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Nivkh language

Нивхгу диф
Pronunciation [mer nivx tif]; [ɳiɣvn duf] (S.E. Sakhalin dialect)
Native to Russia, Japan[1][2]
Region Sakhalin Island, and along the Amur River
Ethnicity Nivkh
Native speakers
200  (2010 census)[3]
Language isolate, but included in the group of Paleosiberian languages for classification convenience
Language codes
ISO 639-3 niv
Glottolog gily1242[4]

Nivkh or Gilyak [5] (self-designation: Нивхгу диф Nivxgu dif) is a language spoken in Outer Manchuria, in the basin of the Amgun (a tributary of the Amur), along the lower reaches of the Amur itself, and on the northern half of Sakhalin. 'Gilyak' is the Manchu appellation. Its speakers are known as the Nivkh people.

The population of ethnic Nivkhs has been reasonably stable over the past century, with 4,549 Nivkhs counted in 1897, and 4,673 in 1989. However, the number of native speakers of the Nivkh language among these has dropped from 100% to 23.3% in the same period, so that there are now just over 1,000 first-language speakers left.


  • Classification 1
  • Dialects 2
  • Grammar 3
  • Orthography 4
  • Phonology 5
    • Consonants 5.1
    • Vowels 5.2
    • Stress 5.3
  • References 6
  • Bibliography 7
  • External links 8


Nivkh does not appear to be related to any other language, making it a language isolate. For classification convenience, it is included in the group of Paleosiberian languages. Many words in the Nivkh language bear a certain resemblance to words of similar meaning in other Paleosiberian languages, Ainu, Korean, or Tungusic languages, but no regular sound correspondences have been discovered to systematically account for the vocabularies of these various languages, so any lexical similarities are considered to be due to chance or to borrowing. The Nivkh language is included in the controversial Eurasiatic languages hypothesis by Joseph Greenberg.[6] Michael Fortescue (1998) suggested that Nivkh may be related to the Mosan languages.[7] In 2011, Michael Fortescue argued that Nivkh, which he also refers to as an "isolated Amuric language", is in fact related to the Chukotko-Kamchatkan languages, forming a Chukotko-Kamchatkan-Amuric language family.[8]


Nivkh is divided into four dialects, the Amur dialect, the North Sakhalin dialect, the South Sakhalin dialect, and the East Sakhalin dialect. The lexical and phonological differences between the dialect spoken by the Nivkhs of the Amur River basin and the dialect spoken by the Nivkhs of Sakhalin Island are so great that some linguists have classified them as two distinct languages belonging to a small Nivkh language family. Other linguists have emphasized the high degree of variability of usage among all Nivkhs; even within the Amur or Sakhalin dialect zone, there is said to be great diversity depending on the village, clan, or even individual speaker.


The grammar of Nivkh is highly synthetic, with a developed case system, as well as other grammatical markers, but no grammatical gender. The basic word order of Nivkh is subject–object–verb. Nivkh is notable for the high degree of incorporation between words. For example, those morphemes which express spatial relationships (prepositions or postpositions in many other languages) are incorporated into the noun to which they relate. A single word may consist of a combination of several roots, nouns, verbs, and affixes in order to express a particular meaning. Thus, in Nivkh, the formation of each individual word is significant to the sentence.


А а Б б В в Г г Ӷ ӷ Ғ ғ Ӻ ӻ Д д
Е е Ё ё Ж ж З з И и Й й К к К’ к’
Ӄ ӄ Ӄ’ ӄ’ Л л М м Н н Ӈ ӈ О о П п
П’ п’ Р р Р̌ р̌ С с Т т Т’ т’ У у Ф ф
Х х Ӽ ӽ Ӿ ӿ Ц ц Ч ч Ч’ ч’ Ш ш Щ щ
Ъ ъ Ы ы Ь ь Э э Ю ю Я я



Labial Alveolar Palatal Velar Uvular Glottal
Nasal m n ɲ ŋ
Plosive voiceless p t c k q
Fricative voiceless f s x χ h
voiced v z ɣ ʁ
Approximant central j w
lateral l
Trill voiceless
voiced r

The labial fricatives are weakly articulated, and have been described as both bilabial [ɸ, β] and labiodental [f, v]. The palatal stops may have some degree of affrication, as [tʃʰ, tʃ][9]

Nivkh features a process of consonant alternation, in which morpheme-initial stops alternate with fricatives and trills:[9]

Aspirated ↔ voiceless Unaspirated ↔ voiced
Stop p t c k q
Continuant f s x χ v r z ɣ ʁ

This occurs when a morpheme is preceded by another morpheme within the same phrase (e.g. a prefix or an adjunct), unless the preceding morpheme ends itself in a fricative or trill, or in a nasal or /l/.

  • /pəŋx/ 'soup'
  • /pənraj vəŋx/ 'duck soup'
  • /amsp vəŋx/ 'kind of seal soup'
  • but: /cxəf pəŋx/ 'bear soup'

Only the morpheme-initial position is affected: other clusters ending in a stop are possible within a morpheme (e.g. /utku/ "man").

In some transitive verbs, the process has been noted to apparently run in reverse (fricatives/trills fortiting to stops, with the same distribution). This has been taken a distinct process, but has also been explained to be fundamentally the same, with the citation form of these verbs containing an underlying stop, lenited due to the presence of a former i- prefix (which still survives in the citation form of other verbs, where it causes regular consonant alternation). Initial fricatives in nouns never change.[9]

After nasals or /l/, the unaspirated stops become voiced [b, d, ɟ, ɡ, ɢ]. Unlike consonant alternation, this occurs also within a morpheme. The Amur dialect deletes some word-final nasals, which leads to voiced stops occurring also word-initially.


The vowel system of Nivkh is unusual, being described by Ian Maddieson as "defective." It is actually a rotated system in which a gap in the mid front region of the vowel space is compensated for by moving vowels around. The centralised /ɤ/ has been described by Maddieson (1984) as complementing a gap caused by the lack of an ordinary mid front vowel.

The mid front vowel expected in a five-vowel system may have in the past developed into a close-to-mid front unrounded diphthong, represented in Maddieson's description of the language as /ɪe/.

Front back
unrounded rounded
Close ɪ u
Mid ɪe ɤ o
Open æ


Stress can fall on any syllable, but tends to be on the first; there is dialectal variation, and minimal pairs distinguished by stress seem to be rare.[10]


  1. ^ Austerlitz, R. (1956) Gilyak nursery words. Word 12 (2): 260-279.
  2. ^ 『ギリヤークの昔話』中村チヨ (1992) 北海道出版企画センター
  3. ^ Nivkh at Ethnologue (17th ed., 2013)
  4. ^ Nordhoff, Sebastian; Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2013). "Nivkh". Glottolog 2.2. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. 
  5. ^ Laurie Bauer, 2007, The Linguistics Student’s Handbook, Edinburgh
  6. ^ Mattissen, Johanna (2001) Facts about the World's Languages, Nivkh. New England Publishing. ISBN 0-8242-0970-2 p. 515.
  7. ^ Fortescue, M. (1998). .Language relations across Bering Strait: reappraising the archaeological and linguistic evidence
  8. ^ Fortescue, Michael (2011). "The relationship of Nivkh to Chukotko-Kamchatkan revisited." Lingua, Volume 121, Issue 8, June 2011, 1359–1376.
  9. ^ a b c Hidetoshi Shiraishi (2000). "Nivkh consonant alternation does not involve hardening". Journal of Chiba University Eurasian Society (3): 89–119. Retrieved 2009-08-26. 
  10. ^ Johanna Mattissen, Dependent-Head Synthesis in Nivkh: A Contribution to a Typology of Polysynthesis (John Benjamins Publishing, 2003; ISBN 9027229651), pp. 85-86.


  • Gruzdeva, Ekaterina. 1998. Nivkh, Lincom Europa, Munich, ISBN 3-89586-039-5
  • Maddieson, Ian. 1984. Patterns of sounds, Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0-521-26536-3
  • Mattissen, Johanna. 2003. Dependent Head Synthesis in Nivkh: A Contribution to a Typology of Polysynthesis, John Benjamins, Amsterdam, Philadelphia, ISBN 1-58811-476-7

External links

  • The Nivkhs from The Red Book
  • Sound Materials of the Nivkh Language The World's Largest Sound Archive of the Nivkh Language on the Web
  • Nivkh alphabet and language at Omniglot
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