Koryak Languages


The Koryak language is currently spoken by about 3,000 people living in the Russian Far East. Communities of speakers are scattered about Kamchatka peninsula in the north Pacific, and can be found in the area to the north on the mainland. There are radio and televisions broadcasts in the Chavchuven dialect of Koryak and in Alutor, and the Palana newspaper, Narodovlastie ("People's Power) irregularly issues with insets in Koryak. There has been some revival in native interest in the language, starting in the early 1980s, and continuing today. Vakhtin (1992) is very pessimistic about the language's persistence for more than two more generations. I am not sure if I share this pessimism. With a little time and some assistance (both of which are not impossible) language revival activists may be able to turn around the steady decline of native or fluent speakers. However, in my Winter 2013 expedition to several villages in Olyutor Rayon and the village of Manily in Penzhinsky Rayon, as well as observations in Palana in Tigilsky Rayon, I found very few full speakers under the age of 40. I know of only a few isolated children who know how to speak Koryak, and all are Russian dominant.

My research project titled "Ethnopoetics: Stories from Herders and Maritime Villagers" is funded by a grant from the Hans Rausing Endangered Documentation Language Programme (ELDP) from September 2012 to September 2014. In addition to stories, we are also documenting conversation, kinship, and all kinds of knowledge related to religious beliefs and relations with spirits. The focus is on reindeer herders in Olyutorskiy Rayon and Maritime Koryaks from Penzhina, although we recorded many Chawchu in Manily and are including speakers of all varieties of Koryak living in Palana, our base of operations.


Ethnopoetics refers to a general theory of oral storytelling that assumes that the basic unit is a line. Oral narratives are poetry, not prose. While many scholars prefer a strophic rendition that closely follows acoustic markers such as pauses and relative loudness, I am convinced that Dell Hymes's approach organizing lines into verses and stanzas uncovers the subtle and implicit structure and beauty of good stories well told.

In 2009 I experimented with Adobe Flash to create a text syncronized with an audio recording, which allowed the reader to see and hear the story, thus obviating the need to choose a versified over an acoustic rendition of the story on the page. The Flash object does not have any controls, but right clicking in your browser should let you play, pause, stop and restart the story, originally recorded on wax cylinder by Vladimir Bogoras or Vladimir Jochelson during the winter of 1900-01. I call the story "A Man is Born" (Qlavol Gaitolen) since a birth is the central feature of the story. (Link to page with talking text Flash object)


Koryak belongs to the historically defined language family called "Chukotko-Kamchatkan." The relationship of Itelmen to Koryak has been difficult to pin down exactly, but the scholarly consensus now lies in favour of placing it in the distantly related Kamchatkan branch, while Chukchi, Koryak, Kerek, and Alutor are all closely related in the Chukotkan branch..

Chukchi is spoken by an Arctic people living on the very northeast corner of the world (any farther east, and you are in the West) of the same name. Chukchi is so similar to Koryak that the two are often mutually intelligible, and Koryak may be considered dialects of one language (Comrie 1981: 241). Unlike Chukchi, which is remarkably uniform from one area to another, Koryak can be divided into many dialects. Comrie mentions that Alutor and Kerek have been separated out as separate languages from Koryak since Bogoraz wrote, and most scholars consider Chukotko-Kamchatkan to have four very similar languages in the family: Chukchi, Alutor, Kerek, and Koryak.

Often one encounters the terms "Chavchuven" and "Nymylan" in Russian sources. "Chavchuven" refers to reindeer-herding Koryaks and Chukchi. In linguistic terms, it refers to the dialect of Koryak spoken by reindeer herding groups in the west and northern part of the Kamchatka peninsula. Nymylan (from the Koryak word for "villager") is a self designation for Koryaks residing in villages along the sea coast. While Chavchuven is fairly uniform across wide territory. Nymylan speakers living along the Pacific (plus the villages of Palana and Lesnaya on the Okhotsk) coast speak a variety now commonly called Alutor, which is officially designated a language separate from Koryak. The dialects of Palana, Lesnaya, Karaga, Anapka, Vyvenka, and some other towns can be differentiated from one other, yet they share similarities differntiating them from Chavchuven (lack of a dual number, or dual not obligatory, for example). A. N.Zhukova (1980) has published a description of Palana Nymylan, where she also compares it to other dialects. One should realize that these geographic designations are a shorthand for a very complicated mixing of speech communities, where speakers of various dialects are all mixed up and around. It is also important to realize that Russian language sources from the 1930s and 40s used the term "Nymylan" to refer to what is now called the Chavchuven dialect. Also, the Nymylans living along Penzhina Bay speak variants classed as part of the Koryak langauge and not Alutor.

Mutual intelligiability of languages or dialects is a sticky questions. Many Nymylan speakers have told me that they don't understand Chavchuven, which is the official Koryak on the radio at all. However, others tell me that they can get the drift of what is being said. Nymylan speakers have told me that they can understand Chukchi speakers, others say they can't. Obviously, the desire to understand plays a large role in this. I have not speficially investigated this problem with comprehension tests. More research is needed to understand the variety of Koryak and Alutor.

Bogoraz states that the several dialects can be classed into two groups, and speculates on the status of Kerek as a third major group. The two major groups he studied are the western (or northern) group and the eastern (or southern) group. He did most of his work among the latter, although he was able to learn a bit about the former. Unfortunately, Bogoraz was unable to collect much data on the Koryak of the Kamchatka peninsula. Korsakov enumerates eight different dialects, Kamenskoe, Paren, Itkan, Apukin, Kerek, Alyutor, Karagin, and Palana (1939: 260).


In the first two years of this century, Vladimir Bogoras and Vladimir Jochelson conducted extensive linguistic and ethnographic research as part of the Jesup North Pacific Expedition supervised by Boas under the auspices of the American Museum of Natural History. In fact, the two men were exiled scholars with socialist sympathies, and had already great familiarity with the people of the area. Indeed, Bogoras spoke Chukchee fluently and identified closely with the people so much that he appended the name "Tan" to his own a few years later. The sketch in Adobe Acrobate PDF file is primarily a distillation of Bogoras's grammar in Boas's Handbook, volume 2. (1922), with frequent recourse to a separate volume of texts, which includes a Koryak-English and English-Koryak glossary (1917). The glossary is invaluable for analyzing words into constituent parts. Many of my illustrations include a number which refers to the page and line number in Koryak Texts. I have also consulted Korsakov (1939), and looked at Zhukova's work (1968, 1987).

Web resources on Chukotko-Kamchatkan

Koryak Net has a Bibliography of linguistic materials

The Database on Minority Languages of Russia is a joint project between linguists at the University of Tokoyo and the Russian Academy of Sciences Institute of Linguistics. Their web-delivered database is still under construction, but they already have extensive bibliographies of Chukotko-Kamchatkan languages on line.

Esa Anttikoski has created a set of fonts for Koryak and other "Paleoasiatic" languages coded in Windows-1251 format. A Macintosh version of these fonts is also under development.These fonts were installed on computers at various organizations in Palana, including the okrug newspaper, the Peduchilishche, and the Institute for Teacher Advancement.

A note on the term "Paleoasiatic"

When linguists talk about "families" or "groups" they usually are referring to a group of languages, which have been demonstrated to be historically related to the general satisfaction of a majority of scholars. For example, English and Russian belong to the "Indo-European" group because we have accepted the general theory that these two languages (along with many others in India and Europe) are ultimately descended from a hypothesized common language spoken about 6,000 years ago on the steppes of Eastern Europe. Likewise, Cree and Ojibwa belong to the Algonquian language family because it has been accepted that they are also historically related to a language spoken earlier in Eastern Canada.

By this understanding, there is no such thing as a Paleoasiatic group. It was a catch-all trash can for languages that the white people in Moscow and Petersburg didn't understand very well, and they didn't like the untidy look of several small lanuages lying about with no larger group, like Altaic or Sino-Tibetan, to unite them. Thus, Siberian Yupik, Ket, Nivkh, and Yukaghir are lumped with Koryak and other Chukotko-Kamchatkan languages when, in truth, the only thing uniting them is bad habit on the part of contemporary linguistics following in the dry rot of a dead tradition. So, if you hear someone holding forth on "Paleoasiatic," please interrupt them and tell them that there is no such thing.

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Page Date: April 23, 2013

Alexander King, WEBMASTER (at) KORYAKS (dot) NET, University of Aberdeen, Scotland, UK