An antiquated dialect of Russian is still spoken in Alaska. Mira Bergelson — professor of linguistics at Moscow University, philologist, and expert on regional dialects — discusses how this dialect has been preserved, how it first arrived in Alaska, how it was learned and how it escaped the social class mutations forced upon Russian as spoken in the Soviet Union. 

Gazeta.ru: Please can you tell us more about the expedition you and your husband, Andrei Kibrik, made to the Alaskan settlement of Ninilchik?

Mira Bergelson: Well, it’s more than just one expedition — it’s an entire project that I’ve been involved in, and it all began when my husband, Andrei Kibrik, and I were in Alaska in 1997.

Unique Russian dialect continues to exist in Alaska
Mira Bergelson: "You can imagine how our eyes lit up — Russian that had been preserved from the 18th century!" Source: Press Photo

Even before then, Andrei had been studying the Athabaskan group of languages for some time, and he received a Fulbright Scholarship to document one of the most remotely located of Athabaskan languages in Alaska, Upper Kuskokwim.

He’d been invited there by Michael Cross, director of the Alaska Native Language Center. While we were there, Michael mentioned that, since the days of the Russian-American Company in Alaska, there have been settlements on the Kenai Peninsula where Russian remains the native language.

You can imagine how our eyes lit up — Russian that had been preserved from the 18th century!

Later, we were in a different part of Alaska — inland, in the village of Nikolai. The people there are Athabaskans and have been Russian Orthodox believers since back then too; that’s why the village is named Nikolai, after St. Nicholas.

Andrei was making his survey of the Upper Kuskokwim language, when, suddenly, we were approached by activists from the settlement of Ninilchik. They were descendants of the very first settlers.

The people were a bit older than us — the generation that had already stopped speaking Russian themselves, but remembered how Russian was still spoken when they were kids.

Russian, and everything connected with Russia, is a cultural legacy for them. And, just as there’s huge interest among native peoples in many parts of America in their own history, these people, too, want to preserve their legacy.

The people desperately wanted to capture the language, because they realized that it was dying out.

They asked us if we could compile a dictionary of their language. The first thing we did was to compile a glossary of names, because names reflect the way a people interacts with the world around it.

We specially collected names of objects and real things that surround this or that ethnic group. However, it’s impossible to do much with a language if you don’t have a way to record its sounds.

Of course, it’s a dialect of Russian, but it has consistent phonetic differences from the Russian used in Russia today.

We ended up having to choose a transcription method. You see, it’s a dialect with no written form of its own. The generation with whom we’d come into contact had never written in Russian.

They’d gone to the English-speaking school, which opened up in the 1930s to replace the Russian Orthodox Parish School that closed down in 1917.

Their Russian was native — the primary language they’d learned as kids.

So Andrei made a phonetic listing of their habitual differences from standard Russian, and we wrote about this in a number of articles that appeared in connection with our dictionary project. We are also documenting the grammar and other special features. The principle differences are changes in the gender structure.

This was our first expedition; and then, for a number of years, we had to put the project on hold. In the mid-2000s, one of the advocates of recording the cultural heritage of Ninilchik, Wayne Leman — who is a specialist in the Cheyenne language — picked up the task of collecting the vocabulary of Ninilchik Russian.

However, he doesn’t speak Russian himself, so it’s very hard for him to record its sounds, and the material he collected all had to be double-checked by native speakers.

This all left us which a huge number of questions — as a result of which we made an application to the Russian Humanitarian Science Foundation last year and successfully received a grant from them.

In October 2012, we were able to return to Ninilchik and double-check almost the entire dictionary. Now, if only we can secure some time “in the field,” then we will be able to complete the dictionary project. It will be a multimedia dictionary, including photographs and sound.

Gazeta.ru: Did you detect any changes in the language between 1997 when you began and your second expedition?

M.B.: We were able to compare the data from 1997, which we collected with the help of Leonty Kvasnikov — our wonderful collaborator, who sadly died in the intervening years.

The thing here is that the Ninilchik language existed — and continues to exist — over a very small area, in just one village. When Russia sold Alaska to the U.S. in 1867, the village became cut off for 20 years; not a single ship entered the Cook Inlet.

The village population never exceeded two or three hundred people. That’s very few people. It’s here where individual differences become massively important.

There are a lot of idiolectic words in this language: The name for something becomes a proper name, and each of these names has its own story that becomes a cultural legacy.

The pronunciation norms in one family could differ from those in another, simply because, in one family, the man, who began a family with a local woman, might have been from one part of Russia, while, in another family, the man might have been from some other part of Russia. There was a large influence of bilingual Alutiq northern peoples too.

But the only language in the settlement of Ninilchik for 80 years — until the English-speaking school was opened — was Russian. Separated from its own homeland, however, the language began to develop certain rules of its own.

In 2012, we were able to meet new collaborators, who have their own phonetic peculiarities. Even so, it all fits alongside the system we had already written up.

To complete our work now, we need to make a fresh expedition, as soon as possible: Our collaborators there are around 90 years old. These are very modern American seniors, and they know about Skype, but the technology doesn’t really help.

You have to be able to listen extremely carefully, ask questions several times — and personal contact is vital when working with nuances of lexicon and cultural context.

It’s clear that they don’t have a complete grasp of the language: They drift off into English, but they still remember Russian phrases. Our job is not to let a single one of these grains slip through our fingers unrecorded.

This is all of great value, because it’s an ecumenical part of the Russian language and an absolutely unique part. It’s unique because it was cut off from the language’s “mainland” for a long time.

It’s unique because, for some while, this dialect was surrounded by Native American languages, and then by English.

Ninilchik Russian was witness to a huge number of processes of the historical evolution of expressive idiom and socio-linguistic problems. And, of course, it’s a cultural legacy. It can tell us the kind of life these people led.

Today, they feel that they are a native-born Americans; but, until the end of the 19th century, those who spoke Russian felt that they were Creoles, and that theirs was the native culture of Alaska.

First published in Russian in Gazeta.ru.