The Ob-Ugric languages Khanty (Ostyak) and Mansi (Vogul) are spoken in Western Siberia, for the most part along the river Ob and its tributaries. They are a sub-branch of the Finno-Ugric/Uralic language family, and are most closely related to Hungarian, together with which they form the Ugric branch. The relatedness between Ob-Ugric and Hungarian is quite distant, and even between Khanty and Mansi there is far from mutual intelligibility, although there are numerous structural similarities and traces of constant contacts between some Khanty and Mansi varieties.
The Ob-Ugrians have a rich folklore; in particular, their epic poetry and mythology have been extensively researched. Despite forced Christianization in Czarist Russia and the official atheism of the Soviet period, many elements of shamanism and the traditional religion have persisted until our times: these include the cults of various gods and spirits and of the bear, which was revered as a totem animal by all Ob-Ugrians.
The Khanty language is usually divided into three main groups: Northern, Southern, and Eastern. These differ clearly from each other on all levels of language structure (phonology, morphology, syntax, lexicon) and are not mutually intelligible (although there are also some transitional dialects between the main dialect groups). During the last hundred years, many Khanty dialects – including the entire Southern dialect group – have become extinct. Most Khanty communities live in the Khanty-Mansi Autonomous District and in the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous District, some also in the Tomsk region.
According to the census of 2010, there were 28,000 ethnic Khanty, but only ca. 30% speak either Northern or Eastern Khanty. Most fluent speakers belong to the older generations, while younger and urban Khanty are shifting to Russian.
Note: The traditional exonym for the Khanty used in older literature is Ostyak. This name is misleading, as it has also been used for the Selkups (Ostyak Samoyeds), whose language belongs to the Samoyed branch of the Uralic language family, and for the Kets (Yenisey Ostyaks), who speak (or spoke) a Yeniseic language.
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, field researchers identified four main Mansi dialects. Of these, the Southern and Western dialects were already disappearing in the early 20th century; Eastern (Konda) Mansi had a considerable number of speakers and even some literary usage until the mid-20th century, but now it is practically extinct. In our days, only the Northern dialect is still in active use, but it is mostly used between family members of the older generations. Younger speakers are shifting to Russian and in most speaker communities, the transmission of Mansi to younger generations has ceased. Northern Mansi is spoken in a few villages along the lower Ob and its western tributaries the Sosva and the Sygva in the Khanty-Mansi Autonomous District of the Tyumen Region, as well as along the Lozva river in the Ivdel Area of the Sverdlovsk Region.
According to census data since 1926, the Mansi population has continuously increased, the census of 2010 counting almost twice as many ethnic Mansi as in 1926 (2010: approx. 12000). However, these numbers refer to ethnic affinity and do not reveal anything on their language proficiency: in fact, there is a proficiency in Russian of almost one hundred percent. Furthermore, the questionnaire does not distinguish between the mother tongue (ru. родной язык) itself and its command. In 2010 census, 1774 people self-identify as native speakers of Mansi, whilst only half of them claim proficiency of the language.
As shown in levels of proficiency above, both Khanty and Mansi are highly endangered languages. The assimilation process which began with the colonization of Siberia was vastly accelerated in the 20th century, due to collectivization and forced re-settlement, lack of mother-tongue education and the low prestige of the indigenous languages of Siberia. In the last few decades in particular, the developing oil and gas industry has contributed to the destruction of the traditional way of living and has brought about a massive immigration of workers from other parts of Russia. In many indigenous communities, unemployment, poverty and alcoholism are serious problems.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, there have been some new attempts to raise the awareness of the indigenous peoples and to revitalize their languages and cultures. At the Yugra University in Khanty-Mansiysk, Ob-Ugric languages were taught from 2001 to 2010. In 2010, the chairs for Khanty and Mansi Philology were closed.
Both languages are underdescribed in terms of modern linguistics: some descriptions, material collections, case studies etc. have been published, but these have appeared in different countries, based on different traditions, use different metalanguages (such as Finnish, Russian or Hungarian), different transcriptions etc. All these materials are not readily accessible to linguists outside the field of Finno-Ugric Studies.
Previous research was mainly done from a European perspective (written mainly in German, Russian, Finnish, and Hungarian, only recently in English), serving the interests of European researchers and institutions. Our projects, in contrast, are based on cooperation with native speakers and local institutions with the explicit intention of benefitting the speaker communities as well and helping in the linguistic education of native speakers. As the University of Munich also participated in the project "Extension of the Possibilities of Indigenous Peoples of Siberia in Obtaining a High Level Education", funded by the European Commission as a part of the priority area "Combating racism and xenophobia and discrimination against minorities and indigenous peoples" (grant contract B7-701/2002/031541/RX/237), it is ensured that the legal and ethical issues involving intellectual and cultural property rights will be adequately dealt with.