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Kalmyk Oirat


Kalmyk Oirat

Хальмг келн Xal‘mg keln
Native to Russia
Region Kalmykia
Ethnicity Kalmyk
Native speakers
80,500 (2010)[1]
  • Central Mongolic
Cyrillic, Latin, Clear script
Official status
Official language in
Kalmykia (Russia)
Language codes
ISO 639-3
Linguist list
Glottolog None

Kalmyk Oirat (Mongolic language family. The Kalmyk people of the northwest Caspian Sea of Russia claim descent from the Oirats from Eurasia, who have also historically settled in Mongolia and northwest China. According to UNESCO, the language is "Definitely endangered".[3] According to the Russian census of 2010, there are 80,500 speakers of an ethnic population consisting of 183,000 people.[4]


  • History 1
  • Geographic distribution 2
  • Linguistic classification 3
  • Writing systems 4
  • See also 5
  • Notes 6
  • External links 7


Kalmyk is now only spoken as a native language by a small minority of the Kalmyk population. Its decline as a living language began after the Kalmyk people were deported en masse from their homeland in December 1943, as punishment for limited Kalmyk collaboration with the Nazis. Significant factors contributing to its demise include: (1) the deaths of a substantial percentage of the Kalmyk population from disease and malnutrition, both during their travel and upon their arrival to remote exile settlements in Central Asia, south central Siberia and the Soviet Far East; (2) the wide dispersal of the Kalmyk population; (3) the duration of exile, which ended in 1957; (4) the stigma associated with being accused of treason, and (5) assimilation into the larger, more dominant culture. Collectively, these factors discontinued the intergenerational language transmission.

In 1957, the Soviet government reinstated the Kalmyk Autonomous Oblast and later reestablished the Autonomous Republic of Kalmykia. The Kalmyk people were permitted to return to the Republic in 1957, 14 years after exile. The Russian language, however, was made the official language of the Republic, and Sovietization was imposed on the Kalmyk people, leading to drastic cuts in Kalmyk language education. The Cyrillic alphabet became firmly established among the Kalmyks (and other peoples, too). For instance, books, periodicals, newspapers, etc., were published using it. By the late 1970s, the Russian language became the primary language of instruction in all schools in the Republic.

During the period of Perestroika, Kalmyk linguists, in collaboration with the Kalmyk government, planned and tried to implement the revival of the Kalmyk language. This revival was seen as an integral part of the reassertion of Kalmyk culture. In an important symbolic gesture, the Kalmyk language was declared an official language of the Republic, giving it equal status with the Russian language with respect to official governmental use and language education.

During the production of the film Return of the Jedi, sound designer Ben Burtt based the language of the Ewoks on Kalmyk after hearing it spoken in a documentary and being impressed with its unusual phonology.

Geographic distribution

The majority of Kalmyk language speakers live in the Republic of Kalmykia, where it is an official language. A small group of Kalmyk language speakers also live in France and the USA, but the use of Kalmyk is in steep decline. In all three locations, the actual number of speakers is unknown. Kalmyk is regarded as an endangered language.

As of 2012, the Kalmyk community in New Jersey, which arrived in the US in the 1950s, was planning to work with the Endangered Voices project to promote Kalmyk language and culture.[5]

Linguistic classification

From a synchronic perspective, Kalmyk is the most prominent variety of Oirat. It is very close to the Oirat dialects found in Mongolia and the People’s Republic of China, both phonologically and morphologically. The differences in dialects, however, concern the vocabulary, as the Kalmyk language has been influenced by and has adopted words from the Russian language and various Turkic languages.

Two important features that characterize Kalmyk are agglutination and vowel harmony. In an agglutinative language, words are formed by added suffixes to existing words, called stem words or root words. Prefixes, however, are not common in Mongolic. Vowel harmony refers to the agreement between the vowels in the root of a word and the vowels in the word's suffix or suffixes. Other features include the absence of grammatical gender (with its distinctions of masculine, feminine, and neuter).

It has some elements in common with the Uralic and Uyghur languages, which reflects its origin from the common language of the Oirats, a union of four Oirat tribes that absorbed some Ugric and Turkic tribes during their expansion westward.

Writing systems

The literary tradition of Oirat reaches back to 11th century when the Uyghur script was used. The official Kalmyk alphabet, named Clear Script or, in Oirat, Todo bicig, was created in the 17th century by a Kalmyk Buddhist monk called Zaya Pandita. In 1924 this script was replaced by a Cyrillic script, which was abandoned in 1930 in favor of a Latin script. The Latin script was in turn replaced by another Cyrillic script in 1938. These script reforms effectively disrupted the Oirat literary tradition.

The modified Cyrillic alphabet used for the Kalmyk language is as follows:

Cyrillic Transliteration Cyrillic Transliteration
Аа a A a Оо ɔ O o
Әә æ Ä ä Өө o Ö ö
Бб p, pʲ B b Пп (, pʲʰ) P p
Вв w, wʲ W w Рр r, rʲ R r
Гг ɡ, ɡʲ, ɢ G g Сс s S s
Һһ h H h Тт , tʲʰ T t
Дд t, tʲ D d Уу ʊ U u
Ее je E e Үү u Ü ü
Ёё Yo Фф (f) F f
Жж Ž ž Хх x, xʲ X x
Җҗ J j Цц tsʰ Ts, S
Зз ts Z z Чч tʃʰ Ç ç
Ии i I i Шш ʃ Ş ş
Йй j Y y Щщ (stʃ) şç
Кк (k, kʲ) K k Ыы i I i
Лл ɮ, ɮʲ L l Ьь ʲ ˇ (diac.)
Мм m, mʲ M m Ээ e E e
Нн n, nʲ N n Юю Yu
Ңң ŋ Ñ ñ Яя ja Ya

See also


  1. ^ Kalmyk in Ethnologue
  2. ^ Kalmyk is alternatively spelled as Kalmuck, Qalmaq, or Khal:mag; Kalmyk Oirat is sometimes called "Russian Oirat" or "Western Mongol"
  3. ^ UNESCO Atlas of the World's languages in danger Retrieved on 2012-10-31
  4. ^ Kalmyk in Ethnologue
  5. ^ K. David Harrison (2012-05-27). "Cultural Revival in Europe’s Only Buddhist Region – News Watch". Retrieved 2012-10-21. 

External links

  • Article on language policy and history in Kalmykia
  • Russian-Kalmyk On-Line Dictionary
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