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Alternative Names: Chukchi-Kamchatkan, Paleosiberian.

Overview. Chukotko-Kamchatka is a small family of agglutinative languages of northeastern Siberia spoken by sea mammal hunters, reindeer herders and fishermen. Originally part of a much larger Siberian family, it has lost ground due to the physical extermination of its speakers by Russian colonizers, during the conquest of Siberia, and by continuous Russification to the point that all of its remaining members are endangered or in the verge of extinction. Chukchi, its major language, was used before the arrival of Europeans as a lingua franca in the region, particularly by the Eskimo.

Distribution. Found in the extreme northeast regions of Siberia including the peninsulas of Chukchi and Kamchatka.

Internal Classification. Chukotko-Kamchatka has two branches, Northern and Southern. Kamchadal, called also Itelmen, is isolated from the rest forming on its own the Southern branch. The Northern branch is divided into two sub-branches. One comprises Chukchi, spoken in the Chukchi Peninsula, and the other the related languages of Northern Kamchatka: Koryak, Alutor and the now extinct Kerek.



Speakers and Status. According to the 2010 Russian census, there are less than 7,000 speakers of Chukotko-Kamchatkan languages, but their number is steadily declining. Kerek has become extinct, Itelmen and Alutor are close to extinction. Almost all speakers are bilingual in Russian. Though Chukchi is used in elementary schools, further education is conducted in Russian alone.



  1. Phonology

  2. - Chukchi and Koryak display vowel harmony based on height contrast. Vowels belong to two harmonic classes, called strong and weak. The strong vowels are e, a, o, and the weak ones i, e, u (the vowel e appears in both series). All vowels of a word must be either strong or weak. The presence of a strong vowel in the root or in a morpheme triggers changes to strong allophones in the entire word: i changes into e, e into a, u into o. In each case the strong vowel is lower than its weak counterpart.

  3. A table illustrating the vowel system of Chukchi will make this clearer:

  1. Weak vowels are highlighted in blue, strong vowels in red, e can be either strong or weak, the brief ə sound (schwa) in black is neutral.

  1. - It is frequent to find a velar nasal sound (ŋ) at the beginning of a word or a combination of a stop and nasal.

  1. - Large initial consonant clusters are common in Itelmen which also has ejective consonants not found in the northern languages.

  1. Morphology and Syntax

  2. - Chukchi-Kamchatkan languages are agglutinative using a combination of prefixes and suffixes to mark inflection in nouns and verbs.

  1. - Nouns are inflected for number (singular, plural, and in some languages dual) and case (absolutive, ergative, instrumental, locative, ablative, and others).

  1. - Northern languages have an absolutive-ergative system in which the absolutive case marks the subject of intransitive verbs and the object of transitive verbs while the ergative case marks the subject of transitive verbs. In fact, only personal pronouns have a separate ergative case in Chukchi, nouns are marked, instead, with the instrumental or the locative.

  1. - Chukchi verbs agree with their subject and direct object by means of prefixes and suffixes. In transitive verbs a prefix encodes the subject, and a suffix the direct object; in intransitive verbs the subject is encoded by a combination of prefix and suffix.

  1. - Transitive and intransitive verbs are clearly distinguished, not only by ergativity but by the use of different auxiliary verbs for each category (for example by using ‘be’ for intransitives, and ‘have’ for transitives). Ergative constructions can be avoided by the expedient of antipassive constructions in which a transitive verb is converted into intransitive by a prefix or suffix. They are required to form a relative clause on a transitive subject.

  1. - In Chukchi, direct objects, adverbs and other verb arguments can be incorporated into verbs to form a single word with complex meaning. Incorporation of adjectives and genitives into the noun is also possible.

  1. - Chukchi word order is rather free; the subject usually precedes the verb but both Object-Verb and Verb-Object are found, the first being slightly more frequent than the second. Nevertheless, only postpositions are used which are characteristic of verb-final languages. Attributes can precede or follow their heads. The language is fond of subordinate clauses and has, thus, many subordinating conjunctions.

First Records

  1. - 1650-1750. Chukchi proper names of people and places were recorded for the first time.

  1. - 1740s. Information about Koryak dialects was gathered by the Second Kamchatka expedition.

  1. - early 19th c. A Chukchi-Russian dictionary was compiled by an Orthodox missionary.

Scripts. In the 1930s a number of scripts was developed for several Chukotko-Kamchatkan languages but only the one for Chukchi is regularly employed nowadays. Originally based on the Latin script, it was replaced later by a Cyrillic-based one.

  1. © 2013 Alejandro Gutman and Beatriz Avanzati

Further Reading

  1. -'Chukotko-Kamchatkan Languages'. In The Languages of the Soviet Union, 240-252. B. Comrie. Cambridge University Press (1981).

  2. -'Chukotko-Kamchatkan Languages'. G. D. S. Anderson. In Concise Encyclopedia of Languages of the World, 239-240. K. Brown & S. Ogilvie (eds). Elsevier (2009).

  3. -A History of the Peoples of Siberia: Russia's North Asian Colony, 1581-1990. J. Forsyth. Cambridge University Press (1992).

  4. -Endangered Languages of indigenous Peoples of Siberia. Several authors:


  6. -Chukchee Homepage. A. Spencer (1999):


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Chukotko-Kamchatkan Languages

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