Dictionary of Alaskan Russian

Dictionary of Alaskan Russian

Ninilchik Russian Dictionary – download the print version (2017)

Ninilchik Russian Dictionary – open the web version (2019)

➔ Introductory notes

➔ How to use the dictionary

➔ Acknowledgements

Introductory Notes

Ninilchik Russian is a unique variety of the Russian language. We believe it is a remnant of Alaskan Russian – a language that emerged at the end of the 18th century as a result of Russian colonial presence in Alaska and served as a means of communication in Russian America until the end of the Russian period in 1867. By that time Alaskan Russian became the native language for the people of mixed Russian/native origin residing in various parts of Alaska. The village of Ninilchik was one of such places and due to a combination of many factors became a major location where this linguistic variety kept developing and serving as a means of communication, creating and maintaining cultural identity, and holding together the community of brave, persistent and self-sustained people. Thanks to the people of Ninilchik, Alaskan Russian is still alive in the 21st century.

The Ninilchik Russian Dictionary project began in 1997 when two of the authors, Russian linguists Andrej Kibrik and Mira Bergelson, were invited by the activists of the Ninilchik community to help in documenting their native language and thus preserve it for the succeeding generations. That work built upon prior linguistic studies by the Irish linguist Conor Daly, as well as genealogical research by American linguist Wayne Leman, a descendant of one of the Ninilchik families. Later, in 2008–2009, Wayne Leman joined Bergelson and Kibrik’s dictionary project. Two field trips were held in 2012 and 2014, in which Marina Raskladkina also took part, and during which much additional information was collected.

From the very beginning, this project aimed at documenting as much as possible of the unique linguistic and cultural heritage of Ninilchik in a form consistent with general principles of academic work, basic linguistic and lexicographic conventions, and traditions of Russian lexicography. At the same time we strived to make the Dictionary available to the Ninilchik people, and hope they will use this product as a valuable resource.

The end result of our ongoing project will be a multimedia product consisting of three parts:
a dictionary per se, a grammar sketch, and a cultural commentary. By now we have finished work on the paper variant of the dictionary that will be further supplemented with audio illustrations.

In our work on the Dictionary, our team (Mira Bergelson, Andrej Kibrik, Wayne Leman, and Marina Raskladkina) was guided by certain principles. We wanted to balance the following aspects:

  • Lexicon, grammar, and culture
  • Full coverage of the available data and specifics of Ninilchik Russian (NR) as opposed to Continental Russian (CR)
  • Academic rigor and accessibility to non-specialists
  • NR phonetics, phonological rules, and English-oriented transcription.

This product is neither a NR textbook, nor a manual. It does not provide comparison with CR. If a comparison or additional information is given, it is placed in the Cultural Commentary section (forthcoming). We describe NR as a language variety in its own right.

The Grammar Sketch will include information on phonology, phonetics, noun and verb forms, on how adjectives and participles are derived, a description of the pronominal system, specifics of verbal phrases, main syntactic and discourse structures.

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How to use the Dictionary

Ninilchik Russian has always existed as an oral language. People did not use it in writing. In order to render the NR sounds we had to choose between using the official CR Cyrillic writing system and some kind of transcription based on the Roman alphabet. The people of Ninilchik, that is the most important readership of the Dictionary, are mostly not familiar with Cyrillic and standard Russian. They are Americans who speak English and write using the Roman letters. That is why we developed a practical Roman-based orthography adequately representing NR sounds and pronunciation. That system was previously described in our publications. Most of the letters (and letter combinations) used in this transcription represent sounds that are similar to the corresponding English sounds. In the NR word chem, which means ‘with what’, the first sound is almost the same as in the English word chair, the second as in bed, and the third as in map.

But there are a few important differences.

  • Most consonants in NR and in CR exist in two variants: regular (or “hard”) and palatalized (“soft”). The soft consonants are marked by an apostrophe (’), for example n’et ‘no’ or p’at’ ‘five’. For an American ear it sounds as if the consonant were followed by a [y] sound. The sounds [ts],[ch], [sh], [zh] (like in measure) and [y] do not have soft variants.
  • CR and NR vowels differ from the way they are pronounced in English. We give examples where the pronunciation is the least different:
    • NR [a] under stress is pronounced somewhere in between the vowel in father, and in mo Without stress it resembles the first and the last vowels in American;
    • NR [e] resembles the sound in let ;
    • NR [i] resembles beet or bit depending on stress;
    • NR [o] is somewhere between daughter and coat;
    • NR [u] is somewhere between rude and book;
    • NR [o] and [e] sounds only occur under stress.

The Dictionary includes lexical entries of five types:

  • nouns (n), including proper names (pn),
  • verbs of the imperfective and perfective aspects (v ipfv, v pfv),
  • adjectives/participles, numerals and adverbs (adj, num, adv),
  • prepositions, conjunctions, particles (prep, conj, prt),
  • exclamations, discourse markers, set phrases and expressions (phr).

The distinction between the perfective (pfv) and imperfective (ipfv) verbs is extremely important both in CR and NR. It shows how an event was performed. Very roughly it corresponds to a completed event as opposed to simply describing an event, without focusing on its end or result. That is why we pay much attention to marking this distinction in the entries for the verbs that are included in the dictionary.

Proper names (pn) as a separate category of words is very important for NR as the language of a specific, rather small, community. Names and nicknames of individuals, as well as place names, tell the story of the Ninilchik community. These entries will play a special role in the cultural commentary. In the current version of the dictionary they are placed in Appendix 1. Excerpts from songs, kids’ rhymes, games, collocations, set expressions and the like (lexical entries labeled phr) are presented as Appendix 2 to the main body of lexical entries. These expressions are also crucial for interpreting cultural meanings, salient in the Ninilchik community.

Each type of entry has its own minimal obligatory set of fields in the dictionary database. The maximal structure of a dictionary entry may include fields such as sound file, part of speech, translation into English, literal meanings (Lit:), examples and their translations, pictures, cross-references, types of usage (Usage:), etc. The cross-reference, or See field, gives readers an opportunity to check those words that are semantically related. The field where phonetic variants are cited allows one to see words that are pronounced slightly differently by different speakers. Of course, the current paper version of the Dictionary does not include sound files. We included some minimal grammatical information, like plural, singular, and Russian cases (associative, accusative) where necessary. Curly brackets ({}) are used to mark those words in the examples that belong to English and are pronounced and spelled as such.

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Both as linguists and as native speakers of Russian, we feel privileged to be able to assist the Ninilchik people in preserving the words and expressions, the sounds and the meaning of their language, thus keeping alive their unique cultural heritage and their ongoing story.

This work could have never been done without the generous help and patience of our consultants, speakers of Ninilchik Russian. Their love for their language and their determination to help were very important. We dedicate our work to them and want to list all of them here:

Louie Kvasnikoff , Selma Oskolkoff Leman, Betty Leman Porter, Nick Cooper,
Paul Oskolkoff, Harry Leman, Nick Leman, Joe Leman, George Jackinsky,
Edward Jackinsky, Walter Jackinsky, Cecil Demidoff, Mae Demidoff,
Doris Steik Kelly, Alice Oskolkoff Bouwens, Arnie Oskolkoff,
Larry Oskolkoff Jr., Nancy Oskolkoff Ahlrich, Fr. Simeon Oskolkoff,
Sophie Cooper Prosser, Edna Matson Steik, Leo Steik, Mike Steik.

We would also like to express our gratitude to those representatives of the ‘younger generation’ who do not speak Ninilchik Russian but whose interest to the cultural and linguistic heritage of their parents became the initial stimulus for this project. They are cultural activists who helped us in many ways with their moral, physical and practical support during these years and whose friendship is invaluable for us.

Thank you,

Bobbie Oskolkoff, Daryle White, Joann Jackinsky, Loren and Carolyn Leman,
Joe Linden, Greg Encelewski, Cynthia Baganov, McKibben Jackinsky.

Our thanks also go to those dear friends who, while not being part of the Ninilchik community, supported us in many ways through all the time we have been working on our Alaskan projects.

Thank you,

Jim Bowers, Cheryl Childers, Mike Krauss, Jim Kari.

Doing fieldwork in a place so far away from one’s place of residence demands a lot of resources. Our fieldtrips in 2012 and 2014 were supported by grants from the Russian Foundation for the Humanities (#12-04-18022, #14-04-18017). Research underlying the current version of the Dictionary was supported by Russian Science Foundation grant #17-18-01649. Unification and technical processing of the dictionary database, as well as technical preparation of the publication and its costs were supported by the grant within the framework of the Academic Fund Program at the National Research University Higher School of Economics (HSE) in 2017 (grant №117-02-001) and by the Russian Academic Excellence Project “5-100.”

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Ninilchik Russian Dictionary – download the print version (2017)

Ninilchik Russian Dictionary – open the web version (2019)