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International Conference on Historical Linguistics

The Crucial Role of Chuvash Dialects in Reconstructing Proto-Turkic (and Beyond)



Alexander Savelyev


This talk presents a case study of Chuvash, an endangered language that plays a key role in historical Turkic linguistics. Chuvash is a Turkic language spoken by approximately 1 million speakers in the Middle Volga region. According to UNESCO’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger, Chuvash is a vulnerable language because of the dominant position of Russian in the region (Salminen 2010: 42). Recent sociolinguistic studies (Alòs i Font 2016) indicate very rapid and extensive language shift in the Republic of Chuvashia. From 2002 to 2010, Chuvash lost about a quarter of its speakers. The Chuvash people are an ethnic majority in the cities and towns of Chuvashia, but only around 1 percent of the republic’s urban children speak Chuvash with their parents (Alòs i Font 2015a). Language shift has also spread to the rural Chuvashia (Alòs i Font 2015b), not to mention Chuvash-populated areas outside the republic (Dolgova et al. 2004: 78–81). The endangered Chuvash language is the only living representative of the Bulgar branch, the earliest offshoot of Proto-Turkic (PT), which is in many respects opposed to the Common Turkic (CT) languages. Evidence from Chuvash is of vital importance in reconstructing Proto-Turkic, particularly its phonology. Chuvash represents characteristic features of the Bulgar branch, such as two types of rhotacism (PT *ŕ > CT /z/, Bulg. /r/; PT *δ > Bulg. /r/ with /j/, /d/, /t/ and /z/ in different subgroups of CT), lambdacism (PT *λ > CT /š/, Bulg. /l/), the “Bulgar palatalization” (PT *s- > Bulg. /š-/ and PT *t- > Bulg. /č-/ in certain contexts) etc. (Dybo 2010; Róna-Tas & Berta 2011). These correspondences provide a more complete reconstruction of the Proto-Turkic phonological system.

As a near-native speaker of Chuvash, I will discuss the role of Chuvash dialect data in studying Turkic historical phonology. For a century, Chuvash-Common Turkic comparative studies have predominantly used data from Standard Chuvash, which is phonologically simpler and much more innovative than Chuvash dialects. I will argue that, because of some crucial methodological shortcomings, dialect records from the 20th century are hardly suitable for comparative purposes. Therefore, from a historical perspective, documentation of Chuvash dialects is still a highly relevant research task.

From 2011 to 2015, I was involved in fieldwork on the endangered dialects of Chuvash conducted by the Institute of Linguistics of the Russian Academy of Sciences (Moscow) and the Chuvash State Institute for the Humanities (Cheboksary). I had the opportunity to analyze fieldwork data from the very specific Northwestern dialect area (Savelyev 2015) and to carry out my own fieldwork on other Chuvash dialects in Chuvashia and a Chuvash enclave in Tatarstan (Savelyev 2013, 2014).

The Northwestern dialect (NW) represented most clearly by the speech of the village of Maloye Karachkino in Yadrinsky District, Chuvashia, has long attracted attention from scholars due to its striking peculiarities (Ašmarin 1898). The recent field studies confirmed and advanced Mudrak’s hypothesis (1993) that the speech of Maloye Karachkino represents a highly distinctive Chuvash dialect, which may have separated from the Bulgar stock already in the Middle Ages. For instance, the NW dialect retains PT *ẹ and *ö that developed into /i/ and /ü/ respectively in all the other varieties of Chuvash, cf. PT *gẹr- ‘necessary’ > Chuv. kirlə, NW kẹrlə id.; PT *t.rü ‘law, custom’ > Chuv. türə, NW törə ‘judge’. In certain contexts, this dialect gives specific reflexes of PT *-γ-, which cannot be deduced from the common Chuvash system, cf. PT *eγ- ‘to bind’ > Chuv. av-, NW aj- id.

My fieldwork on the Anatri dialect of Chuvash revealed some archaic phonological features that cannot be found in Standard Chuvash but are consistent with the reconstruction of Proto- Turkic. To give an example, in a variety of Anatri, I detected labialized reflexes of the PT rounded vowels giving (in general) unrounded variants in Chuvash, cf. PT *tut- ‘to grasp’ > Chuv. tït-, Anatri Chuvash language; Middle Volga region tʉt- id. Using these and other examples, I will demonstrate how less-studied dialect data can support the reconstruction of a proto-language. Given the binary structure of the Turkic family, Chuvash data turn out to be crucial in studying its linguistic history. In a broader context, an accurate reconstruction of Proto-Turkic allows a more reliable inference regarding the place of Turkic among such families as Mongolic, Tungusic, Japonic and Koreanic (Robbeets 2005).


Alòs i Font, H. 2015a. Otnošenie gorodskogo naselenija Čuvašskoj Respubliki k ispol’zovaniju gosudarstvennyh jazykov. In: I.I. Bojko, A.V. Kuznecov (eds.). Issledovanie jazykovoj situacii v Čuvašskoj Respublike. 48–89.

Alòs i Font, H. 2015b. Etnojazykovaja situacija v sel’skih rajonah Čuvašskoj Respubliki (po dannym sociolingvističeskogo oprosa škol’nikov Morgaušskogo i Alikovskogo rajonov). In: In: I.I. Bojko, A.V. Kuznecov (eds.). Issledovanie jazykovoj situacii v Čuvašskoj Respublike. 136–163.

Alòs i Font, H. 2016. The Chuvash Language in the Chuvash Republic: An Example of the Rapid Decline of One of Russia’s Major Languages. In: M. Sloboda, P. Laihonen, A. Zabrodskaja (eds.). Sociolinguistic Transition in Former Eastern Bloc Countries: Two Decades after the Regime Change. Prague Papers on Language, Society and Interaction. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 2016. 51–73.

Ašmarin, N.I. 1898. Materialy dlja issledovanija čuvašskogo jazyka 1–2. Kazan': Tipo-litografija Imperatorskogo universiteta.

Dolgova, A.P. et al. 2004. Simbirsko-saratovskie čuvaši. Čeboksary: Čuvašskij gosudarstvennyj institut gumanitarnyh nauk.

Dybo, A. 2010. Bulgars and Slavs: Phonetic Features in Early Loanwords. In: E. Mańczak-Wohlfeld and B. Podolak (eds.). Studies on the Turkic World. Kraków. 21–40.

Mudrak, O.A. 1993. Istoričeskie sootvetstvija čuvašskih i tjurkskih glasnyh: Opyt rekonstrukcii i interpretacii. M.: DAJMOND.

Robbeets, M. 2005. Is Japanese related to Korean, Tungusic, Mongolic and Turkic? Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz.

Róna-Tas, A. & Berta, A. 2011. West Old Turkic. Turkic Loanwords in Hungarian 1–2. Turcologica, 84. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz.

Salminen, T. 2010. Europe and the Caucasus. In: C. Moseley (ed.). Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger, 3rd edn. Paris, UNESCO Publishing. 32–42.

Savelyev, A.V. 2013. Fonetičeskie osobennosti nizovogo dialekta čuvašskogo jazyka (po dannym govorov Nurlatskogo rajona Tatarstana), In: Materialy XIII meždunarodnoj konferencii “Aktual’nyje problemy dialektologii jazykov narodov Rossii”. Ufa. 105–111.

Savelyev, A.V. 2014. Ogublennyje /ɨ/ i /i/ v nizovyh govorah čuvašskogo jazyka. In: Vestnik KIGI RAN. № 1. 36–41.

Savelyev, A.V. 2015. Slovar' malokaračinskogo dialekta čuvašskogo jazyka (available online at

Sergejev, L.P. 1992. Čăvaš dialektologijĕ: Verenű posobijĕ. Šupaškar: Čăvaš universitečĕn

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