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The self-designation is ket 'man' (plural deng 'men, people'). The Kets who live on the Kas, Sym and Dubches rivers use the name jugun for themselves. The Russians, who did not much differentiate between the Siberian peoples in the 17th century, called them Ostyak. Later, they became known as the Yenisey-Ostyak because of their habitat on the middle reaches of the Yenisey river. The designation Ket was officially recognized in the 1930s when the self-designations of the peoples came into use.

The first written records of the Kets date from the 17th century when the Russians came to areas inhabitated by some of their tribes (Inbak, Zemchak, Bogden).

Habitat. The Ket inhabit the Yenisey Basin (Sym, Kureika, Yeloguy, Podkamenaya Tunguska) in East Siberia. This area, in the middle reaches of the Yenisey (about 1,000--1,500 km from north to south), is administratively in the Turukhansk and Baikit districts of the Krasnoyarsk Region in the Russian Federation.

Population. Official census data is as follows:

native speakers
19261,42885.8 %
19591,01977.1 %
19701,18274.9 %
19791,12245.5 %
19891,11348.3 %

The population of the Kets has been more or less stable, but the percentage of native language speakers is on the decline. In 1926 there were 1,225 speakers, but after 53 years only about 500 were reported -- less than half of the population.

Anthropologically the Ket belong to the Mongoloid North-Asian race, although some features of the Uralic race are also observable. Compared to Mongoloid people, the colour of their skin and eyes is lighter, but in comparison with the Uralic people their skin is darker, their nose is more protrusive and their beard growth poorer. Their face is broad and flat, with high cheekbones. They are short and stout. In 1843 A. Th. von Middendorff gave the following description: "the Kets are plump with thin legs and a staggering walk, flitting eyes and a jerky talk. In spite of their Mongoloid features they look quite alike the Finns".

The Ket language belongs to the Ket Assan (Yenisey) group of the Paleo-Asiatic languages. Kott (Kot), Arin, Assan (Asan) also belong to this group but these people have been assimilated by either the Khakass, Evenks or Russians. The Kets are the only living people of the western Paleo-Asiatic group. The generic origin of the language is not clear, but it is assumed that it is related to the Sino-Tibetan or North-Caucasian languages.

Two dialects are distinguishable: the Sym dialect (a score of speakers in 1968) and the Imbat dialect (spoken by most of the people). The Imbat dialect has several subdialects (Surgut, Suloma, Kureika) of which the differences are mainly phonological.

The Ket language may be distinguished from other Siberian languages because of its category of gender and the distinction between animate and inanimate.

The Kets possess a rich vocabulary in regard to traditional spheres of life (for example, flora, fauna, hunting, weather). Relations between the Kets and their neighbouring peoples are revealed through language loans. The older loans have been made from the Evenk, Turkic or Samoyedic languages (for example, reindeer terminology was borrowed from the Samoyedic language). Russian loans began flooding the language when a written script was created and the radical social reforms of the 30s were initiated. Words to denote socio-political, technological and cultural phenomena were adapted, translated and directly absorbed into the Ket language. In the late 1930s the replacement of the Ket language by Russian began. Prestige was attached to the Russian language because it was the language for education and of culture and administration. The use of Russian is widespread and it is growing still. Unfortunately, this is at the expense of the native tongue.

History. The roots of the present-day Kets seem to have been further south than their present habitat. The Kets were probably formed on the basis of the people from the Sayan mountains and the people indigenous to the River Yenisey. Ket tradition has it that their ancestors were driven northwards by the "mountain people" and that they had to cross ranges of mountains before they came to Siberia.

The Ket areas were incorporated into the Russian Empire in the early 17th century. There is evidence from 1607 that Cossacks from the fortified town of Mangazeya established an outpost at Imbat for collecting tribute. The Ket resistance was futile -- their bows were of little use against the Russians. Ket society was made up of two exogamic fraternal kinships: kentandeng (mostly Inbak tribes) and bogdedeng (Zemchak and Bogden tribes). The totem of kentandeng was an eagle and that of the bogdedeng was a cuckoo. To break Ket resistance in the 18th century the Russians deported them. The strictly organized Ket society disintegrated and next of kin and neighbours became very important. Part of the Ket were moved to the Selkup area.

The main aim of the Russians was to collect furs -- sable, squirrel, and others. The yearly tribute was 5--12 pelts per person; merchants took care of the rest. The law was in their hands and the availability of the commodities and their prices were quite arbitrary. The cost of living was also raised by gold prospectors and traders. The Kets ran up crippling debts. A part of them died of famine, and others died of diseases imported from Europe (such as typhoid fever, smallpox, and influenza), which spread in epidemics. In the 19th century the Kets could no longer cope without support from the state (in the form of food).

The Soviets introduced collectivization. The traditional Ket way of life was denounced, and self-initiative was suppressed. The new rule demanded new people and new thinking. The Kets, wo had been partly nomadic had to settle down. The inhabitants of Podkamenaya Tunguska were moved to the settlement of Tchorny Ostrov where a collective farm, named after Stalin, was established. Collectivization meant distribution of new guns, and traps, and also setting up of competitive plans and objectives. When the "kulaks" had been deported, the resistance was subdued and by 1938, 72 co-operatives and 6 collective farms had been formed. Hunting and fishing went on throughout the whole year. To fulfill the set objectives, women went out to work, too. Furs -- Soviet hard currency -- were the most important branch of the economy. The state-run planned economy was no different from the old tribute collection.

By the 1950s, collectivization had been completed. Most of the Ket people lived in Russian-type houses; schools, clubs and public baths had been built according to Soviet standards. Vegetables were grown and reindeer and cattle were raised for meat and milk. The focus was on the diet the Russians were accustomed to, and the diet of the native people was neglected. Russian traditions and customs were forced upon the Ket people as progressive. The Kets became used to wearing clothes and eating food bought in shops. Quite alien to Ket traditions and the climatic conditions, the Kets were made to adopt Russian hygienic standards. The disintegration of Ket society began in the 1930s when the European way of thinking and Soviet ideology were inculcated via the written language and primary education in Ket. Afterwards the indoctrination continued via Russian-language schools, the press and the party system. The Kets were thoroughly brainwashed into accepting the Russians as a cultural and linguistic model. In the 1950s the Russian language used in the schools ousted the Ket language from home.

Today, Russian-Ket bilingualism is disappearing and Russian monolingualism is gaining ground. The Kets have retained only their anthropological distinction. In 1986 a revived written Ket language came into existence and it remains to be seen what its effect will be in the national revival.

Writing. The Russian Orthodox missionaries did not attempt to create a written language for the Kets, that happened only in the Soviet period. The script was based on an alphabet common to the people of the North. In 1934 the Ket ABC book, Bukvar (Букварь на кетском языке), compiled by N. Karger, was published. The Ket literary language had no other records but the primer and some educational material used in primary education. After a long pause a new Cyrillic Ket alphabet with 32 letters was created by E. Kreinovich in 1986. The written language is based on the Suloma and Kellog dialects. Unfortunately, the Russian orthography cannot accommodate the Ket phonemes in spite of some diacritical marks being used.

Research. The first notes on the Ket language were published by P. S. Pallas (Путешествия по разным провинциям Русского Государства) in 1788. The fact that the Ket language differs from the surrounding languages has attracted scholarly attention. In 1858 the Finn, M. A. Castrén, published the first grammar and dictionary of the Ket language (Versuch einer jenissei-ostjakischen and kottischen Sprachlehre) also containing some material on the Kot language. In the 19th century the Kets were mistaken for a Finno-Ugric people, that is, for a tribe of the Khants. Later, their origins were clarified by G. Ramsted (1907), K. Donner (1920, 1930), K. Bouda (1957), O. Tailler (1959), etc. and their language compared to Japanese, Basque, Sino-Tibetan and Ibero-Caucasian languages. Its generic origin and links have not been clearly revealed.

The first Ket grammar was compiled by A. Karger in 1934 (Кетский язык), and a new treatment appeared in 1968, written by A. Kreinovich. E. Alekseyenko has written a historical-ethnological treatment of the Kets (Кеты, 1967). In spite of the attention paid to the Ket language and their origin there are no dictionaries, academic monographs on the language or samples of texts available.


  1. A. Th. von Middendorff, Reis Taimõrile. Tallinn 1987
  2. Н. К. Каргер, Кетский язык. -- Языки и письменность народов Севера. Ч. III, Моква -- Ленинград 1934
  3. Кеты. -- Народы Сибири, Моква -- Ленинград 1956
  4. Е. А. Крейнович, Кетский язык. -- Языки народов СССР. Т. V, Ленинград 1968
  5. Палеоазиатские языки. Сборник научных трудов, Ленинград 1986
  6. Происхождение аборигенов Сибири и их языков. Материалы межвузовской конференции 11--13 мая 1969 г., Томск 1969


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