Itelmen language


map of chukchi-kamchatkan language groupThe Itelmen language belongs to the Chukchi-Kamchatkan language group.
Some scholars believe that it is an isolate; some think it is related to Koryak and Chukchi languages.




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For centuries Itelmens have been in close contact with Koryaks. These two peoples traded goods with each other. Koryaks would have reindeer meat and skins while Itelmen had marine animal and fish products. Contemporary Itelmens remember that their families used to have a Koryak friend who would come to trade when his reindeer herd is near an Itelmen village. For this reason linguists find many exchanged words in both of the languages.  Some Itelmens used to know the Koryak language quite well as a language of trade.

Throughout the Russian presence in Kamchatka since the 17th century the Itelmen language has suffered dramatic influence and has come to a critical state of survival. In 1920s when Elizaveta Orlova conducted research among Itelmens she found that there were only 9 villages left in which the Itelmen language was still the main language of communication. According to Orlova there were three dialects of the language: Southern (villages of Sopochnoe and Moroshechnoe), Northern (Kovran, Utkholok, Napana) and North-Eastern (Sedanka). There are now very few speakers of each dialect. The dialects differ from each other not only in pronunciation, but in vocabulary as well. 

Over the 20th century the Itelmen language suffered even more drastic changes. Due to the policy of relocations, collective farming construction and policies at schools there are now less than 20 native speakers of the language left today. Most of them are over 70 years old. Nowadays Russian is the main language of communication in Itelmen communities. Today the Itelmen language is taught only in one school in Kovran village, and in the pedagogical college in Palana.  Some activists throughout Kamchatka are also trying to get together to learn the language by themselves and implement language revitalization programs.

The Itelmen language does not like vowels. There are many consonant clusters, fricatives, and plosives. All this combination makes Itelmen a difficult language to pronounce.   The contemporary Itelmen language has a Cyrillic based orthography which is mainly used in the few existing textbooks for schools and dictionaries. The orthography consists of 46 symbols some of them indicate uniquely Itelmen sounds, some are used for Itelmen sounds that are close to Russian and some indicate pure Russian words and sounds.