Nizhneudinsk is a place you'd miss if you blinked your eyes while traveling the Trans-Siberian Railway. The rickety town has potholed streets, cows wandering loose, and old planks for sidewalks. Drunkenness is rampant, and the only hotel is a crumbling hovel with room doors that don’t lock. I was in town with my field team of linguists on the aforementioned expedition funded by the Volkswagen Foundation
Nizhneudinsk was our jumping-off point for Tofalaria, a region that can be reached only by air or, in the dead of winter, by driving an all-terrain vehicle three days along the frozen river. We opted a plane, bur to secure one required lots of cash and vodka.
Our first stop was the town hall, where a surly, barrel-chested, and bearded mayor let us know he was in charge. First, he scolded us for being two days late—having mistaken us for a delegation , (mm the Russian parliament. "When he realized we were foreign
scientists headed for Tofalaria, he practically spat out the word. Tofalaria is a bone in my throat?" he barked. Indeed, from his point of view, the poor, indigenous population had to be allotted resources far beyond their importance, including mail service and emergency hospital airlifts when someone fell ill. Never mind that the commerce monopoly was held entirely by Russians and that they squeezed every kopeck they could out of the subsidies intended for the native people.
Our next stop was the police bureau, where, according to old-time Soviet custom, every visitor who came into town had to be "registered," Natasha, the official, glared at us from behind her desk and then deigned to peer at our visas. "You can't be here. You'll have to leave as soon as possible," she declared. Indeed, we did not have the town Nizhneudinsk written on our visas, and so—according to a law that had been repealed a decade prior—we could not be there. We nodded and promised 10 skedaddle our of town, secured the all-important round stamp on our visas, and left her with a $20 bribe so she could feel she had done her part to keep the town safe.
At the airport, we spent two hours haggling over a charter flight, and 1,200 dollars later, we were issued tickets and promised a flight of our own on the following day, one of only two nights a week into the hinterlands.
Back at the hotel, the Tofalaria horror show continued to unfold. I was beset in the lobby by a weeping 40-year-old mother, Alina, and her daughter. I knew immediately that they were Tofa, because of their facial features and downcast look, and I also knew something was very, very wrong by the tears in their eyes.
"My baby died three days ago and the corpse is beginning to rot," the daughter said. "Can you take us with you on your flight tomorrow so we can bury the baby at home?" the mother implored me.
Trying to keep my composure, I bit my lip so hard that I tasted blood. Yes, yes, of course, I said, you'll be on the flight with us. We'll fly you back home tomorrow without fail.
Unfortunately, the next day was heavily overcast, and the pilots refused to take off, fearing a crash. The poor mother and grandmother sat it out another day, commiserating over tea. The girl's story was not unusual: She'd given birth at age 17 to a sickly baby that did not survive past its fifth month. The hospital staff, not to mention the airport crew, were hostile and indifferent. They viewed these native women and their dead baby as encumbrances.
The following day, we had to pitch a heated argument to get permission to bring the women on the plane, even though we had chartered the flight and paid for the fuel and pilots. More important to the local Russians was the shipment of vodka and flour for the village store, run by Russians, that enjoyed an absolute monopoly on trade in the region. Funds that were paid out to the native peoples as salaries or pensions effectively were spent back to support Russian-run stores. The enslavement and humiliation of the Tofa was nearly complete, and the only thing lacking was to deny them the opportunity to bury a dead child.
Though I have great fondness for Russian culture and for many Russians I have befriended, I can unequivocally say that their treatment of the native peoples of Siberia is as remorseless and inhumane as any I have seen anywhere.
At last, our entire ream, along with the women and baby, boarded the plane, and we began the hair-raising one-hour flight through mountain passes and up into the Sayan Basin. This corner of the world lies virtually untouched, inhabited by only about 800 souls, most of them native Tofa hunters and reindeer herders, along with a few Russians who have migrated or married into the community.
We had come to Tofalaria because we had identified the language, Tofa, as one of-the least documented, most endangered of Siberia's languages. Another fascinating trait for me personally was that the Tofa were still herding reindeer, and many of them had grown up as reindeer herders and hunter-gatherers. Totally self-reliant, they migrated with their deer, drank deer's milk, hunted squirrels, collected roots and berries, and lived completely off the forest's bounty.
The Tofa people are a classic example of civilizational collapse, when a small indigenous people who had formerly been isolated and self-sufficient are invaded and colonized by a powerful civilization, in this case the Russian Empire. Secure in their mountain redoubt, the Tofa had probably never numbered more than 600 people in their history. They occupied themselves with the trapping and hunting of animals and developed a sophisticated knowledge of domesticated reindeer. A reindeer is very hard to ride; unlike a horse it does not have a flat back that is easy to sit on, but a steeply pointed one. A rider must balance carefully, and the Tofa were experts at this, using their reindeer to roam and manage an area the size of Rhode Island.
At some unknown point in their unrecorded past, they came into contact with one or more neighboring peoples who, though they lived a similar lifestyle. spoke an entirely unrelated language. The Tofa fell under the powerful influence of that other language and switched, en masse, to speaking it. Tills language would have been a relative newcomer to their Siberian forests. It belonged to the large Turkic family of languages that today stretches many thousands of miles to the west, reaching all the way to Istanbul and beyond. You can think of this shift as a kind of linguistic conversion. Here they were, the tiny Tofa nation, thriving in their mountain forests, speaking their own unique tongue. The Toga would have learned the new language out of necessity, perhaps initially ro trade resources, to socialize, or even to intermarry. Being few, they were easily outnumbered, and the linguistic conversion, when it happened, was probably quire rapid, in just a couple of generations.
We see this happening again to the Tofa in the 21st century, with Russian. But their conversion to Turkic was marked by one crucial difference. Rather than a wholesale abandonment of their prior language, the Tofa brought along many useful words into the newly adopted language. They may have retained them because they had a particular sentimental attachment to them, or because the new tongue provided no exact counterpart, or because the words were culturally important. For whatever reason, the Tofa crossed the threshold of linguistic conversion with considerable baggage, consisting of several thousand ancient words. Their neighbors must have marveled at the oddness of their speech, sounding superficially Turkic but peppered with archaisms. For me and my colleagues, these words were instant attention getters. Like the very odd Tofa word for bear, "ee-re-ZANG," we sometimes could simply not resist repeating them aloud, so odd sounding they were in contrast to the rest of the language. We delighted in them, made long lists in our notebooks, asked our speakers to repeat them, and made many recordings.
The differences are most striking when we focused on vocabulary related to hunting and gathering, the traditional core of their life. Many basic nouns and verbs not related to hunting and gathering look almost identical to other Turkic languages. For example, words like "sleep," "eat," "go," and "take." More culturally embedded words remain unique, such as the verb "say." Some animal names—for fox, pig, and even reindeer—have been imported from Turkic, the latter perhaps indicating that reindeer herding as a way of life was adopted later, perhaps around the time of the linguistic conversion. But when we zero in on culturally significant nouns, especially animal names, the language is full of ancient, non-Turkic forms for words like ''bear," "bird," "chipmunk,'' and "partridge" that resemble no known words from any other language.
Nor only that, but there are some domains of meaning where the vocabulary is so elaborate that it signals something that is both ancient and sacred. Sacred domains of knowledge are often signaled by extensive use of euphemisms, taboos, or both, and the bear, for the Tofa, clearly resides near the pinnacle of beings that are sacred, feared, revered, and respected. Witness the following list of special terms that apply exclusively to bears. Tofa has more than 40 such terms, many utterly unique, found in no other known language. Some are euphemisms, describing the bear without naming it directly, so as not to violate a taboo.
black furry animal
thing that has ears
thing that has a coat of fat
animal that makes tracks
How many names can a bear have? Ask the Tofa! Bear words represent an ancient and very deep layer of vocabulary that has remained stable despite the massive upheaval caused by their linguistic conversion. We don't even know what ancient language these Tofa bear words came from. We only know that they have resisted—like pinnacles of rock that defy erosion—all possible outside influences. They've left their mark, both onthe landscape itself, in the form of place-names, and on the human consciousness, in the form of primal fears, beliefs, myths and legends.
The Tofa had a rich mythological tradition with many gods and local spirits. They believed that water spirits could be benevolent or harmful, and they made regular offerings to them. A legend explains two rock escarpments that hover over the village on opposite sides as quarreling sisters. Angry, they spit back and forth, causing gusts of wind and inclement weather. The landscape is possessed and animated by countless spirits, whether good, ill, or simply mischievous.
After we arrived in Tofalaria, our team of linguists traipsed door to door in the village, seeking out people who knew even a shred of the language. Finally, we met Aunt Maria, hale and raspy-voiced. Marta greeted us on her back porch, from which she surveyed her potato patch, a cigarette dangling from her lips. we felt ourselves instantly in the presence of a warm, protective person. Born in 1930, Marta had been a lifelong hunter, expertly backing and trapping squirrels, sables (in her language, "beautiful animal"), wild pigs, and moose. We would spend much of the next ten days in her presence, soaking up stories, moved to laughter and tears by her incomparable backwoods life story.
"One day when I was just five years old, a great iron bird flew into town," she reminisced. "It made a terrible noise. I was so frightened I hid under the bed. Then later I would see that people could ride in it, but I was afraid 10. My mother told me, 'Don't be afraid, it's an airplane!' But we always called it 'iron bird.'"
I went out walking with Aunt Maria in the forest one day, hoping to interview her about the plants, animals, streams, and things we'd see along the way. The "walk in the woods" is a classic technique in anthropology used to jog a persons memory and elicit environmental knowledge. I was in awe, knowing that virtually no one for hundreds of miles had a more intimate knowledge of the forest ecology than Marta. Honed by a lifetime of squirrel hunting, trekking on foot, riding on reindeer-back, and foraging, Marta's senses, even if now a bit dulled by age, were incomparably sharper than mine. She attended to the tiniest detail of moss, bird-song, texture of tree sap, pattern of animal footprint, and smell of budding flower. The forest was for her a calendar, an almanac, a weather forecast, an encyclopedia, a bible, and a menu.
As we walked, Marta pointed out animal tracks and sang me a little ditty, a celebration of the hunter-gatherer lifeways of which she was a lifelong and expert practitioner:
I'll take a shortcut and pick some cedar nuts to eat,
take a shortcut and catch a wood grouse,
take another shortcut and catch a quail.
Along the way, we met Marta's son Sergei and his wife, laden with shovels and pails. They were collecting saranki, a tiny purple lily-like flower. The Tofa gather the flower s edible bulb—mild and oniony— and eat it to ward off colds, winter malaise, and other illnesses. know, we used to call June edible lily bulb' month," Marta explained, "but now we call it iyun [June] just like the Russians do.
Intrigued at the idea of naming a month "Lily Bulb," I asked Marta if other months had similar names in Tofa. She'd forgotten most of them, and while other Tofa elders I spoke to were aware of the old lunar calendar, none could recite it from memory, and they disputed the derails. Marta, an experienced hunter, insisted October was "rounding up male reindeer" month, while her cousin knew it as "migrate to autumn campsite" month. It turned out that they were both right, because the two villages, only four days' journey apart on reindeer, had different ecological calendars. A mere generation or two ago, this calendar would have been an important mechanism linking the Tofa to their endless cycle of hunting, lily bulb gathering, birch bark collecting, rope braiding, and the long, dark days of winter. Important activities char denned their life were spelled out plainly in their calendar. Now it existed only in a few scribblings in my notebook and in fragmentary memories of the elders.
In switching over to speaking exclusively Russian, Marta's grandchildren have shut themselves off from much of the knowledge of nature, plants, animals, weather, and geography that their grandmother would have been able to pass on to them. This knowledge is not easily expressed in Marta's less-than-fluent Russian. We might go a step further and say that the knowledge Maria has cannot be expressed in as intact or efficient a way in the Russian language. Russian lacks unique words for Tofa concepts like smelling of reindeer milk" or "a three-year-old male uncastrated rideable reindeer."
Though the basic ideas can be expressed in any language (as I Just expressed them in English), the concepts are packaged in such a way that much is lost when people shirt from speaking one language 10 another. Newcomers to an ecological niche, speaking a language that has not yet developed specialized terms for its plants and animals, can quickly invent or borrow names as needed.
But much of this is done by metaphorical extension, and it often obscures or overlooks important connections that people previously living there had forged over time. Anybody can make up new names for newly encountered creatures (or imaginary ones, like Dr. Seuss's "sneetches" or A. A. Milne's "heffalump"). But discerning the subtle connections, similarities, and behavioral traits linking animals, planes, and humans demands careful observation over generations. This process of observation and testing is what we, in our culture, would call science. It is this science, encoded in languages like Tofa, that is now eroding.
An associate professor of linguistics at Swarthmore College ~ K. David Harrison also travels the world to interview in the field last speakers of nearly extinct tongues. For more, see the documentary film The Linguistics.