Bill Poser sent me a link to Our Ninilchik Language, “an online dictionary of the old language of Ninilchik, Alaska”—said old language being Russian! From the Introduction by Andrej Kibrik Wayne Leman [thanks, Peter!]:

In 1847 Gregorii Kvasnikoff, a Russian Orthodox Church missionary, brought his wife Mavra of Kodiak Island, half Alutiiq and half Russian, and their large family, to Ninilchik. They settled into the valley at the mouth of the what is now called the Ninilchik River and stayed. Not long after Kvasnikoffs arrived, Oskolkoff sons came with their mother and stepfather. Oskolkoff sons married Kvasnikoff daughters and all the old families of Ninilchik descend from these unions.

The Kvasnikoffs and Oskolkoffs brought the Russian language to Ninilchik. Russian continued to be spoken in the village long after Alaska was purchased by the U.S. from the Russians in 1867. There was a Russian school in the village which taught basic Russian literacy to the children and probably schooled them some in the Old Church Slavonic language used in the Russian Orthodox Church services in the village church…

This dictionary is an attempt to preserve some of the language of the people of Ninilchik. Our village language was mostly Russian, reflecting the vocabulary of Russian spoken by the Kvasnikoffs and Oskolkoffs in the late 1840s. It is Russian unaffected by the changes which have occurred in the Russian language (in its various dialects) in Russia through the tumultuous years of the Bolshevik Revolution, the Communist era, modern technological advances, and the fall of Soviet Communism. Our village language also included some words from southern Eskimo dialects as well as borrowings from Athabaskan dialects…

I grew up in the 1950′s hearing Russian spoken a great deal in Ninilchik. Villagers regularly spoke Russian to each other. My father spoke Russian to his mother and siblings. Some of my cousins spoke some Russian if they came from families where Russian was spoken in the home. I did not; my mother had come to Ninilchik from California. But I learned a number of Russian words and could understand some of what I heard of conversations.

Then, suddenly, in the mid 1950′s, Russian stopped being spoken in public. My father stopped speaking Russian to his siblings and his mother (until just before she died).
I have done my best to spell and record the words of our village…

What a remarkable find! Once again my hat is off to someone who took the time and trouble to record an obscure and “useless” form of language, this one of particular interest to me. I should add that the words are spelled phonetically: “So the word for ‘dog’ is written in this dictionary as sabaka, which is how it is pronounced in Ninichik as well as in Moscow.” Here‘s the A section of the dictionary, from which we learn that initial y- gets dropped (az’ík ЯЗЫК. n. tongue, language). I had no idea Russian Alaska had left this heritage behind. Thanks, Bill!

Update (March 2014): The links in the post are now dead, but for the moment the site is archived here.


  1. Peter Austin says:

    I believe the introduction was written by Wayne Leman (see the final sentence “wayne dot leman at gmail dot com (replace the “dot” and “at” words with the usual email symbols)” not Andrej Kibrik. The page you link to has a link to Kibrik’s PDF article, but the Introduction itself (and the dictionary compilation) is the work of Leman. Kibrik grew up in Russia, not Alaska.

  2. It’d be nice to find more extensive resources for Лыгъоравэтльан from across the water too.
    Кыткытръогьэ. Тиркытир а’к,агнэтын,огъэ. Пэтле рагръон,н,он,ыт рэквытти.

  3. AJP Crown says:

    Bill Poser has some interesting photographs on his blog, I thought.

  4. Thanks very much, Peter, I corrected the post.
    For those who are wondering, fiosachd is talking about Chukchi. (Don’t worry, I had to google it myself.)
    And yes, those are nice photos!

  5. AJP Crown says:

    It’s the green-leather upholstery.

  6. AJP Crown says:

    M’ir’ikánskay yaz’ík English language.

  7. marie-lucie says:

    Bill’s pictures have nothing to do with Ninilchik or Chukchi (also known as Luoravetlan), they are of the interior of British Columbia, Canada, not too far from the Alaska panhandle.

  8. Can anyone tell what happens to the letter ы in Ninilchik? The introduction says the apostrophe is meant to make a consonant soft, and ы (in my mind at least) can never do that, but there’s язык given as “az’ík”. Listening to “fish” it sounds like “рыба” to me, but does the English orthography give any indication as to whether it’s ы or и? Are there any insights hidden in Kibrik’s article?

  9. AJP Crown says:

    Finally, Marie-Lucie. You ought to look at the LH Forvo post, below. There are samples of people pronouncing Occitan words, but I need you to review it before I will feel comfortable with them.

  10. Ryan,
    Kibrik writes that the contrast between hard and soft consonants is frequently neutralized in the Ninilchik dialect. For example, before /i/ it is only conserved for /l/ vs. /lʲ/, which explains az’ík and r’íba.

  11. If you want to see some really unusual pictures, check out these pictures on our local news site:
    Opinion 250. They’re of a group of five lynx on a road in southern BC. It is VERY unusual to see five lynx in a group like that. Indeed, many people never see a lynx at all. Oh, for a linguistic touch, the Carrier word for lynx is borrowed from Gitksan.

  12. Hmm. HTML seems not to work. The URL from my previous message is:

  13. Bill: HTML works fine; you forgot the a in “a href.” I fixed it for you.

  14. Oh, for a linguistic touch, the Carrier word for lynx is borrowed from Gitksan.
    I’m finding wasi. Is that right?

  15. John Emerson says:

    Maybe they’re evolving sociality.
    The cutest thing I’ve ever seen was a mommy skunk and her four half-grown baby skunks. They walked proudly, their tails held high, their black and white fur glossy and fresh in the bright sun, and rippling in the breeze.

  16. John Emerson says:

    Maybe they’re evolving sociality.
    The cutest thing I’ve ever seen was a mommy skunk and her four half-grown baby skunks. They walked proudly, their tails held high, their black and white fur glossy and fresh in the bright sun, and rippling in the breeze.

  17. Lukas,
    Just to clarify, the vowel (ы or и or whatever) is preserved from the Russian of the 1840s, but palatization may or may be the same?

  18. Ryan,
    In standard modern Russian, the sound of /i/ (written as ы or и) depends on the palatalization of the preceding consonant. I guess it’s the same for Ninilchik Russian. Incidentally, there’s two recordings of /riba/ on the Ninilchik web site. In one of them, the /r/ sounds hard and and the /i/ ы-like. In the other one the /r/ is soft and the /i/-sound is more like an и.

  19. marie-lucie says:

    BP: Oh, for a linguistic touch, the Carrier word for lynx is borrowed from Gitksan.
    I was under the impression that it must be the other way around. A lot of animal vocabulary in Nisqa’a and especially Gitksan is borrowed from Athabaskan and the opposite is only true for names of marine animals such as the killer whale. I don’t remember the Gitksan offhand but the Ni word for lynx is we:x, which is consistent with an earlier *we:keh or *wa:keh (k palatal) which would probably also fit with a possible ancestor for Ca wasi. Would that work?

  20. Marie-Lucie,
    Carrier wasi has no Athabascan etymology. Moreover, Father Morice reported that in the late 19th century there were still elders around who knew the older Carrier term that had been replaced by wasi. This is why I have taken the loan to be from Gitksan into Carrier rather than the other direction. A guess as to the reason for the loan would be that it is like the other unexpected loan from Gitksan into Carrier, mai “(blue)berry”, which is probably a case in which the producers of a valuable trade good adopted the term used by the purchasers, as Wichmann and Dakin have proposed for the adoption of the Nahuatl term for cacao by the non-Nahuatl-speaking people who traded it to them. mats of dried blueberries were one of the main items traded out toward the coast by the Carrier. I’m thinking that lynx pelts may have been a sufficiently important trade item that the Carrier adopted the Gitksan term for the same reason.

  21. I have wi:ʃ for lynx in Gitksan.
    Incidentally, none of the marine animal terms seem to have made it into Carrier proper except for “fur seal”, which is Carrier kw’ʌni. Witsuwit’en has nexɬ for “killer whale”, but I don’t think this has even made it into Babine, much less Carrier proper.

  22. marie-lucie says:

    All right then, Bill, thank you for the explanation. As for mai, the meaning of ma:y’ is not just blueberry but any kind of berries. But the original meaning as reconstructed from the form must mean “load” – referring specifically loads of freshly picked berries being carried on the back on the way home.

  23. marie-lucie says:

    I have wi:ʃ for lynx in Gitksan.
    I am surprised at the final [ʃ], which is not supposed to be part of the consonant inventory unless as a realization of /s/. Could it be from a retranscription of a sh used by someone for palatal [x]?

  24. Marie-Lucie,
    In Carrier mai means any kind of berry, or even, post-contact, fruit, but the epitome of berry is blueberry, so it has that hyponymic meaning too. It also seems to have come to mean anything squat or stubby, so it turns up in the compounds for the fingertips and toes and as the slang term for a little boy’s membrum virile. It has even become a verb stem, meaning “squat, stubby”.

  25. Marie-Lucie,
    Hmm. I don’t have a Gitksan dictionary on-line and can’t off the cuff find my paper copy so I’m not sure about that Gitksan form.

  26. marie-lucie says:

    It is always interesting to see how semantic evolution can go in so many different directions! “load” for ma:y’ is my own reconstruction and I am not implying that this meaning is current or even remembered. “blueberry” being the epitome of berries as you say, is called sim-ma:y’ or “best/real-berries”.

  27. John Emerson says:

    I love this stuff.

  28. John Emerson says:

    I love this stuff.

  29. Well, I have weex for lynx in Gitksan, but don’t know the IPA transcription.

  30. marie-lucie says:

    I have weex for lynx in Gitksan, but don’t know the IPA transcription.
    The “ee” would be a long vowel otherwise similar to English “e” in bet, or one similar to the “ee” in English teeth if Bill’s record (presumably from some other person’s transcription) is accurate (in that case, the two pronunciations reflect two different dialects). The final “x” is like the final sound of German ich.
    Incidentally, fiosachd, where did you get your information on Gitksan?

  31. I love this stuff.
    Me too!

  32. Lukas,
    What exactly is the difference in standard Russian? I’ve always seen the character’s value given as [ɨ], but when I hear Polish spoken (where y is given the same IPA value in all texts I’ve seen) that sounds like the i in it, and the Russian ы when stressed sounds to me more like a diphthong of some sort.

  33. Stephen Mulraney says:

    Can’t someone answer Ryan’s description of yeru with a Mandelshtam quote…..?

  34. Is this the quote about it being the ugliest and most unique sound in the Russian language, or something along those lines? Or was that Nabokov, or someone else entirely?

  35. AJP Crown says:

    We thought we saw lynx footprints last week, but now I think they were just dog prints that had melted a little bit into a larger size.
    Isn’t that interesting — about how we didn’t see a lynx? Ok, the only thing I can contribute is the Norwegian word for lynx, which is gaupe.
    I love Bill’s pictures.

  36. Quoting Wikipedia, the fount of all knowledge:

    When a preceding consonant is hard, /i/ is retracted to [ɨ]. Formant studies in Padgett (2001) demonstrate that [ɨ] is better characterized as slightly diphthongized from the velarization of the preceding consonant, implying that a phonological pattern of using velarization to enhance perceptual distinctiveness between hard and soft consonants is strongest before /i/. When unstressed, /i/ becomes near-close; that is, [ɨ̞] following a hard consonant and [ɪ] in most other environments. [...] When preceded and followed by coronal or dorsal consonants, [ɨ] is fronted to [ɨ̟]. After a labial + /l/ cluster, [ɨ] is retracted, as in плыть [plɨ̠tʲ] (‘to float’); it is also slightly diphthongized to [ɯ̟ɨ̟].

    I don’t know any better than that.

  37. Lukas,
    I think that answers my question. Russian seems to have such elusive sounds.

  38. David Marjanović says:

    Fascinating discussion!
    Incidentally, the IPA symbol for the ich-Laut (the voiceless palatal fricative) is [ç].

  39. Stephen Mulraney says:

    Actually, I don’t remember the exact image. Maybe something about the impossible sound yeru tearing the mouth?

  40. Thanks for the blog post and interesting comments. I’m pushing as hard as I can to tidy up fieldnotes from the past (including Kibrik and Bergelson’s). I’m able to phone relatives who still speak our Ninilchik dialect of Russian. Palatalization is a mixed bag. It’s very clear in some words. In other words it seems to have been lost. I have gotten a great deal of help recently from Hayim Sheynik, another Russian linguist, who has been working through my database and pointing out differences between “standard” Russian and our A-dialect. For those interested, keep checking back with the online dictionary since I update it periodically with the latest revisions to the database. I also update the sound files which I have been recording. There is a link to them from the main page of the site.
    I feel a great urgency to do this work since the handful of speakers remaining are all elderly.
    I would welcome further feedback and suggestions for making this database as useful as possible. For my part, the motivation is deeply personal, having grown up hearing the language spoken. I want to preserve our unique dialect for future generations, even if they do not learn to speak it. I have worked with other languages over my linguist career, but there is something very special about doing work on a language so close to the heart.

  41. It’s great to hear from you, and I’m very glad you’re doing this work. If I were in control of grants, I’d give you one!

  42. Hayim Sheynin says:

    As far as I can understand, Wayne Leman’s Ninilchik Lexicon is the first try to record a large number of words of the spoken language which is gradually dying. In the lexicon are included words W. Leman heard from his parents and relatives. All the “deviations” from standard Russian can be explained by the fact that from the start first settlers spoke a certain Russian dialect which in many cases differed from the standard Russian, but when combined with transmission of the language by Aleutiq women, it definitely passed certain processes of pidhinization and creolization. In addition, contacts with local neighbors, speakers of Atabaskan languages, particularly Denaina people brought some local terms (mostly for local flora, fauna and products of food and clothing). It is remarkable the paucity of foreign words. On phonetical level, it is worth to notice the simplification of consonant clusters, on morphological level, the lost of gender and simplification of temporal structure of verbs.
    For those interested in Russian dialectology the vocabulary presents considerable material. I was glad to go through the lexicon and to solve some of the problems, as well as to add a number of Russian Cyrillic spellings. I believe those who will follow on the steps of Wayne Leman may do a lot of additional work, but he has the merit of the pioneer in the field.

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