Photo/IllutrationAnna Bugaeva (Photo by Masami Ono)

Anna Bugaeva, associate professor of linguistics at the Tokyo University of Science, specializes in the Ainu language, which is classified as "critically endangered" in the UNESCO's endangered language list.

The Ainu is an ethic group indigenous to Hokkaido and the Russian Far East, and its culture and language are quickly disappearing as an everyday language after many years of persecution and an assimilation policy.

In her commentary contributed to The Asahi Shimbun, Bugaeva says the Ainu language has an extraordinary amount of resources as an endangered language and is a valuable asset in the world of linguistics.

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A language represents knowledge and a picture of the world. Extinction of a language means the entire human race loses a tremendously important aspect and becomes more impoverished. Therefore, studying and preserving endangered languages, such as Ainu, has a significant implication.Ainu is an isolated language that has no genealogical relationship in the northeastern Asian region.

Japanese and Korean have great similarities to each other in grammar and structure. Tungusic languages, including Manchu, also have many similarities to them. But, for Ainu, I rather see grammatical similarities to Athabaskan languages that are used by indigenous people in the western part of North America.

I imagine a deviation of such a degree is likely to be evidence of Ainu being of an ancient linguistic family. If the tongue was spoken before Japanese was formed, it can be considered as a cultural heritage of the ancient Japanese archipelago. That is another intriguing point of this language.

I came to be interested in Japan and the Ainu language, as I was greatly influenced by my mother, who was a linguist specializing in Korean. My mother’s teacher was Vera Tsintsius, who was a leading researcher of Tungusic language study in the former Soviet Union.

My mother took part in the compilation of a comparative dictionary of Tungusic and Manchu languages, and field studies of languages of ethnic minorities in Siberia and the Far East, both led by Tsintsius. Speakers of ethnic minority languages, such as Nivkh, were often visiting my mother at home, and I grew up listening to those languages.

Being in such an environment, I started to grow an interest in ukiyo-e woodblock prints and other Japanese things, and joined the Japanese Studies course at St. Petersburg University.

Russia has a rich tradition of Ainu studies.

Bronislaw Pilsudski was a Polish man who started studying Sakhalin Ainu after he was sent to Sakhalin island as punishment for his involvement in the revolutionary movement against tsarist Russia.

Nikolai Nevsky left a great achievement in studies of Ainu and other languages, but was later purged when he returned to the Soviet Union.

I, too, got to learn the charms of the Ainu language while I was studying different theories on the origins of the Japanese language at St. Petersburg University. After graduation in 1996, I decided to come to Japan. I have devoted fieldwork to the Chitose dialect of Ainu and other studies.

Currently, I am working on collaborative research about language change in Ainu, with grants-in-aid for scientific research (from the education ministry and Japan Society for the Promotion of Science), as well as the operation and expansion of the Ainu language corpus that has Japanese and English translations and grammatical explanations.

The amazing thing about the Ainu language is that there is an exceptional amount of accumulated collection of texts and recordings compared to other endangered languages.

We owe these to many years of hard work by pioneers including linguists Kyosuke Kindaichi and Mashiho Chiri.

There is still a lot we can do with the massive collection of the materials, and they can be used to make important contributions to the study of languages.

However, to do so, we need to translate the previous research on Ainu and recent studies into English to impart them to the rest of the world. It is important homework for today’s Ainu linguists.

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Born in Saint Petersburg in 1973, Anna Bugaeva is an Ainu language scholar and an associate professor of liberal arts in the Faculty of Science Division 1 at the Tokyo University of Science. Bugaeva studied linguistic typology and the Ainu language at the Hokkaido University Graduate School. She has a Ph.D. in linguistics.

(This article is based on an interview by Asahi Shimbun staff writer Masami Ono.)