Syntax, typology, and information structure -
Yukaghir languages, Tundra Yukaghir (wadul) and Kolyma Yukaghir (odul), are nowadays spoken in the Chersky-Kolyma tundra (TY) and in the taiga around the upper reaches of the Kolyma River (KY). They represent an isolated small language family. A distant genetic relationship with Uralic languages has sometimes been assumed.
Tundra and Kolyma Yukaghir are the only two remnants of what used to be one of the dominant languages/language families of north-eastern Siberia, spreading from the River Anadyr in the east to the River Lena in the west. On the basis of the meagre evidence of early sources, it can be assumed that there existed a Yukaghir dialect continuum, with what is today TY and KY at the extremes.
TY and KY share only a relatively small part of the vocabulary, so that they are not mutually intelligible. The basic grammatical structures, however, are very similar. Both languages have residual vowel harmony and a complex phonotactics of consonants. Both have rich agglutinative morphology and are strictly head-final. There is no finite subordination, and coordinate structures are practically absent. The most spectacular feature of TY and KY grammar is the split intransitive alignment system based on discourse-pragmatic features. Roughly, in absence of narrow focus, the system is organised on the nominative-accusative basis; when focused, direct objects and subjects of intransitive verbs are co-aligned (special focus case, special focus agreement).
Both Yukaghir languages are moribund. According to a 2009 informal survey, there are no more than five full speakers and a handful of semi-speakers of KY, whereas TY, which is slightly more vital, has at most sixty to seventy speakers, most of them over sixty.
Geography and History
The Yukaghirs are considered autochthonous to north-eastern Siberia and are usually directly connected with the neolithic populations whose remnants are found in this area. Lack of linguistic relatives prevents further speculations on their primordial origins.
In the 17th century, when the Russians first entered Siberia, the territory occupied by Yukaghir clans covered the vast area between the Rivers Lena and Anadyr. According to modern estimates, there were some 5,000 individuals. The Yukaghirs were nomadic hunters and gatherers. Organised in matrilineal clans, they roamed along the large Siberian rivers in search for prey during the greater part of the year. In summer, the clans used to meet at prearranged places to exchange goods, news, and for nuptial reasons.
The centuries that followed saw a rapid decline of the Yukaghirs. Cyclic measles epidemics, combined with the merciless tax policy of the colonisers, reduced their numbers to some 200 people in the beginning of the 20th century. Under the Soviet government, the demographic situation has somewhat improved (1509 individuals according to the Russian Census 2002), but the Yukaghir language and culture are on the verge of being irretrievably lost.
The Kolyma Yukaghirs are concentrated in the village of Nelemnoe on the Lower Kolyma, with a small diaspora in the villages of Zyryanka and Seymchan. Their primary means of subsistence is still hunting and fur trade, with dog as the only domesticated animal. The Tundra Yukaghirs, most of whom live in the village of Andryushkino and the nearby regional centre Chersky, have been under strong Even influence for centuries. This resulted in their adoption of reindeer herding as the major subsistence pattern.