Nivkh languages

Nivkh /ˈnfk/ or Gilyak /ˈɡɪljæk/[3] (occasionally also Nivkhic; self-designation: Нивхгу диф Nivxgu dif [ɲivxɡu dif]) is a small language family, often portrayed as a language isolate, of two or three mutually unintelligible languages[4][5] spoken by the Nivkh people in Outer Manchuria, in the basin of the Amgun (a tributary of the Amur), along the lower reaches of the Amur itself, and on the northern half of Sakhalin. "Gilyak" is the Russian rendering of terms derived from the Tungusic "Gileke" and Manchu-Chinese "Gilemi" (Gilimi, Gilyami) for culturally similar peoples of the Amur River region, and was applied principally to the Nivkh in Western literature.[6]

нивх диф, нивх туғс
Pronunciation[mer ɲivx dif/tuɣs] (Amur dialect);
[ɲiɣvŋ duf] (S.E. Sakhalin dialect)
Native toRussia's Far East
RegionNorthern Sakhalin Island, along the lower Amur River and around the Amur Liman. Formerly, also in the Shantar Islands
Ethnicity6,000 Nivkh
Native speakers
200 (2010 census)[1]
Language isolate or one of the world's primary language families
Early form
  • Nivkh (Nivx)
  • Nighvng (Niɣvŋ)
Cyrillic, Latin
Language codes
ISO 639-3niv

The population of ethnic Nivkhs has been reasonably stable over the past century, with 4,549 Nivkhs counted in 1897 and 4,673 in 1989. However, the number of native speakers of the Nivkh language among these has dropped from 100% to 23.3% in the same period, so by 1989 there were just over 1,000 first-language speakers left. That may have been an overcount, however, as the 2010 census recorded only 200.

Proto-Nivkh(ic), the proto-language ancestral to the modern-day languages, has been reconstructed by Fortescue (2016).[5]


Nivkh is a dialect continuum. There is a high degree of variability of usage among Nivkhs depending on village, clan, and even the individual speaker. Varieties are traditionally grouped into four geographic clusters. These are the lower-Amur variety, the North Sakhalin variety (spoken on the coasts around the Amur Liman, including the mainland and west Sakhalin), the East Sakhalin variety (including populations around the Tymy River), and the South Sakhalin variety (spoken around the Poronay River). The lexical and phonological differences across these varieties is great enough that specialists describe them as falling into two or three languages, though for purposes of language revival among a small and already divided population, Nivkh is generally presented as a single language, due to fears of the consequences of further division. Gruzdeva (1998) notes that speakers of East Sakhalin and the lower Amur cannot understand each other, and divides the varieties into two languages, Nivkh proper (including the lower Amur, Northern Sakhalin / Straits and Western Sakhalin varieties) and Nighvng (the East and South Sakhalin varieties). Fortescue (2016)[5] notes that the Amur, East Sakhalin and South Sakhalin varieties have low intelligibility with each other, and considers each of them to constitute a separate language.


Nivkh is not known to be related to any other language, making it an isolated family. For convenience, it may be included in the geographical group of Paleosiberian languages. Many words in the Nivkh languages bear a certain resemblance to words of similar meaning in other Paleosiberian languages, Ainu, Korean, or Tungusic languages, but no regular sound correspondences have been discovered to systematically account for the vocabularies of these various families, so any lexical similarities are considered to be due to chance or to borrowing.

Michael Fortescue suggested in 1998 that Nivkh might be related to the Mosan languages of North America,[7] and later, in 2011, he argued that Nivkh, which he referred to as an "isolated Amuric language", was related to the Chukotko-Kamchatkan languages, forming a Chukotko-Kamchatkan–Amuric language family,[8] though the evidence was judged to be "insufficient" by Glottolog.[2]

More recently, Sergei Nikolaev argued in two papers for a systematic relationship between Nivkh and the Algic languages of North America and a more distant relationship between these two together and the Wakashan languages of coastal British Columbia.[9][10]

The Nivkh languages are included in the widely rejected Eurasiatic languages hypothesis by Joseph Greenberg.[11]


The Nivkh people have lived, by many accounts for thousands of years, on the island of Sakhalin and the Amur River. They maintained trade with the neighboring Ainu, Japanese, and Chinese, until Russian contact, which began in the 17th century.[12] The 19th century shows the first recorded decline of Nivkh numbers, with official estimates dropping from 1856 to 1889. This coincided with smallpox epidemics and the expansion of Sakhalin's prisoner population, as Russia began sending groups of its convicts to Sakhalin in 1873. At this time, reportedly few Nivkh spoke Russian.[13]

The official Russian census reported similar numbers of ethnic Nivkhs in 1897 (4,500) and in 2002 (5,200). However, the number of native speakers among the ethnic Nivkhs dropped from 100% to 23.3% in the same period. All recorded native Nivkh speakers were bilingual in Russian, most of them were born in 1920-1940s, when a significant decline in the number of native Nivkh speakers occurred, due to Stalin's policy of collectivization imposed on indigenous economies,[13] and in many cases, driving Nivkh individuals to hired labor, marking a departure from traditional means of subsistence.[12] Many Nivkh were forcibly displaced from their more widely spread settlements to Nogliki, a small city, in the process of centralization. The traditional Nivkh way of life was gradually and sometimes forcibly converted to a Soviet way of life, as changes in subsistence, diet, dwellings, and education have resulted. In 2010s the Nivkh language is taught in the 1-3 grades in several schools in Sakhalin and Khabarovsk regions. A monthly newspaper "Nivkh dif" (Nivkh language) is published in Sakhalin. Nivkh language books are also regularly published in Russia.


Nivkh is an agglutinating synthetic language. It has a developed case system, as well as other grammatical markers, but no grammatical gender. The basic word order of Nivkh is subject–object–verb, the subject being frequently omitted in speech.[9] Nivkh is notable for the high degree of incorporation between words. For example, morphemes that express spatial relationships (prepositions or postpositions in many other languages) are incorporated into the noun to which they relate.[14] Words consist of easily definable roots and productive grammatical morphemes, most of which are suffixes. Nivkh has no adjectives, but rather verbs that describe a state of being. There are two verb tenses: non-future and future. The non-future form may combine with adverbials, as well as context, to indicate a time frame.[15]

As Russian has become the dominant language in all spheres of life, Nivkh grammar has changed in the last century. For example, Nivkh has recently begun to mark plurals on counting nouns and pairs, a change that originated from the grammar rules of Russian. However, it has been postulated that due to the vastly differing grammatical structures of the two tongues, grammatical interference has not been extensive. Simplification has occurred past borrowed Russian structure, though; due to disuse of the language and a changing culture, many of the complex morphological aspects of Nivkh have been simplified or fallen out of use.[16] In a process referred to as obsolescence, things like the distinction between the morpheme for counting sledges and the morpheme for counting fishnets has disappeared, with speakers opting to use more general categories of counting numbers or other descriptors.[17]


Nivkh orthography[18]
А а/æ/
Б б/b/
В в/v/
Г г/ɡ/
Ӷ ӷ/ɢ/
Ғ ғ/ɣ/
Ӻ ӻ/ʁ/
Д д/d/
Е е/ɪe/
Ё ё/jo/[lower-alpha 1]
Ж ж/ɟ/
З з/z/
И и/i/
Й й/ɪ/
К к/k/
Кʼ кʼ/kʰ/
Ӄ ӄ/q/
Ӄʼ ӄʼ/qʰ/
Л л/l/
М м/m/
Н н/n/
Ӈ ӈ/ŋ/
О о/o/
П п/p/
Пʼ пʼ/pʰ/
Р р/r/
Р̌ р̌/r̥/
С с/s/
Т т/t/
Тʼ тʼ/tʰ/
У у/u/
Ф ф/f/
Х х/x/
Ӽ ӽ/χ/
Ӿ ӿ/h/
Ц ц/t͡s/
Ч ч/t͡ʃ/
Чʼ чʼ/t͡ʃʰ/
Ш ш/ʃ/
Щ щ/ʃt͡ʃ/[lower-alpha 1]
Ъ ъ/ʔ/
Ы ы/ə/
Ь ь/j/[lower-alpha 1]
Э э/ɤ/
Ю ю/ju/
Я я/jæ/
  1. Used only in Russian loanwords.



Labial Alveolar Palatal Velar Uvular Glottal
Nasal m n ɲ ŋ
Stop plain p t c k q
Fricative voiceless f s x χ h
voiced v z ɣ ʁ
Approximant l j w
Trill voiceless
voiced r

The labial fricatives are weakly articulated, and have been described as both bilabial [ɸ, β] and labiodental [f, v]. The palatal stops may have some degree of affrication, as [tʃʰ, tʃ].[19] After nasals or /l/, the unaspirated stops become voiced [b, d, ɟ, ɡ, ɢ]. Unlike consonant alternation, this occurs also within a morpheme. The Amur dialect deletes some word-final nasals, which leads to voiced stops occurring also word-initially.

Nivkh's phonemic distinction between velar and uvular fricatives ([ɣ] vs. [ʁ] and [x] vs. [χ]) is rare among the world's languages. These sounds do occur in a great deal of languages, but usually they are interchangeable.

Nivkh features a process of consonant alternation not unlike in Celtic languages, in which morpheme-initial stops alternate with fricatives and trills:[19]

Aspirated ↔ voiceless Unaspirated ↔ voiced
Stop p t c k q
Continuant f s x χ v r z ɣ ʁ

This occurs when a morpheme is preceded by another morpheme within the same phrase (e.g. a prefix or an adjunct), unless the preceding morpheme ends itself in a fricative or trill, or in a nasal or /l/.

  • /pəŋx/ 'soup'
  • /pənraj‿vəŋx/ 'duck soup'
  • /amsp‿vəŋx/ 'kind of seal soup'
  • but: /cxəf‿pəŋx/ 'bear soup'

Only the morpheme-initial position is affected: other clusters ending in a stop are possible within a morpheme (e.g. /utku/ "man").

In some transitive verbs, the process has been noted to apparently run in reverse (fricatives/trills fortiting to stops, with the same distribution). This has been taken a distinct process, but has also been explained to be fundamentally the same, with the citation form of these verbs containing an underlying stop, lenited due to the presence of a former i- prefix (which still survives in the citation form of other verbs, where it causes regular consonant alternation). Initial fricatives in nouns never change.[19]


The vowel system of Nivkh is unusual, being described by Ian Maddieson as "defective." It is actually a rotated system in which a gap in the mid front region of the vowel space is compensated for by moving vowels around. The centralised /ɤ/ has been described by Maddieson (1984) as complementing a gap caused by the lack of an ordinary mid front vowel.

The mid front vowel expected in a five-vowel system may have in the past developed into a close-to-mid front unrounded diphthong, represented in Maddieson's description of the language as /ɪe/.

Front back
unrounded rounded
Close ɪ u
Mid ɪe ɤ o
Open æ


Stress can fall on any syllable, but tends to be on the first; there is dialectal variation, and minimal pairs distinguished by stress seem to be rare.[20]

Language contact with the Ainu

The Ainu appear to have experienced intensive contact with the Nivkhs during the course of their history. It is not known to what extent this has affected the language. Linguists believe the vocabulary shared between Ainu and Nivkh (historically spoken in the northern half of Sakhalin and on the Asian mainland facing it) is due to borrowing.[21]

See also


  1. Nivkh at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
  2. Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2017). "Nivkh". Glottolog 3.0. Jena, Germany: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  3. Laurie Bauer, 2007, The Linguistics Student’s Handbook, Edinburgh
  4. Gruzdeva (1998)
  5. Fortescue, Michael. 2016. Comparative Nivkh Dictionary. Languages of the World/Dictionaries (LW/D) 62. Munich: Lincom Europa. ISBN 9783862886876
  6. Zgusta, Richard (2015). The peoples of northeast Asia through time: Precolonial ethnic and cultural processes along the coast between Hokkaido and the Bering Strait. Brill. p. 71. ISBN 9789004300439.
  7. Fortescue, M. (1998). Language relations across Bering Strait: reappraising the archaeological and linguistic evidence.
  8. Fortescue, Michael (2011). "The relationship of Nivkh to Chukotko-Kamchatkan revisited". Lingua. 121 (8): 1359–1376. doi:10.1016/j.lingua.2011.03.001.
  9. Nikolaev, S. (2015)
  10. Nikolaev, S. (2016)
  11. Mattissen, Johanna (2001) Facts about the World's Languages, Nivkh. New England Publishing. ISBN 0-8242-0970-2 p. 515.
  12. Ivanov, S.; Levin, M.; Smolyak, A. V. (1964). "The Nikvhi". The Peoples of Siberia. The University of Chicago.
  13. Reid, Anne (2002). "The Ainu, Nivkh, and Uilta". The Shaman's Coat: A Native History of Siberia. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson. ISBN 0-8027-1399-8.
  14. Gruzdeva, Ekaterina. "The Linguistic Consequences of Nivkh Language Attrition". SKY Journal of Linguistics. 15.
  15. Nedjalkov, Vladimir; Otaina, Galina (2013). A Syntax of the Nivkh Language: The Amur Dialect. Philadelphia, PA: John Benjamins Publishing.
  16. Gruzdeva, Ekaterina. "Aspects of Russian-Nivkh Grammatical Interference: The Nivkh Imperative". Studies in Slavic and General Linguistics. 28.
  17. Crystal, David (2000). Language Death. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. p. 23. ISBN 9780521653213.
  18. "Nivkh language, alphabet and pronunciation". Omniglot. Retrieved 20 January 2017.
  19. Hidetoshi Shiraishi (2000). "Nivkh consonant alternation does not involve hardening" (PDF). Journal of Chiba University Eurasian Society (3): 89–119. Retrieved 2009-08-26.
  20. Johanna Mattissen, Dependent-Head Synthesis in Nivkh: A Contribution to a Typology of Polysynthesis (John Benjamins Publishing, 2003; ISBN 9027229651), pp. 85-86.
  21. Vovin, Alexander. 2016. "On the Linguistic Prehistory of Hokkaidō." In Crosslinguistics and linguistic crossings in Northeast Asia: papers on the languages of Sakhalin and adjacent regions (Studia Orientalia 117).


  • Gruzdeva, Ekaterina. 1998. Nivkh, Lincom Europa, Munich, ISBN 3-89586-039-5
  • Maddieson, Ian. 1984. Patterns of sounds, Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0-521-26536-3
  • Mattissen, Johanna. 2003. Dependent Head Synthesis in Nivkh: A Contribution to a Typology of Polysynthesis, John Benjamins, Amsterdam, Philadelphia, ISBN 1-58811-476-7
  • Nedialkov, Vladimir P., Otaina, Galina A. 2013. A Syntax of the Nivkh Language: the Amur dialect, Amsterdam ; Philadelphia : John Benjamins Pub. Company, [2013],
  • Tangiku, Itsuji / 丹菊逸治. 2008. Basic vocabulary of the Sakhalin dialect of Nivkh language (Nogliki dialect) / ニヴフ語サハリン方言基礎語彙集 (ソグリキ周辺地域). Tokyo: Research Institute for Languages and Cultures of Asia and Africa, Tokyo University of Foreign Studies (TUFS) / 東京外国語大学アジア・アフリカ言語文化研究所.

Further reading

  • Austerlitz, R (1956). "Gilyak nursery words". Word. 12 (2): 260–279. doi:10.1080/00437956.1956.11659604.
  • 『ギリヤークの昔話』中村チヨ (1992) 北海道出版企画センター
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