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

Olesya Khanina 1  and Miriam Meyerhoff 2
  • 1 Institute of Linguistics, Moscow, Russia
  • 2 Victoria University of Wellington, Wellington, New Zealand
Olesya Khanina and Miriam Meyerhoff


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.

  • Auer, Anita, Catharina Peersman, Simon Pickl, Gijsbert Rutten & Rik Vosters. 2015. Historical sociolinguistics: The field and its future. Journal of Historical Sociolinguistics 1(1). 1–12.

  • Braunmüller, Kurt & Gisella Ferraresi. 2003. Introduction. In Kurt Braunmüller & Gisella Ferraresi (eds.), Aspects of multilingualism in European language history, 1–14. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

  • Brown, Penelope & Stephen C Levinson. 1987. Politeness: Some universals of language usage (Studies in Interactional Sociolinguistics 4). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

  • Bruk, Solomon Ilʹich. 1961. Karta ‘Rasselenie narodov Sibiri v konce XIX i nachale XX v. [Map ‘Distribution of peoples of Siberia in the end of the nineteenth and in the beginning of the twentieth century]. M.G. Levin & L.P. Potapov (eds.), In Istoriko-geograficheskij atlas Sibiri [Historic and geographic atlas of Siberia], Moscow & Leningrad: Nauka.

  • Burke, Peter. 2004. Languages and communities in Early Modern Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

  • Cantos, Pascual. 2012. The use of linguistic corpora for the study of linguistic variation and change. Types and computational applications. In Juan Manuel Hernández-Campoy & Juan Camilo Conde-Silvestre (eds.), The handbook of historical sociolinguistics, 99–122. Malden, MA & Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.

  • Dobrushina, Nina. 2013. How to study multilingualism of the past: Investigating traditional contact situations in Daghestan. Journal of Sociolinguistics 17(3). 376–393.

  • Dolgikh, Boris O. 1960. Rodovoj i plemennoj sostav Sibiri v XVII v [Clans and tribes of Siberia in the seventeenth century]. Moscow: Izdatel’stvo akademii nauk SSSR.

  • Dolgikh, Boris O. 1961. Mifologičeskie skazki i istoričeskie predanija èncev [Enets Myths and Historical Legends] (Trudy Instituta Ètnografii im.N.N.Mikluxo-Maklaja. Novaja serija Vol. LXVI). Moscow: Izdatel’stvo akademii nauk SSSR.

  • Dolgikh, Boris O. 1962a. Rodovaja ekzogamija u nganasan in èncev [Clan exogamy by Nganasan and Enets]. In Sibirskij Ètnografičeskij Sbornik IV. Očerki po istorii, xoz’ajstvu i bytu narodov Severa [Essays on the History, Economy and Material Culture by Peoples of the North], 197–225. Moscow: Izdatel’stvo akademii nauk SSSR.

  • Dolgikh, Boris O. 1962b. Bytovye rasskazy èncev [Everyday Enets Stories]. Trudy Instituta Etnografii imeni N.N.Mikluxo-Maklaja. Novaja serija, Vol. LXXV. Moscow: Izdatel’stvo akademii nauk SSSR.

  • Dolgikh, Boris O. 1970. Očerki po etničeskoj istorii nencev i èncev [Essays on ethnic history of the Nenets and of the Enets]. Moscow: Nauka.

  • Doyle, Aidan. 2015. A history of the Irish language: From the Norman invasion to independence. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  • Fasold, Ralph. 1990 [1984]. The sociolinguistics of language, 2nd edn. Oxford: Blackwell.

  • Gallois, Cynthia, Howard Giles, Elizabeth Jones, Aaron C. Cargile & Hiroshi Ota. 1995. Accommodating intercultural encounters: Elaborations and extensions. In Richard L Wiseman (ed.), Intercultural communication theory, 115–147. Thousand Oaks, London & New Dehli: Sage Publications.

  • Giles, Howard. 1973. Accent mobility: A model and some data. Anthropological Linguistics 15. 87–105.

  • Giles, Howard, Richard Y Bourhis & Donald M Taylor. 1977. Towards a theory of language in ethnic group relations. In Giles Howard (ed.), Language, Ethnicity and Intergroup relations, 307–348. London: Academic Press.

  • Gusev, Valentin Yu. 2013. Istorija govorki (russkogo tajmyrskogo pidžina) po lingvističeskim dannym [The history of Govorka (Tajmyr Russian pidgin) based on linguistic evidence]. Russkij jazyk v naučnom osvešenii 1(25). 135–157.

  • Helimski, Eugen. 1996. A szamojéd népek vázlatos története [Brief history of the Samoyed peoples]. Bupapesti Finnugor Füzetek 1. 101–115.

  • Helimski, Eugen. 2000. Komparativistika, uralistika: Lekcii i stat’ji [Comparativistics and Uralistics: Lectures and Articles]. Moscow: Jazyki russkoj kul’tury.

  • Helimski, Eugene. 1998. Nganasan. In Daniel Abondolo (ed.), The Uralic languages, 480–515. London and New York: Routledge.

  • Jahr, Ernst Håkon. 1999. Sociolinguistics in historical language contact: The Scandinavian languages and Low German during the Hanseatic period. In Ernst Håkon Jahr (ed.), Language change: Advances in historical sociolinguistics, 119–139. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

  • Joby, Cristopher. 2016. Trilingualism in Early Modern Norwich. Journal of Historical Sociolinguistics 2(2). 211–234.

  • Kessels-Van Der Heijde, Marina. 2015. The use of languages in Maastricht in the nineteenth century: The press and family archives. In Catharina Peersman, Gijsbert Rutten & Rik Vosters (eds.), Past, present, and future of a language border: Germanic-Romance encounters in the low countries, 171–206. Berlin: Mouton de Greuter.

  • Labanauskas, Kazimir. 2002. Rodnoe slovo: èneckie pesni, skazki, istoričeskie predanija, tradicionnye rasskazy, mify [Mother Tongue: Enets Songs, Tales, Historic Legends, Traditional Stories, and Myths] (Tajmyrskij okružnoj centr narodnogo tvorčestva). St Petersburg: Proveschenie.

  • Labov, William. 1972. Sociolinguistic patterns. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.

  • Labov, William. 1994. Principles of linguistic change. Volume 1: Internal factors. Oxford: Blackwell.

  • McLeod, Wilson. 2003. Language politics and ethnolinguistic consciousness in Scottish Gaelic poetry. Scottish Gaelic Studies 21. 91–146.

  • Meyerhoff, Miriam & Steffen Klaere. 2017. A case for clustering speakers and linguistic variables: Big issues with smaller samples in language variation. In Isabelle Buchstaller & Beat Siebenhaar (eds.), Language variation – European perspectives VI: Selected papers from the eight international conference on language variation in Europe (ICLaVE 8). Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

  • Millar, Robert McColl. 2010. Authority and identity: A sociolinguistic history of europe before the modern age. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

  • Moreno-Fernández, Francisco. 2005. Historia social de las lenguas de España. Barcelona: Ariel.

  • Nevalainen, Terttu & Helena Raumolin-Brunberg. 2003. Historical sociolinguistics: Language change in Tudor and Stuart England. London: Longman.

  • Nevalainen, Terttu & Helena Raumolin-Brunberg. 2012. Historical sociolinguistics: Origins, motivations and paradigms. In Juan M Hernández-Campoy & Juan C Conde-Silvestre (eds.), The handbook of historical sociolinguistics, 22–40. Oxford & Malden, MA: Blackwell.

  • Oksaar, Els. 1992. Intercultural communication in multilingual settings. International Journal of Applied Linguistics 2(1). 3–16.

  • Oksaar, Els. 1999. Social networks, communicative acts and the multilingual individual. In Ernst Håkon Jahr (ed.), Language change: Advances in historical sociolinguistics, 3–19. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

  • Pismennye,. 2003. Pismennye jazyki mira: Jazyki Rossijskoj Federacii. Sociolingvisitičeskaja ènciklopedija [The Written Languages of the World: Languages of Russian Federation. The sociolinguistic Encyclopedia]. vol. 2. Moscow: Academia.

  • Romaine, Suzanne. 1988. Historical sociolinguistics: Problems of methodology. In Ulrich Ammon, Norbert Dittmar & Klaus J Mattheier (eds.), Sociolinguistics: An international handbook of the science of language and society, 1452–1468. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter.

  • Sankoff, Gillian. 2015. The speech community as a social fact. Asia-Pacific Language Variation 1. 23–51.

  • Siegl, Florian. 2013. Materials on Forest Enets, an indigenous language of Northern Siberia. Helsinki: Société Finno-Ougrienne.

  • Sorokina, Irina P & Darya S Bolina. 2005. Èneckie teksty [Enets Texts]. Sankt-Peterburg: Nauka.

  • Stachowski, Marek. 1993. Lexica Dolganica / Dolganischer Wortschatz. Krakow: Nakładem Uniwersytetu Jagiellońskiego.

  • Stern, Dieter. 2005. Taimyr Pidgin Russian (Govorka). Russian Linguistics 29(3). 289–318.

  • Stern, Dieter. 2012. Tajmyr-Pidgin-Russisch. Kolonialer Sprachkontakt in Nordsibirien. München et al.: Otto Sagner.

  • Stewart, John. 1964. Norn in Shetland. Fróðskaparrit 13. 158–175.

  • Tandefelt, Marika. 2003. Vyborg: Free trade in four languages. In Kurt Braunmüller & Gisella Ferraresi (eds.), Aspects of multilingualism in European language history, 85–104. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

  • Thije, Jan D. ten & Ludger Zeevaert. 2007. Receptive Multilingualism: Linguistic analyses, language policies and didactic concepts. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

  • Trudgill, Peter. 1983. Acts of conflicting identity: The sociolinguistics of British pop-song pronunciation. In Peter Trudgill (ed.), On dialect: Social and geographical perspectives, 141–160. Oxford: Blackwell.

  • Tuten, Donald N. & Fernando Tejedo Herrero. 2011. The relationship between historical linguistics and sociolinguistics. In Manuel Díaz Campos (ed.), The handbook of Hispanic sociolinguistics, 283–302. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.

  • Urmanchieva, Anna. 2010. Govorka: Primer strukturno-smešannogo jazyka [Govorka: An example of a structurally mixed language]. In Arto Mustajoki, Ekaterina Protassova & Nikolai Vakhtin (eds.), Instrumentarium of linguistics: Sociolinguistic approaches to non-standard Russian (Slavica Helsingiensia 40), 188–209. Helsinki: University of Helsinki.

  • Vasil’jev, V. I. 1963. Lesnye èncy (očerk istorii, xoz’ajstva i kul’tury) [Forest Enets (an essay of history, economy, and culture)]. In Sibirskij Ètnografičeskij Sbornik V [Siberian Ethnographic Collection], 33–70. Moscow: Izdatelstvo akademii nauk SSSR.

Purchase article
Get instant unlimited access to the article.
Log in
Already have access? Please log in.

Log in with your institution

Journal + Issues

The Journal of Historical Sociolinguistics is a peer-reviewed forum for research on the social history of language. JHSL features original contributions on aspects of language and society in the past, including the social embedding of language variation and change, issues of language contact and conflict, historical multilingualism, social stratification of writing skills, the development of language norms and the impact of language ideologies.