“Kŋalozʔaʔn ujeretʔiʔn ŋeteɫkilaʔn 2012” (Keepers of the native hearth 2012) – community efforts to save the endangered Itelmen language in Kamchatka, Russia

Degai, Tatiana
Ono, Chikako
Koester, David
Degai, Tatiana
Ono, Chikako
Koester, David
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Kamchatka peninsula in the Far Eastern part of Russia is home to Itelmens – a small indigenous group. With a total population of 3000 people only 10 elders can converse in the Itelmen language, which belongs to the Chukotko-Kamchatkan language family. This paper will present an international project initiated by linguists, anthropologists and community members in order to document and preserve the Itelmen language. A central component of the project was a gathering of the speakers of the Itelmen language “Keepers of the native hearth 2012”, that was held in the summer of 2012 in Kamchatka. 30 Itelmen language enthusiasts, speakers and language learners gathered to create an Itelmen language environment, practice conversations, share their knowledge, and work on a unified audio-visual dictionary of the language. During the gathering memories about Itelmen life, life histories, knowledge about the natural environment and its use, and songs were recorded in the Itelmen language. The participants in the gathering discussed grammatical issues, orthography, dialects as well as questions of spatial terminology and deixis. The native speakers shared folk tales, watched videos, and recreated the ancient Itelmen ceremony of the first catch of salmon. “Keepers of the native hearth” were held in the early 1990s, but the purpose of those meetings was ethnographic recollections of traditional Itelmen life. This meeting gathered together the speakers of different Itelmen dialects who live far from each other and who do not have opportunities to meet and talk to each other. This specially created language environment appeared to be an effective effort for language revitalization. During just eight days of the gathering elders, who were reluctant and shy at the beginning started to converse in the Itelmen fluidly and more openly and the language learners had a chance to listen to life conversations and practice. This gathering came as a united effort of US anthropologists, US, Japanese and Russian linguists who have been working with the Itelmens for over 20 years. Community representatives – Itelmen language teachers and specialists played a major role in this event. All contributed to guiding the program and the content of the gathering. The collected materials will be used in the compilation of an audio-visual digital dictionary of the Itelmen language that will be available in the Itelmen, Russian, English and Japanese languages.
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