Discovering Chylum
May 21, 2006 6:36 AM   Subscribe

Discovering Chylum: Swarthmore Professor David Harrison traveled to Siberia to learn about Chulym, a previously undiscovered local language that reflects its population's culture of hunting, animastic belief system, and bear worship. [More Inside]
posted by gregb1007 (17 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Harrison has also done some video recordings of the language as spoken by locals and plans to publish a Chulym primer and a children's storybook. Harrison's work will be profiled on the PBS Documentary vanishing voices and also featured in an Ironbound Films documentary Last Speaker.

Harrison has already been interviewed by NPR. The interview's archived on NPR's website.

An interesting issue raised by the article is the Soviet-era government repression of indigenous languages and the way such policies engendered feelings of shame towards the languages and therefore discouraged their use.
posted by gregb1007 at 6:48 AM on May 21, 2006

Great post. Thanks for the heads up for the upcoming documentary. Incidently, I've had K. David Harrison in class and he too is great.
posted by youarenothere at 7:26 AM on May 21, 2006

Isn't that the language where pronunciations change unexpectedly?
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 8:08 AM on May 21, 2006

I don't mind ads per se. But it would be nice to link to a page that consists of more than 30% of relevant material.
posted by sluglicker at 8:15 AM on May 21, 2006

gregb1007, It's an intriguing story. I liked the NPR interview. Between 35 to 40 speakers and a man who is 52 is thought to be the youngest speaker of Chulym, a shrinking Tower of Babel.
posted by nickyskye at 8:48 AM on May 21, 2006

While I'm always glad to see language-related posts on MeFi, I'll burst the bubble a little by pointing out that Chulym is neither "previously undiscovered" nor some sort of linguistic isolate with a unique grammar and worldview. It's a Western Turkic language quite similar to Tatar (and all the Turkic languages are much more similar to each other than, say, the members of the Indo-European family); it was "discovered" centuries ago, along with the rest of the Turkic dialects of Southwestern Siberia, and what Harrison is saying is basically that it was wrongly analyzed by Soviet scholars. There's excellent discussion of the topic from various informed parties (including Harrison himself) in my LH post (from February 2004, ahem); Harrison says there:
Middle Chulym (the native name is "ös") is most definitely Turkic, and most Turkic languages are fairly closely related. It was previously wrongly lumped together (both in Russian bureaucracy and in Soviet era ethnography) with Shor, and later with Xakas, two neighboring but quite distinct Turkic languages. The Middle Chulym were even dropped from the census as a distinct ethnic group for over 40 years. They recently regained their ethnic status and registered as a 'tribe' with 426 members (only 35 to 40 people still speak the language fluently).

The Middle Chulym [ös] language is unique and distinct enough from Lower Chulym (the next closest language) to warrant its own Ethnologue entry. I will be communicating with the Ethnologue editors shortly to make the case for this and to send them exact statistics on the number of speakers and the state of the language.
I note that Ethnologue has still not corrected their entry, but I guess they have other priorities.
posted by languagehat at 9:03 AM on May 21, 2006

Thanks, languagehat. I had a bunch of questions in mind at the beginning of the thread--you've pretty much answered all of them.
posted by gimonca at 10:02 AM on May 21, 2006

The Chulym story starts on this page.

The point of the article (read from the beginning) is that they're trying to document these languages before they become extinct. There's a very interesting thesis about a language containing a map of the interconnected knowledge of a people (such as fishing, in this case). It's not entirely clear to me how you preserve that if nobody fishes anymore, though.
posted by dhartung at 11:42 AM on May 21, 2006

languagehat: It's a Western Turkic language quite similar to Tatar (and all the Turkic languages are much more similar to each other than, say, the members of the Indo-European family)

For what it's worth, the numbers 1 to 10 in...

Chulym: pir' igi üts tört pesh alti jedi segis toghus on
Turkish: bir iki üç dört bes, alti yedi sekiz dokuz on
Tatar: ber ike öch dürt bish alti jide sigez tugiz un
posted by sour cream at 12:50 PM on May 21, 2006

languagehat, apologies for calling the language undiscovered: neglected would probably have been more appropriate.
posted by gregb1007 at 1:17 PM on May 21, 2006

For what it's worth, the numbers 1 to 10

Yeah, like I said, all the Turkic languages are pretty similar to each other. Don't fixate on the voiced/voiceless variations (b/p, d/t, g/k)—the choice of letters to represent the phonemes of the language can be a whim of the individual transcriber.

gregb1007: No need to apologize; you're just going by the reportage, which naturally emphasizes anything that could be construed as NEW! and dramatic. And of course 99% of all languages are neglected, so it's nice to see the occasional one get some publicity, even if overblown. If this leads to the Chulym Tatars getting a break, hooray for Hollywood!
posted by languagehat at 1:46 PM on May 21, 2006

languagehat: Don't fixate on the voiced/voiceless variations (b/p, d/t, g/k)...

No, of course.
Actually, I find all three of them to be so similar that I wonder if they are mutually intelligible. That would be surprising given the geographic distance, but on the other hand, they seem to be closer than, say, English, Dutch and German.
posted by sour cream at 2:40 PM on May 21, 2006

I should add that I still think that this was an interesting post and the linked article was a good read.

Actually, if I'd have no financial worries, no daytime job and no family etc., I'd probably do what Prof. Harrison does and go out into the field and try to record dying languages for posterity.
posted by sour cream at 2:46 PM on May 21, 2006

I've gotten different reports on mutual intelligibility, and you have to be suspicious of political agendas on both sides (pan-Turkic types emphasizing it, Soviet-era divide-and-conquer types minimizing it). But all of them (except the outlier Chuvash) are extraordinarily similar, despite the distance (even Yakut, which is way off in eastern Siberia).
posted by languagehat at 2:47 PM on May 21, 2006

Building on sour cream's post, historical linguists establish relationships among languages using the comparative method. They build up lists of cognate words, which are words in seperate languages that have a common historical parent, usually using basic words like numbers or body parts. Then they use those cognates to find systematic correspondences between the languages. Sorry for the wiki focused links, but they provide decent background info on the process.
posted by formless at 2:47 PM on May 21, 2006

Bear worship, eh? Colbert isn't going to like that...
posted by five fresh fish at 7:20 PM on May 21, 2006

Sour Cream: The Turkic languages are all very similar, with much less deviation than the Indo-European languages, but they aren't all that intelligible to each other. In Turkey there are a lot of villages of Crimean Tatars resettled around Ankara, and the older generation speak Tatar when they don't want the kids to understand. I've spoken standard Anatolian Turkish to Uzbeks and Bulgarian Tatars and Gagauzi and they had no problem understanding me (not the case with me understanding them...)

As sombody who makes a living running around Europe singing in a langauge that very few understand, I can attest that a culture loses an awful lot when it loses its language.
posted by zaelic at 2:44 AM on May 22, 2006

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