Friday, August 15, 2008

NAT: Kodiak Russian

Linguist studies unique variant of Russian found on Kodiak Island
By ERIK WANDER, Mirror Writer, Article published on Thursday, August 14th, 2008

A unique version of the 18th century Russian language still spoken by a handful of people in Kodiak and Port Lions is the subject of a study by a researcher from St. Petersburg, Russia.

Evgeny Golovko, a professor of linguistics at the Institute for Linguistic Studies and the European University at St. Petersburg, is in Kodiak to document what remains of an unusual variant of the Russian language before it vanishes.

Golovko, who specializes in the Native languages of Siberia, is collaborating with the University of Alaska Fairbanks Alaska Native Language Center on a project called Documenting Alaska Native and Neighboring Languages.

He said his work represents only a small part of the large-scale project to document Alaska’s Native languages and that his role is unique and specific.

“My part of this project is connected with this word ‘neighboring languages’ in the title,” Golovko said. “I’m supposed to collect material on the Russian language that was spoken here before 1867.”

Golovko said the version of the language he is focusing on is spoken only by descendants of 18th century Russian fur traders and their Native Alaskan wives.

The Russian-American Company was started by Grigory Shelikhov and Nikolai Rezanov in 1799 when Russia owned Alaska.

Golovko said most Russians who came to Alaska to work for the company were men who eventually married local Native women.

The children born of the intermarriages between Russian men and Native women were bilingual and occupied a unique social status in the Russian-American Company.

The company ceased operations when the United States bought Alaska in 1867, offering its employees pensions and the opportunity to live in Russia.

Never having been to Russia, many of the retirees preferred to stay in Alaska, so the company established two villages, Ninilchik on the Kenai Peninsula and the Village of Afognak on Afognak Island. The residents on Afognak stayed until the1964 tsunami destroyed the village and many relocated to Port Lions.

Golovko said he found descendants of the villagers in Kodiak who can still speak Russian similarly to how it was spoken in 1867.

“There are still some people here who can speak some of the language, or at least remember some of the words and phrases,” he said.

Golovko described the surviving language as “a very special variety of the Russian language.”

“To put it roughly, it’s like Shakespearean language to you. It sounds familiar, but it’s not the language you are used to,” he said. “Many of the words we do not use anymore. They are old-fashioned. They are obsolete. They are archaic. I’ve read these words in books, but I never use them.”

As the Russian language evolved in relative isolation in the villages, it not only preserved characteristics of the old Russian it was based on, but took on characteristics of the Native language. The two languages, however, were kept largely separate and the villagers remained bilingual.

For example, Golovko said, gender, which exists in modern Russian, appears to have been abandoned completely.

“When they brought this Russian here and it was picked up by the descendents of these mixed-marriages, they brought their own features to the language,” he said. “On the one hand, it has an archaic flavor, but on the other hand, there are some innovations due to Native Alaskan languages.”

Golovko estimates about 10 people in Kodiak and Port Lions are still conversant in the language and several remember some words or phrases.

Golovko meticulously records the words, expressions and pronunciation of his subjects. He spends several sessions recording those he describes as “actual speakers,” but he also meets with people who know only a few words.

He said the process can be tedious and some people are hesitant to participate, especially because of age. Two or three people he knows are very good speakers and are in their 90s, he said.

“Not all the people are ready to participate. Some of the them are reluctant,” he said. “Some of them are old. Some of them cannot hear very well. They want quietness. No strangers. Don’t bother me. I don’t blame them.”

Golovko said that to some extent his research is too late, not only because of his aging subjects, but because of the degeneration of the language over time.

He said interest in documenting the Russian language in Alaska is a relatively new phenomenon, with linguistic research focusing on Native languages since the 1960s, when the Alaska Native Language Center was established.

“(Russian) has become an important part of Alaska history, because Russians dominated for many years,” he said.

Golovko described the situation with Native languages in Alaska today as “very sad indeed,” because many young people only speak English and have little interest in learning about their heritage.

“Language is part of culture. It’s part of how people view the world, how people interpret the world. You can see it through language,” he said. “And before these languages are gone, they should be documented at least for history.”

According to ANLC, all 20 of Alaska’s remaining Native languages are endangered.

Golovko also said that although it is not part of his project, the revival of vanishing languages should be the ultimate goal of the research. The only way to do that, he said, is to stimulate people’s interest.

“We should all make an effort to revitalize them, because it’s very important for people’s self-identity,” he said. “People are different, and they will be different. And language makes one of these differences.”

Golovko said he plans to travel to Port Lions next week and to Ninilchik next summer, where he expects to find even more subjects than in Kodiak. He expects the project to be completed next year.

Golovko will then transcribe all of the phrases, dialogs and narratives he records and produce a short dictionary based on what remains of the language today. He also will archive the sound recordings at the Alaska Native Language Center and the Alutiiq Museum.

“Unfortunately, this language will soon become a museum item, because it will be gone very soon,” he said.

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