On the Edge of Extinction Naukan Yupik
ASIAN LANGUAGES ON THE VERGE OF FALLING OUT OF USE
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.