Since when is Aleut Eskimo?

A lot of people on various linguistics listserves are talking about an article on BBC, Why you should avoid ‘mingqutnguaq’, on the always popular “how many words do the Eskimos have for snow?” topic. The article brings nothing new to the table, really, but this is the part that really stood out to me:

Yup’ik has three dialects: Central, Siberian and Alutiiq there [Alaska].

There are also two other Eskimo languages apart from Yup’ik: Inupiat and Aleut, and that means plenty of ways of referring to snow and ice.

Really? Central Alaskan Yup’ik, Siberian Yupik, and Alutiiq are dialects of the same language? That’s news to me. The journalist apparently went to the trouble of consulting a Yup’ik dictionary by the Alaska Native Language Center, but didn’t think to check his other language information. See a list of Alaska Native languages here on the ANLC’s website. (Another minor quibble is that the language name is Iñupiaq, not Iñupiat. Iñupiat are the people who speak Iñupiaq.)

While it’s perhaps not too strange that the author confuses dialect and language – after all, the division is subjective at best and often political (yes, Scandinavia, I’m looking at you) – the strangest part is that the author refers to Aleut as an Eskimo language. Aleut is not Eskimo. The language family is called Eskimo-Aleut for a reason: Aleut (which is Unangam Tunuu in Aleut) doesn’t fall within the Eskimo group. Culturally the Aleut people are distinct from Eskimo peoples as well. Journalists are fond of writing about Eskimo words for snow, but it would be nice if they got their basic facts straight.

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Voting in Alaska Native languages

Well, in five of the remaining nineteen (living) languages, anyway.

After a judge ordered in July that the state of Alaska must provide Yup’ik language assistance to voters, I was curious to see how the state would follow up. I’ve just found a nice website, Alaska Native Vote, with voting terms in (Central Alaskan) Yup’ik as well as four other Alaska Native languages: Iñupiaq, Gwich’in Athabascan, Koyukon Athabascan, and Siberian Yupik.

Of course, one can only wonder to what extent this will reach the primarily elderly monolingual speakers, but it’s a start. I don’t have time to track it down now, but I’ve heard they’re also broadcasting voting assistance on local radio stations. According to the ACLU and news sites, the judge ordered that the state must provide

trained poll workers who are bilingual in English and Yup’ik; sample ballots in written Yup’ik; a written Yup’ik glossary of election terms; consultation with local tribes to ensure the accuracy of Yup’ik translations; a Yup’ik language coordinator; and pre-election and post-election reports to the court tracking the state’s efforts

Alaska Native Vote provides a printed Yup’ik glossary as well as sound files in five languages, so it has a wider audience than just the Yup’ik assistance that the judge ordered. The same material is available on the Division of Elections website. Admittedly, it took a judge to get the state to provide it, but I have to say it looks like they’re now doing an admirable job getting voting information out there in various languages.

Ironically, one of the objections raised by the Division of Elections was that providing Yup’ik language voting assistance in the Bethel area would be too much work, yet they have had all sorts of voting material in Tagalog on their website for a lot longer time (due Alaska’s sizable Filipino community – why they don’t also have Samoan and Korean is a mystery). Oddly, many city and state services, like public health offices, have material in Samoan, Korean, Tagalog, and Russian, but rarely in any of the indigenous languages. From a demand point of view, it’s probably true they have very few clients coming in wanting help in Deg Xinag, but there are thousands of Yup’ik speakers across the state. The state’s other main argument, of course, was that providing Yup’ik ballots alone would do very little, since many, if not most, elders are literate in English but not Yup’ik (having never received schooling in Yup’ik). That’s a valid argument, I think, but only as a reason for not providing only written assistance. The judge’s decision that the state must provide reasonable audio assistance solved the problem by requiring oral assistance as well.

Finally, when you click on the website’s navigation links at the top, the image in the top left corner changes, each with a different ethnonym. I’m very impressed that the website’s creators got the diacritics correct! Not all of the Alaska Native groups are listed – Aleut, for example, isn’t represented – but quite a few are. Iñupiaq has its tilde (although in some dialects, the nasal isn’t palatal), and they have separate images for Yup’ik (geminate; specifically means Central Alaskan Yup’ik) and Yupik (non-geminate; here refers to Siberian Yupik), with Cup’ik to boot!

(images © Get Out The Native Vote, 2008)