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Nineteenth-century Russian in present-day Alaska

June 1, 2013

Maxim Russo has an article on on Russian speakers in Ninilchik, Alaska (founded 1847), who have been isolated from other Russian speakers for a century. Their language has borrowings from English, Dena’ina, and Alutiiq. Its distinctive features include [w] where standard Russian has [v] and no neuter gender. The article builds on the work of linguists Mira Bergel’son, Andrei Kibrik, and Wayne Leman.

The piece is interesting throughout; here I’ll highlight the survivals of old forms:

Over 70% of the words in the Ninilchik dialect are ordinary Russian words (strictly speaking, with phonetic alterations): агорот, бутилка, бабачка, чотка [for тетка ‘aunt’], кошка, радуга, муха, остраф, мишок, трава, скаска. Some Russian words are retained in Ninilchik with changes in meaning: шайка ‘chamber pot,’ дёсна ‘jaw,’ башка ‘skull,’ крупа ‘rice.’ Words found in nineteenth-century Russian have also been preserved: струш ‘plane (tool),’ вишка ‘second floor,’ чухня ‘Finn,’ чихотка ‘tuberculosis.’

I’m not sure about струш; Russo gives the gloss ‘рубанок,’ which would mean plane, but as far as I can tell, that sense of the Russian word струг is not obsolete, just technical. On the other hand, струг in the sense of ‘flat-bottomed wooden boat for shipping cargo on rivers’ does seem to be obsolete. I don’t have any knowledge of Ninilchik beyond Russo’s article, though, so don’t take my word for it. The word вышка is also defined as ‘addition built onto the top of a building.’ Чухна is evidently an old equivalent of чухонец, and чахотка ‘consumption’ is of course a staple of nineteenth-century literature.

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