Two Yup'ik engineers are trying to push the Yugtun language into the future, using technology. Their latest project opens the door for Yugtun autocorrect, grammar checkers, and automatic subtitles on Yup'ik videos.
There are only a handful of Yup'ik computer scientists in the world, according to Christopher Egalaaq Liu of Bethel and Lonny Alaskuk Strunk of Quinhagak. The pair have teamed up to create what is likely the most advanced Yugtun translation tool available online.
“There's nothing like, it's the first tool of its kind,” Liu said.
Liu created the first version of yugtun.com, a simple online Yugtun-English dictionary, and presented it at the 2018 Alaska Federation of Natives convention. Liu said that the new version of the website he built with Strunk and another friend can translate complex Yugtun words and even full sentences. Take, for instance, the word “elitnaurvigmi.”
Liu explained that elitnaurvigmi, like most Yugtun words, has different parts to it: a base and an ending.
“‘Elitnaurvig’ for school and ‘mi.’ So, in or at the one school,” Liu said. “Previously we had no way, except by really someone who had studied linguistics, to be able to break down the word into its components.”
Yugtun.com breaks down Yugtun words and sentences using technology that Strunk developed during his masters program in computational linguistics at the University of Washington. After completing his first major project combining Yugtun and technology, Strunk is already looking ahead.
“My main purpose right now is to have Yup'ik as a first class language on the internet,” Strunk said.
He says that would mean creating Yugtun spell checkers, grammar checkers, and having websites displayed in Yugtun. Strunk and Liu plan to continue working together on future projects. It makes sense, given that the two share a unique skill set: being proficient in both Yugtun and computer science.
“Lonny is the only other computer scientist I know who's Yup'ik,” Liu said. “Like, we’re the only, as far as I know. I don't know anyone.”
Liu and Strunk both developed expertise in technology before Yugtun. From an early age, they both loved math and went on to study coding after high school. But something tugged at each of them, calling them back closer to their heritage. For Strunk, that came when he was studying abroad in Japan.
“And I got to the point where I was better at speaking Japanese than I was speaking Yup’ik, and it was kind of shameful for me,” Strunk said. “Just a shock that my own heritage language isn't as strong, speaking-wise.”
So he took Yugtun classes in college to supplement his computer science degree. For Liu, his passion for Yugtun was ignited when he took a class with Dr. Walkie Charles at the Alaska Native Heritage Center. During that class, he learned that Yugtun follows strict rules.
“I had no idea that there was this mathematically based system or these formal rules you can follow to form the Yugtun words,” Liu said. “It's like the combination of math and Yup'ik.”
Liu and Strunk discovered that they could use their math-centric brains to study Yugtun, help others learn it, and advance the language into the age of technology.
Liu has developed two mobile apps for the Lower Kuskokwim School District to help students learn Yup'ik. One is called Yugtun LKSD, and the other is called Naaqerkat, which means books; it guides students through Yugtun picture books.
Strunk hopes that building Yugtun technology will support more Yugtun learners and educators.
“I think, knowing the language is such a big part of culture and identity, and knowing the language also brings in the Yup'ik worldview, and being able to access that knowledge and that worldview is so important,” Strunk said.
Liu and Strunk said that they’re not operating out of fear of losing their language. Instead, they’re focused on helping other people like them: young people who want to become stronger in their language and forge deeper connections with their culture and heritage.