The Nenets (Yurak) and Nganasan (Tawgi) languages are spoken in northwestern Siberia.
Along with Enets (Yenisei-Samoyed), they belong to the North-Samoyed branch of languages.
The whole group of Samoyed languages is related to the group of Finno-Ugric languages, and the two groups form the Uralic language family.
Nenets is spoken in a vast area from the White Sea in the west to the mouth of the Yenisei River in the east, and from the shore of the Arctic Ocean in the north to the edge of the boreal coniferous forest in the south (see the Map). Although the Nenets are nomadic people residing mainly in the tundra, their camps are also found in the forest area along some tributaries of the Ob River and along the Pur River. According to the 2002 census, the number of the Nenets is about 41.000 (their number grew 20 per cent compared to 1989). Up to 77 per cent of them speak Nenets as their mother tongue; this number varies depending on the particular area
[for more detailed information see: http://www.gks.ru/PEREPIS].
Nganasan is spoken in the central and northern parts of Taymyr Peninsula. Today the total number of the Nganasan is only 830. Ca. 500 people claim Nganasan to be their mother tongue
Since the 1960s, the majority of them have resided in three villages - Volochanka, Ust'-Avam, and Novaya. Most Nganasan speakers are multilingual: along with the Native language, they speak Russian. Many of them also have command of Dolgan, a Turkic language. The Dolgan live together with the Nganasan in all the three villages mentioned above. Some Nganasan people can also speak Enets, a third North-Samoyed language. The latter is in a poor condition - very few senior people can speak it today.
In ancient times, the North-Samoyed languages formed a unity with Selkup, Mator, Kamas, and some other languages (see the picture below). The Samoyed language affinity may be imaged as a tree:
According to a widely-assumed hypothesis, this unity split ca. 2.000 years ago. The Nenets and the Nganasan became on their own and moved to the Arctic area approximately in the middle of I millennium A.D. Eventually, the Samoyed people diverged both territorially and linguistically. From the middle of I millennium to the beginning of II millennium, the Samoyed people migrated to the Arctic zone along the Yenisei River and settled the tundra. The Nenets were moving westwards, to Yamal Peninsula and Gydan Peninsula; the Nganasan eastwards, to Taimyr Peninsula and close to the Khatanga River. The Enets settled down between them, right in the mouth of the Yenisei River and to the west of the Taz River basin. At the turn of I and II millennia, the Nenets crossed the Ural mountains in the north and found themselves in Bolshezemelskaya tundra; after that they moved further on to Malozemelskaya tundra, Kanin tundra, and Timan tundra [Helimski 2000b: 28].
According to an alternative theory, in 2-3 centuries A.D., the Samoyed migrated northwards, to the mouth of the Ob River, westwards, to the Irtysh River area, southwards, to the Ob River area, near the modern city of Novosibirsk, and to the Sayan mountains. Under pressure from the Huns, part of the Samoyed people was forced to leave the middle part of the Irtysh River area for the northern forest part of Europe; that was where the European Nenets originated from [Vasil'yev 1994]. This hypothesis explains the difference in pronunciation between western and eastern Nenets, because the former has kept its original form intact, while the latter shows certain traits of the autochthonous languages in the area.
In the same vein, the contemporary Nganasan are descendants, on the one hand, of the Samoyed and, on the other hand, of the northernmost tundra population of Eurasia, caribou hunters. As a separate ethnic group, the Nganasan formed in the Taymyr Peninsula by the second half of the 17th - early 18th century [Gracheva 1994; Gracheva 1983 : 4-9]. It is generally assumed today that the Samoyed language history is parallel to their speakers' ethnic history. This assumption sounds reasonable, since, both ethnically and linguistically, there is an amalgamation of heterogeneous components [Helimski 2000а : 25].
Nenets has two dialects - Tundra dialect and Forest dialect. Most Nenets speak Tundra dialect, while Forest dialect is only spoken by 2.000 (ca.5%) people. A Nenets literacy based on Cyrillic letters was introduced in the late 1930s. Since that time, there have been published a number Nenets primers, text-books, and dictionaries.
There are two dialects of Nganasan, Avam and Vadey, which are very close to each other. 75 per cent of Nganasan speakers, that is, about 300 people, speak Avam dialect. A Nganasan writing system was introduced very recently, in the late 1990s; very few people are literate in their Native language. Some Nganasan text-books and a school dictionary have been published since then. Although very few books have appeared in Nganasan by the present, or maybe due to this fact, there exist several modes of writing in Nganasan, which differ in the shape of some letters. The alphabet used in this dictionary is as follows:
Phonetic rules, grammatical systems, and a considerable part of the lexicon are very close to each other in all Samoyedic languages, it is especially true for the North-Samoyed branch. However, there are certain phonetic and lexical features, as well as differences in the shape of suffixes, that give grounds to draw a borderline between the languages of this branch. This Comparative Dictionary is to demonstrate this differences for Nenets and Nganasan.
The present Comparative Dictionary is based on the following Nenets and Nganasan School Dictionaries: [Tereshchenko 1982; Kosterkina et al. 2001]. A number of new words were added by Native Nenets and Nganasan speakers in the course of work on a final draft of this dictionary. The corpus of the Dictionary contains about 1.000 frequently used words, viz. the words denoting various everyday activities related to nomadic way of life, reindeer breeding, fishing, hunting; it also contains words for body parts, for details of the dwelling-place, weather, fauna and flora, types of landscapes, and others, including most words from the Swadesh wordlist.
The Dictionary clearly demonstrates that the Nenets and Nganasan are closely related to each other, for example, numerals from one to seven, as well as certain pronouns turn to be the same in the North-Samoyed languages. Most terms for reindeer-breeding activities are also of the same origin. They demonstrate the highly developed branch of reindeer domestication and the specifics of the nomadic way of life which are characteristic of all Samoyed groups, from the Sayan mountains to the White Sea shore. The Dictionary points to some lexical cognates, concentrating, first of all, on words for birds, fishes, and animals, linking them to words denoting related activities (in all examples the first word is in Nenets, the second is in Nganasan), e.g.:
""(domesticated) reindeer" (cf. "caribou": илебц' - бахи);
Many words for wild animals are of the same origin:
but cf.: "polar fox":
"omul" (These fishes are not found in the middle Yenisei).
Some words for fishes, in Nenets and Nganasan, are not cognate, which implies that the Nenets population started catching these kinds of fishes rather late, after they had arrived in the area they occupy today, cf.:
Neither the Nenets, nor the Nganasan ate mushrooms, so the words for them differ:
in the same fashion, the words denoting sea birds are different, cf. the words for the "sea-gull": :
Nenets and Nganasan share many structural elements: morphonotactic rules, affixation design, similar nominal paradigms which include possessive and desiderative declensions, three similar conjugation types, etc. The lexicon shows a considerable number of common roots and word stems which, in each language, have been modified in the course of natural language development, for example:
"eat": one root with the iterative and gerund-infinitive suffixes;
"badly": one root with the adverbial suffix (which, etymologically, is the prolative marker);
"sit down" - one root with the gerund-infinitive suffixes;
"eighth" - the root and the cardinal number marker;
"quick, fast" (originally, the Present Participle of the verb "be quick, fast"), etc.
Such cognate word stems can be traced as far back as the Proto-Uralic language, or both languages could borrow them simultaneously at a later period:
Most part of such cognates can be found in the etymological dictionary [Janhunen 1977].
Both languages show the relics of syncretism in parts of speech system which is particularly characteristic of Nenets:
and "deep" -
но "nightly" -
Through the comparison of such cognates, using also material from other Samoyedic languages, proto-forms may be reconstructed, and the regularities of language change may be formulated. It should be noted, at the same time, that the languages in question formed independently, and, besides the common Samoyedic core, they integrated non-Samoyedic components. Lexicon is part of language which is subject to change first of all. It changes due to new subsistence practices, climatic change, migrations, etc. Another important factor of lexical change is language contact. Nenets and Nganasan are no exception here: Nenets (mainly Bolshaya Zemlja sub-dialect) integrated a number of Komi (Komi-Izhemsk dialect) words, Ural and Yenisey sub-dialects absorbed a number of Khanty words. Nganasan intergrated some Evenki (Dolgan) words. A number of Turkic and Russian loan words denoting new activities are also found in both languages.
Evgeniy Helimski points out to a large number (twice as many) of unetymologised noun stems in Nganasan compared to Nenets and Enets [Helimski 2000a : 24].
(3.2) The Nenets word has two meanings: "1. nose; 2. beak"; but there is a separate word for each meaning in Nganasan:
The first meaning of the Nenets word
"habit, custom" corresponds to the Nganasan form
аbut the same word in the adverbial form meaning "generally" corresponds to the word
The meaning of the Nenets word
"hunter" is realized, in Nganasan, in two words:
"the person who hunts" and
"hunter (way of life)".
Using the present Dictionary, one can see that the two languages show a considerable difference in pronunciation. The Nganasan phonology presents the most ancient vocalism system: no other North-Samoyed language has diphtongs. There are also differences in consonant system , rhythmic and prosodic structures, morphonotactics.
The Dictionary may be helpful for students of the Samoyedic (Uralic) historical phonetics and comparative grammar. In future editions of the Dictionary, the material of a third North-Samoyed language, Enets, will be included. The authors will appreciate any comment on the present version of the Dictionary.