1 Chukchee language and people

2 Survey of grammatical properties

2.1 Phonology

2.2 Morphology

2.3 Syntax

2.4 Lexical semantics

3 Note on transcription

4 Links to other sites with information about the Chukchee and related peoples


Note for website version

I largely avoid using special diacritics and phonetic symbols. In normal texts I make use of IPA symbols for glottal stop, engma (velar nasal) and schwa. To avoid causing unnecessary problems I have replaced these in the web version, using the following conventions:

glottal stop:


velar nasal:




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1. Chukchee language and people

Chukchee (also spelt 'Chukchi') is a language spoken by a few thousand people inhabiting the coastal and tundra regions of NE Siberia, in the USSR. The language is the best-known representative of the small Chukokto-Kamchatkan language group, which itself is classed as a member of the Paleosiberian group, an areal designation for a handful of genetically isolated groups and languages. The Chukotko-Kamchatkan group includes Koryak, Aljutor and Kerek (which is said to have died out recently). More controversially, it is often said to include Itelmen.

Chukchee was first studied by the great Russian anthropologist and linguist, Vladimir Bogoraz (also Waldemar Bogoras; he assumed the soubriquet 'Tan' and sometimes referred to himself as Bogoraz-Tan). Bogoraz lived for some eight years with the Chukchee and wrote extensively about their culture, lifestyle, beliefs and language. He also wrote much about the Koryak and Itelmen (sometimes called 'Kamchadal') and his grammatical sketch 'Chukchee' published by Boas in 1922 contains a good many cross-references to those two languages. Bogoraz recorded a large number of myths and folktales of the peoples of the region, many of which feature the demiurge Raven figure, who also looms large in the mythology of some of the peoples of the North Western Atlantic seaboard of America.

Chukchee received an orthography in the 1930's (briefly based on the Roman alphabet, later Cyrillic) and during the Soviet period there were books and newspapers published in it and elementary schooling was conducted in Chukchee by native teachers. Extant literature in Chukchee includes translations of Russian literature, translations of political works (such as pamphlets by Lenin and L. I. Brezhnev's war memoirs!) and also translations into Chukchee of stories written about the Chukchee by Yurij Rytxew, but originally published in Russian. In addition, there are original collections of folktales and a variety of children's literature. As far as I know there has not been any bible-translating activity to-date (though there is a translation of part's of Luke's gospel into Koryak). Primers for elementary schools continue to be published, though I have no information on how well the language is surviving the economic and political difficulties following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

A number of contemporary linguists have interested themselves in Chukchee including B. Comrie, M. Kenstowicz, M. Polinsky and a Soviet group in Leningrad working under V. I. Nedjalkov has produced a number of important works, with the collaboration of linguistically trained native speakers. Irina Muraveva (Moscow), who is known as an expert on Aljutor, has also worked extensively on Chukchee. M. Fortescue has recently investigated the diachrony of language in the context of the linguistics of the Bering Straits. A descriptive grammar has just been written by Michael Dunn (as an ANU PhD thesis) which I have not yet had the opportunity to read.

There are two dialect groups that can be discerned, associated with the Reindeer Chukchee and the Maritime Chukchee, though dialect differences are rather slight and to all intents and purpose the language is homogeneous. Women's speech is said to differ from men's speech, principally in the pronunciation of 'r' (which is pronounced /ts/ by women). Neighbouring groups such as the Koryak, Even and Eskimo would often speak Chukchee, though the Chukchee themselves tended not to learn the language of their neighbours (except for Russian, of course). According to Comrie's survey of the languages of the Soviet Union, Chukchee has been feeling considerable influence from Russian, especially in its lexis and syntax.

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2. Survey of grammatical properties

2.1 Phonology

Chukchee is famous for its unusual and pervasive vowel harmony system. It has a rich set of morphophonemic processes interacting in complex ways with the morphology, and including an unusual rule of reduplication. It has a theoretically intriguing system of syllabification and also has an interesting set of phrase phonological (sentence level) rules.

2.2 Morphology

Chukchee is traditionally classed as a 'polysynthetic' language and has been likened to certain American Indian languages in its structure. It has a basically agglutinative morphology, though verb inflection often has a fusional character. Nouns have a number of case forms; names of people decline in the plural as well as in the singular. Verbs display a rich set of mood, tense, aspect and voice markers and cross-reference direct objects and well as subjects. Gerundive forms are particularly well-developed, using by and large the nominal case inflections.

Perhaps the most striking feature of Chukchee morphology is the pervasive use of incorporation. Verbs incorporate their objects and adverbial modifiers (Spencer 1995), while nouns, too, incorporate modifiers very freely (including quantifiers and possessors).

2.3 Syntax

Word order is very free, generally vacillating between SOV and SVO. Chukchee is a good example of an ergative language: all transitive subject nominals appear in an ergative case (identical to the instrumental case) and all intransitive subjects and direct objects appear in the absolutive case. The verb agreement system is a complex mixture of ergative and accusative organization, reminiscent in parts of languages with inverse marking for certain person/number combinations (Spencer 1999). Predicatively used nominals agree with their subjects in person and number. Adjectives may or may not show agreement with their nouns depending on pragmatic factors.

Adverbial clauses, sentential complements and relative clauses can be expressed either as a finite clause introduced by a complementizer, or by using various gerundive and participial constructions. Chukchee has two antipassive voice forms as well as other interesting transitivity alternations (including noun incorporation).

2.4 Lexical semantics

The rich word formation resources of the language (together with a distaste for loans) means that many words which might be monomorphemic in European languages will be fairly transparently derived in Chukchee, a typical feature of agglutination. The language tends to mark voice and aspectual nuances on verbs and has a rich set of denominal word formation affixes. A particularly interesting derivational phenomenon is the widespread use of relational adjectives and also the use of a so-called 'participle' form derived from nouns, adjectives, or verbs with a variety of functions. The numeral system is strictly vigesimal.

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3. Note on transcription

I write Chukchee examples without punctuation, including question marks after questions, and without capitalization, even for proper names. This is to avoid confusion with the rest of the transcriptional system.

Occasionally I distinguish the 'recessive e' from the 'dominant e' as e1/e2 respectively, but in general when providing examples of morphemes where the type of 'e' isn't obvious from other vowels in that root or word, I give both versions of the root. Thus, /meml/ 'seal' means that the 'e' fails to undergo vowel harmony and is hence the dominant e2, while /kej˝ ~ kaj˝/ 'bear' means that the 'e' alternates and is hence 'e1'. Roots without vowels or with schwa which condition vowel harmony are prefixed with *, thus /*tm/ 'kill', *kyn- 'fairly (prefix)'.

In glosses I often separate the epenthetic schwa from morphemes proper in order make the morphological constituency clearer. Such epenthetic schwas are not glossed, of course. A schwa on its own never represents a morpheme.

I use one non-standard symbol quite a lot: Þ If this doesn't come out on your browser it's meant to be a type of arrow (roughly =>).

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4. Links to other sites with information about the Chukchee and related peoples

Ethnologue's site relating to Chukchee (this is a language resource organized through a missionary and bible-translating organization, SIL, Summer Institute of Linguistics). (For more information about this site click here for the Introduction).

Information about the Chukchee from the Smithsonian Institution's 'Hall of Masks' (information specifically about the Chukchee). Further information about Chukchee life and the Chukchee today.

The Chukchee entry in the Red Book of the peoples and languages of the Former Soviet Union (developed in Estonia).

An interesting site with information about the peoples of Siberia.

More general pointers to Arctic culture can be found at this site.

Alexander King's Koryak website: Koryak Language and Culture - Information about Koryak language and culture, Ethnography in Kamchatka, how to get to Kamchatka and information about other useful sites.

Information about peoples of the Russian Arctic.

Information about the peoples of the Arctic generally.

An ethnic map of Russia (from the University of Texas' site)



Chukchee homepage

chapter 2

chapter 3

chapter 4

chapter 5

chapter 6

chapter 7

chapter 8

chapter 9

chapter 10




Andrew Spencer's homepage

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This page created on 9 July 1999.

Last modified 16 July 1999.