In Alaska, linguists preserve Russian dialect

The town of Ninilchik seems unremarkable. Located on Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula about 185 miles from Anchorage, the sleepy village serves as a pit stop for tourists in need of gas as they head south on the Sterling Highway.

But Ninilchik’s unassuming character belies a fascinating cultural history — one that lives on with many of its residents. In Ninilchik, a small population of elderly residents are preservers of a Russian dialect that is practically frozen in time, unchanged since 1847, when the village was founded as part of the Russian Empire. Many of these men and women are Russian-Alaskan natives, descended from Ninilchik’s earliest settlers, and speak a form of Russian that dates back to the time of Alexander II, long before Alaska became America’s 49th state.

The Ninilchik dialect is a unique blend of modern and archaic Russian and includes vocabulary common 150 years ago. As generations pass and Ninilchik assimilates into the modern world, vestiges of the town’s characteristically Russian way of life, including this language, fade.

Map of Alaska with inset highlighting location of Ninilchik (State Dept./O. Mertz)
(State Dept./O. Mertz)

This problem extends beyond Ninilchik: The UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger reports that nearly half of the world’s approximately 7,000 languages are in danger of going extinct, including more than 130 languages across Russia. In the United States, scholars believe that only half of an estimated 300 Native American languages are still spoken and that only 20 will survive into 2050, which would mean a staggering 93 percent loss.

To forestall these predicted losses and rescue languages from obscurity, governments, organizations and ordinary citizens around the world are employing modern technology to bring languages back from the brink. Google has recently instituted the Endangered Languages Project — a site for groups and individuals to share research and collaborate on preserving vulnerable languages. Other efforts are more conventional, but are also helping. On Montana’s Fort Peck Indian Reservation, for instance, secondary school students have started a language camp to teach and share Dakota, a language of the Sioux Nation.

In many instances, young people drive the preservation movement. Students are leveraging online tools — websites, Facebook groups, Google Chats and YouTube channels — to collect, store and share valuable knowledge.

In 2013, an online campaign led to the development of a Navajo-dubbed version of the movie Star Wars, a watershed moment that sparked new interest in dying languages among Native American youth.

In Ninilchik, meanwhile, linguists from the Russian Academy of Science’s Institute of Linguistics are compiling a dictionary of about 2,500 Ninilchik Russian words and recording the village’s speakers, in the hopes of preserving the dialect.

If a new generation does not continue to use the dialect, at least an archive will exist to tell the story of an Alaskan village whose Russian settlers and Native American residents formed a unique society and successful economy.