Five years ago I posted about a dialect of Russian spoken in the Alaskan village of Ninilchik; here‘s an interview with Mira Bergelson, professor of linguistics at Moscow University, that gives some background and continues the story:
Andrei was making his survey of the Upper Kuskokwim language [in 1997], 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. [...] 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. [...]
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. [...]
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. [...]
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.
I love this kind of thing. Thanks for the link, Dan!