[Update. USA Today has published a story on Chulym, by Joann Loviglio of Associated Press, that wins David Harrison’s seal of approval. (Via Mark Liberman at Language Log.)]
K. David Harrison, of the Swarthmore Linguistics Department,
claims to have discovered is working on a new previously undescribed language in Siberia. The Swarthmore press release quotes him as saying:
“We went looking for a language we weren’t sure even existed… It had been misidentified and falsely lumped together with other languages in Russia for convenience and political reasons, and we didn’t know if any speakers were left. No scientists had visited them in 30 years, and no one had ever recorded a single word of the language.”
Harrison says the Chulym people continue to practice their ancestral lifeways of hunting, gathering, and fishing, but because of a variety of social, political, and demographic factors are now clearly losing their ancestral language. “They live in six small, isolated villages, often intermixed with a majority Russian population,” he says. “Only 35 people out of a community of 426 still speak it fluently, and we didn’t find any fluent speakers under age 52. The remainder of the Chulym have switched to speaking only Russian. It’s now considered a moribund language.”
Harrison says the unique Chulym number systems, grammatical structures, and classification systems may be lost with the language. Their highly specialized knowledge of medicinal plants, animal behavior, weather signs, and hunting and gathering technologies is also threatened. “Not least of all,” he says, “their rich pre-literate oral tradition, including religious beliefs, stories, and songs, will soon be completely lost, both to themselves and to science.” Harrison hopes to preserve some of that tradition by returning in 2005 to produce a grammar of the language and a children’s storybook.
(News story based on the press release here.)
Now, I’m a little confused, because the only references I can find to a Chulym people (Chulym is the name of a couple of Siberian rivers) are to the Chulym Tatars, who speak a Turkic language. Ethnologue’s entry calls it a Western Turkic language and says “Closely related to Shor; some consider them one language.” But their entry for Shor has it as a Northern Turkic language, but goes on to say “Some sources combine Shor and Chulym.” Either way, if it’s Turkic, it’s not some amazing new language with a unique worldview, so presumably these aren’t the Chulym Tatars but some other group. I look forward to reading more about it.
(Thanks to Bonnie for alerting me to this story.)