The self-designation is Nenets (n'enyts, pl. n'enytsja), meaning 'man'; the native term for the language is n'enytsia vada. The name hasaba, 'man', is less common and has restricted usage. Etymologically, Nenets derives from the same origin as Nganasan and Enets. The primal meaning of the root nenay is 'true, real, genuine', and this is often used in conjunction with the self-designation n'enay nenyts - 'Nenets, i.e. a genuine man' (cf. eney enet - 'Enets' and ngano nganasan - 'Nganasan'). The term originally used by the Northern Nenets was applied to the whole people in the 1920s.
The older and more widespread name for the Nenets is Yurak-Samoyeds, or simply Yuraks. This comes from a Zyryan Komi word yaran denoting the Samoyeds, which in its turn is probably derived from the Yamal Peninsula tundra family name Yar. Through the Russian language the term Yurak-Samoyeds has been established in other languages and it is in common use up to the present day outside the Soviet Union. The common term Samoyed probably derives from the Selkup language where samatu ~ somatu denoted the Enets. This probably has its origins with the Enets Madu-tribe, who were called samatu or somaut by their neighbours.
Monk Nestor of Kiev in his chronicle A Tale of the Times Past refers to the Samoyeds as neighbours and allies of the Ugrians. In 1787 the tribe name Hasaba was used by the missionary J. S. Vater in his fable Vada Hasovo (The Language of the Nenets).
The Nenets live in northwestern Siberia from the Kanin Peninsula on the White Sea to the Enisei delta, occupying the central place among the Samoyed territories. They also inhabit the Arctic Ocean islands and the Kola Peninsula. Administratively, their habitat is divided between the Nenets Autonomous District of the Arkhangelsk Region and the Yamal-Nenets Autonomous Okrug of the Tyumenskaya Oblast. Combined, this covers a vast territory of about 1 million square kilometres. A part of the Nenets also inhabits the Taymyr, or Dolgan-Nenets Autonomous District belonging to the District of Krasnoyarsk. The native land of the Nenets is the tundra and forest tundra, a country of permafrost, numerous rivers and vast marshy areas. Along the banks of the River Ob the Nenets settlements reach the dense forest area of the Siberian taiga.
Anthropologically, the Nenets are representatives of the Uralic race with stronger than average Mongoloid characteristics. They are commonly of short stature (the average male height is 158 cm) and a stocky build. The face is broad and flat, with a short and somewhat protruding nose. While hair is straight and thick, beard growth is poor. Eyelids commonly exhibit epicanthic folds. Due to dark pigmentation, hair and eyes are black or brown and the skin is swarthy. In appearance the Nenets resemble most the Ostyaks, displaying, however, more Mongoloid characteristics. The Nenets of the Arkhangelsk region exhibit a somewhat stronger European strain.
The language of the Nenets belongs to the Samoyedic branch of the Uralic languages, comprising together with the Enets and Nganasan languages its Northern Group. Due to a rather low density of population spread over a vast territory the language is rich in dialects. An overwhelming majority (about 95 %) speak the Tundra Dialect that divides into 11 local vernaculars (Western, Central, and Eastern). The most prominent among these is the Bolshaya Zemlya local vernacular, which served as a basis for the Nenets written language. The Forest or Taiga Dialect divides into Western and Eastern vernaculars. The dialectal differences are actually quite minor and they mostly occur on a phonetic level; thus a Kanin and a Taymyr Nenets would have no difficulty in understanding each other's speech. The structure and basic vocabulary of the language are descended from the common Samoyedic foundation. Nenets is particularly rich in ways of describing nature (especially the character and properties of snow) and weather conditions. It also abounds in terms connected with reindeer-breeding, hunting and fishing.
During the 1930s there was a surge in contacts with Russian. Abounding Sovietisms began to reflect new phenomena and notions. Lexical borrowing became commonplace in the course of time. Knowledge and use of Russian grew constantly, particularly during the period of intense russification in the 1970s. Today, all the western Nenets are bilingual, only east of the Ural mountains is an equal knowledge of Russian not yet common. Russian has gained a reputation as a medium for culture and communication, and younger generations are at present discarding the language of their fathers in favour of it.
During the 19th century the Nenets, up until this time living only from the land, became increasingly dependent on merchants and colonial traders. With impunity these tradesmen extorted enormous prices for essential goods like tea, sugar, flour, tobacco and gunpowder. Befuddled by liquor, the Nenets easily ran up debts with the tradesmen -- a position not easy to escape from. It was not uncommon that a Nenets would be paying furs to clear debts of his father, or even grandfather. In the 1870s Russia used the Nenets to secure her own political interests. A part of the Nenets were resettled to Novaya Zemlya to keep the Norwegians out of the polar regions. At that time the settlements on the Kola Peninsula were also reinforced with subjects of the Russian Empire.
Since ancient times the migratory cycle of the Nenets has been tied to that of the reindeer (from the coastal regions to the forests in autumn, and back in spring). They have led the lives of hunters and fishermen and fully adapted themselves to existence in the tundra. Their subsequent expertise in reindeer-breeding has been of value to several other peoples. This experience born of centuries of living with the land did not yield easily to the destructive efforts of the Soviet administration. The first collective farms on Nenets territory were set up in 1929. Collectivization was, however, completed only 20 years later by means of ideological brainwashing (militant atheism, political propaganda) and widespread repression. The reindeer-breeders even rose up in armed struggle against collectivization, and attacked the town of Vorkuta. The army used aircraft to subdue the Nenets as if they were a pack of wolves.
A system of state-controlled sustenance for northern peoples was established by a government decree in 1957. A Nenets (or a Lapp, or an Evenk) was considered to be in state custody from birth to the day he completed his education. This meant growing up in a boarding school, away from one's home and ethnic background. State-controlled sustenance (i.e. free catering, clothing, schoolbooks and transport) has ruined the sense of duty and responsibility as well as all initiative in the younger generation. A youth who has left school is as helpless as a hothouse plant on permafrost.
For centuries the Nenets, as most northern peoples, have used pictographic writing. Special family signs called tamga were used to mark property. Attempts to establish a written language were made by the Orthodox missionaries. In the 1830s archimandrite Venyamin Smirnov published some religious texts. Spelling books were also introduced (e.g. by J. Sibirtsev, 1895), however, they had little lasting success. In 1932 the Nenets literary language was established on the basis of the Bolshaya Zemlya vernacular (one of the Central vernaculars), using the Latin alphabet. A spelling book Jadei vada ('New World'), a reader, an arithmetic book and school glossaries were published, and a number of political writings and sketches of everyday life translated from Russian. In 1937 a transition to the Russian alphabet was made and since then there has also been partial compliance with Russian orthography.