Saturday, March 2, 2019

Russian Scholars Pay to Save One of the Last Native Speakers of Ket Language

Paul Goble
Staunton, March 1 – An upbeat story about how Russian scholars collected money to pay for the medical treatment of Aleksandr Kotusov, one of the last native speakers of the unique Ket language, has the unintended consequence of calling attention to something Moscow generally seeks to deny: the demise of numerically small languages and of those who speak them.

            The Nazaccent portal describes how a group of Russian linguists interested in a language that is the last surviving one of its type have gathered 45,000 rubles (750 US dollars) so that Kotusov, who is one of the last Ket speakers and the only one who still sings in that Siberian language (

            One can only praise the Russian scholars for their efforts. But the fact that this priceless treasure could be saved for so little raises questions about the priorities of the Russian state at a time when Vladimir Putin’s “optimization” program is making it ever more difficult for many in Russia to obtain medical care.

            But the story, first broken for a broader Russian audience by the Takiye dela portal ( highlights the approaching demise of numerically small language groups in the Russian Federation and to the fact that non-Russians there are losing their languages even more rapidly than their identities.

            The number of Kets by nationality fell from 1494 in the 2002 census to 1220 in the 2010 enumeration, but the number of Ket speakers was far lower and has fallen far faster.  There were perhaps 200 speakers of this language in 2010; now there are “approximately 20” – and Kotusov is the only one who knows the native songs, Moscow scholar Yuliya Yalyamina says.

            Kotusov has cancer and needs chemotherapy. The language he speaks could very well die with him.  And that language, like all others, is a window into an entire world.  But it is special because that tongue is “an isolated and the single living representative of the Yenisey family of languages,” the scholar says. When its last speaker dies so too does an entire world.

            Ket has been a literary language since the 1930s when Soviet scholars came up with a Latin script for it. Then in the 1980s, in order to promote integration with Russian and Russians, Moscow changed the alphabet of the Kets to one based on the Cyrillic script. As a result, the last census shows that 99.8 percent of all Kets now speak Russian.

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