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At the Well blog

19.04.2022

Mansi words on the “Amazing Thing” – speakers of an indigenous Siberian language and their press

Kuva / photo: Csilla Horváth

Mansi is a severely endangered indigenous minority language. It is spoken mostly in the Khanty-Mansi Autonomous Okrug of the Russian Federation in Western Siberia. The language belongs to the Uralic language family. According to the census data, it currently has approximately 900 speakers. Postdoctoral researchers Csilla Horváth and Susanna Virtanen and Mansi journalist Tamara Merova aim to edit and publish a beginners’ textbook of the Mansi language for English-speaking university students.

Our principle while working on the project is to treat Mansi as a living language. Albeit being spoken by a small number of speakers, it is just as effective to be used in everyday life communication as any other living language.

After centuries of occasional reports about the Mansi, scientific interest turned towards the research and documentation of the Mansi culture and language in the middle of the 19th century. For almost a hundred years especially Finnish and Hungarian academics travelled to Western Siberia. They collected materials about the traditional and then-contemporary life of the peoples speaking languages related to Finnish and Hungarian.

The interest of these academics was motivated not only by mere scientific curiosity, but also by the will of perceiving a better understanding of the prehistory of the Finnish and Hungarian peoples.

The focus of research has changed to some degree by the arrival of the 21st century. Researching the Mansi language has become not only a question of national identity or the following of academic traditions. It has also proved to be essential from the viewpoint of general linguistic interest towards the numerous endangered languages of the world.

From traditional to modern: two akany-dolls (originally created for remembering the deceased family members, nowadays also a toy) and the Mansi translation of Saint-Exupéry’s Little Prince. 2022.

Vanishing languages

Neither the total number of languages, nor the amount of vulnerable and endangered languages of the world can be estimated. Still, it cannot be disputed that the majority of the now spoken indigenous and endangered languages is not likely to survive the turn of the next century. In response, several linguists and other specialists are participating in various documentational and revitalisational programs. Their aim is to prevent the loss of this special knowledge of humankind and linguistic diversity. The endangered and indigenous languages are unevenly located around the globe. Thus, also the specialists who are able and willing to travel to the territories where these languages are spoken, tend to show preference or remoteness when choosing their destinations.

The presence of foreign researchers in Russia has been more or less continuous during the centuries. Still, having close connection with speakers of especially Western-Siberian languages was difficult and sporadic. There was a short period of relative freedom of research (after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991) and the spread of internet coverage (starting from the second half of the 2000s). Now living connections and contemporary knowledge have become valuable again. The Russian-Ukrainian war apparently makes planning fieldworks and making new contacts nearly impossible.

Mansi textbook: a modern approach

Our project, financed by the Kone Foundation, aims to edit a beginners’ textbook of the Mansi language for university students. Our principle is to treat Mansi as a living language. Albeit being spoken by a small number of speakers, it can be found just as effective to be used in everyday life communication as any other living language. Instead of repeating folklore texts or other traditionally used sources, we aim to provide our further learners with a deromanticised, realistic knowledge of the contemporary Mansi language and Mansi life.

The main editors of the textbook are postdoctoral researchers Csilla Horváth and Susanna Virtanen. Both the editors are experts in applied linguistics and fieldwork, as well as in theoretical linguistics and second language teaching. The editors closely collaborate with Mansi journalist Tamara Merova. She is a leading figure in maintaining and using the Mansi language as a journalist and innovator. She is a qualified teacher of the Mansi language as well.

Tamara Merova in Helsinki. During her 8-weeks-long stay Merova paid attention to carefully document the small aspects of her trip, shooting short videos with Mansi audio-narration. 2020.

Invisible and dependent

Mansi is a severely endangered indigenous minority language. It is spoken mostly in the Khanty-Mansi Autonomous Okrug of the Russian Federation in Western Siberia. Mansi belongs to the Uralic language family. According to the census data, currently has approximately 900 speakers. Although the prestige of the Mansi language and culture is rising, the language plays a minor role in its Russian-dominated, multilingual environment. Mansi language use is rather limited. Besides family use and projects created as the results of recent grassroot initiatives, the language is practically present only in a couple of institutions. It is absent from official domains or education. The potential of promoting the interests of Mansi communities is also rather limited. Very often Mansi are not even treated independently, but rather together with Khanty, an other indigenous minority people of the region.

The Mona Lisa of Khanty-Mansiysk. Fresco by street artist J84 (Vladislav Aleev) in a students’ dining hall. The background of the painting features Western-Siberian landscape and traditional indigenous tents. The picture is compiled of mosaics depicting the elements of contemporary urban life. 2015.

Mansi and Khanty usually share their position in the media as well. The prominent Mansi newspaper Luima Seripos (“Northern dawn” in Mansi), founded in 1989, is published by a joint editorial office together with the Khanty newspaper Khanty Yasang (“Khanty Word” in Khanty). Mansi press (together with its Khanty counterpart) is financed by the local government. Just as all the media enterprises, it is under the control of the executive agency responsible for monitoring mass media in the Russian Federation.

Minority news in majority language

Luima Seripos and Khanty Yasang primarily aim to inform local indigenous readers about the happenings taking place in the Okrug. Additionally they also aim to inform readers from the Okrug about the indigenous events. Many ethnic Khanties and Mansis, just as readers from other nationalities, often use Russian only. For that reason, the journalists of these editions have also been publishing the Russian translation of Mansi and Khanty articles since 2013. They regularly publish news originally written in Russian too.

The digital platform of the magazines Ханты манси мир (“Khanty Mansi world” in Russian), is linked to various social media channels in order to attract wider publicity. According to social media monitoring statistics, the campaign is successful in recruiting new readers. Especially non-political, positive social projects, such as the construction or renovation of schools and hospitals, are popular. Recently much attention has been paid to the reports about the Russian attack on Ukraine too. It is worth mentioning that although the state-financed and state-governed media has to meet the expectations of state propaganda, still the journalists working for the Mansi newspaper managed to sound different opinions regarding the Ukrainian war as well.

New words for new phenomena

The reporters working for Luima Seripos are by no means trained journalists. Almost all the correspondents are qualified teachers of Mansi language and literature of the indigenous people. Still, their work is invaluable not only regarding the information of their fellow citizens, creating news from a very special point of view. It but also important regarding their efforts making their language capable for transmitting these information.

For example, when introducing a new topic in, they do not only write a description or give an analysis. They also have to create neologisms, new Mansi words and phrases for the new phenomena they want to write about. Just to give one example, the Internet, through which this blog post is submitted, is called ищхӣпыӈ ут in Mansi. It literally means “the amazing thing”.

The Mansi newspaper Luima Seripos reporting about distant Mansi classes held at the University of Helsinki.

Written by Csilla Horváth and Susanna Virtanen.

Photos: Cs. Horváth

The post uses data from Tamara Merova’s paper Анализ национальных медиаресурсов “Ханты Ясанг” и “Луима Сэрипос” на предмет читательской активности (“Analysis of the indigenous media resources “Khanty Yasang” and “Luima Seripos” based on readers’ activity” in Russian), presented at the conference Защита прав и интересов коренных малочисленных народов севера посредством междисциплинарных исследований (“Protection of the rights and interests of the indigenous peoples of the North through interdisciplinary research” in Russian) in Khanty-Mansiysk on 4th March 2022.