Yupik names have fascinated me since I first came to Bethel almost ten years ago. At first it was the village names, which I puzzled over in the airport while reading the flight information board. Mekoryuk, Kwigillingok, Kongiganak, Tuntutuliak, Nunapitchuk, Atmautluak, Kwethluk, Akiak, Chuathbaluk, and many more—such an odd, and yet musical jumble of syllables. I wondered if I would ever learn to pronounce them (much less spell them) correctly. But once I began seeing patients at the hospital, I learned that the village names are no more complicated than many of the family names.
In my mind, Yupik family names fall into several different categories. The first category is the one I call traditional. These are the surnames that sound like the Yupik language: Tunutmoak, Askoak, Pingayak, Ayuluk, Tatlelik, Tungwenuk, Kopanuk, Bayayok, Umugak, Nukusuk, Kaganuk, Tomaganuk, Kassaiuli, Egoak, Chiklak, Elachik, Kashatok, Ayunerak, Takumjenak and many more.
A guideline for pronouncing these names is that if they have only two syllables, like Chiklak, the accent will usually be on the first syllable: CHICK-lack. If the name has more than two syllables, the accent will usually be on the second syllable: ping-GUY-ak, buy-YAI-yuck, new-COO-suck, eee-LA-chick. Of course, just when you are getting the hang of it, there will be an exception like OS-ko-ak or CASH-a-tock. But you’ll be right more often than wrong if you stick to stressing the second syllable.
Yupik language, in general, is extremely difficult to speak. Most words have six or eight syllables, and some have many more than that. It is a very guttural language, with throat-clearing sounds that come from deep in the throat, and it incorporates “wetness” sounds that require what I think of as a juicy mouth. Teeth-sucking figures in there somewhere too. If Yupik is not your first language, you are unlikely ever to learn more than a few words of it, much less speak it fluently, no matter how linguistically gifted you are. It is a matter of some cultural pride that the language is so difficult to speak.
When it comes right down to pronunciation, a non-Yupik speaker is essentially never going to get it exactly right. No matter how much it may sound to me like I have repeated a word or a name precisely as a Yupik speaker said it to me, he or she will either correct me or just smile and say “close enough.”
The best example of this is a group of names that I think of as the al-RAY-as: Chimeralrea, Aloralrea, Aliralrea, Imgalrea, Ayagalrea, and Akerelrea. Our alphabet needs more than 26 letters to convey these sounds. No matter how much I practice, I have never found a member of these families who agrees that I said the name right.
A second category of family names is one that includes common English words as surnames: Landlord, Boyscout, Fancyboy, Coffee, Cook, Boots, Littlefish, Deacon, Crisco, Parent, Bell, Rose, Dock, King, Brink, Lake, to name a few. And then there is the animal subset: Beaver, Fox, Wolf; and the color subset: Black, Green, Brown, Gray, and White. I have always wondered how Yupik people came to have these names.
The only origin story I know of is for the name Fancyboy. It is a relatively new name. A few generations back, one of the Polty boys up on the Yukon River was very fond of wearing his dress-up regalia. He would often wear his fanciest clothes, even if there were no celebration. The missionaries at the school he attended began calling him Fancy Boy. The name stuck, and all his descendants are now named Fancyboy instead of Polty.
The third category of surnames is the one with a man’s first name as the family name. The list here is long: John, Peter, Pete, Thomas, Tom, Tommy, Carl, Nick, Paul, Oscar, Andrew, James, Jimmy, Ivan, Charles, Charley, Frederick, George, Moses, Noah, Phillip, Jasper, Owen, Joseph, Joe, David, Ned, Samuel, Sam, Simon, Herman, Henry, Frank, Gilbert, Ross…and the list goes on.
If you are a boy with one of these surnames, there will be someone somewhere in the Delta with your name flipped. There will be someone named Peter John and someone named John Peter—not necessarily in the same village, or knowing each other. Somewhere there is a Nick Andrew, and an Andrew Nick; a Pete Jimmy and a Jimmy Pete; a Sam Henry and a Henry Sam.
The convention that most amazes me, though, is that each of these families will have a child who is given the same first name as his last name. Somewhere out there in southwest Alaska there is a Joe Joe (and a Joseph Joe, and a Joe Joseph), a George George, a Carl Carl, a Sam Sam. Middle initials come prominently in to play on these, as there are often quite a few with the same name. I know of three guys named Nick Nick.
And if last names are interesting, first names are equally so. Many Yupik women have first names that most Americans think of as old; common in the previous centuries but not in vogue these days: Bertha, Agatha, Josephine, Gertrude, Helen, Fanny, Esmerelda, Cora, Agnes, Clotilda. In part, this is due to a naming convention long honored in Yupik culture. When an elder in a village dies, the next child born to that village is given the elder’s name. Thus, old names are perpetuated.
When the elder is male and the next child born is female, the elder’s name is often feminized: Wassilina for Wassilie, Vassalina for Vassal, Miltonia for Milton. One man who was named Fredrick has granddaughters named—of course—Fredricka, but also Fredella, Fredanna, and Fredtresia.
Some first names are ones that I’ve never heard of anywhere: Bolvania, Akeema, Bavilla (can be either male or female), Audrac, Unchallee, Novely, Xander, Akafia, Shontiana, Ayumin, Agrifina. More creative and “New Age” type names are creeping into the culture as well. There is a boy named Awesome and a girl named Heavenleah. And a family whose children’s names all start with J: Jaythan, Jadrea, Jaytlan, Jawna, Jayvin, Jadred, and Janaya. That mom has a tongue-twister of a list to run down when she is trying to nail the right kid with the right name!
Labels: Tundra Life