Nganasan, The language from the North

Welcome back to our blog for endangered languages!

In this month’s blog entry, we want to give you a small account of Nganasan, a Syberian language that is ranked by the UNESCO as severely endangered. Nganasan is spoken by a small population living on the Siberian Taymyr Peninsula in the Arctic Ocean. According to the 2002 census, only 505 people speak the language.

Nganasan belongs to the so-called Samoyed languages, which stem from the Uralic language family. The root ‘Ngana‘ means ‘true’ or ‘genuine’, whereas ‘Nganasan’ (нганасаны) can be translated as ‘man’ and often these expressions are used together in ngano nganasan – ‘genuine (our) man’.

Until the 1930s the Nganasans led a nomadic life, hunting or breeding reindeer and fishing. Due to their isolated location, the language did not have much contact with other languages (except for other Samoyed languages) until the second half of the 20th century, when they settled in multi-ethnic villages and the language started to decline.

Nganasans aged 40 or less, have only very fragmentary knowledge of Nganasan and Russian has become the first language for the younger generations. Nowadays, Russian words and phrases form part of Nganasan speech and a sudden switch of Nganasan to Russian, depending on the subject or partner, is very common in conversations.

Nganasan has never been a written language; however, in the 1990s, a Cyrillic-based alphabet was created and a small number of books of Nganasan folklore were published. Also since the 1990s, Nganasan has been taught in three schools of the main villages where Nganasans resettled during the second half of the last century.

Nganasan folklore is strongly rooted in story-telling and songs. We found this video to give you an impression of this beautiful Nganasan language and culture:

We hope you will enjoy watching this video as much as we did!

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