Screenshot from a documentary about a festival of Kalmyk culture in Russia. See below for a link to full video.

The Hardest Languages in Russia Aren’t Russian

Published: November 14, 2018

According to the All-Russian 2010 census, Russia is inhabited by speakers of more than 150 different languages. Most of these various languages can be divided into four language families: Altai, Indo-European, North Caucasian, and Uralic. The languages of some native populations of Russia amaze international experts with their complexity. Some dialects have similar features, while others are completely unique.

Editor’s note: The following originally appeared on the Russian-language site Russian7.ru under the title “Калмыцкий и другие самые сложные языки народов России” (Kalmyk and Others of the Most Complicated Languages of the Peoples of Russia). The article has been translated here with some adaption by Folkways.ru and Lindsey Greytak, an SRAS Home and Abroad Scholar.

 

Tabasaran

This language belonging to the Tabarasan people of Dagestan holds a place in the Guinness Book of World Records as one of the top ten most complex languages in the world. Native speakers of the language, which specialists have placed in Lezgic branch of the North Caucasian family, number more than more than 126,000.

Most surprising about Tabasaran language is its record number of cases: ranging from 44 to 52 (!), according to various experts. The Tabasaran alphabet contains 54 letters; words are subdivided into 10 parts of speech. Moreover, Tabasaran verbs possess a whole system of moods and tenses, and also vary by number and person.

Also interesting about this language is its complete lack of prepositions; it instead uses postpositions. Linguists distinguish three distinct dialects within the Tabasaran language.

What does Tabasaran sound like? Listen to “Legends of Ancient Derbent” in Tabasaran below. Russian subtitles are also provided.

Eskimo

Eskimo is also among the top ten most difficult languages in the world and includes the dialect of the inhabitants of the Far North. The Eskimo/Yupik peoples live in both Russia and Alaska. In Russia, about 500 people speak in the Siberian Yupik dialect and around 50 speak the Naukan Yupik dialect. Both languages derive from the Yupik group of the Eskimo-Aleut language family.

The language of the Far North inhabitants is made unique by the fact that their language has 63 (!) different forms of the present tense verb alone. With the help of certain suffixes, the present tense can be further divided into twelve grammatical categories. This allows Eskimos to very precisely express if an action was their own or performed by someone or something else.

Ekimo is an extremely figurative language. For example, the well-known word “Internet” is pronounced as ikiaqqivik, which can be roughly translated as “path through layers.”

What does Eskimo sound like? Watch a short cartoon based on a short tale by Alexander Pushkin in Eskimo below.

 

Abaza 

In the Karachay-Cherkessia Republic live the Abazin peoples, whose language is part of the Abkhazo-Adyghean language group of the Northwest Caucasian family. Around 38,000 Russian citizens, according to the 2010 population census, are native speakers of this unique dialect. The Abazin alphabet has 71 (!) letters, of which only six are vowels.

In word formation, Abaza has a very low vowel to consonant ratio and an abundance of distinct whistling and hissing sounds. Minor pronunciation errors that are imperceptible to non-native speakers may change the meaning of what is said. Therefore, to learn Abaza on your own is practically impossible.

In addition, Abaza verbs have a complicated system of moods and tenses.

What does Abaza sound like? Listen to a modern news broadcast in Abaza below.

 

Kalmyk

Kalmyk is another language with difficult pronunciation. In Abaza the meaning of the word depends of consonants, but in Kalmyk most of the attention is given to vowel phonemes. There are 18 vowel phonemes in total, and they are divided into short and long. The last phonemes in the alphabet are indicated as double sounds. For example, the word uul means “mountain”, but ul is the “sole” (of the foot). Also, toosn meaning “dust” and tosn meaning “oil”. Finally, teerm means “a mill” and term refers to “the wooden lattice of a yurt.”

A person who is not accustomed to the longness of vowel sounds may not be able to distinguish one word from another.

Kalmyk belongs to the Mogolic language family, and there are more than 80,500 native speakers. Kalmyk speakers mainly live in southern Russia.

What does Kalmyk sound like? Below is a documentary in Kalmyk about a massive festival of Kalmyk culture called Oirad Tumen. You can watch a shorter version here that features an introduction in Kalmyk and then gives a description of the festival in Russian.

 

Vepsian

This language belongs to the Baltic-Finnish language group. It is spoken mainly in the Republic of Karelia and in the Leningrad and Vologda Oblasts. In the 2010 census, about 3.6 thousand people identified themselves as Vepsians but many ethnographers believe this number to be much higher. Many Vepsians consider themselves to be Russians as a result of assimilation. Meanwhile, in Siberia there are entire villages founded by Vepsians who migrated to the area back in the 18th century.

This language, according to estimates of various linguists, has anywhere from 10-24 cases.  In addition, cases of Vepsian are polysemantic (ambiguous, multiple meanings). Thus, the inessive (referring to being inside something) and elative (referring to moving from inside to the outside) case is formed by adding the word –s (-š) to the root (much like the nearby Estonian).

This case is often used to refer to:

  • An action that takes place inside something (tatas – “in the father’s house” or päs – “in the head”);
  • Being in some condition (laps ‘l’äžub ruskeiš – “the child has measles”);
  • The time of an action (ös ii̯ magadand – “he did not sleep at night”);
  • The clothes or shoes worn by a person (mužik ol’i sin’ižiš palt’oiš, musti̮š sapkoiš – “the man was wearing a blue coat and black boots”);
  • A part of the body when getting dressed (šapuk päs – “the hat is on the head”).

Vepsian’s grammatical structure is also unique. For example, some forms of plural nouns are formed with postpositions.

What does Vepsian sound like? Take a 13-minute introductory course to the language below. It’s for Russian speakers, but follows a very predictable structure with lots of pictures, so should be clear to all. You can also hear “We are the Champions,” by Queen, translated into Vepsian and sung by a talented choir, here.

 

Yakut

There are more than 450,000 native speakers of Yakut in Russia. Despite the fact that linguists classify Yakut as part of the Turkic language family, it has own specific features and contains a whole layer of ancient vocabulary supposedly of Paleosiberian origins.

Yakut verbs have more than 20 different tenses. For example, there are eight different ways to express the past. Yakut past tense verbs can signify if a person worked:

  • recently;
  • earlier (that something else);
  • productively (with a result);
  • occasionally;
  • for a long time,
  • a long time ago,
  • a long time ago and for a long duration,
  • a long time ago but only occasionally.

Yakut has 16 vowel sounds, which are subdivided into long and short sounds. Like Kalmyk, double letters denote long phonemes: aa, oo, uu, ıı, ee, ii, üü, öö.

What does Yakut sound like? Watch this program from Yakut television that educates Russian speakers in Yakutia about Yakut. Note that the presenter speaks first in Yakut and then Russian.

 

Andi

Andi is another one of the most complicated languages in the world also spoken by the people of Dagestan. Around 5,800 native speakers live in the Botlikh region. This dialect belongs to the Nakh-Daghestanian group of the Northeast Caucasian language family.

Interestingly, nouns in this language not only change due to cases, but can also signify up to seven different locations. That is, the form on the word depends on where the specific action takes place. For example, gyakyu-la – in the house, and gyak’oba-hyi – in the houses, these are indicated by case endings and not prepositions.

Another interesting feature of this dialect and the inhabitants of the mountain village of Andi are the differences in the pronunciation of certain words by men and women. For example, men will say: “I am” – din, “you are” – min, “man” – gyekIa. The women instead say: “I am” – den, “you are” – men, “man” – gyekIva.

Thus, not being aware of these special features of Andi, it can cause awkward situations when conversing with native speakers.

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SRAS Students

SRAS students come from around the world to study, intern, or research in Kyrgyzstan, Ukraine, or Russia. They often write while abroad and, on occasion, SRAS will request to publish exceptional works. This account on Students Abroad will serve as platform to publish single contributions from individual students.

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