A Historical and Cultural Examination of Central Yup’ik, a guest post by Gwendolyn Bogard

Gwendolyn Bogard is member of the Honors College at SOU, where she studies Chemistry in preparation for a career in science communication.

The village of Atmautluak sits in the middle of the Alaskan tundra about four hundred miles West of the city of Anchorage. A flat expanse of packed white snow extends in all directions, and no roads connect it to any neighboring communities. Despite the ostensible isolation, residents of Atmautluak are a part of a larger network of similar villages dotted across Alaska and other arctic countries, including Russia, Canada, and Greenland. The residents of Atmautluak are largely Yup’ik, one of the many indigenous groups in Alaska. The only non-Yup’ik residents are a few teachers at the Joann A. Alexie Memorial School, a K-12 institution that has about one hundred students.

My mother was one of these teachers from 2010-2012, my freshman and sophomore years in high school. She taught in several Alaskan villages during her early years as a teacher, but later in her career, she wanted to return and retire within the Alaskan school system. Unlike her first time in Alaska, she had a family—my father, my middle school-aged sister, and me—so though she stayed up in Atmautluak for both school years, the other three-quarters of our family remained in Oregon to continue school for most of the year, but we traveled to Atmautluak and lived with my mother during the two winters.

As a high school student, being uprooted was difficult, and the village was a tough place to live. Poverty was widespread, as was drug and alcohol abuse, though the Atmautluak was supposedly a “dry” village—alcohol was banned. Only the school building and teacher housing had running water; the rest of the village either got water from a well in town or, more commonly, cut ice from the frozen river.

From the beginning, however, my mother emphasized that we were the visitors and therefore should be the ones listening and learning, not the other way around. Most of the students I met at school spoke both Yup’ik and English, and as I began to make friends, I learned bits and pieces of the language. The Yup’ik language is inextricably tied with the Yup’ik history and culture, and its structure is quite distinct from English. However, it seemed that in this bilingual environment, both languages had influenced the other—similar to Spanglish, my peers spoke Yup’ik-influenced English, or “village English.” In this essay, I will explore the intersection of these disparate languages within a cultural and historical context.

The History of Central Yup’ik

The Yup’ik spoken in Atmautluak is a dialect of a language within a larger umbrella of languages spoken by indigenous groups in Alaska and around the Arctic circle. About 4,000 years ago, the Eskimo and Aleut families of languages diverged; then, Yupik and Inuit (Inupiaq), which fall under the Eskimo language family, split approximately 1,000 years ago. Yupik is a modern family that contains five languages: Sirenik, Naukan, Siberian/St. Lawrence Island, Central (Alaskan) Yup’ik. In Atmautluak, people spoke Central Yup’ik, which is differentiated from other Yupik languages by the apostrophe in its name (Yup’ik). Within Yup’ik, however, there are several dialects: Yukon, Kuskokwim, Nelson Island, Bristol Bay, Nushagak River, Hooper Bay-Chevak, and Nunivak Island (Jacobson, 1984).

Until the 19th century, Yup’ik language was completely oral, and the people relied heavily on storytelling to pass on information. The first missionaries’ arrival changed this—Russian missionaries spreading the Russia Orthodox religion needed a way to communicate with locals. They focused on translating the Bible into Yup’ik using the Cyrillic alphabet, which is the Russian lettering system. There was no cohesive system as the missionaries had spread across Alaska and did not work together to construct one (Jacobson, 1984). Though the Cyrillic lettering system is no longer used, many Russian words have been incorporated into the Yup’ik language (Hensel, et al., 1983). My mother often observed that the Russian word “Cossack,” which referred to a group of people who lived primarily in Russia and Ukraine, sounded like “kassaq,” which means “white person” in Yup’ik. The relation makes sense because Russian missionaries were the first white people to come in contact with the Yup’ik people.

I also saw the Russian influence in Atmautluak through the presence of the Russian Orthodox church traditions. Part of the Christmas traditions was holiday called “Slaviq,” where most of the village followed a Russian Orthodox star on a pole from house to house. People crowded into houses, where they sang hymns, served food, and passed out small gifts. This tradition is common to Southcentral Alaskan communities and is, along with language, one of the most enduring marks of Russian missionary influence on Yup’ik culture.

In contrast to the methods of Russian missionaries, those from the United States, as well as the U.S. education system run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), imposed an English learning requirement. More recently, though, efforts have shifted toward language preservation because the English learning requirement leads to language loss. In the 1960s, linguists at the University of Alaska worked with native Yup’ik speakers to create a cohesive Yup’ik lettering system using the Roman alphabet. The goal was to make the language easily typeable with few diacritic marks and nonstandard symbols but to accurately represent the Yup’ik oral language (Jacobson, 1984).

Language Structure

The Yup’ik alphabet consists of the letters a, c, e, g, i, k, l, m, n, p, q, r, s, t, u, v, w, and y. Voiced consonants include b, d, j, and g; voiceless consonants are p, t, ch, and k. The vowel system is simple, only including a, i, u, and e (Jacobson, 1984). Naturally, not all letters are pronounced the same as in English. The first Yup’ik word I learned was “quyana,” which means “thank you”—an essential component of a beginner’s vocabulary. When I first heard the word, though, I assumed it was spelled “guyana” because “q” is pronounced more like an English “g.”

Additionally, Yup’ik geminates consonants more frequently than English. That means that either double consonants appear in the middle of a word or an apostrophe is used to indicate that the consonant sound is extended, like the word “Yup’ik” itself. The apostrophe also puts the emphasis on the first syllable (Hensel, et al., 1983).

The stark contrast between English and Yup’ik becomes apparent when letters are combined to form words. The Yup’ik system builds words from a stem, the root onto which other grammatical components are added. Stems can be verbs or nouns (Jacobson, 1984), but the line between verb and noun is often hazy. The stem “mer-” means “water” or “to drink,” depending on usage (Hensel, et al., 1983).

Verb endings indicate mood (e.g. statement, question, request), as well as person and number of the subject and object (Jacobson, 1984). However, they are rarely marked for time (present or past), so this is usually inferred from context.

Nouns can stand alone, but they can also be marked for number: singular, dual, and plural. Nouns can also be marked for possession, both by whom and the number of possessors. Unlike in English, gender is not differentiated through pronouns, so it is usually inferred through context. Pronouns are only used to add clarity or emphasis, like demonstrative pronouns, which specify the spatial location of the subject or object. One such pronoun could be “that one approaching the speaker” (Hensel, et al., 1983).

Instead of using separate words for adjectives or preposition, in Yup’ik, parts of speech are added directly to the stem through the use of suffixes called postbases. This frequently results in long words that may convey the same meaning as a complete sentence in English (Jacobson, 1984). Thus, the classic, though incorrect, example of the many Eskimo words for snow has a sort of truth—the postbase system means that snow could have almost infinite variations.

The order of parts of speech within a word is stem, postbase, then ending. Word order is less important in the Yup’ik system because when using a transitive verb, subject and object endings are different. Below is an example from A Brief History of Yup’ik: Construction and Usage of the Language (Jacobson, 1984):

    The dog bit the preacher.

    Qimugtem keggellrua agayulirta.

    Agayulirta keggellrua qimugtem.

    The preacher bit the dog.

    Qimugta keggellrua agayulirtem.

Aside from postbases and verb endings, Yup’ik also modifies words with enclitics. These one-syllable parts of speech “1) define the speaker’s attitude toward what he is saying (e.g. -tuq ‘one hopes); 2) indicate that information is being added (e.g. -llu ‘and, also’); or 3) indicate that what is being said is a yes-no question (e.g. -qaa)” (Hensel, et al., 1983).

Though my 15-year-old self did not pick up on these nuances, I regularly observed the nonverbal aspects of Yup’ik communication. Perhaps the clearest of these was the eyebrow flash, a quick raise of the eyebrows that signals “yes.” It is an efficient way to communicate, so by the end of our time in Atmautluak, my sister and I had incorporated it into our communication between ourselves and our classmates.

English and Yup’ik

Just as Russian words were incorporated into Yup’ik due to the missionary’s presence in the villages, Yup’ik has about sixty words borrowed from English. For example, “ingek,” is derived from “ink.” Not all new words are borrowed from English, however. “Airplane” is translated as “tengsunn,” which means “device for flying.” The opposite occurs, as well. English has also borrowed words from Yup’ik, like “kayak” from “qayak” (Jacobson, 1984). As I spent more time in Atmautluak, I also noticed some features that seemed to be common in all of my classmates’ English speech patterns beyond simply borrowed words.

This was what most people in Atmautluak referred to as “village English”—patterning English speech off of Yup’ik conventions. I remember frequently hearing phrases like “He wants to go college” instead of “He wants to attend college.” In this example, “go” is used as an auxiliary word to turn the noun “college” into the act of attending college. This sounds odd to an Oregonian ear, but the structure is derived from the Yup’ik convention discussed above—one stem will often function as both a noun and a verb (Jacobson, 1984).

Another common pattern is replacing “make” and “have” with the word “let,” as in, “My mom let me clean my room.” Because the Yup’ik postbase “vkar” expresses the action of compelling (make and have) and allowing (let), the two functions are often combined when translated to English (Jacobson, 1984).

I also remember slight confusion when friends complained “I have never eat yet” until I realized this meant “I haven’t eaten yet,” where “never” is substituted for “not.” Another frequently substituted word is “always.” In English, the simple present, like “they use them” implies habitual action, whereas the present progressive implies ongoing action. However, the Yup’ik postbase “-lar” indicates habitual action, but no postbase exists to describe ongoing action. Thus, Yup’ik-influenced English uses “always” to denote habitual action (Jacobson, 1984).

Despite its ubiquity in Alaskan villages, the school system has historically tried decrease its use in an attempt to teach students “correct” English. Howevever, currently, bidialectism, is taught (Jacobson, 1984). Bidialectism is essentially codeswitching, which means that students switch back and forth between dialects and languages depending on the situation. This can prove useful in settings when students encounter people who may not consider their way of speaking professional—village English can pose an obstacle during job applications or college essays. Bidialectism also acknowledges the validity of village English, allowing students to speak the way in which they feel comfortable.

The shift toward increased respect of indigenous language and culture in the Alaskan school system took place fairly recently. Only in 1969 was bilingual education implemented in village schools across Alaska (Tennant & Bitar, 2000). By the time I arrived in Atmautluak, primary grades (K-3) were completely taught in Yup’ik, and then older students transitioned to learning primarily in English. Thus, most of my peers were bilingual.

The purpose of bilingual programs in village schools is to preserve language, which is a major concern for indigenous populations around the word. Though the Yup’ik language is relatively widely spoken compared to other indigenous Alaskan languages, the system still faces hurdles, which the Alaskan education system is currently attempting to address. For example, barriers in teacher certification have contributed to a lack of native Yup’ik teachers in the school system. This presents an issue because native speakers are crucial in bilingual schooling programs. One feasible proposed solution involves online certification routes—this would literally close the gap by removing the physical obstacle of the remote location of many villages and their residents (Berg, et al., 2018). Other initiatives have involved village elders in recording stories that teachers can incorporate into lessons to teach both the language and the oral traditions of the Yup’ik people (Lincoln, 2016).

During my time in Atmautluak, I saw how important Yup’ik heritage was to my classmates and their families. The Yup’ik language is inextricably tied to the culture of the same name, and it bears the markings of a history spent surviving both the harsh arctic tundra and outside groups infringing on an established way of life. This language merits preservation not only due to its intriguing lexical and syntactic complexity but because the language currently spoken in these villages carries with it a historical record of the Yup’ik people. It is unrealistic, however, to expect any language to remain static, and as I experienced in Atmautluak, village English is a prime example of how languages interface and influence each other. Facilitating the acceptance Yup’ik and English dialects is much more respectful, and pragmatic, approach to language and cultural preservation.

Works Cited

Berg, P., et al. (2018). Disrupting Higher Education in Alaska: Introducing the Native Teacher Certification Pathway. In A. Altman (Ed.), The Disruptive Power of Online Education (pp. 147-166). Emerald Publishing.

Hensel, C., et al. (1983). Qaneryaurci yup’igtun: An Introductory Course in Yup’ik Eskimo for Non-speakers. Bethel, AK: Kuskokwim Community College.

Jacobson, S.A. (1984). Central Yup’ik and the Schools: A Handbook for Teachers. Juneau, AK: Alaska Department of Education.

Lincoln, R. (2016). Elitnauryarait Qaneryaramta Quliratgun; Teachings of Our Language Through Storytelling. University of Alaska Fairbanks, Master’s thesis.

Tennant, E.A., & Bitar, J.N. (Eds). (2000). Yupik Lore: Oral Traditions of an Eskimo People. Bethel, AK: Lower Kuskokwim School District.

About Ed Battistella

Edwin Battistella’s latest book Dangerous Crooked Scoundrels was released by Oxford University Press in March of 2020.
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