Yukon native language story book crosses the Pacific

Alexandra Bocharnikova

Zoya Vasilievna Maksunova, Ket speaker and linguist from Siberia and Yukon Native Language Centre's Doug Hitch at Cosmos Hotel, in Moscow, on April 17.

A story book used in teaching Aboriginal languages in the Yukon may soon be helping indigenous people in Siberian Russia learn their own Ket language.

The story book, entitled Fish Camp, was developed by the Yukon Native Language Centre together with Elders and fluent speakers and is available in nineteen versions, many online, and covering all eight Yukon languages.

But its translation into Ket would mark the first time that Yukon teaching materials have been rendered into an Aboriginal language outside North America.

Why Ket? Because, says linguist Doug Hitch of YNLC, there’s tantalizing evidence that the Ket language and the Yukon languages—seven Athapaskan and Tlingit—share an ancient common ancestor.

Hitch attended a historic meeting last month in Moscow, where representatives of the Kets met face-to-face for the first time with a delegation from the Arctic Athabaskan Council (AAC), from northern Canada and Alaska. YNLC was invited as part of the AAC delegation.

The Ket people, who today number about 1,200, live in several villages in the Yenisei River basin in the Krasnoyarsk Krai district of Russia.

As with Athabaskan speakers in Canada and Alaska, Ket children were sent to a residential school system where use of their language was forbidden.

Ket itself, with about 200 speakers left, is the only remaining language in the Yeniseian language family, whose other members are all extinct.

Among the Ket delegates at the Moscow meeting was Zoya Maksunova, a Ket speaker and linguist who teaches school in one of the Ket villages.

Hitch showed Maksunova and the other Kets a sample of the story books he’d brought with him. “They were delighted with them. They don’t have as much in the way of materials as we do.”

He proposed his idea of recording one of the story books in the Ket language to Maksunova, who “got the picture right away.” In fact she translated the story overnight, dividing the Ket version into pages matching the original story book.

The next day Hitch recorded Maksunova speaking the Ket version, and brought back the sound files with him as well as the written Ket original and the Russian translation provided by Maksunova.

As with all recent materials, YNLC will first make the story book available online with audio and then produce a print version. But producing this book presents unusual challenges.

One challenge is that the book must be made in several versions: one for Ket schools using the official orthography and a Russian translation; one for Yukoners and others in a practical roman orthography with an English translation; and one for linguists with technical apparatus.

The official Ket writing system which is based on the Russian Cyrillic alphabet and which Maksunova uses for writing her native language also presents an interesting challenge.

This alphabet doesn’t capture all the sounds of the Ket language accurately enough for teaching materials.

“For example, Ket is a very rich tonal language, but there seems to be no way of indicating tone in this official alphabet,” notes Hitch.

“If someone who doesn’t speak Ket is trying to learn the language,” says Hitch, “they want to learn to read and write it. But if you just give a series of letters and you miss some of the sounds, it’s not as useful as if you’re writing all the sounds. Having the audio files online can help learners to match pronunciation and writing but audio files may not always be available.

“With the writing systems developed at YNLC, we write down all the sounds, everything, so that you can look at a word and you know how to pronounce it.”

So Hitch has turned for assistance to Dr. Edward Vajda, a linguist at Western Washington University who is the North American expert on the Ket language.

Vajda agreed to provide an accurate transcription of the sound files spoken by Maksunova that Hitch is sending to him, capturing each phoneme (or unit of meaning) of Ket speech.

Vajda’s in depth study of Yeniseian languages including original fieldwork with Ket supports the idea of a genetic connection between Ket and the Athabaskan, Eyak, and Tlingit (Na-Dene) language family of North America.

Among other similarities, Vajda has noted the use of similar words for canoe and component parts such as prow and cross-piece.

Absolute proof of a link between these two language families would be the first successfully demonstrated link between an Old World and a New World language family.

It would also raise profound anthropological and genetic questions about the ancient ties between Eurasia and North America, such as the Bering land bridge that is believed to have connected Siberia and Alaska during the last ice age.

“That’s what people are talking about, that’s why it creates excitement,” says linguist André Bourcier of YNLC. “On the other side of the Pacific, in Russia, you have one surviving language that shows that link.”

Hitch adds, “A really big part of the story is that it highlights the importance of the study of these small languages at risk of disappearing. Who knows what other critical information about humankind is preserved by small groups of speakers tucked away in obscure corners of the world?”

Cindy Dickson, who helped organize the Moscow meeting, is the executive director of the Arctic Athabaskan Council that represents all the Athabaskan First Nations of northern Canada and Alaska.

“We met the Kets to find out more about our shared linguistic and cultural heritage,” says Dickson, who is a member of the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation from Old Crow. “We have so much to discuss. I hope we may be able to set up some exchanges, particularly of our young people.”

As Vajda himself writes: “Who would have imagined the ancient words Native American and Siberian boarding-school children were punished for speaking a few decades ago could wield a power vast enough to reunite entire continents?”

And with the assistance of the Yukon Native Language Centre, the Ket people may soon share another connection—teaching materials in their own language that were originally developed for their distant relatives in the Yukon.