The first ABC book

The Negidals, one of the nine indigenous minorities in the Russian Far East (Khabarovsk Region), have for the first time seen the 37 letters of their alphabet on the cover of Negida Hesenin, a national language textbook. For those inhabitants of Taiga, the book has been the best gift for Hunter’s Day, their biggest holiday of the year.

It was a sensation for the small community, which had never had any written language before, and the school classroom where the book presentation was held, proved too small for the overeager audience who came to see the first Negidal textbook ever published. Although the majority had to watch the presentation from the corridor, they were not disappointed. The book came with a phonetics DVD so everybody could enjoy the sounds of the native language.

Until recently, the language of the Negidals, totalling just over 500 people, was regarded as nearly extinct. “Based on the 2002 census, there were 147 people who could speak Negidal, mostly senior citizens,” said a spokesman at the Khabarovsk Ministry of Natural Resources. “They use it in everyday communication, and when they go fishing and hunting. Negidal, which is classified under the Manchu-Tungus group of the Altaic language family, is also the language of local oral folklore.

The work to create a Cyrillic-based Negidal alphabet was already underway in the early 1980s, but the project was suspended. In 2007, Darya Bereltueva, Dean of the Northern Peoples Faculty at the Far East State University of Humanities in Khabarovsk, resumed the effort and finally put together a new alphabet and a textbook. She was helped by native speakers from the village of Vladimirovka, where most of the Negidals live.

“Ethnographers spent long hours speaking with the natives and noting phonetic details. Using this data, engineers developed a unique software based on a standard keyboard that reproduces ethnic pronunciation of the words,” says Andrey Shorikov, CEO of Portal Khabarovsk, the company that provided engineering support for the linguistic project.

The development of the Negidal alphabet took 18 months. As a result, the project team has produced a DVD containing the full alphabet, an ABC book, 3000 word Negidal-Russian and Russian-Negidal dictionaries, language games, audio memoirs, a recording of shaman rituals, and supplementary and training materials for elementary school students.

The e-learning course will be used along with new hardcopy textbooks in pre-elementary and elementary classes at the Vladimirovka school.
The villagers have been also provided with specialist software to support a Negidal keyboard layout and fonts. Now the locals can write e-mails and draft documents in their native language.

Electronic alphabets and language textbooks will soon be available to all the indigenous minorities in the Khabarovsk Region.

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