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Central Alaskan Yup'ik language

Central Alaskan Yup'ik language

Central Alaskan Yupik, or Yupʼik (also rendered Yupik,[4] Central Yupik,[5][6][3] or indigenously Yugtun) is one of the languages of the Yupik family, in turn a member of the Eskimo–Aleut language group, spoken in western and southwestern Alaska. Both in ethnic population and in number of speakers, the Central Alaskan Yupik people form the largest group among Alaska Natives. As of 2010 Yupʼik was also the second-largest aboriginal language in the United States in terms of numbers of speakers.[7] Yupʼik should not be confused with the related language Central Siberian Yupik spoken in Chukotka and St. Lawrence Island.

Central Alaskan Yupik
Native toUnited States
Regionwestern and southwestern Alaska
EthnicityCentral Alaskan Yupik people
Native speakers
10,000 (2010)[1]
  • Eskimo
    • Yupik
      • Central Alaskan Yupik
  • Yugtun (Yukon-Kuskokwim)
  • Cupʼik (Chevak)
  • Cupʼig (Nunivak)
Writing system
Latin, formerly the Yugtun syllabary
Official status
Official language in
Language codes
ISO 639-3esu
Glottologcent2127 [33][3]


Yupʼik lies geographically and linguistically between Alutiiq ~ Sugpiaq and Central Siberian Yupik. The use of the apostrophe in Yupʼik, as opposed to Siberian Yupik, denotes a long p. The word Yupʼik represents not only the language but also the name for the people themselves (yuk, 'person,' and pik, 'real'.)

Of a total population of more than 23,000 people, more than 14,000 are speakers of the language.[8] Children still grow up speaking Yupʼik as their first language in 17 of 68 Yupʼik villages, those mainly located on the lower Kuskokwim River, on Nelson Island, and along the coast between the Kuskokwim River and Nelson Island.

The difference between Yupʼik and Iñupiaq is roughly the same as the difference between Spanish and French.[9]


The dialect that holds the largest majority within Yupʼik is General Central Yupʼik (Yugtun), which is spoken in Nelson Island, the Yukon-Kuskokwim delta, and the Bristol Bay regions of Alaska.[10] There are four other dialects within Central Yupʼik: Norton Sound, Nunivak, Egegik, and Hooper Bay-Chevak.[10] Differences in pronunciation "(or accent)" and lexicon exist across these dialects and between them and General Central Yupʼik.[10] In fact, speakers may be reluctant to take on another dialect's lexicon or spelling because they "often feel proud of their own dialects," which has led certain Yupʼik groups to call themselves "Cupʼik" (Chevak) or "Yupiaq" (Kuskokwim).[10]

The main dialect is General Central Yupʼik, and the other four dialects are Norton Sound, Hooper Bay-Chevak, Nunivak, and extinct Egegik. In the Hooper Bay-Chevak and Nunivak dialects, the name for the language and the people is "Cupʼik" (pronounced Chup-pik). All four dialects of the Central Yupʼik language are mutually intelligible, with some phonological and vocabulary differences.[11]

The Yupʼik dialects, subdialects and their locations:[12]

  1. Norton Sound or Unaliq-Pastuliq dialect Unaliq subdialect by spoken Unalirmiut (= Atnegmiut, Kuuyuŋmiut, Eŋlutaleġmiut etc.) tribes: Elim (Neviarcaurluq), Golovin (Cingik), St. Michael (Taciq), Kotlik subdialect by spoken Pastulirmiut tribe: Kotlik (Qerrulliik)

  2. General Central Yupʼik dialect Mixed dialects Nelson Island & Stebbins subdialect: Chefornak (Cevvʼarneq), Newtok (Niugtaq), Nightmute (Negtemiut), Stebbins (Tapraq), Toksook Bay (Nunakauyaq or Qaluuyarmiut), Tununak (Tununeq) Nushagak River subdialect: Ekwok (Iquaq), Koliganek (Qalirneq), New Stuyahok (Cetuyaraq), Portage Creek Peripheral dialects Yukon or Lower Yukon subdialect: Alakanuk (Alarneq), Emmonak (Imangaq), Holy Cross (Ingirraller), Marshall or Fortuna Ledge (Masserculleq), Mountain Village (Asaacaryaraq), Nunam Iqua or Sheldon Point (Nunam Iqua), Pilot Station (Tuutalgaq), Pitkas Point (Negeqliim Painga), Russian Mission (Iqugmiut), St. Mary's (Negeqliq), Scammon Bay (Marayaarmiut) Upper or Middle Kuskokwim subdialect: Aniak (Anyaraq), Chuathbaluk (Curarpalek), Crooked Creek (Qipcarpak), McGrath, Sleetmute (Cellitemiut), Stony River Lake Iliamna subdialect: Egegik (Igyagiiq), Igiugig (Igyaraq), Iliamna (Illiamna), Kokhanok (Qarrʼunaq), Levelock (Liivlek), Naknek (Nakniq), South Naknek (Qinuyang) Core dialects Lower Kuskokwim subdialect: Akiachak (Akiacuaq), Akiak (Akiaq), Atmautluak (Atmaulluaq), Bethel (Mamterilleq), Eek (Ekvicuaq), Goodnews Bay (Mamterat), Upper Kalskag (Qalqaq), Lower Kalskag (Qalqaq), Kipnuk (Qipnek), Kongiganak (Kangirnaq), Kwethluk (Kuiggluk), Kwigillingok (Kuigilnguq), Napakiak (Naparyarraq), Napaskiak (Napaskiaq), Nunapitchuk or Akolmiut (Nunapicuar), Oscarville (Kuiggayagaq), Platinum (Arviiq), Quinhagak (Kuinerraq), Tuluksak (Tuulkessaaq), Tuntutuliak (Tuntutuliaq) Bristol Bay subdialect: Aleknagik (Alaqnaqiq), Clark's Point (Saguyaq), Dillingham (Curyung), Ekuk, Manokotak (Manuquutaq), Togiak (Tuyuryaq), Twin Hills (Ingricuar)

  3. Egegik dialect (extinct): Egegik (Igyagiiq)

  4. Hooper Bay-Chevak dialect: The only significant difference between Hooper Bay and Chevak dialects is the pronunciation of the initial y- sound as c- (pronounced "ch") in Chevak in some words. Yupʼik in Hooper Bay but Cupʼik in Chevak. Hooper Bay subdialect: Hooper Bay (Naparyaarmiut) Chevak subdialect: Chevak (Cevʼaq),

  5. Nunivak Island dialect: Mekoryuk (Mikuryar). Nunivak Cupʼig is distinct and highly divergent from mainland Yupʼik dialects.

The comparison of some words in the two subdialects of General Central Yupʼik (or Yugtun).[13]

Yukon (Kuigpak)Kuskokwim (Kusquqvak)meaning
elicar-elitnaur-to study (intrans.); to teach someone (trans.)
elicari-elitnaurito teach (intrans.)
ayuqe-kenir-to cook by boiling
cellaellaweather, outside, universe, awareness
naniqkenurraqlamp, light
uigtua-naspaa-to sample or taste, attempt, try


The Yupʼik language, like all Eskimo languages, is a suffixing language made up of noun and verb bases to which one or more postbases and a final ending or enclitics are added to denote such features as number, case, person, and position. The Yupʼik category of number distinguishes singular, plural, and dual. Yupʼik does not have a category of gender and articles.

Writing and literature

A syllabary known as the Yugtun script was invented for the language by Uyaquq, a native speaker, in about 1900, although the language is now mostly written using the Latin script.[14] Early linguistic work in Central Yupʼik was done primarily by Russian Orthodox, then Jesuit and Moravian Church missionaries, leading to a modest tradition of literacy used in letter writing. In the 1960s, Irene Reed and others at the Alaska Native Language Center developed a modern writing system for the language. Their work led to the establishment of the state's first bilingual school programs in four Yupʼik villages in the early 1970s. Since then a wide variety of bilingual materials has been published, including Steven Jacobson's comprehensive dictionary of the language, his complete practical classroom grammar, and story collections and narratives by many others including a full novel by Anna Jacobson.


While several different systems have been used to write Yupʼik, the most widely used orthography today is that adopted by the Alaska Native Language Center and exemplified in Jacobson's (1984) dictionary.

nasalm/m/, ḿ/m̥/n/n/, ń/n̥/ng/ŋ/, ńg̊/
fricativevv/f/, v/v/ss/s/, s/z/ll/ɬ/, l/l/
gg/x/, g/ɣ/
w/xʷ/, u͡g/ɣʷ/
rr/χ/, r/ʁ/
  • l and y are not fricatives phonetically, but l behaves as one phonologically, while y is a fricative in other Eskimoan languages.

Word-initial ⟨s⟩ and word-final ⟨r⟩ are voiceless, realized as [s] and [χ], respectively.

The three main vowels a i u, also occur long, aa ii uu. There is also a schwa spelled e.

Consonants may also occur long (geminate), but their occurrence is generally predictable by regular phonological rules. Where long consonants occur unpredictably they are indicated with a (combining) apostrophe following the consonant. For example, the p in the words Yupiaq and Yupʼik is long. In Yupiaq length is predictable because the p follows a short unstressed vowel and precedes a long vowel. In Yupʼik the length is not predictable and so must be indicated with an apostrophe. A punctuation apostrophe is also used to separate n from g, to distinguish n'g /nɣ/ from ng /ŋ/.



The three full vowels occur long and short, /a aː i iː u uː/. The schwa /ə/ does not. The vowel qualities /i(ː) u(ː)/ lower to [e(ː) o(ː)] before a uvular consonant such as /q/ or /ʁ/, or the back vowel /a(ː)/.




The voiceless labialized uvular fricative [χʷ] occurs only in some speech variants and doesn't contrast with its voiced counterpart /ʁʷ/. The voiceless alveolar affricate [ts] is an allophone of /tʃ/ before the schwa vowel. The voiced labiovelar approximant [w] is a realization of /v/ between vowels other than the schwa.

/l/ is not phonetically a fricative, but behaves as one phonologically. /j/ is pronounced /tʃ/ in the Hooper Bay-Chevak and Nunviak dialects. Fricatives (and /l/) devoice immediately before or after a plosive, while nasals devoice only immediately after a plosive or a voiceless fricative.[15]


A Yupʼik word carries as much information as an English sentence due its rich manner of suffixing; therefore, Yupʼik words are often quite long and highly agglutinative. A Yupʼik word may have up to four sections, where the first must be the stem, which carries the core meaning of the word, then "zero, one, or more postbases," which "serve somewhat the same function as suffixes in English," then an ending, which "shows grammatical relationships of case or mood, person and number," and then, possibly, an enclitic (Reed 18). An enclitic follows at the end of the word with a hyphen or an equals sign and it usually "[indicates] the speaker's attitude towards what he is saying such as questioning, hoping, reporting, etc." [16]

Suffixing additionally works in Yupʼik to show noun and verb alignment. Irene Reed states that "Yupʼik word endings are either intransitive or transitive," and that "most verb bases can take either type of ending though some take only one type of ending and must first be modified by certain postbases before the other type of ending can be used on them" (49). In addition, Yupʼik uses ergative/absolutive alignment. For example, the sentence "Angyaq tak'uq" means "The boat is long" and shows how "the absolutive case can function as the subject of an intransitive verb" (Angyaq is the noun) (64). Comparatively, the sentence "Angyaq kiputaa," or "He buys the boat," shows the absolutive case in regards to a transitive verb, where the object is once again "Angyaq".[17]

Space indicators in Yupʼik

Typically North American languages contain many adverbial particles that are used to indicate location or direction in space. Spatial indications are also found on demonstratives, adpositions, case markings on nouns, and adverbial affixes on verbs. An expansive demonstrative selection can be found in the Eskimoan languages such as Yupʼik. Demonstratives pronouns in Yupʼik locate objects, such as, 'this one' and demonstrative adverbs which locate places i.e. 'here'. In Yupʼik, everything is place in relation to the speaker. Some of these instances include: orientation with respect to the speaker, nearness to the speaker, accessibility to the speaker, and status of an object; extended (object or area can be seen in multiple glances), restricted (object or area can be seen in a single glance), obscured (Object or area is not in sight). Yupʼik also uses nouns to indicate locations that are relative to an object or area. When nouns are used like this, the object is then the possessor of the area.

Below is an example from Marianne Mithun showing Yupʼik's use of demonstrative pronouns as space indicators.[18]

Extended Restricted Obscured

  1.     a. man'a                       una                              ---                   'near speaker'
  1.     a. aguna                       ingna                           anma              'over'
  1.     a. quagna                     kiugna                         qamna            'inside, upriver'

The demonstratives shown above are in their unmarked absolutive form, however they can become marked to indicate position, ablative goal/source, as well as to show the path of the object. These four cases of location and direction can be combined with a dual or plural number, as well as pronoinal and possessive suffixes.[18]

Time indicators in Yupʼik: aspect/tense

Yupʼik contains multiple types of requests from the point of view of the speaker. First there is the immediate imperative, which indicates a command that should be completed right away. Second is the future or delayed imperative that indicates and command that can be put off for a little while. Below are examples of the two kinds of imperative commands:

Aqumi 'sit down right now' Elizabeth Ali, speaker

Aqumkina '(go in and) sit down'

In Yupʼik, tense markers occur on nouns and verbs. These tense markers refer to events that happened in the past, future and present. However, there is some variation in their use for noun possession . Unlike in English, you may use a past tense marker if an object is still in your possession but you used it in the past, or, you may use a future marker if you know that something will be in yours in the future. The examples below show tense marking in Yupʼik: (Mithun, 154).

Tense on nouns and verbs: Elizabeth Ali and George Charles Speakers

Verbs: nerula 'I'm eating' ayagtua 'I'm going'

Nouns: ikamraqa 'my sled' nuliaqa 'my wife'

Possession Markers in Yupʼik

There are two types of possession in Yupik; predicative and attributive. Predicative possession occurs in Yupʼik. In predicative possession, ownership is usually the main focus of the clause and is usually indicated by some kind of ownership verb, like 'have', but the latter is not always necessary. The example below is one of Yupʼik predicative possession:

Tauna levaaq, kassairutellinilria ayasciiganani.

Tauna levaaq kassa-irute-llini-lria ayag-sciigate-na-ni

That motor gas-not.have-apparently-PARTICIP.INTR.3SG go-unable-SUBORD-3SG

'(so) the engine wouldn't start because it didn't have any gas.'

In attributive possession, the possessive relationship may be marked on the noun phrase, noun, or pronoun that labels the possessor and/or the possession. For example, the phrase, 'Sarah's dog' would be an example of attributed possession. In Yupʼik the relationship is marked on both the possessor and the possessed. Pronominal nouns have both possessor and possessed markings. Two examples of this are shown below. In the first example, -gka which means 'I/them.two' or and the ergative case suffix 'boy's his'.




'my two fish traps'

tan'gaurlurm taluyai

tan'gaurlur-m taluya -i

boy-ERGATIVE fishtrap-3SG/3PL

'the boy's his fishtraps' = 'the boy's fishtraps'

Yupʼik has switch reference. A switch reference is used in sentences and is an inflection on the verb that tells you if its subject is the same as the subject of another verb. Eskimoan languages like Yupʼik have two termed devices of switch reference that are both are inflectional. The first is called Appositional Mood which is used to mark a clause in opposition with another clause when it shares a transitive or intransitive subject. The second device, which does not have this restriction, is called, 'reflexive vs. plain third person distinction.' Also called, '4th vs. 3rd person.' This shows that a noun phrase is co-referential or not co-referential with the subject of the controlling clause.[21]


This concept of suffixing is shown in Example 1:

"he will build a big place for working on boats." [22]

Another example of how Yupʼik includes additional morphemes in order to create a word is shown in Example 2:

"also, he probably will make a boat" [16]

where "Angya" is the stem, "li," "ciq," and "sugnar" are postbases, "quq" is the ending, and "llu" is the enclitic.

Case marking/pattern combinations

In Yupʼik, case marking on nominals is ergative/absolutive however when combining clauses, nominative/accusative patterns are used. In the examples below, case is indicated on the nouns and demonstratives by an additional suffix however, the absolutive is unmarked.


In general, the ergative case is a grammatical case that identifies the noun as the subject of the transitive verb. Usually this noun seems to be the performer of the action.

Angute-m tuqute-llru-a-a.


'The man(ERGATIVE) killed it'


The absulutive case is usually unmarked but it is used to show the subject of an intransitive verb and the object of a transitive one.

Una angun kitur-tu-q


'A man (ABSOLUTIVE) passed by'

Tuai-gguq qener-lu-ni tauna angun


'So that man (ABSOLUTIVE) got angry ... '

tauna angun kitur-k-iit


'They passed that man (ABSOLUTIVE).'


Transitivity is usually required for ergative marking in an absolutive/ergative language. Transitivity shows if a verb is able to take a direct object or not and how many of those objects a verb can take.

Tauku-t asta-t tegu-k-ai.


'He took those pears (ABSOLUTIVE). (Mithun, 234)


Intransitivity is shown when verbs cannot take an object.

Una angun nP-mi atsaq-nek iqvar-lria


'A man in a tree was picking pears (ABLATIVE).'

*the ablative case indicates movement from something or cause.

Verbs in Yupʼik are marked by pronominal suffixes. These suffixes identify 4 persons, 3 numbers, and two cases. Intransitive verbs use pronominal suffixes that refer to one argument, and transitives use pronominal suffixes that refer to two arguments.

Yupʼik also has six 'mood-markers' which are verbal suffixes that link adverbial clauses together. These mood markers include suffixes that can be translated to mean things like 'because', 'although', 'if' and 'while'.[23]

Word order

English and Yupʼik have very different views when it comes to word order. In English, word order tells us what the subject and object are. In Yupʼik this word order is less emphasized because grammatical affixes tell you what the subject as well as the object are. For example, the sentence: 'the dog bit the preacher' means something different in English when it is changed to 'the preacher bit the dog'. In Yupʼik however, 'the dog bit the preacher' is, 'qimugtem keggellrua agayulirta' where 'qimugtem' means dog and 'agayulirta' means 'preacher' these words would include suffixes for a subject of a transitive verb and an object of a transitive. If the order is switched; 'agayulirta keggellrua qimugtem' it would still mean 'the dog bit the preacher', it is only when you change the suffixes of the words does the meaning change. Thus 'the preacher bit the dog' would look something like; qimugta keggellrua agayulirtem. It's not the word order that changes, but merely the suffixes attached to those words. In conclusion, Yupʼik can be any word order, all that matters is the changing suffixes. However, it is important to note that when looking at the syntax of Yupʼik it makes most sense to have an SOV order, but any order in Yupʼik will make grammatical sense.[24]

Qimugt.em keggellrua agayulirt.a

dog(subj) bite+pst preacher(obj)

'The dog bit the preacher'

Qimugt.a keggellrua agayulirt.em

dog(obj) bite+pst. Preacher(subj)

'The preacher bit the dog'

Yupʼik language education

Small changes have been made towards teaching Yupʼik to the native Alaskan Yupʼiks. In 1972, the Alaska State Legislature passed legislation mandating that if "a [school is attended] by at least 15 pupils whose primary language is other than English, [then the school] shall have at least one teacher who is fluent in the native language".[25] Then, during the mid-1970s, educational programs emerged in order to revive and sustain the Yupʼik language: MacLean notes that "In 1975, an Alaska State statute was enacted directing all school boards to '...provide a bilingual-bicultural education program for each school...which is attended by at least 8 pupils of limited English-speaking ability and whose primary language is other than English'".[26] However, "the statute addressed all languages other than English, and thus expanded bilingualism equally to immigrant languages," meaning that although the statute welcomed non-English languages into schools, its primary "aim" was to "promote English proficiency," not to keep Yupʼik alive.[26]

Later, during the 1987-8 school year, three organizations, including members of the Alaska Native community, "initiated a process to establish an Alaska Native Language Policy for schools in Alaska," which "states that schools have a responsibility to teach and use as the medium of instruction the Alaska Native language of the local community to the extent desired by the parents of that community".[26] This proposal for the Alaska Native Language Policy comes three years after Steven A. Jacobson's "Central Yupʼik and the Schools: A Handbook for Teachers," a guide for teachers which exemplifies differences and similarities between English and Yupʼik so that Yupʼik or English-speaking teachers might successfully engage English-speaking Eskimo Yupʼik students in a "bilingual-bicultural education" that teaches their native language.[27]

The University of Alaska Fairbanks offers bachelor's degrees in Yupʼik language and culture and in Yupʼik Eskimo, as well as associate degrees in Native Language Education, with a concentration in Yupʼik, and in Yupʼik Language Proficiency.[28]

See also

  • Chevak Cupʼik language

  • Nunivak Cupʼig language

  • Alaska Native Language Center

  • Lower Yukon School District (Yupʼik)

  • Lower Kuskokwim School District (Yupʼik & Cupʼig)

  • Yupiit School District (Yupʼik)

  • Kashunamiut School District (Cupʼik)


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