More on Ös [Middle Chulym] language
The indigenous people of the middle Chulym river basin (ö:s
kizhiler ‘Ös people’, pisting kizhiler,‘our people’) speak
one of the most critically endangered of native Siberian
languages. The Ös language is a divergent Turkic speech
variety now mostly used by elderly speakers who live in
small, isolated villages in Tomsk Oblast’ and Krasnoyarsk
Kray in central Siberia.
The present-day Ös people are descended from non-Turkic
peoples of Yeniseic and Uralic stock, who lived as fishers
and hunter-gatherers primarily along the Chulym river. Their
history—including multiple waves of colonization and
linguistic assimilation first into Turkic, and now into
Russian—is reflected in substrate structures of their
language that distinguish it significantly from other
Siberian Turkic tongues.
Middle Chulym or Ös has become endangered in part as a
result of open hostility from the state during the twentieth
century. Unlike most native Siberian languages, it was never
committed to writing. In the 1940s, with the establishment
of the ‘second mother tongue’ policy, children were rounded
up into boarding schools and forbidden to speak their mother
tongue. This led to rapid abandonment of the language. In
addition, Ös [Chulym Turkic] people were dropped from census
statistics as a distinct ethnic group after 1959, regaining
separate ethnic identity only in 1999. In the 1970’s, they
were forcibly consolidated into larger, Russian-speaking
settlements, thus losing their population base and
traditional language milieu.
According to an ethnographic survey conducted by V. P.
Krivonogov (1998), in 1997 there were 115 self-reported
‘fluent speakers’ of which only 11 claimed to use Chulym as
the primary language of spoken communication, while 24
reported that they spoke Chulym as often they spoke Russian.
However, our pilot field survey, conducted in July 2003,
suggests that the total number of actual speakers, including
semi-speakers, is less than 40.
In July, 2003, we undertook a pilot investigation to the
Middle Chulym region. We focused on villages where the
greatest concentrations of Ös live: these are Belij Yar,
Novoshumilovo, Ozyornoe, and Tegul’det, in eastern Tomsk
Oblast’ and Pasechnoe in western Krasnoyarsk Kray.
A second expedition took place in June-July 2005. Some of
the findings of the expeditions to date include that there
appears to be now under 25 speakers of the language, and
fewer than 10 who are capable as serving as consultants or
The third Chulym trip took place in 2008 and many new texts
were recorded. We are currently working on these for
There also appear to be two varieties of the language. A
Middle Chulym variety and an Upper Chulym variety which, as
might be expected, shares features with Xyzyl or Kyzyl (Xakas),
the next variety further upriver into Krasnoyarsk Kray. We
also became aware of an indigenous Ös orthographic tradition
for this unwritten language.