Research project aims to document and support the Yupik language


Sylvia Schreiner is on a mission to record and help maintain the Yupik language on St. Lawrence Island, and she has the support of a National Science Foundation (NSF) CAREER grant to do it. 

headshot of Sylvia Schreiner
Sylvia Schreiner. Photo provided

Schreiner, an assistant professor in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, works on language documentation, which is making a record of the different grammatical structures of a language. The Faculty Early Career Development Award supports early-career faculty who can serve as academic role models, according to NSF. 

“The project on Yupik started when my colleague, Lane Schwartz, a computational linguist and computer scientist came to me,” she explained. “He spent years in this village as a child and knew the language was under threat. He asked if I wanted to try and get something going on this.” 

The project, Documenting temporal contrasts in an endangered language via community linguistics, is part of a wider collaborative effort to support the language. 

Schreiner and Schwartz, a computational linguist and computer scientist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, are also principal investigators on a pair of collaborative Documenting Endangered Languages NSF grants.  

The St. Lawrence Island villages Gambell and Savoonga (Sivuquq and Sivungaq, respectively, in Yupik) are the main location of the Yupik language. Yupik is also present in the Chukotka Peninsula in Russia.  

“I wanted to offer what I can to this community that welcomed me as a child,” said Schwartz, who lived in the Gambell village. 

The name of the language when spoken natively is Akuzipik. When translated, “Akuzi” means speech. However, both Yupik and Akuzipik end in “pik,” which means authentic in the language. 

Schreiner said the grant has two sides to it: research and education.  

“The research portion is working on parts of language that tell us about when something happens. The tenses in different languages show up in very different ways,” said Schreiner. “The educational part is to be able to train others in the community to do this kind of documentation and revitalization work to make it more organic from the community.”  

There are roughly 1,400 people on the Alaskan island, about 700 in each village, and speaking Yupik is somewhat generational, which is in part why it’s in danger. “The language has been declining in use over time, especially among the younger people,” said Schwartz. 

Sylvia Schreiner. Photo provided.
Sylvia Schreiner. Photo provided

Schreiner and her team are also working to digitize the legacy and archived materials that are available to them. One of her research assistants, Mason PhD student Ben Hunt, taught himself code and is in the process of building an online dictionary for Yupik. 

“When I suggested this tool, Lane said, ‘Well, why don't you build it?’” said Hunt, who had minimal experience with web development. “I started learning to code web apps from a variety of online sources mostly starting from scratch, but I ended up getting pretty comfortable with HTML, CSS, JavaScript, Python, and other scripting languages.” 

These tools will allow the people of this community to authentically maintain their language from within. “In an ideal world, [Sylvia and my] roles would disappear because we wouldn’t be needed anymore,” said Schwartz.  

“If you’re going to have a language survive, it can’t be dependent on people from the outside. It has to come organically from the communities and grow from inside. These kinds of things have to come from a grassroots movement,” said Schreiner. 

“If it dies with the older folks who still speak it, there it goes. This is their language and they can let it die if they want to, but they don’t.” 

In addition to her research, Schreiner runs the Language Documentation Lab and teaches several linguistics courses at Mason.