On the Edge of Ex­tinc­tion Naukan Yupik

ASIAN LAN­GUAGES ON THE VERGE OF FALL­ING OUT OF USE

Asian Geographic - - Front Page - CHUKCHI PENIN­SULA, 70 SPEAK­ERS

Naukan Yupik is the na­tive tongue of a mea­gre 50 peo­ple liv­ing mostly in Lavren­tiya, Siberia, but who orig­i­nally hail from the vil­lage of Naukan, East Cape, Siberia, across the Ber­ing Strait from Alaska’s Se­ward Penin­sula. It is also spo­ken by a small hand­ful of peo­ple liv­ing on the Chukchi Penin­sula, the north­east­ern ex­trem­ity of Asia, mak­ing a to­tal of 70 peo­ple world­wide who are privy to this lan­guage. De­spite the group’s pal­try size, the lex­i­con of this lan­guage was first doc­u­mented long ago – all the way back in 1732.

Though only spo­ken in Siberia, Naukan is a lin­guis­tic in­ter­me­di­ate be­tween two other lan­guages: Cen­tral Siberian Yupik of St. Lawrence Is­land and Yup’ik Eskimo, a tongue ex­clu­sive to south­west­ern Alaska. On its evo­lu­tion­ary path lies a con­nec­tion be­tween these three lan­guages that un­doubt­edly went in a north­ern arc through the East Cape, across the Ber­ing Strait and the Se­ward Penin­sula – an area with quite a sub­stan­tial sea bar­rier, mak­ing it dif­fi­cult for the in­dige­nous peo­ple to nav­i­gate. Thus, Naukan is con­sid­ered to be a third branch cast mid­way be­tween the two.

As a re­sult, many lo­cal words have sev­eral mean­ings. For in­stance, pikna means any­thing from ‘that above’ to ‘back from the sea’ to ‘to the north’ – ren­der­ing it im­pos­si­ble to trans­late into a sin­gle, con­cise English word. Un­til to­day, it is still un­de­ter­mined whether Naukan is at heart a Siberian or an Alaskan lan­guage.

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