The Siberian Yuits: a Russian People
Recently, Language Connections had the fortunate opportunity of receiving an inquiry about a language known as Central Alaskan Yup’ik. The client was in need of transcription and translation services to document an ongoing environmental project in Bristol Bay, Alaska. There, many of the local elders were not able to communicate in English.
Until that time, no one at our company had ever heard of the Yupik peoples or languages. A lot of what went into finding qualified Yup’ik language vendors capable of handling this assignment was learning a great deal about the language and culture ourselves. We soon found that we were not only fascinated by Central Alaskan Yup’ik but all Yupik languages.
The first differentiation that we found within this language group is in the apostrophe placement in “Yup’ik,” but not “Yupik.” The apostrophe is added to the name of the Central Alaskan Yup’ik language, indicating a consonant stress elongating the pronunciation of the letter p. However, the name of other Yupik dialects are written without the apostrophe, as is the name of the people that actually speak Yup’ik.
Our research also led us to discover that Yup’ik is the ultimate divergence in a chain of languages that include Siberian Yupik, the Russia-based language and culture from which Central Alaskan Yup’ik initially stems.
The Yuit peoples (singular: “Yuk”), who are also sometimes referred to as the Siberian or Central Siberian Yupik, originate from the far eastern border of the Russian Federation on the Chukchi Peninsula. The Yuit encompass the Naukan, Chaplino and Sirenik Siberian-Eskimo groups, as well as others who were amalgamated within this predominant demographic.
Under the Yuit umbrella, these groups share the Central Siberian Yupik language which is distinguished from Central Alaskan Yup’ik primarily by its pronunciation of elongated consonants, but also by their dissimilar vocabulary. Yupik is the first part of the Eskimo-Aleut language family and can itself be broken down into several different dialects, including Central Siberian Yupik, which form a chain of languages ending in Central Alaskan Yup’ik.
Through any chain of languages it is possible to trace the evolution of linguistic patterns due to the slight differences that occur from dialect to dialect. For example, although Central Alaskan Yup’ik and Central Siberian Yup’ik are mutually unintelligible, standard Central Siberian Yupik and its neighbor dialects, Naukanski Yupik or Chaplanski Yupik are mutually intelligible. Further, Naukanski has more in common with Central Alaskan Yup’ik although they are still not close enough within the chain to be communicable with Central Alaskan Yupik.
Unlike English, Central Siberian Yupik has as many as 27 consonants and only 4 main vowels ‘a’, ‘i’, ‘u’ and ə (schwa), but each of these has a long form (‘aa’, ‘ii’, etc.). The language has an iambic stress pattern which means that the stress is put on the second syllable of each two-syllable metrical foot, e.g. every other syllable starting with the second.
The grammatical structure consists of root words which then have suffixes added on to create words with a sentence-like meaning, which in most other languages would require multiple “free” words (though, this is a technique that can also be found in some Eurasian languages, such as German). Within Yupik word structure, the meaning of a word always stems from the left of the word gaining specificity through the suffixes attached to the right. Moreover, the ordering of these suffixes may be various to signify different meanings.
Verbal structure in Siberian Yupik demands poly-agreement with all subjects and objects, which further affects the attachment of suffixes on the root of a word.
Historically, the Siberian Yupik people have lived an oral culture, passing stories and wisdom down through generations by word of mouth, but without a writing system. In the 1760s, writing was introduced by missionaries working with the Yupik peoples, although, at first most were taught only how to write in Russian.
Soon, however, Russian’s Cyrillic script was adapted to Yupik in order to accommodate translation of the Bible and other religious texts into Yupik. Yet, it was not until the beginning of the 19th century with the further arrival of Europeans seeking out resources and industry within the region that Yupik languages truly came to have written forms.
Since the 1860’s, when the US purchased Alaska, there has been a movement in motion to replace the Cyrillic script with the Latin alphabet, and although succeeding with Central Alaskan Yup’iks, it has been met with staunch opposition by the Yuit, who view themselves as being more aligned with Russian cultures.
Today, the Yuits continue to partake in many of their historical traditions, their culture of shamanism, amulets and animal folklore, living in traditional yaranga dwellings, and speaking their native Central Siberian Yupik and its many divergent dialects.
It’s amazing that they have survived through so much change when other Eskimo-Aleut languages of the far eastern border of the Russian Federation on the Chukchi Peninsula have not, among them the more closely related Central Siberian dialect of Sirenikskiy, for example. This culture, based largely in Russia and which mostly uses Russian’s Cyrillic writing system, is more often equated with its Eskimo heritage. In this global world, it is important to understand how smaller civilizations, such as the Yuit, have managed to survive and assimilate within the larger civilizations of which they have come to be a part.