Saturday, June 02, 2007

Evenki loanwords

When the Russians began to penetrate Siberia four centuries ago they found a situation similar to the one that the Spanish, French, and English were finding in the Americas at the same time. They had at their mercy a vast land, rich in resources, thinly populated by a confusing array of peoples, each with their own culture, history, and language. Just as in the new world, these people were treated more as an obstacle to progress than as a asset in their own right. By the nineteenth century, the native Siberian peoples had been reduced to a tiny minority by disease, massacre, economic dislocation, administrative hostility, and massive immigration from European Russia.

One of those people were the Evenki. Prior to the 1930's, the Russians called them the Tungus and this obsolete name still appears in Western works that aren't specifically about anthropology. Their language is part of one branch of the family that includes Turkic, Mongol, and Manchu (or not, linguists are a pretty argumentative bunch when it comes to figuring out the higher relationships between languages). Today there are fewer than 100,000 of them, about equally split between Siberia and China. One group has their own administrative unit in central Siberia, but they make up only about one seventh of that unit, and the unit itself is home to only about one tenth of the Siberian Evenki. It was, however enough to get them their own flag.

All of you know two words in the Evenki language. One of them is the name they gave to the men and women who interceded for them with the spirit world and healed their sick. Westerners called these people witch doctors or medicine men, but the Evenki called them shamans. The other was the name they gave to a giant mole like monster that caused earthquakes and died on exposure to surface air (or maybe sunlight). They occasionally found the dead bodies of these monsters eroding from river banks and sold their fierce teeth to merchants from China or Central Asia. They called the monster mammoth.

Now, whenever you find yourself using these words, you know who to thank. I just thought you needed to know that.

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