The Yupik people speak five distinct languages, depending on their location. The languages differ enough from one another that speakers of different ones cannot understand each other, although they may understand the general idea of a conversation of speakers of another of the languages.
The Yupik languages are in the family of Eskimo-Aleut languages. The Aleut and Eskimo languages diverged about 2000 B.C. and the Yupik languages diverged from the Inuktitut languages about 1000 A.D.
Geographic Distribution of Yupik Languages
The five Yupik languages are:
- Sirenik, Sirenikski, Old Sirenik or Vuteen, spoken fluently by only one elderly speaker in the village of Sireniki (Сиреники) on the Chukotka Peninsula, Eastern Siberia.
- Naukan or Naukanski, spoken by perhaps 100 people in and around the villages of Laurence (Лаврентия), Lorino (Лорино) and Whalen (Уэлен) on the Chukotka Peninsula of Eastern Siberia.
- Siberian, St. Lawrence Island Yupik, Central Siberian, Yuit, or Jupigyt(Yupihyt) , spoken by the majority of Yupik in the Russian Far East and by the people on St. Lawrence Island, Alaska. Most of the 1,000 Yupiks on St. Lawrence Island still speak the St. Lawrence dialect of this language. About 300 of the 1,000 Siberian Yupiks in Russia still speak the Chaplino dialect of this language.
- Central (Alaskan) Yupik or Yup’ik, spoken on the Alaska mainland from Norton Sound down to the Alaska Peninsula and on some islands such as Nunivak. The name of this language is sometimes spelled Yup’ik because the speakers say the name of the language with an elongated 'p'; all the other languages call their language Yupik. Of the about 21,000 Central Alaskan Yupiks, some 13,000 still speak this language. There are several dialects of Central Alaskan Yupik. The largest dialect, General Central Yupik or Yugtun, is spoken in the Yukon River, Nelson Island, Kuskokwim River, and Bristol Bay areas. There are three other Central Alaskan Yupik dialects: Norton Sound, Hooper Bay/Chevak, and Nunivak Island (called Cup’ik or Cup’ig). The dialects differ in pronunciation and in vocabulary. Within the General Central Yupik dialect there are geographic subdialects which differ mostly in word choices.
- Pacific Gulf Yupik, Chugach, Alutiiq or Sugpiaq is spoken from the Alaska Peninsula eastward to Prince William Sound. There are about 3,000 Alutiiqs, but only 500 – 1,000 people still speak this language. The Koniag dialect is spoken on the south side of the Alaska Peninsula and on Kodiak Island. The Chugach dialect is spoken on the Kenai Peninsula and in Prince William Sound.
The Yupik languages, like other Eskimo-Aleut languages, represent a particular type of agglutinative language called a polysynthetic language: it "synthesizes" a root and various grammatical affixes to create long words with sentence-like meanings.
Yupik languages have four vowels: 'a', 'i', 'u' and schwa. They have from 13 to 27 consonants.
Central Yup’ik Vowels:
a, aa, e [ə] (schwa), i, ii, u, uu
(In proximity to the uvular consonants 'q', 'r' or 'rr', the vowel 'i' is pronounced as a closed /e/, and 'u' as a closed /o/.)
Central Yup’ik Consonants:
c [ts/ch], g [ɣ] (velar fricative), gg [χ] (unvoiced velar fricative), k, l [ɮ] (alveolar lateral fricative), ll [ɬ] (unvoiced alveolar lateral fricative]]), n (alveolar), ń (voiceless n), ng [ŋ], ńg [voiceless ŋ], m, ḿ (voiceless m), p, q (uvular stop), r [ʀ] (uvular fricative), rr (voiceless uvular fricative), s [z], ss [s], t (alveolar), û [w], v [v/w], vv [f], w [χw], y, ’ (gemination of preceding consonant)
The Yupik languages were not written until the arrival of Europeans around the beginning of the 19th century. The earliest efforts at writing Yupik were those of missionaries who, with their Yupik-speaking assistants, translated the Bible and other religious texts into Yupik. Such efforts as those of Saint Innocent of Alaska, Reverend John Hinz (see John Henry Kilbuck) and Uyaquk had the limited goals of transmitting religious beliefs in written form.
After the United States purchased Alaska, Yupik children were taught to write English with Latin letters in the public schools. Some were also taught the Yupik script developed by Rev. Hinz, which used Latin letters and which had become the most widespread method for writing Yupik. In Russia, most Yupik were taught to read and write only Russian, but a few scholars wrote Yupik using Cyrillic letters.
In the 1960s, the University of Alaska assembled a group of scholars and native Yupik speakers who developed a script to replace the Hinz writing system. One of the goals of this script was that it could be input from an English keyboard, without diacriticals or extra letters. Another requirement was that it accurately represent each allophone in the language with a distinct letter. A few features of the script are that it uses 'q' for the back version of 'k', 'r' for the Yupik sound that resembles the French 'r', and consonant + ’ for a geminated (lengthened) consonant. The rhythmic doubling of vowels (except schwa) in every second consecutive open syllable is not indicated in the orthography unless it comes at the end of a word.