Itelmen - Orientation

Identification. The Itelmen are an aboriginal people of Kamchatka Peninsula, an area in Russia with the status of an oblast (the center is Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskii). In the north the Kamchatka Oblast borders the Magadan Oblast. The territory that is today inhabited by the Itelmen is a part of the Koryak Autonomous District ( okrug ) , with its center at Palana); it is administratively a part of the Kamchatka Oblast. Itelmen have never had political autonomy.

Location. Until the arrival of Russians, Itelmen occupied the greater part of Kamchatka, on the western coast (Sea of Okhotsk) as well as on the eastern coast (Pacific Ocean) down to Cape Lopatka (the southern extremity of the peninsula). The northern boundary of Itelmen settlement was the 58th parallel. The neighbors of the Itelmen were Koryaks to the north and Ainu to the south. The modern territory of Itelmen settlement is bounded on the north by the Tigil' River and on the south by the Khairuzovo River. Two-thirds of the territory of Kamchatka is covered by mountains, among which are active volcanoes. The area is rich in rivers, most no more than 10 kilometers long. The largest river, the Kamchatka (Ujkoal), drains into the Pacific Ocean. The climate of the peninsula is maritime, monsoonal, and very cold, with frequent storms, winds, and snowstorms. The summer is short. The average annual temperature is below 0° C.

Demography. The number of Itelmen at the end of the seventeenth century was 12,000 or 13,000. At present the number of Itelmen is about 1,500, although less than 20 percent (the older generation) speak the Itelmen language, which was displaced by Russian about fifty years ago. Nearly the entire Itelmen population is rural.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Itelmen language is classified in the Chukotsko-Kamchatsky Group of Paleoasiatic languages. The term "Paleoasiatic languages" is understood geographically, not linguistically. In the same way, the Itelmen language is classified as one of the languages in the Chukotsko-Kamchatsky Group areally and not historically. Relative to surrounding languages of northeastern Asia, the Itelmen language is historically isolated. The Itelmen language probably originated on the North American continent.

In the eighteenth century, when Itelmen occupied the greater part of Kamchatka, there were three distinctly marked linguistic communities: Eastern (Pacific coast), Southern (Petropavlovsk-Bol'sheretsk region), and Western (Okhotsk coast). The Eastern and Southern languages disappeared around the beginning of the twentieth century, supplanted by the Russian language. The Western language has been preserved until the present, but it is on the verge of disappearance. A written language with a Latin-based alphabet was introduced in the 1930s, but its development was interrupted soon afterward. A written language with a Cyrillic-based alphabet was introduced in the 1980s.

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