Human Journey

NG Explorers Help Record Xyzyl Language

The Enduring Voices Project strives to preserve endangered languages by identifying language hotspots—the places on our planet with the most unique, poorly understood, or threatened indigenous languages—and documenting the languages and cultures within them.

By Gregory Anderson of the Enduring Voices Project

The 2012 Enduring Voices expedition to the Siberia Language Hotspot has allowed us to explore the current state of the Xyzyl (pronounced hizzle) language from the Republic of Xakasia (pronounced ha-KAH-see-ya, also spelled “Khakasiya”).

We traveled across the birch-covered hills of southern Siberia and into the wind-swept steppe dotted with ancient burial mounds until we reached the Xyzyl territory northwest of Mongolia. We visited five villages and identified fifty to sixty total speakers and semi-speakers.

Xyzyl is an unrecognized “hidden” language officially considered a dialect of the Xakas language. Xyzyl people we interviewed insist theirs is a separate language and our linguistic analysis supports this. Below you can see some examples that show both some similar sounding words such as those for “I hear” and some drastically different ones such as those for “woman.”

English

Xakas

Xyzyl

I hearischemestüm
icepusmus
mosstorbasmyök
womanipchixat

Xyzyl is critically endangered, most speakers being sixty or older. In the main Xyzyl village Sarala, we met the self-taught linguist Mikhail Tabatkin, who has been toiling his entire life to preserve words and stories in his language.

 

Denis Tokmashev and Dr. Gregory DS Anderson interview Mikhail M. Tabatkin, a language activist for the Xyzyl language in Sarala, Xakasia. Photo by Jeremy Fahringer / Enduring Voices Project

In one village, Ustinkino, we were suprised to meet an eleven year old girl living with her grandmother, who speaks to her only in Xyzyl. This girl is at least forty years younger than the next youngest speaker we met. We will be working with the Xyzyl people to create a talking dictionary and grammar to help them preserve their ancient tongue.

 

Learn More

See Photos and Videos From Previous Expeditions

Explore a Map of Endangered Language Hotspots

Listen to Rare Languages in the Talking Dictionaries

 

 

 

 

 

 

Andrew Howley is a longtime contributor to the National Geographic blog, with a particular focus on archaeology and paleoanthropology generally, and ancient rock art in particular. He is currently beginning a new role as communications director at Adventure Scientists, founded by Nat Geo Explorer Gregg Treinish.

Over 11 years at the National Geographic Society, Andrew worked in various ways to share the stories of NG explorers and grantees online. He also produced the Home Page of nationalgeographic.com for several years, and helped manage the Society’s Facebook page during its breakout year of 2010.

He studied Anthropology with a focus on Archaeology from the College of William & Mary in Virginia. He has covered expeditions with NG Explorers-in-Residence Mike Fay, Enric Sala, and Lee Berger. His personal interests include painting, running, and reading about history.

  • Tim Upham

    Now their language is written in the Cyrillic alphabet, are they hoping to also recreate the Gokturk script, that was originally used by the Turkic people of Siberia? Is this language the same as that written on the Orkhon inscriptions of the 8th century? If it is, then they would really be preserving an ancient tongue.

  • Tom Busler

    And to think: Snoop Dog was a linguist this whole time.

  • Timur B. Davletov

    Thank you dear Gregory Anderson [ http://www.nationalgeographic.com/explorers/bios/gregory-anderson/ ] for your cordial anxiety regarding Kyzyl [Khyzyl] dialect of Khakas language, but comparison you have shown within your article is full of mistakes like following:
    you wrote I hear in Khakas is ischem and in Kyzyl is estüm, but istchem in Khakas language that includes Saghai, Khaas, Khyzyl and Shor dialects/languages, means I am listening to, while the same meaning in Khyzyl you have sto ay “estchem”, (but not “estum” [means I listened to]) that is practically identifical phrases…
    by the way moss means in Khakas torbas, but word myök is not Khakas, it is a loanword from Russian, so it is not Khyzyl word used in meaning of moss…
    you write that woman is ipchi in Khakas and xat [khat/hat] in Khyzyl dialect, but Khakas language has both words in the same meaning, so it is obvious preconception/prejudice or serious mistake from the point of linguistic knowledge… so your linguistic analysis can not support that opinion because it is not based on knowledge of Khakas language at final…
    Sincerely yours, Timur B. Davletov, May 22nd, 2012

    – You have to learn Khakas language together with its dialects and after that only you can start to work over dictionary, but with above mentioned serious mistakes you can not do it, unfortunately, dear Mr. Gregory Anderson
    Sincerely yours,
    Timur B. Davletov, May 22nd, 2012

  • Mustafa Can Ayter

    May I please ask whether there is a source for such ‘linguistic analysis’ that proves Kyzyl is typologically a different ‘language’? What was the criteria of considering it a ‘language’, what more than mutual intelligibility? I don’t find this article quite scientific and consider it as untrue, unless I’m proven with a corpus, or a research paper.

  • Nükhet

    National Geographic is a wordly known prestigious publication and for that reason it has to be more careful about scientific accuracy and also ethic rules.
    I have ascertained many mistakes within mentioned article. The information that is given about some verbs in Khakas and its Kyzyl dialect is quite futile for the purposes of Turcology and Linguistics. Mr. Anderson should have ratiocinated about Simple Past Tense and Simple Present Tense in Khakas Language at the first hand!
    For instance, the verb “ischem” means “I listen” in Khakas and its synonim in Kyzyl dialect must be “estchem” not “estüm”! Because there is letter -“d” or -“t” that transmutes the sentence into Past Tense, and after this letter some syllables occur in all Turkic languages: -“dı”, -“di”, -“du”, -“dü” or their another versions with the letter -“t”. So, while “estchem” means “I hear” in Kyzyl, “estüm” means “I heard” actually.
    Besides, there is another mistake about the word “moss”. Its synonym in Khakas is not the word “myök” because myök is a recruited word from the Russian language.
    Also, “ipchi” means woman in Khakas and its synonym in Kyzyl dialect is “xat” (khat / hat), however the original Khakas Language includes both the words “ipchi” and “xat”. So, it can be easily said that your analysis does not reinforce the actual sense and method of Linguistics.
    In conclusion, it can be stated that these amiss investigations can be seen as the major threat to the languages of the native peoples. The efforts to divide the Khakas language into different small languages by pseudo scientists who use inaccurate methods are quite obvious. It has been done to many Turkic peoples before and we absolutely know the consequences of these amiss researches. Of course it is accepted that Kyzyl dialect is under great threat, however the whole Khakas language is under the great threat of assimilation already. So, it is not a healthy method to divide the language in the name of saving it against disappearing. If the steps of prevention against disappearing had worked quite succesfully, then the Shor language in Kemerovo Region should have been in safe now (!)

  • Mehmet Levent Kaya

    I think, the persons who style themselves as linguists, should know the basic difference between languages, dialects and accents at least. When somebody is designating a dialect or an accent as an independent language, then I would consider a) either the person does not have a sufficient level of linguistic knowledge, or b) the person has devil political intentions and interests like dividing the people and creating fictional separations among them, who are actually the closest relatives on this earth. Most unfortunately, this time it seems to me that both are the case. 🙁

  • HAKAN ALTIOK

    To whom it may concern,

    National Geographic is a wordly known prestigious publication and for that reason it has to be more careful about scientific accuracy and also ethic rules.
    I have ascertained many mistakes within mentioned article. The information that is given about some verbs in Khakas and its Kyzyl dialect is quite futile for the purposes of Turcology and Linguistics. Mr. Anderson should have ratiocinated about Simple Past Tense and Simple Present Tense in Khakas Language at the first hand!
    For instance, the verb “ischem” means “I listen” in Khakas and its synonim in Kyzyl dialect must be “estchem” not “estüm”! Because there is letter -“d” or -“t” that transmutes the sentence into Past Tense, and after this letter some syllables occur in all Turkic languages: -“dı”, -“di”, -“du”, -“dü” or their another versions with the letter -“t”. So, while “estchem” means “I hear” in Kyzyl, “estüm” means “I heard” actually.
    Besides, there is another mistake about the word “moss”. Its synonym in Khakas is not the word “myök” because myök is a recruited word from the Russian language.
    Also, “ipchi” means woman in Khakas and its synonym in Kyzyl dialect is “xat” (khat / hat), however the original Khakas Language includes both the words “ipchi” and “xat”. So, it can be easily said that your analysis does not reinforce the actual sense and method of Linguistics.
    In conclusion, it can be stated that these amiss investigations can be seen as the major threat to the languages of the native peoples. The efforts to divide the Khakas language into different small languages by pseudo scientists who use inaccurate methods are quite obvious. It has been done to many Turkic peoples before and we absolutely know the consequences of these amiss researches. Of course it is accepted that Kyzyl dialect is under great threat, however the whole Khakas language is under the great threat of assimilation already. So, it is not a healthy method to divide the language in the name of saving it against disappearing.

    Sincerely yours,

  • Valeriya Lemskaya

    Most respected participants of the discussion,

    Reading your comments I have an impression that you all are biased against Dr. Anderson. This article was not written for narrow specialists, nor did it claim absolute accuracy.

    Yes, some words may be loanwords, but they have been so highly assimilated and became to be part of the language/dialect. Consider Turkish words of Arabic/Persian origin. The attempts to “clean” the Türkiye Türkchesi have not removed the word “Hanim” from Turkish, etc.

    Step 1 in the case with Kyzyl is to document the existing language/dialect/variety (I wish I could underline some words), and only in further steps must we analyze the etymology of words (! but how different morphosyntax here is!). With the present-day condition of the Siberian Turkic varieties, it is NO point in figuring out the “real” etymology of words at once!

    I seem to be the only active linguist studying Chulym Turkic in the field NOW (to my greatest sadness). Please read my article in the Turkic Languages 2010 (14) where I discuss some of things that you talk about..

    For instance, I was able to investigate and identify that there is no *-di tense in Chulym Turkic. Whatever forms that have a “-DI element are forms of the Present on -ADI. So you might be quite mistaken yourselves with Kyzyl.

    In my field studies of Middle Chulym, I recorded the word “tyshcha” for ‘1000’. Yes, do go on and say that it is a non-Turkic loan word and it comes from Russian. BUT the speakers do NOT recognize the common Turkic *myn anymore; and they know nothing but this “tyshcha”. So, do you mean we should ‘teach’ them the ‘correct’ Turkic?

    Or, I have questioned them most thoroughly with different methods to see if they can still desipher “äkel-” as a complex unit of “al-Ip käl-“; NO, they don’t recognize it anymore.

    It is always easy to sit at your office and criticize other people’s field work (yeah, I also did it with Li et al.’s book on Middle Chulym but because I HAVE worked among the Chulym Turkic people myself), so who of you has or will go to the field to record any Siberian Turkic variety? Dr. Anderson seems the first within many years to go as far and record as much.

    I also mentioned it in my thesis at least that there is no point in dividing or grouping Siberian Turkic varieties into languages/dialects. They all are in a dialectal continuum and form dialectal clusters. So, don’t be panturkic and claim you know how it “should” or “must” be. Field data sometimes prove our assumptions are arrogant and away from the reality.

    Please feel free to criticize my words and/or write me to further the discussion.

    Sincerely,

    Valeriya Lemskaya,
    Tomsk State Pedagogical University, Russia

  • Pattie McD

    You are just using us

    The pictures are exqusite.

    & you & others with that late publication that was just sound, are now willing to use us more

    Yes. fine pictures.

    & by the federal government, I’m an indigious people/s
    & you & others are enough off course that you are distorting history

  • Pattie McD

    If the National Geographic would stay what they were. Neither you nor I would have a problem with that.

    They’re changling. Influenced by politics & other factors. Might be saying goodbye to them. Because they are not who they wer.

  • Pattie McD

    Bless you for being our here in cyberspace. I started out as an “English Lit” major.

    Maybe learned more tonight, than before

    & National Geographic is tansforming itself.Who knows where where it will move into the future.

    Timur B. Davletov

    Thank you. I’m learning.

  • […] For the rest of Dr. Anderson’s article, please check out right here on Nat Geo NewsWatch. […]

  • […] For the rest of Dr. Anderson’s article, please check out right here on Nat Geo NewsWatch. […]

  • Timur B. Davletov

    Khakas language is one of “definitely endangered” tongues of humanity…

    “Khakas language is a conglomeration of several closely related dialects: Kacha, Sagay, Kyzyl, Koybal, Beltir and Shor…”

    Encyclopedia of the World`s Endangered Language
    (Edited by Christopher Moseley)
    (c) Routledge, 2007

    https://twitter.com/aronberk/status/353493462961750018/photo/1

    a schematic map of prevalence of dialects of Khakas language in Khakas Republic…

    https://twitter.com/aronberk/status/353545819439394816/photo/1

  • Timur B. Davletov

    Khakas language is one of “definitely endangered” tongues of humanity…

    “Khakas language is a conglomeration of several closely related dialects: Kacha, Sagay, Kyzyl, Koybal, Beltir and Shor…”

    Encyclopedia of the World`s Endangered Language
    (Edited by Christopher Moseley)
    (c) Routledge, 2007

    https://twitter.com/aronberk/status/353493462961750018/photo/1

    a schematic map of prevalence of dialects of Khakas language in Khakas Republic…

    https://twitter.com/aronberk/status/353545819439394816/photo/1

  • Timur B. Davletov

    Mikhail M. Tabatkin (an informant person on your photo above/ right): Kyzyl/Hyzyl/Xyzyl is a dialect of Khakas/Hakas/Xakas language… (!)

    Timur B. Davlettov, Feb 11th, 2015

    for more info: On Khyzyl Tribe of Khakas Nation | TV program by Olga Karachakova

    State TV and Radio Corporation of Khakas Republic, 2013

    >> https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uv2YmannFXA&feature=youtu.be

  • Timur B. Davletov

    Mikhail M. Tabatkin (an informant person on your photo above/ right): Kyzyl/Hyzyl/Xyzyl is a dialect of Khakas/Hakas/Xakas language… (!)

    Timur B. Davlettov, Feb 11th, 2015

    for more info: On Khyzyl Tribe of Khakas Nation | TV program by Olga Karachakova

    State TV and Radio Corporation of Khakas Republic, 2013

    >> https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uv2YmannFXA&feature=youtu.be

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