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definition - Nanai_language

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Nanai language

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Нанай, Нанайэ (Nanaj, Nanaje)
Spoken inRussia, China
RegionSiberia, Heilongjiang
Total speakers3,902
Language familyAltaic[1] (controversial)
Language codes
ISO 639-1None
ISO 639-2tut
ISO 639-3gld

The Nanai language (also called Gold language or Hezhen language) is spoken by the Nanai people in Siberia, and to a much smaller extent in China's Heilongjiang province, where it is known as Hezhe. The language has about 3,902 speakers out of 12,160 members of the ethnicity, but most of them (especially younger generations) are also fluent in Russian or Chinese (depending on the country where they live), and mostly use one of those languages for communication.[2]



In China, the language is referred to as hè zhé yǔ (Chinese: 赫哲语). The Nanai people there variously refer to themselves as /na nio/, /na bəi/, /na nai/ (which all mean "local people"), /ki lən/, and /χə ɖʐən/, the last being the source of the Chinese ethnonym Hezhe.[3]


The language is distributed across several distantly-located areas:

  • Middle/lower Amur dialects (Naykhin, Dzhuen, Bolon, Ekon, etc.): the areas along the Amur River below Khabarovsk (Nanai, Amursk, Solnechny, and Komsomolsk districts of Khabarovsk Krai);
  • Kur-Urmi dialect: the area around the city of Khabarovsk (the Kur and Urmi rivers, and the Khabarovsk District of Khabarovsk Krai);
  • Bikin dialect: Pozharsky District of Primorsky Krai (near the middle Ussuri River)[4]
  • Sungari dialect: boundary areas of the Ussuri River in China[5]

It is thought that in Russia, the Nanai language has been best preserved in the Nanai District of Khabarovsk Krai, because of the active Nanai-speaking community there, which has been active in working on the publication of books in Nanai, as well as textbooks on the language, and also because of the ethnic autonomous status of the Nanai District. According to Stolyarov's data, the world-wide Nanai population is 11,883, of whom 8,940 live in rural localities of Khabarovsk Krai. However, only 100-150 native speakers of the language remain there.[5] The 2002 Census recorded 12,194 people who claimed to speak the language, 90% in Khabarovsk Krai, 3.5% in Primorsky Krai, 1.3% in Sakhalin Oblast, and no more than 0.5% in any other area; of those, only 49, almost all in Khabarovsk Krai, were not also bilingual in Russian.[6] Three ethnic Nanai villages remain, those being Dzhuen, Ulika, and Dada; in the remaining populated areas, the proportion of Nanais among local residents is much smaller.[7]

Even in Russia, the situation for language preservation is not favorable: the carriers of language are scattered in different villages and often isolated from each other. The Nanai language continues to be used in the sphere of everyday contact among people older than 40. In their contact with people their age or younger, they prefer the Russian language, using Nanaian only for contact with elderly people aged 70 or older. On the whole, the Nanai language has been superseded by Russian in almost all spheres of communication; drastic measures are required for language preservation.[citation needed]

Scholars in China have traditionally presented less fine-grained dialect classifications; An identified only two, Hezhen and Qile'en, the former referring to all varieties of the language spoken in Russia. He conducted his studies in Jiejinkou, Bacha, And Sipai villages in Heilongjiang; at the time of his survey in 1982, the youngest fluent speaker was 55, and the oldest 72.[8]

Historical dialect classifications

There are several classifications of Nanai dialects. Early classifications tended to be areal and paid less attention to criteria for the differentiation of dialects. Lipskoy-Val'rond's classification, which distinguishes seven dialects, is one example of this; he distinguished the Sungari, Upper Amur, Ussuri, Urmi, Kur, Central Amur, and Lower Amur dialects. [9] In the 1920s, the period of initial studies of the Nanai language, the area of settlement of the Nanai people was more extensive than at present; many dialects, which had not yet been classified by researchers, later disappeared, and remain unnamed.

The next period of studies did not begin until after a 20-year interruption, at the end of the 1940s; by then, the number of dialects had grown, and subsequent classifications distinguished as many as ten. Also, the distribution of the Nanai language had sharply narrowed; many Lower Amur and Ussuri dialects remained unstudied. According to Sunik's classification, which emphasizes morphological and phonetic features,[10] "Nanaian language forms two groups, which are decomposed into a number of dialects".[11]

  1. Upper Amur: Sakachi-Alyan, Naykhin, Bolon, Dzhuen, Garin
  2. Central Amur: Kur-Urmi, Bikin, Right-bank Amur, Sungari, Ussuri

Avrorin divided the language into three varieties: Sungari (aka Upper Amur), (Lower) Amur, and Kur-Urmi, further subdividing them into a number of dialects. The basic difference with Sunik's classification concerns the Amur and Upper Amur groups: Avrovin considered Bolon and Dzhuen under Naykhin, while separating Kur-Urmi as its own group, while Sunik viewed Kur-Urmi as a dialect.[12] Sem, in contrast, classified Nanai into Upper, Central, and Lower Amur groups, each divided into a number of dialects; he counted a total of ten dialects.[4]

  1. Upper Amur: Right-bank Amur, Sungari, Bikin (Ussuri), Kur-Urmi
  2. Central Amur: Sakachi-Alyan, Naykhin, Dzhuen
  3. Lower Amur: Bolon, Ekon, Gorin

It should be noted that among the contemporary carriers of Nanaian language (middle and lower Amur dialects), dialect levelling and mixing has occurred due to extensive population migrations and the system of teaching of Nanai language (based on the Naykhin dialect); therefore it is difficult to differentiate the dialects in contemporary language data.


The Nanai language is taught in secondary schools in Russia, mainly in Nanai villages in Khabarovsk Krai.[citation needed]The duration of instruction and weekly contact hours vary; a standard curriculum used in 7 villages. Furthermore, in the villages of Belgo, Nizhnie Khalby (Lower Khalby), and Verkhnyaya Ekon (Upper Ekon), there is an experimental teaching programe in Nanaian language with a greater number of contact hours. Normally there are one to two contact hours per week; in different schools, the duration of instruction varies from 4 to 10 years, beginning from the first year. In the schools with the experimental program, the language is taught from years 1 through 9 with a larger number of contact hours.[citation needed]

Textbooks on the Nanai language, fairy tales, and artistic literature are used in Nanai language teaching. Sometimes teachers took the initiative to use oral folklore as well. However, there is a shortage of teaching and auxiliary materials, as well as difficulty in motivating students. Nanai language textbooks follow the model of Russian language textbooks aimed at native speakers, rather than emphasising instruction in the language itself, and in the theoretical/practical grammar. This model is not adequate for the situation of heritage language preservation. Moreover the existing language teaching materials are oriented predominantly (or only) towards the development of reading habits; however, the number of publications in the Nanaian language does not exceed one-two ten, mostly collections of folklore or artistic works of the historical-biographical genre, publishing in limited print runs. Instruction in spoken language is not conducted sufficiently and is not reinforced by teaching aids.[citation needed]

In China, the Nanai (Hezhe) people use Chinese for writing. The number of speakers has been in continual decline for decades; by the 1980s, the use of the language was restricted to special situations and communication with family members.[13] In an effort to reverse this decline, a text book for Hezhe schoolchildren discussing the Hezhe language was published in 2005 (in pinyin transcription).[14]


The first books in the Nanai language were printed by Russian Orthodox missionaries in the late 19th century in a Cyrillic orthography. In the 1920s-30s, after several false starts, the modern written form of the Nanai language was created by a team of Russian linguists led by Valentin Avrorin.[citation needed]

А аБ бВ вГ гД дЕ еЁ ёЖ ж
З зИ иЙ йК кЛ лМ мН нО о
П пР рС сТ тУ уФ фХ хЦ ц
Ч чШ шЩ щЪ ъЫ ыЬ ьЭ эЮ ю
Я я

Sample text from a Bible translation published in 2002 is shown below.[15]

Lord's Prayer (Luke 11:2-4)
Nanai (Cyrillic)TransliterationEnglish (NIV)
² Нёани дахамдичии уӈкини: «Кэсивэ гэлэйдуэри туй ундусу: „Боаду, уйлэ би, Эндур Ама! Гэбукуди гэрбуси бигини. Си боа яловани далачайси эрин исигини! Наду-да, боаду-да Си чихалайси бигини!² Nǒani dahamdičii uŋkini: "Kesive geleĭdueri tuĭ undusu: 'Boadu, uĭle bi, Endur Ama! Gebukudi gerbusi bigini. Si boa ǎlovani dalačaĭsi erin isigini! Nadu-da, boadu-da Si čihalaĭsi bigini!² He said to them, "When you pray, say: 'Father, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
³ Ини таондоани сиагопова эпэмбэ бунду буру.³ Ini taondoani ciagopova epembe bundu buru.³ Give us each day our daily bread.
Буэ оркимпова гудиэсигуру, буэ-дэ оркиӈку, наӈдаку гурумбэ гудиэсиэпу, буэ мурумпувэ-дэ эди памаванда, хай-да дялимбани, оркимбани эди дял дяпаванда“».⁴ Bue orkimpova gudiesiguru, bue-de orkiŋku, naŋdaku gurumbe gudiesiepu, bue murumpuve-de edi pamavanda, haĭ-da dǎlimbani, orkimbani edi dǎl dǎpavanda.'"⁴ Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us. And lead us not into temptation"


Vowels and vowel harmony

The Nanai language has seven phonemic vowels: /i, u, y, o, œ, a, ə/. There are twelve allowed diphthongs: /ai, ao, əi, əo, ia, iə, io, iu, ua, ui, uo, oi, ya, yə/; there are also two allowed triphthongs: /iao, uai/. Phonemic vowels change as follows based on surrounding consonants:[16]

  • /i/ becomes [ɪ] after /ɖʐ, ʈʂ, s/
  • /i/ becomes [i̟] after /m, n, l, d/
  • A glottal stop [ʔ] is inserted before /i/ when it begins a syllable and precedes /dz, s, tɕ, ɕ, l, m, ŋ/.
  • /ɘ/ may optionally become [ɯ] in non-initial syllables
  • A vowel in a final syllable is nasalised when it precedes /n/

The following table summarises the rules of vowel harmony.

Vowel harmony in Nanai[17]
Yang vowelsGroup 1[a]
Group 2[o, œ]Do not appear after [i, u, y]; also [o] does not appear after [œ]
Yin vowelsGroup 3[ə]After [a, o], becomes neutral and can harmonise with any vowel
Neutral vowelsGroup 4[i]
Group 5[u, y][y] will not appear again after [y]


As for consonants, there are twenty-eight:

 LabialDental /
Plosivespbtd    kɡqɢ
Affricates  tsdzʈʂɖʐ    
Fricativesf s ʂʐɕ x χ 
Nasals m n     ŋ  
Approximants   l   j w  
Rhotic   r        

Phonemic consonants may optionally change as follows:[18]

  • /s ɕ χ/ to [dz ʑ ʁ] (respectively) between two vowels
  • /ɡ/ to [ɣ] in syllable-final position, before [d] in the following syllable


Phonology of the various dialects of Nanai has been influenced by surrounding languages. Tolskaya specifically noted several phonological peculiarities of Bikin dialect which may indicate influence from Udege, including monopthongisation of diphthongs, denasalisation of nasal vowels, deletion of reduced final vowels, epenthetic vowel preventing consonant final words, and the deletion of intervocalic [w].[19]


An noted a variety of loanwords from Chinese in his survey, such as [ʐi.li] "calendar" from Chinese 日曆 (Pinyin: rìlì); a few also came from other languages, such as [pomidor] (tomato), almost certainly from Russian помидор, though the exact route of transmission is not attested and it may have been reborrowed from other neighbouring languages rather than directly from Russian.[20] There is also some vocabulary shared with Mongolian and the Turkic languages, such as:

These too are likely loanwords, though proponents of the Altaic hypothesis may take these as evidence of a genetic relationship.[21] Conversely, the Nanai language itself has also contributed some loanwords to the Udege language, supplanting Udege vocabulary:

  • [ba.ni.xe] (thank you), from Nanai [ba.ni.xa], instead of Udege [u.sa.sa]
  • [dœl.bo] (work), from Nanai [dœ.bo], instead of Udege [e.te.te]
  • [daŋ.sa] (book) from Nanai [daŋ.sa], itself a loanword from Chinese 單子 (Pinyin: dānzi), which actually means "list"

A large degree of mutual assimilation of the two languages has been observed in the Bikin region;[19] the Udege language itself only has 230 speakers left.[22]


  1. ^ Lewis, 2009 (Altaic)
  2. ^ Lewis 2009 (Nanai)
  3. ^ An 1986, p1
  4. ^ a b Sem 1976, p24
  5. ^ a b Stolyarov 1994
  6. ^ Russian Census (2002), Table 4.3
  7. ^ Ministry of Trade and Economic Development, 2002
  8. ^ An 1986, pp. 1-2
  9. ^ Sem 1976: 21. Initially published in Дальневосточной энцинклопедии, 1927.
  10. ^ Sunik 1962, p23
  11. ^ «нанайский язык образует два наречия, распадающиеся на ряд говоров»
  12. ^ Avrovin 1955, pp. 7-8
  13. ^ He and Wu, 2005
  14. ^ Li, 2005
  15. ^ Gospel of Luke in Nanai Language, 2002
  16. ^ An 1986, p8-10
  17. ^ An 1986, p13-15
  18. ^ An 1986, p11-13
  19. ^ a b Tolskaya 2001, p24
  20. ^ An, p7-11
  21. ^ An, p17
  22. ^ Lewis 2009, Udihe


Further reading

General works

  • (Russian) Avrorin, Valentin Aleksandrovich (1959). Грамматика нанайского языка, т.1. М.. Soviet Academy of Sciences. 
  • (Russian) Avrorin, Valentin Aleksandrovich (1961). Грамматика нанайского языка, т.2. М.. Soviet Academy of Sciences. 
  • (Russian) Putintseva, A.P. (1954). Морфология говора горинских нанай.. 
  • (Russian) Putintseva, A.P. (1969). О производственной лексике горинских нанай // Ученые записки ЛГПИ. 
  • (Russian) Stolyarov, A.V. (1997). Нанайский язык: социолингвистическая ситуация и перспектива сохранения // Малочисленные народы Севера, Сибири и Дальнего Востока. Проблемы сохранения и развития. St. Petersburg. 
  • (Russian) Sunik, O.P. (1958). Кур-урмийский диалект. 
  • (German) Doerfer, Gerhard (1973). [Expression error: Missing operand for > "Das Kur-Urmische und seine Verwandten"]. Zentralasiatische Studien (Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz) (7): 567–599. 
  • (German) Doerfer, Gerhard (1975). [Expression error: Missing operand for > "Ist Kur-Urmisch ein nanaischer Dialekt?"]. Ural-Altaische Jahrbücher (47): 51–63. 
  • (Japanese) Kazama, Shinjiro (March 1994). [Expression error: Missing operand for > "ナーナイ語の「一致」について (On 'agreement' in Nanay)"]. 北大言語学研究報告 (Sapporo: Faculty of Letters, Hokkaido University) (5). 
  • (Chinese) Zhang, Yang-chang; Bing Li, Xi Zhang (1989). 赫哲语 (The Hezhen Language). Changchun: Jilin University Press. 
  • Nanai alphabet on Omniglot

Texts in Nanai

  • (Russian) Avrorin, Valentin Aleksandrovich (1986). Материалы по нанайскому языку и фольклору. 
  • (Russian) Нанайский фольклор: Нингман, сиохор, тэлунгу. Новосибирск. 1996. 
  • (Russian) Манга покто/Трудные тропы. Khabarovsk. 1992. 
  • (Russian) Samar, E. (2000). Кондонкан даламдини/Кондонский староста. Khabarovsk. 
  • (Russian) Passar, A. (2002). Ми урэхэмби нингмансал/Сказки моего детства (Fairy Tales of my Childhood). Khabarovsk. 
  • (Russian) Khodzher, A. (2000). Михорангоари/Поклонение природе. Khabarovsk. 
  • (Russian) Marshak, S.Y.; Valentin Avrorin (translator) (1990). Двенадцать месяцев/Дёан дюэр биа. Khaborovsk. 
  • (Russian) Bel'dy, G. (1980). На найни: Стихи. Khabarovsk. 
  • (Japanese) Kazama, Shinjiro (1993). [Expression error: Missing operand for > "ナーナイ語テキスト (Nanay Texts)"]. Publications on Tungus Languages and Cultures (Otaru, Japan: Center for Language Studies, Otaru University of Commerce) (4). 
  • (Japanese) Kazama, Shinjiro (1996). [Expression error: Missing operand for > "ナーナイの民話と伝説2 (Nanay Folk Tales and Legends 2)"]. Publications on Tungus Languages and Cultures (Tottori, Japan: Faculty of Education, Tottori University) (8). 
  • (Japanese) Kazama, Shinjiro (1997). [Expression error: Missing operand for > "ナーナイの民話と伝説3 (Nanay Folk Tales and Legends 3)"]. Publications on Tungus Languages and Cultures (Tokyo, Japan: Tokyo University of Foreign Studies) (10). 
  • (Japanese) Kazama, Shinjiro (1998). [Expression error: Missing operand for > "ナーナイの民話と伝説4 (Nanay Folk Tales and Legends 4)"]. Publications on Tungus Languages and Cultures (China, Japan: Chiba University) (12). 


  • (Russian) Onenko, S.N. (1959). Русско-нанайский словарь (свыше 8 000 слов). 
  • (Russian) Petrova, T.I. (1960). Нанайско-русский словарь (около 8 000 слов). 
  • (Russian) Onenko, S.N. (1982). Нанайско-русский и русско-нанайский словарь: пособие для учащихся средней школы (более 3 600 слов). 
  • (Russian) Onenko, S.N. (1989). Словарь нанайско-русский и русско-нанайский: пособие для учащихся средней школы (около 4 000 слов). 
  • (Russian) Onenko, S.N. (1986). Лоца-Наанай Хэсэhкуни/Русско-нанайский словарь (около 5 000 слов). 
  • (Russian) Onenko, S.N. (1980). Нанай-Лоча Хэсэhкуни/Нанайско-русский словарь (12 800 слов). 
  • (Russian) Kile, A.S. (1999). Нанайско-русский тематический словарь (духовная культура). Khabarovsk. 

External links


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