Central Alaskan Yup'ik:

A Linguistic Research Project

About the Language

Central Alaskan Yup'ik (from now on referred to simply as Yup'ik) is an Eskimo-Aleut language spoken in the State of Alaska by approximately 10,000 people. This estimate comes from numbers taken in 1995, at which point those fluent in the language constituted less than half of the total population of ethnically Yup'ik people, which at the time was 21,000.1 Although the number of speakers of Yup'ik is large compared to many other Native American languages, it is being spoken less and less by the younger generations. According to the Alaska Native Language Center at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, the language is being used as a first language by children in only 17 out of 68 Yup'ik villages.2

There are at least twelve dialects or subdialects of Yup'ik which are mutually intelligible.3 The largest of these dialects is known as General Central Alaskan Yup'ik and is spoken in the Bristol Bay region with which I am familiar. It is also spoken in the Yukon, on Nelson Island, and in the Kuskokwim region. In addition to General Central Alaskan Yup'ik there are three distinct dialects known as Norton Sound Yup'ik, Hooper Bay-Chevak Cup'ik, and Nunivak Cup'ik, where Cup'ik is a phonetic variation of the Yup'ik word for "real people," and is pronounced "chup-pik."2

6 The apostrophe in the word Yup'ik indicates that the preceding consonant is geminated and is used only to refer to Central Alaskan Yup'ik. Yupik without the apostrophe is used to refer to the Yupik family of languages, which consists of five similar, but mutually unintelligible languages. In addition to Yup'ik, there are three languages which still have surviving speakers. These are Naukan, Central Siberian Yupik, also known as St. Lawrence Island Yupik, and Pacific Gulf Yupik, also known as Alutiiq.4 The fifth Yupik language, Sirenik, became extinct in 1997 when its last fluent speaker passed away. 5 The Yupik languages are all closely related to the Inuit languages, which are spoken in Alaska and in parts of Canada. Together, these make up the Eskimo branch of the Eskimo-Aleut language family. Steven Jacobson, a professor at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, estimates that Yupik and Inuit are about as similar as Spanish is to French and most likely split from each other as early as 1,000 years ago.4

Yup'ik makes use of five adverbial cases for nouns and pronouns, and word endings also indicate number. Yup'ik, as is typical of Eskimo languages, distinguishes between singular, dual, and plural. This is a distinction that English does not make, but English has a distinction that Yup'ik does not make. In Yup'ik, pronouns are not differentiated based on gender, whereas English makes a distinction between "he," "she" and "it." Because Yup'ik is a polysynthetic language it has very free word order. To use an example from Steven Jacobson, in Yup'ik one can say, "The dog bit the preacher" as qimugtem keggellrua agayulirta with an SVO word order or one can say it as agayulirta keggellrua qimugtem with an OVS order. The endings on the words indicate what role they play in the sentence.4

Yup'ik has a highly productive system of suffixes, and a single word can easily be a complete sentence. One example given by Molly Chythlook on KDLG's Let's Learn Yup'ik radio program is the word kassuuciiqua, which means, "I'm going to get married."7 Longer sentences can be formed by combining a base with a series of postbases. In such cases, the literal meaning of each part of the word typically comes in the opposite order that its English translation equivalent would have. Steven Jacobson illustrates this feature with the word angyaliurvigpaliciquq, which means "he will build a big place for working on boats." In order, the base and postbases of the word literally break down into "boat," "to work on," "place," "big," "build," and "will," with an ending indicating that the sentence is third person indicative.4

One particularly interesting property of Yup'ik is that it is an ergative language. It demonstrates rare 'syntactic ergativity,' according to a 1995 issue of The LINGUIST List. The author gave an example of the sensitivity Yup'ik has for ergative-absolutive distinctions by pointing out that if one were to say, "He ate the bug and got sick" it would mean that the bug got sick. 8

Yup'ik was not written down until the beginning of the 19th century when missionaries started to develop religious texts and Bible translations for Yup'ik speakers. The writing system that was used then was named after Reverend John Hinz. In Siberia, it should be noted that Yup'ik is written using the Cyrillic alphabet, whereas in Alaska it is written with the Roman alphabet. In the 1960s a new orthography was developed at the University of Alaska which was meant to be much easier type and was designed to more accurately represent the sounds of Yup'ik. 9

Yup'ik phonology is very interesting. In Yup'ik, like in other Eskimo languages, initial consonant clusters are not allowed. An analysis of the language using Optimality Theory would show that the constraint for *COMPLEX (or "no initial consonant clusters") would be ranked higher in Yup'ik than it is in English, which allows words like "stretch." It would be interesting to explore further the way that Yup'ik treats loanwords which contain initial consonant clusters. Steven Jacobson notes elsewhere that word final consonant clusters are also not allowed, and English loanwords into Yup'ik which end in two consonants are usually epenthesized with a schwa by Yup'ik speakers, turning 'milk' into 'milek' with the e indicating a schwa.4 Another thing to note about the phonology of Yup'ik is that word-initial fricatives are rare, especially in comparison to its close relative, Central Siberian Yupik. Yup'ik seems to prefer having a schwa before bases which in Central Siberian Yupik begin with a consonant.10

In Yup'ik, voiced and voiceless stops are not phonemically contrastive; instead the language typically uses only voiceless unaspirated stops, which to English ears often sound voiced. The orthography uses the letters [p, t, c, k, q] to refer to a labial stop, an alveolar stop, an alveopalatal affricate, a front velar, and a back velar, respectively. This can be confusing to people who are used to the English orthography, especially because when it comes to fricatives, the distinction between voiced and voiceless consonants is indicated by duplication of the letter involved. The voiced labial fricative, [v], contrasts with the voiceless labial fricative, [vv]. Yup'ik has a voiced lateral fricative, [l], as well as a voiceless lateral fricative, [ll]. The letter [s] represents a voiced alveolar fricative, which is represented in IPA with a [z], and the voiceless counterpart is represented with [ss]. [g] is used to indicate a voiced front velar fricative, with [gg] as its voiceless counterpart, and both of these contrast with the back velar fricatives [r] and [rr], which are voiced and voiceless respectively. In addition, [g], [gg], [r] and [rr] contrast with the labialized velars, [ug], [w], [ur] and [urr], respectively. Yup'ik is somewhat unique among the Yupik languages in that it contains both voiced nasals, [m, n, ng], and voiceless nasals, ['m, 'n, 'ng]. (Note that the diacritic is meant to be above the letters, not before them.)4

Yup'ik distinguishes between normal length consonants and geminate consonants. As mentioned above, an apostrophe indicates gemination of a preceding consonant, as writing the consonant again would indicate that it was voiceless. Yup'ik also distinguishes between long and short vowels, but it does so by writing the vowel twice to indicate greater length. Because the prosody of Yup'ik assigns stress regularly to every second vowel mora, certain vowels are always long when they occur in second syllable position. The orthography does not indicate this by writing the vowel double, as it is assumed that this process takes place. Learning to spell correctly in Yup'ik involves careful attention to detail, but is much better at representing the sounds of the language than the orthography used by speakers of English is.4,10

The language was influenced to some extent by Russian and contains about 200 Russian loanwords.10 One such word is kass'aq, meaning white person, which comes from the Russian word kazák, or "Cossack."11 Additionally, the language has been increasingly influenced by English since Alaska became part of the United States, and Steven Jacobson estimates that there are about sixty permanently borrowed words from English into Yup'ik.4


1 Gordon, Raymond G., Jr. (ed.), 2005. Ethnologue: Languages of the World, Fifteenth edition. Dallas, Tex.: SIL International. Online version: http://www.ethnologue.com/. Accessed: March 25, 2009.

2 "Alaska Native Languages: Central Alaskan Yup'ik." UAF.edu Last modified: December 7, 2001. Accessed: May 14, 2008.

3 Kalmar, Ivan. "Review: [untitled]." American Anthropologist, New Series, Vol. 88, No. 4 (Dec., 1986): p. 1027. jstor.org

4 Jacobson, Steven A. Central Yupi'k and the Schools: A Handbook for Teachers. Juneau, Alaska: Alaska Native Language Center and Alaska Department of Education, 1984. alaskool.org

5 Gordon, Raymond G., Jr. (ed.), 2005. Ethnologue: Languages of the World, Fifteenth edition. Dallas, Tex.: SIL International. Online version: http://www.ethnologue.com/. Accessed: March 25, 2009.

6 Family tree from Alaska Native Language Center at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, Accessed 04/12/09

7 Chythlook, Molly. Let's Learn Yup'ik Radio Show. Recordings 117, 224, and 69 from KDLG archive: Dillingham, AK. Acquired: July, 2007. Date recorded: Unknown, most likely in the summer of 2006.

8 Peeters, Bert. "Sum: Morphological vs syntactic ergativity." The Linguist List, 6.642 (May 05, 1995). linguistlist.org

9 Ager, Simon. "Yupik language, alphabet, and pronunciation." OMNIGLOT.com Accessed: May 14, 2008.

10 Jacobson, Steven A. "Comparison of Central Alaskan Yup'ik Eskimo and Central Siberian Yupik Eskimo," International Journal of American Linguistics, Vol. 56, No. 2 (Apr., 1990), pp. 264-286, Published by: The University of Chicago Press. jstor.org

11Mithun, Marianne. The Languages of Native North America. Cambridge University Press, 1990. books.google.com

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