Chukchi language

Chukchi language
Ԓыгъоравэтԓьэн йиԓыйиԓ(lyg'oravetl'en jilǝjil)
Spoken in Russia
Region Chukotka Autonomous Okrug
Ethnicity Chukchi
Native speakers 7,740  (2002 census)
Language family
Language codes
ISO 639-3 ckt

The Chukchi language (also known as Chukchee, Luoravetlan, Chukot and Chukcha; in its own language: ԓыгъоравэтԓьэн йиԓыйиԓ [łǝɣˀorawetłˀɛn jiłǝjił]) is a Palaeosiberian language spoken by Chukchi people in the easternmost extremity of Siberia, mainly in Chukotka Autonomous Okrug. According to the Russian Census of 2002, about 7,700 of the 15,700 Chukchi people speak Chukchi; knowledge of the Chukchi language is decreasing, and most Chukchis now speak the Russian language (fewer than 500 report not speaking Russian at all). Chukchi is closely related to Koryak, which is spoken by about half that number. The language together with Koryak, Kerek, Alutor and Itelmen forms the Chukotko-Kamchatkan language family.

The Chukchi and Koryaks form a cultural unit with an economy based on reindeer herding and both have autonomy within the Russian Federation.

The ethnonym Chukchi or Chukchee is an anglicized form of the Russian ethnonym (singular Chukcha, plural Chukchi). This came into Russian from Čävča, the term used by the Chukchis' Tungusic-speaking neighbors, itself a rendering of the Chukchi word [tʃawtʃəw], which in Chukchi means "a man who is rich in reindeer". The Chukchis' term for themselves is [ɬəɣʔorawetɬʔat] (singular [ɬəɣʔorawetɬʔan]), "the real people".

In the UNESCO Red Book the language is on the list of endangered languages.



Many Chukchis use the language as their primary means of communication, both within the family and while engaged in their traditional pastoral economic activity (reindeer herding). The language is also used in media (including radio and TV translations), and some business activities. However, Russian language is increasingly used as the primary means of business and administrative communication, in addition to having a lingua franca status on neighborhood territories inhabited by non-Chukchis Russian citizens, such as Koryaks and Yakuts. Almost all Chukchis speak Russian, although some have a lesser command than others. Chukchi language is used as a primary language of instruction in elementary school; the rest of secondary education is done in Russian, with Chukchi taught as a subject.

A Chukchi writer, Yuri Rytkheu (1930–2008) has earned a measure of renown in both Russia and Western Europe, although much of his published work was written in Russian, rather than Chukchi.


Until 1931, the Chukchi language had no official orthography, in spite of attempts in the 19th century to write religious texts in it.

The cover of a Grade 5 Chukchi language textbook from 1996, illustrating the then new CYRILLIC L WITH HOOK letter

At the beginning of the 20th century, Vladimir Bogoraz discovered specimens of pictographic writing by the Chukchi herdsman Tenevil. Tenevil's writing system was his own invention, and was never used beyond his immediate family. The first official Chukchi alphabet was devised by Vladimir Bogoraz in 1931, and was based on the Latin alphabet:

А а Ā ā B b C c D d Е е Ē ē Ә ә
Ӛ ӛ F f G g H h I i Ī ī J j K k
L l M m N n Ŋ ŋ O o Ō ō P p Q q
R r S s T t U u Ū ū V v W w Z z
Ь ь

In 1937, this alphabet, along with all of the other alphabets of the peoples of the USSR, started to be written in Cyrillic. At first, it was the same as the Russian alphabet, with the addition of the relic letters К’ к’ and Н’ н’. In the 1950s, however, they were replaced by the letters Ӄ ӄ and Ӈ ӈ. These newer letters were mainly used in educational texts while the press continued to use the older versions. At the end of the 1980s, the letter Ԓ ԓ was introduced as a replacement for Л л. This was intended to reduce confusion with the pronunciation of the Russian letter of the same form. The Chukchi alphabet now stands as follows:

А а Б б В в Г г Д д Е е Ё ё Ж ж
З з И и Й й К к Ӄ ӄ Ԓ ԓ (Л л) М м Н н
Ӈ ӈ О о П п Р р С с Т т У у Ф ф
Х х Ц ц Ч ч Ш ш Щ щ Ъ ъ Ы ы Ь ь
Э э Ю ю Я я '


Some letters with readings that may be confusing for beginners
Latin Cyrillic Unicode IPA Scientific name
G g Г г ɣ Voiced velar fricative
L l Ԓ ԓ El with hook[1] ɬ Voiceless alveolar lateral fricative
R r Р р ɹ Alveolar approximant
W w (V v) В в β Voiced bilabial fricative
C c Ч ч ç Voiceless palatal fricative

The remaining consonants are /p/, /t/, /k/, /q/, /ʔ/, /m/, /n/, /ŋ/, and /j/. There are no voiced obstruent stops in the language. The vowels are /i/, /u/, /e1/, /e2/, /o/, /a/, and /ə/. /e1/ and /e2/ are pronounced identically, but behave differently in the phonology.

A notable feature of Chukchi is its vowel harmony system largely based on vowel height. /i, u, e1/ alternate with /e2, o, a/, respectively. The second group is known as "dominant vowels" and the first group as "recessive vowels"; that is because whenever a "dominant" vowel is present anywhere in a word, all "recessive" vowels in the word change into their "dominant" counterpart. The schwa vowel /ə/ does not alternate but may trigger harmony as if it belonged to the dominant group.

Initial and final consonant clusters are not tolerated, and schwa epenthesis is pervasive.

Stress tends to: 1. be penultimate; 2. stay within the stem; 3. avoid schwas.


Chukchi is largely agglutinative and has ergative–absolutive alignment. It also has very pervasive incorporation.

In the nominals, there are two numbers and about nine grammatical cases (absolutive, ergative, instrumental, locative, ablative, allative, orientative, two comitatives and a designative). Nouns are split into three declensions influenced by animacy: the first declension, which contains non-humans, has plural marking only in the absolutive case; the second one, which contains personal names and certain words for mainly older relatives, has obligatory plural marking in all forms; the third one, which contains other humans than those in the second declension, has optional plural marking.

Verbs distinguish three persons, two numbers, three moods (declarative, imperative and conditional), two voices (active and antipassive) and six tenses: present I (progressive), present II (stative), past I (aorist), past II (perfect), future I (perfective future), future II (imperfective future). It is interesting that past II is formed with a construction meaning possession (literally "to be with"), similarly to the use of "have" in the perfect in English and other Western European languages. Both subject and direct object are cross-referenced in the verbal chain, and person agreement is very different in intransitive and transitive verbs. Person agreement is expressed with a complex system involving both prefixes and suffixes; despite the agglutinative nature of the language, each individual combination of person, number, tense etc. is expressed in a way that is far from always straightforward. Besides the finite forms, there are also an infinitive, a supine (purposive), numerous gerund forms, a present and past participle, and these are used with auxiliary verbs to produce further analytic constructions.

The numeral system was originally purely vigesimal and went up to 400, but a decimal system has been introduced for numerals above 100 due to Russian influence. Many of the names of the basic numbers can be traced etymologically to words referring to the human body ("finger", "hand" etc.) or to arithmetic operations (6 = "1 + 5" etc.).

The word order is rather free, though SOV is reported to be basic. The possessor normally precedes the possessed, and postpositions rather than prepositions are used.


  • Spencer, Andrew. Chukchee homepage. Retrieved November 24, 2009.
  • Volodin, A.P. and P.Y.Skorik. Chukotskiy yazyk (in Russian). In "Yazyki mira. Paleoaziatskiye yazyki, 1997"
  • Skorik, P.Y. 1961–1977. Grammatika chukotskogo yazyka. V.1,2.

External influence

The external influences relating to Chukchi language have not been well-studied. The particular question of the degree of contacts between Chukchi and Eskimo languages remains open. Research is problematic in part because of the lack of written evidence. Contact influence of Russian, which will be increasing, consists of word borrowing and pressuring on surface syntax; the latter is primarily seen in written communication (translated texts), and is not apparent in day-to-day speech.


  1. ^ Priest 2005, pp. 3, 5–7


External links

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