koryak lived near the Pacific coast from southern Kamchatka’s towering volcanoes to the windswept eastern shoreline of the Bering Sea, across from Alaska. Small portions of this seashore were occupied by Yupik sea mammal hunters whose linguistic cousins live in the North American Arctic.

While Siberia’s towns and cities appeared only recently, in the wake of the Russian arrival a few centuries ago, the steppes, forests and tundra of Asia’s northern regions have a complex history stretching back thousands of years.

A Rich Diversity of Language Structures

Linguists study and celebrate the world’s thousands of languages for many reasons. Perhaps most important is to appreciate the immense variety of native cultures and traditional knowledge found across the globe. Features shared by all languages everywhere provide insight into the very essence of what it means to be a human being. Aspects of grammar and vocabulary specific to individual languages or language families can help trace prehistoric migrations, offering insights into bygone lifeways and belief systems.

“Aspects of grammar and vocabulary specific to individual languages or language families can help trace prehistoric migrations, offering insights into bygone lifeways and belief systems.”

Although languages change too rapidly for historical-comparative linguistics to discern genealogical relationships at time depths greater than the early Holocene, triangulating data from archaeology, human genetics and linguistics offers increasingly sophisticated perspectives on human prehistory.

Northern Asia has contributed much to our understanding of linguistic diversity. Languages often have unique terms, like the Ket word atetelingoks, a single tree growing in a grove of another species. Ainu has a rich vocabulary for the local riverine ecology. Basic numerals in Nivkh have distinct forms for counting people, bears, long objects, fishing nets and many other categories. Mongolic has different words for “we,” depending on whether the listeners are included (you together with me or us) or excluded (we but not you), a trait also found widely in the Pacific Rim. The Yukagir language of northeastern Siberia features distinctive verb forms which focus attention on the doer of an action as opposed to the event itself.

Features widespread in northern Asia but uncommon elsewhere include vowel harmony, a pattern where vowels in a word’s root dictate the form of vowels in suffixes added to it. Vowel harmony and extensive suffixation are ubiquitous in languages spoken by Asia’s horse, cattle and reindeer breeders.

By contrast, the structure of languages spoken by the region’s non-pastoral peoples are more diverse. Yupik, also exclusively suffixing, lacks vowel harmony, and easily builds words expressing what would require a long sentence in most other languages. Chukchi can incorporate a verb’s object into the verb form itself, as if English could express “she repositions the tent” as “retentpositions.” Ket sharply contrasts with its neighbors in having strings of prefixes rather than suffixes and distinctive tones instead of vowel harmony. Many structural aspects of Ket are shared strikingly with the Dene languages of interior Alaska rather than with other languages of Siberia.

Unresolved Mysteries

Thanks to pioneering work by Russian, Finnish, and German linguists, and more recently by scholars farther abroad, much is known about the languages and cultures of northern Asia. Yet some important questions still lack definitive answers.

Uralic, Turkic, Tungusic, and Mongolic languages are unmistakeably alike in structure, with vowel harmony spreading over strings of grammatical suffixes. Did these similarities arise through millennia of mutual contact? Or do they belie a common origin too distant to trace? Equally unknown and probably unknowable are key aspects of prehistory for the region’s smaller, Paleoasiatic language families. Some may have deep connections with the indigenous languages of North America that are too ancient to demonstrate.

The study of indigenous northern Asia remains an ongoing endeavor today, made even more urgent by language loss in small communities around the globe.

[Title image by Hans-Jurgen Mager via Unsplash]

Edward Vajda

Edward Vajda is a professor at Western Washington University, where he teaches courses on historical linguistics, word formation, Russian language, culture and folklore, and Inner Eurasia's nomadic peoples. His research focuses on Ket, a language spoken by fewer than 50 people in the remote areas near the Yenisei river in Siberia.

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