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6. Reports on Field Research

Voices from the Past: the use of Sound Archives for the Study of Endangered languages in Siberia

Tjeerd de Graaf & Vincent Wintermans

In Russia a very important collection of sound recordings can be found in the Museum of Russian Literature (the Pushkinsky Dom) in St Petersburg. These sound archives contain about 10,000 wax cylinders of the Edison phonograph and more than 500 old wax discs. In addition, an extensive fund of gram¬ophone records exists and one of the largest collections of tape recordings of Russian folklore.

Scientific interest in the languages and cultures of the non-Russian peoples of the Empire had developed in the XIXth century, often prompted by the work of people who had been banished to Siberia by the czarist regime. But by the time of the first recordings – the oldest materials in the Pushkinsky Dom date from the first decade of the XXth century – Russian linguists and anthropologists were professionals who used state of the art equipment. They managed to take their bulky phonographs and heavy wax rolls on long expeditions to Russia’s extreme North and East. The recordings formed the basis for good descriptions of small languages like Ostyak, Nivkh, Aleut and many others. These descriptions were indispensable for the development of alphabets for these hitherto unwritten languages, but they also enriched linguistic science in general: Trubetzkoy’s Grundzüge der Phonologie, a book that established the new discipline of phonology, could not have been written without the numerous examples derived from the languages of Russia’s North and East.

Folk singer Ivan Moiseev from Kargopolsky district of Archangelsky Province, in session with Eugene Gippius, Zinaida Evald (1930).

The recordings were stored in St Petersburg, and survived all turmoil that swept over the city in the eventful and often destructive XXth century. The collections were however subject to the usual dangers: the wax cylinders and discs were wearing out, the hardware became obsolete and the collections were no longer used.

However, thanks to technological progress, that makes it possible to transport the information on the cylinders to digital sound carriers, and to political changes that have made forms of scientific cooperation possible that would have been unthinkable before the end of the cold war, many of the Petersburg recordings have been brought back to life. The digital version of the records can be made easily accessible to everyone with a connection to the internet. The interested reader is referred to the huge collection of North Russian songs, narrative poetry and tales at

The value of the materials thus retrieved is evident; a considerable portion of the audiovisual materials kept in the Museum of Russian Literature has never been made available in scientific publications. Some of the collectors took up other scientific interests; some emigrated to the West and were thus separated from their recordings. The famous scholar W. Jochelson, for example, took his notes on the Kamchadal language with him to the United States, where they were published posthumously in 1961, while his recordings obviously were left behind in Russia. The digitalisation of his recordings would bring the written and recorded data together again, which undoubtedly would further the study of a language that has changed drastically since the time it was recorded by Jochelson.

In July 2005, the project group for the Russian-Dutch research project Voices from Tundra and Taiga has published a book on the Collections of the Peoples of the North in the Phonogram Archive of the Pushkinsky Dom. The project results reported there and the rich material in the published catalogue indicate that many voices from the past will be heard all over the world.

UNESCO inscribed the St Petersburg collections in its prestigious Memory of the World Register in 2001.

About the authors:

Tjeerd de Graaf is research fellow at the Fryske Akademy (Netherlands Royal Academy of Arts and Sciences), and honorary doctor of St. Petersburg University.

Together with Russian colleagues he initiated and coordinated the projects The Use of Acoustic Data Bases and the Study of Langua¬ge Change and Voices from Tundra and Taiga with the support of the organisation INTAS of the European Union and the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research NWO. More information can be found at, where the projects on Endangered Languages are described. He is board member of the Foundation for Endangered Languages and member of the working group for Culture, Communication & Information of the Netherlands National Commission for UNESCO.

Vincent Wintermans is a Slavist who works as project coordinator at the Bureau of the Netherlands National Commission for UNESCO.

UNESCO promotes the preservation and dissemination of valuable archive holdings and library collections all over the world via the Memory of the World Programme:

The UNESCO Endangered Languages Programme supports endangered languages and linguistic diversity as an essential part of the living heritage of humanity:

For information on TAPE see: