Battle for the Survival of the Ket Language

By Michael Amato


Many people do not understand the difference between strength and power; the two are often used synonymously of each other, but this couldn’t be any more inaccurate. Exercising strength neither demonstrates power nor does exercising power display strength.  The Ket people, native to the Siberian wilderness in Russia, are strong but sadly not powerful, in the traditional sense of word.  To be strong one must be able to withstand great adversity, to resist change and possess the will to challenge great opposing forces.  Under the opposing influence of great power, the Soviet Union and later the Russian Federation, the Ket people have remained strong and are fighting the hard battle to preserve their unique Yeniseian language.  Today the Ket language is facing the same fate of that of their indigenous Yenisei neighbors, lingual extinction.  However, there is hope. With new archival effort to preserve the language and with new endeavors for educating future generations the Ket language will not become a thing of the past but instead it will advance into the future.

The Ket are an indigenous group of people native to the Siberian wilderness in what is now central Russia. The Ket were a primarily nomadic hunter-gatherer group of people who lived along the Yenisei River, surviving off the land raising no livestock or farming of any kind in the Taiga forest. The Ket people were formidable hunter gatherers until the early twentieth century when most of the Ket people had to abandon their hunting and gathering ways and transition into raising livestock, most commonly reindeer.3 The Ket transition into raising livestock was not brought upon by the choice but instead was forced upon them by the former Soviet Union.  In the beginning of the 1930’s Stalin began enforcing his policies for collectivization and industrialization of the Soviet Union. The Soviet Collectivization was Stalin’s radical plan to increase the industrial power of the Soviet Union, he wanted roughly a 250% percent increase in overall industrial development and a 330% increase in heavy industry.5    Stalin also wanted a massive increase in state collective farms, whether it be agricultural or livestock.5 This is why the Ket people were forced to switch after generations of being hunter-gatherers to reindeer farmers.  The Soviet Collectivization would mark the beginning of the challenges the Ket people would face, as they made the shift from their former nomadic style of living to Soviet/Russian style villages3 and thus this transition led to the decline of the use of the Ket language.

The Ket language is known as a Yeniseian language for it originates and is primarily only spoken in the Yenisei river basin.  The Ket language plays a very essential roll in understanding the languages that originated out of the Yenisei river basin because it is one of the only languages that is still be around today that has come out of the river basin.4   Such Yenisei languages like the Pumpokol, Arin, and Kot have stopped being used as early as the eighteenth century.4  The Ket language is a lingual anthropologists treasure and challenge because it is such a unique language, it has been compared to languages such as the Na-Dene, a language native to the northern part of the Americas, but no compelling evidence has been put forth to conclusively bridge the two languages.1  The Ket language even contains three different types of dialect; Northern Ket, Middle Ket, and Southern Ket4, the difference between the dialects is minimal yet it is still incredibly fascinating that this indigenous group of the Yenisei river basin developed the different dialects over time.  Sadly, as a whole, the number of speakers of the Ket language is on the decline. Today, according to a Russian census, there are approximately no more than 1,200 Ket people, and less and less are claiming Ket as a mother tongue with a drop of 78%, claiming to speak the language as their mother tongue, to 48%, claiming to speak the language as their mother tongue, between 1970 and 1989.4   Today it is theorized that no more than 15% that can speak Ket fluently.   Although there is a silver lining, new efforts are being made to preserve and make sure the language doesn’t meet the same fate as other Yeniseian languages. 

Today there is real action to preserve and continue the use of the Ket language, by archiving as much information on the Ket language researchers can gather and also provide the proper recourses to increase education on the Ket language for future generations of Ket and anyone else who may want to become educated on the Ket language.  The efforts to archive the Ket language primarily consist of vocal recording, video recording and, of course, textual documentation. “These recordings and texts involve vocabularies, questionnaires, lists of sentences, verb paradigms, folklore and household texts, dialogues, and other linguistic and ethnographic material.”1 In addition, researchers are archiving Ket folklore and household texts to preserve the writing style and forms of the Ket language1.  With the collection of all this information the researches do not just want to horde it, but rather turn these recourses into tools for the education of the Ket language.  In 2008 and 2011 the Department of Siberian Indigenous Languages at Tomsk State Pedagogical University hosted seminars for teacher of Ket providing new teaching materials for local schools1. The additional materials consisted of primarily recorded material of the Ket language1. All these new efforts are incredibly important to preserve the Ket language because the number of speakers is dropping dramatically. But, because of the efforts by the researchers and teachers the Ket language will not face extinction and hopefully in the near future it will reverse the trend and grow to pre-Soviet Collectivization levels.

The Ket language is a linguistic treasure because of its uniqueness and its prominence in the Yenisei River basin.  Yes the number the number Ket language speakers is dropping partially to the blame of the Soviets and their forced cultural shifts on the Ket people from hunter-gatherers to Russian village style citizens; but the tides are turning.  Great efforts are being made to archive and also teach the Ket language.  The archiving of the language will make sure the language is never forgotten and the teaching of the language is to make sure it will never leave the mouths of the Ket people. It will be a battle to reverse the decline of the Ket language but hopefully in the near future this will become a true success story. 



1.  Kryukova, Elena. "The Ket Language: From Descriptive Linguistics To Interdisciplinary Research." January 1, 2011. Accessed December 10, 2014.

2. Vajda, Edward J. "Yeniseian Languages." In Yeniseian Peoples and Languages a History of Yeniseian Studies with an Annotated Bibliography and a Source Guide., 357-366. 1st ed. Hoboken: Taylor and Francis, 2013.

3. Jordan, Peter. "Siberian Landscapes In Ket Traditional Culture." In Landscape and Culture in Northern Eurasia, 297-314. Walnut Creek, Calif.: Left Coast Press, 2011.

4. Kotorova. "Endangered Languages of Siberia - The Ket Language." Endangered Languages of Siberia - The Ket Language. January 1, 2007. Accessed December 11, 2014.

5. Library of Congress. "Collectivization and Industrialization." Revelations From The Russian Archives. July 22, 2010. Accessed December 11, 2014.