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Written by Lindsay Whaley (Nov. 1998)
The Tungusic languages, in all liklihood, will cease to be spoken in the next fifty years or so. Some are already on the verge of extinction. For example, spoken Manchu had only 70 speakers in 1982, and colleagues in China now report that number to have fallen below a dozen people. The statistics are similar for Hezhe (a dialect of Nanai spoken in China): In 1982, there were around forty speakers. There may now be fewer than six. Orok, Udege, Negidal, and Oroch all have under one hundred speakers left, all of them over fifty-five years of age.
The following table provides a general idea about the state of affairs with Tungusic languages. The information is drawn from the 1982 Chinese census, the 1989 Soviet census, and the Red Book of Languages in the former USSR (Krasnaja kniga 1994)]. In China, Solon, Khamnigan Evenki, and Yakut Evenki (which is usually called Aoluguya Ewenke) are considered a single nationality. Therefore, the national census data collapse the statistics for the three groups into one category. The numbers in the table are estimates derived from reports in the literature and from interviews with government officials in Inner Mongolia, China.
As the statistics in the table reveal, only three Tungusic languages--Evenki, Solon, and Xibe--stand much chance of continued use well into the 21st centruy. Even with these three languages, however, the outlook is not bright. Evenki has had a steady decline in the numbers of speakers over the last one hundred years. All Evenki are bilingual in Russian (and often speak either Yakut or Buriat as well). Younger speakers are much more likely to have Russian as a first language. The Solon case is similar. All Solon speakers also speak Chinese (and sometimes Dagur or Khalka Mongolian as well). Chinese is the preferred mode of communication in almost all contexts, especially for younger speakers. Unless something is done within Evenki and Solon communities soon, these languages will also disappear rather rapidly in the next couple of decades.
Xibe represents the Tungusic language with the greatest chance for survival. The 1990 Chinese census puts the number of Xibe people at 172,847 (a change of 107% since 1982!). Estimates put the current number of Xibe speakers at around 35,000. Since the increase in speakers in not nearly dramatic as the population growth in this minority, we can be fairly confident that the language is far from thriving. None the less, the sheer number of speakers of Xibe may permit continued use of the language for some time.
All this points to the remarkable fact that an entire language family may be eliminated from our globe in half a century. This would be a catastrophic loss for scholars. More importantly, it also signals great cultural loss for pockets of minority communities scatterd around northern China and Siberia. Is there anything being done about this situation? Not much. Within some Tungusic communities there are efforts toward providing education in native languages. However, the resources for these undertakings are thin. There are few materials and no trained teachers. In most cases, the written "standard" of the language does not match the variety spoken in local communities, or no written form of the language exists at all. In still other communities, some attempts have been made to introduce radio or television programs in native languages. These initiatives have almost invariably failed due to lack of funding.
Financial resources and technical expertise in linguistics are the two biggest needs that Tungusic communities have as they try to implement language preservation programs. There are currently no mechanisms in place that will allow individuals to contribute money to Tungusic language preservation programs. If you are interested in contributing to these programs, contact the Tungusic Research Group: Lindsay Whaley, Tungusic Research Group, 6086 Reed, Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH 03755 (firstname.lastname@example.org, 603/646-2055).
© Trustees of Dartmouth College
Last updated 18 Sept 1998