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The Evenk language

The language spoken by the Evenk, or Tungus proper, has fifty or so spoken dialects that can be divided into three groups: northern (in the basins of the Ob and Yenissei rivers), southern (around Lake Baikal) and eastern (from Yakutia to the Okhotsk Sea and Manchuria). Speakers of dialects within the same group understand each other, but those from different groups do not.
Approximately 30% of Evenk in Russia and 75% of those in China speak their language.
Certain lexical domains are particularly well developed: hunting (game animals and birds, weapons, techniques of capture), reindeer breeding (the words for the domestic reindeer are different according to the animalís age, sex, color of coat, antlers, role ñ draft, packing or milking), and working skins. The vocabulary for movement in space (verbs indicating direction) is abundant and the particularities of the landscape and climate (kinds of snow) are highly detailed.
The first Evenk grammar was written, using the dialect of Nerchinsk, by M.A. Castren in 1856. In 1929, the Soviets created a literary language based on a southern dialect (region of Irkutsk). Its Latin alphabet was replaced in 1937 by Cyrillic script. In 1952 a new language was established, based on another southern dialect. Its written form is needlessly complicated by the desire to use all the letters of the Cyrillic alphabet. Today the northern and eastern versions are much better preserved than the southern dialects, even though these are the basis of the literary language.
Since perestroika and especially since the end of the Soviet regime, the native elites have been trying to revive the Tungusic languages through the publication of books and newspapers as well as through classroom teaching.

Author(s): M.-L. Beffa
Date created: 2003-06-30 - Date modified: 2004-04-14


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