Traditional dancers perform in the Republic of Sakha. (Photo courtesy Lenore Grenoble)

Strong language

Linguist Lenore Grenoble studies language shift in one of the harshest climates in the world.

Why do some languages survive, while others don’t?

“There’s no short answer,” says Lenore Grenoble, the John Matthews Manly Distinguished Service Professor of Linguistics. “It has a lot to do with the circumstances and the will of the speakers.”

For example, Sakha (or Yakut), a Turkic language spoken in northeastern Russia near the Arctic Circle, outlasted decades of repression during the Soviet period. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, it became an official regional language of the Sakha Republic, on par with Russian in the republic.

But now Sakha is on the decline. “It seems that the internet is killing the language,” says Grenoble, who studies the numerous languages spoken in the Sakha Republic. “Even in Sakha-dominant villages, children are watching YouTube content in Russian.”

Last year Grenoble and associate professor of linguistics Ming Xiang received more than $400,000 from the National Science Foundation to study language contact in the Sakha Republic. She told Tableau about her research and why it’s important to study and preserve endangered languages. This interview has been edited and condensed. 

What does your research involve exactly?

The NSF-funded research looks at language shift in the Republic of Sakha (Yakutia), using traditional field linguistics and experimental methods. Language shift occurs when speakers of one language give up their language to speak another.

Language shift is happening all over the world, but there has been very little work done on the actual processes.

What languages are spoken in the Sakha Republic?

This region is particularly interesting because of the layers of multilingualism. Russian is the national language. Sakha is a regional official language. And then there are five or six officially recognized indigenous languages: Chukchi, Dolgan, Even, Evenki, and Yukaghir. Yukaghir is recognized by the authorities as one language, but linguists and the Yukaghir themselves find two (Forest and Tundra Yukaghir), which aren’t mutually intelligible.

In terms of classification, Sakha is a Turkic language, so distantly related to Turkish. But it split off from the other Turkic languages a long time ago and is quite different.

Chukchi is related to only a few living languages, including Itelmen and Koryak. It’s a Chukotko-Kamchatkan language.

Dolgan is a Turkic language and was classified in the Soviet period as a dialect of Sakha.

Even and Evenki are Tungusic languages, distantly related to Manchu.

Tundra and Forest Yukaghir have long been considered not to be related to anything else, but recent research has argued that they are Uralic, distantly related to Finnish.

What is Sakha like? How does it change when it’s in contact with other languages?

Sakha has some interesting features—many, it seems, due to contact with local languages.

For example, it has a distant future imperative. You use a regular imperative to tell someone to do something right away, and the future for something not immediate. This is an unusual feature—very few languages have it. It’s almost certainly a borrowing from Even and/or Evenki. Another areal feature is the loss of the genitive case, the case used to mark possession.

Right now it’s early days in the project, but I can say that word order is changing. Sakha is a verb-final language: the verb consistently comes at the end of the sentence. That’s normal for Turkic languages and lots of other languages, like Japanese.

But Russian isn’t verb final. The neutral order is subject-verb-object. Sakha seems to be realigning along Russian word order.

How did you become a specialist in languages of this region?

I am pretty fluent in Russian and decided to put my knowledge into something with social value about 20 years ago. I fell in love with Siberia and the Arctic more generally.

At a time when the way of life there is threatened because of rapid climate change, I find this work even more important. We need to study endangered languages while we still can.

I want to use the advantages I have, as a researcher at one of the best universities in the world, to do something socially relevant. Language is a core part of identity and a critical element in people’s well-being. I have an obligation to do something as a linguist.

The climate there sounds incredibly harsh—the capital city, Yakutsk, gets colder than any major city on Earth. What other material challenges are there in pursuing your research?

Yakutsk has extreme weather: very hot in the summer with a lot of huge mosquitoes, very cold in the winter. I have not worked there in the depth of winter.

The biggest challenge is getting to some of the villages: to get to Berezovka, you need to fly to Srednekolymsk and drive seven to nine hours on a “winter road” (zimnik), which is basically packed snow and ice. It’s only open from late December into late April, when there is enough snow and everything is still frozen.

But for me personally, the biggest challenge is when I live in a village with no running water. You have to cut ice from the lake or river and bring it inside to melt, then boil it to drink. So of course no showers, no toilets. I find that really hard.

Why is it important to preserve endangered languages? Wouldn’t it be simpler if the entire world spoke English or another lingua franca?

The number one first language in the world today is Mandarin. The top four languages in the world—counting only people who speak it as a first language—are Mandarin (918 million speakers), Spanish (460 million), English (379 million), and Hindi (341 million).

How would you feel if you were told that you and everyone you know had to learn Mandarin and speak Mandarin and only Mandarin?

In the United States, perhaps we should all learn Spanish so we will be able to speak to our children and grandchildren.

What else should we know about linguistic research at UChicago?

We have a really dynamic, vibrant department. The undergraduate students, graduate students, and faculty are all engaged in really exciting research.

Some of them are doing work like I am, in different parts of the world. Some are looking at English and its social implications.

Some are looking at the interactions between computers and language. Every time you use a phone or Google, there has been a computational linguist behind the scenes, making spell-check work, voice recognition software, and so on. It’s an exciting time to be a linguist.