Nanai language

Нанай, Нанайэ (Nanaj, Nanaje)
Native to Russia, China
Region Russian Far East, Heilongjiang
Ethnicity Nanai people
Native speakers
1,400 (2010)[1]
  • Southern

    • Nanai group
      • Nanai
  • Nanai
  • Akani
  • Birar
  • Samagir
Language codes
ISO 639-3 gld
Glottolog nana1257[2]

The Nanai language (also called Gold, Goldi, or Hezhen) 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 1,400 speakers out of 17,000 ethnic Nanai, but most (especially the younger generations) are also fluent in Russian or Chinese, and mostly use one of those languages for communication.[3]


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.[4]


The language is distributed across several distantly-located areas:

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.[6] 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.[7] 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.[8]

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.

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.[9]

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.[10] 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,[11] "Nanaian language forms two groups, which are decomposed into a number of dialects".[12]

  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.[13] 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.[5]

  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. 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 programme 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.

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.

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.[14] In an effort to reverse this decline, a text book for Hezhe schoolchildren discussing the Hezhe language was published in 2005 (in pinyin transcription).[15]


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. The Nanai language uses the exactly same as Russian alphabet.

А а Б б В в Г г Д д Е е Ё ё Ж ж
З з И и Й й К к Л л М м Н н О о
П п Р р С с Т т У у Ф ф Х х Ц ц
Ч ч Ш ш Щ щ Ъ ъ Ы ы Ь ь Э э Ю ю
Я я

Sample text from a Bible translation published in 2002 is shown below.[16]

Lord's Prayer (Luke 11:2-4)
Nanai (Cyrillic) Transliteration English (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 siagopova epembe bundu buru. ³ Give us each day our daily bread.
⁴ 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:[17]

The following table summarises the rules of vowel harmony.

Vowel harmony in Nanai[18]
Class Group Members Notes
Yang vowels Group 1 [a]
Group 2 [o, œ] Do not appear after [i, u, y]; also [ɯ] does not appear after [œ]
Yin vowels Group 3 [ə] After [a, o], becomes neutral and can harmonise with any vowel
Neutral vowels Group 4 [i]
Group 5 [u, y] [y] will not appear again after [y]


As for consonants, there are twenty-eight:

  Labial Dental /
Retroflex (Alveolo-)
Velar Uvular
Plosives p b t d         k ɡ q b
Affricates     ts dz ʈʂ ɖʐ        
Fricatives f   s   ʂ ʐ ɕ   x   χ  
Nasals   m   n           ŋ    
Approximants       l       j   w    
Rhotic       r                

Phonemic consonants may optionally change as follows:[19]


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].[20]


An noted a variety of loanwords from Chinese in his survey, such as [ʐili] "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.[21] 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.[22] Conversely, the Nanai language itself has also contributed some loanwords to the Udege language, supplanting Udege vocabulary:

A large degree of mutual assimilation of the two languages has been observed in the Bikin region;[20] the Udege language itself only has 230 speakers left.[23]


  1. Nanai at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
  2. Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin; Bank, Sebastian, eds. (2016). "Nanai". Glottolog 2.7. Jena: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  3. Lewis 2009 (Nanai)
  4. An 1986, p1
  5. 1 2 Sem 1976, p24
  6. 1 2 Stolyarov 1994
  7. Russian Census (2002), Table 4.3
  8. Ministry of Trade and Economic Development, 2002
  9. An 1986, pp. 1-2
  10. Sem 1976: 21. Initially published in Дальневосточной энцинклопедии, 1927.
  11. Sunik 1962, p23
  12. «нанайский язык образует два наречия, распадающиеся на ряд говоров»
  13. Avrovin 1955, pp. 7-8
  14. He and Wu, 2005
  15. Li, 2005
  16. Gospel of Luke in Nanai Language, 2002
  17. An 1986, p8-10
  18. An 1986, p13-15
  19. An 1986, p11-13
  20. 1 2 Tolskaya 2001, p24
  21. An, p7-11
  22. An, p17
  23. Lewis 2009, Udihe


Further reading

General works

Texts in Nanai


For a list of words relating to Nanai language, see the Nanai language category of words in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.
Nanai language test of Wikipedia at Wikimedia Incubator
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