The Linguistic Variation of Russians in Alaska: A Look at the Structure of Ninilchik Russian

Jessica Kantarovich

University of Chicago


The presence of Russians in Alaska from 1733 to 1867, when the territory was turned over to the United States, has had a lasting impact on nearby indigenous groups. Extensive research has been done in uncovering the contact influences of Russian on native Athabaskan languages, the best known, of course, being the mixed language Copper Island Aleut. However, not all Russians involved with the Russian American Company left when the company lost its charter, and not all of them contributed to the creation of a mixed language such as Copper Island Aleut—instead, these settlers continued speaking Russian and formed families and communities in which Russian served as the primary language, despite the fact that they often intermarried with indigenous women. The result was not a mixed language, but a contact variety of Russian that incorporates influences from English, Athabaskan Dena’ina, and Alutiiq. What is absent in Alaskan Russian is systematic correction by modern Russian, and the language variety has been able to develop, to a large extent, in isolation from the influences of contemporary standard Russian.

The best studied of these communities is the southern settlement of Ninilchik, where a (now moribund) variety of Alaskan Russian is spoken by several of the community’s oldest members. Data were collected Mira Bergelson, Andrej Kibrik, and Wayne Leman, who are in the process of constructing a comprehensive dictionary of Ninilchik for use by interested members of the community (of which Mr. Leman himself is a member). My analysis here is based on the data from their corpus, as well as the recordings of their field sessions that they have kindly provided.

I discuss the observable departures of Ninilchik Russian from Standard Russian. This includes lexical differences, consisting not only of borrowings from its nearby contact languages (such as rababútsi for ‘rubber boots’) but also innovations in Ninilchik Russian, such as kaparúl’a ‘pick (n.)’ from Standard Russian kopat’ ‘to dig’. There are a number of other common morphological changes. One feature of Ninilchik Russian nouns that is distinct from Standard Russian is the overuse of diminutives, such as kal’énka for Russian koleno ‘knee’ (indeed, many noun borrowings and innovations frequently receive a diminutive ending). Most likely due to interference from English, the grammatical system of gender is lost in both verbal and adjectival constructions (with generalization of masculine forms), such as moj-MASC doch-FEM pr’ishol-MASC ‘my daughter came’ (SR moja-FEM doch’-FEM prishla-FEM).

I also explore avenues for future research with respect to attrition in Ninilchik Russian. For example, one aspect that remains unclear and was not systematically tested for in the gathering of data for the dictionary is whether there has been loss of complexity elsewhere in Ninilchik Russian morphology or syntax, such as within the Russian case system.