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Journal of Historical Sociolinguistics

Ed. by Rutten, Gijsbert / Auer, Anita / del Valle, José / Vosters, Rik / Pickl, Simon

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A case-study in historical sociolinguistics beyond Europe: Reconstructing patterns of multilingualism in a linguistic community in Siberia

Olesya Khanina / Miriam Meyerhoff
Published Online: 2018-10-13 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/jhsl-2017-0016


A collection of traditional and ‘old life’ stories recorded in the late 1940s is used to reconstruct the sociolinguistic situation of the Enets community in Northern Siberia from the 1850s until the 1930s. The Enets had regular contacts with a number of neighbouring indigenous peoples (Nganasans, Tundra Nenets, Selkups, Evenkis, Dolgans) and later with Russian newcomers. The oral histories often comment on language use, and as a result we can reconstruct not only the languages that the Enets people used in this period, but also the contexts in which they used them. The Enets community’s multilingualism was typically characterized by command of key neighbouring languages, with the occasional command of other more (geographically and socially) remote ones. With close neighbours, language choice seems to have had limited social load, while in cases of trade or agonistic contact, the choice of language in interethnic communication seems to have followed a principle of asymmetric convergence towards the language of the party with the greatest contextual social power. The analysis is founded on a database of dozens of communicative events mentioned in the oral stories (over 50 are analyzed). Ongoing fieldwork on the modern sociolinguistic situation suggests that until quite recently there was considerable stability in the sociolinguistic norms governing multilingual interaction among the Enets.

Keywords: Siberia; sociology of language; asymmetrical convergence; multilingualism; oral history

This paper reports a study that started thanks to a British Academy Visiting Fellowship for Khanina allowing her to come to the University of Edinburgh (UK) in 2007 to work with Meyerhoff. Final reworking of the paper was done on Khanina’s side with support of the Russian Science Foundation (grant N° 17–18–01649). Khanina is grateful to the Hans Rausing Endangered Language Project (London, UK) and the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology (Leipzig, Germany) for financial support of her fieldwork. The fieldwork was conducted jointly with Andrey Shluinsky (Institute of Linguistics, Russian Academy of Sciences), so Khanina’s thanks go to Shluinsky for his company, collaboration in data collection, and some comments to this paper. Ours thanks also go to Bernard Comrie for his comments to a previous version of this paper, and to Remco Knooihuizen for a fruitful discussion on historical sociolinguistics. Khanina alone processed the data, while the analysis was the result of collaboration between the co-authors.


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About the article

Published Online: 2018-10-13

Published in Print: 2018-10-25

For Khanina, this work was supported by Russian Science Foundation, Funder Id: 10.13039/501100006769, Grant Number: 17-18-01649

Citation Information: Journal of Historical Sociolinguistics, Volume 4, Issue 2, Pages 221–251, ISSN (Online) 2199-2908, ISSN (Print) 2199-2894, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/jhsl-2017-0016.

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