Searching for Contents in Alutiiq.

Alisha Drabek, “an Alutiiq language advocate, writer, and artist living on Kodiak Island, Alaska,” writes about her experience with the Alutiiq language; the first paragraph is evocative:

Surrounded by the Gulf of Alaska, the sea’s contents have fed and clothed my Alutiiq community both literally and figuratively for millennia. Ripples from my ancestors’ worldview course through my mind when I think of the Alutiiq word for “sea” or “ocean”—imaq. It is the same word for “a liquid contained inside” and “contents.” I first felt a deeper awareness of the Alutiiq worldview through this root word, which resurfaces in many remarkable ways. The root word appears in the phrases Imartuq—“It is full”—and Imaituq—“It is empty”; and again in Imasuugtua—“I feel depressed or sad” or “down-hearted” or “having a sinking feel of foreboding.” Literally, the word for “I am sad” translates in English as “I am searching for my contents.” The metaphorical wisdom of my ancestors regularly surprises and inspires me.

I’m posting it both because of its specificity (although we’re used to seeing this kind of thing about better-known languages, Alutiiq is new to me) and in hopes that someone who is familiar with the Yup’ik languages might be able to address the morphology involved and say whether, for instance, imaq is really one word or two being poetically conflated. Thanks, Trevor!


  1. Stu Clayton says

    Compare English CONtent and conTENT. Also container.

    German “traurig”, “bedrückt” and so on have none of this container imagery in their past.

  2. marie-lucie says

    Both words are borrowings/adaptations from Latin, so they can’t be analyzed according to English.

  3. Stu Clayton says

    I’m not analyzing them in terms of linguistics, but looking for analogous imagery. In the few words I wrote there is not a jot or tittle of etymological speculation. I’m taking my cue from “metaphorical wisdom” in the quote.

  4. Stu Clayton says

    It’s useful to think of wisdom as a metaphor, rather than (in addition to) something found in metaphors. That makes it easier to skirt round the difficulty that when a certain imagery (“contents”) is missing from certain words in your language (“traurig”), you don’t immediately find any wisdom there.

    Wisdom then resembles a suggestion more than an offer you can’t refuse.

  5. Whilst I was married to my 1st wife, the German, I was having an affair with an Eskimo gal,
    We were caught “inflagrante delicto” by meine frau who exclaimed loudly (whilst pointing at the Eskimo) “i knew it! I knew it!!”
    Which was really embarrassing for everyone, as it’s actually pronounced Inn-Yu-It

  6. Stu Clayton says

    Heh heh, thar’s good enough to be true !

  7. I’m not familiar with Alutiiq or the Yupik languages. That said, from what I have read, the Eskimo-Aleut languages are “polysynthetic”, forming long polysyllabic words by stringing morphemes together. Imaq looks to me like a word from one of these languages, which have suffixes ending in -iq, -aq, etc.

    Here’s what Wikipedia says:

    “The Yupik languages, like other Eskimo–Aleut languages, represent a particular type of agglutinative language called an affixally polysynthetic language.

    “Yupik languages ‘synthesize’ a single root at the beginning of every word with various grammatical suffixes to create long words with sentence-like meanings.

    “Within the vocabulary of Yupik there are no more than two thousand roots and around four hundred lexical suffixes, but they can be combined to create meanings that in most languages are expressed by multiple free morphemes.

    “Although every Yupik word contains one and only one root that is rigidly constrained to word-initial position, the ordering of the suffixes that follow can be varied to communicate different meanings, principally through recursion. The only exception lies with case suffixes on nouns and person suffixes on verbs, which are restricted to the end of the words in which they occur.”

  8. I am reminded of the occasional experience of walking alongsize a bay and remembering/realizing once again the fact of geography that bodies of water are not actually binarily opposed to “the land”; they’re just these pits/depressions/valleys that happen to be filled with (contain, indeed) mostly water, and there is in fact still ground all underneath them.

  9. Fienup-Riordan and Rearden in Ellavut: Our Yup’ik World & Weather 2012 give: imarpik. Ocean (from imaq, “contents”).

    John Eric (January 2007:114) commented on the ocean’s name: “It’s no wonder that the ocean has the name imarpik [from imaq, “contents”], because it holds everything.”

    (pauses, spends 20 minutes looking through A Grammar of Central Alaskan Yup’ik by MIYAOKA Osahito to confirm)

    Imarpik is used in example 61 on page 658 as an example of the lexicalization of the “+piɣ-” suffix, meaning “genuine”, attached to imaɣ̇. Other examples of this lexicalization include “Yup’ik” itself, meaning “genuine human,” and “nukalpiaq,” meaning “good hunter or warrior” (“most probably with the stem nukaq ‘beaver in its second year’, but with unidentified /l/”).

    Given all of that, I can’t find any evidence that CAY uses imaq to mean ocean, but it wouldn’t surprise me if they do, given how closely related the two words are. Perhaps this is an over-correction on the part of the speaker, given how few speakers of Alutiiq (versus CAY) there are.

  10. @j.:
    The ocean is a desert with its life underground,
    And a perfect disguise above…

  11. Since we’re on the topic, and it may be of interest to some folks here, is this online trove of very nicely transcribed 1800s Russian Orthodox texts in and on a variety of Alaskan native languages.

    Unfortunately the only one I know of with a decent wordlist only lists out sea in Tlingit, not Alutiiq.

  12. Thanks very much, pc!

  13. they’re just these pits/depressions/valleys that happen to be filled with (contain, indeed) mostly water, and there is in fact still ground all underneath them.

    Up to a point, Minister. Oceanic crust is different in character, thickness, density, and other variables from the continental crust that underlies smaller bodies of water. The Caspian and Black Seas, however, do have oceanic crust under them; the Aral does not.

  14. Greg Pandatshang says

    @jude de angulo, which one was it again that had the wood eye?

  15. –“Do you prefer Eskimo or Inuit?”
    –“OK then, Eskimo it is.”

  16. Jim Doyle says

    “Both words are borrowings/adaptations from Latin, so they can’t be analyzed according to English.”

    It’s refreshing to hear French being considered a variety of Latin the way Mandarin or Shanghai are considered varieties of Chinese. Latin really never did die.

    But there are lots of examples of this in English if you look:

    Word families: “I am bereaved” < r-P – rip, rob, rape, reeve, rive

    Derivation: "She is bewildered" < wild (as in a deserted, uninhabited place)

    I forget what these coinages are called: “Voluntold” <volunteer and told; in other words, not at all voluntary (This expression started in the Navy, I think.)

  17. marie-lucie says

    JD: CONtent vs ConTENT

    I wrote too fast but at least the first one is not from French (CONtent(s) ‘le contenu’).

    Otherwise I am not sure what your point is. That English words have one root?

  18. The “CONtent” versus “conTENT” thing reminds me of the quote that my eleventh-grade chemistry teacher had at the end of the “lab guide” (that was the MIT Junior [Physics] Lab term; I can’t remember what we called them in high school) for one of the end-of-the-year experiments (either titration or qualitative analysis):

    “Remember, this is a LABORatory, not a labORATORY.”

  19. Which reminds me of the “unionized” shibboleth.

  20. Really? What do you have against small, subterranean rodents?

  21. January First-of-May says

    I forget what these coinages are called

    I think the term for such coinages is “portmanteau” (in the singular – not entirely sure what the plural is).

    This term, incidentally, comes from Lewis Carroll, and specifically from Humpty Dumpty, who used it to describe words in Jabberwocky such as “slithy” (lithe and slimy).

  22. marie-lucie says

    JD: Words like bereaved and bewildered are not special coinages but derivatives of roots (by adding existing prefixes and suffixes one at a time), while slithy or voluntold are deliberately made up of two separate words blended together through their common sound elements. Only the second type can be called portmanteau.

    In French, un porte-manteau is literally a “coat-bearer” (so a ‘coat hanger’) such as is used to keep a piece of clothing hanging in a closet, while the English portmanteau (an old word I think) usually referred to a trunk or suitcase for transporting one’s belongings while travelling. For more than one I would write portmanteaus, not porte-manteaux which belongs to the French language.

  23. In French, un porte-manteau is literally a “coat-bearer

    It originally named a person rather than an object, someone whose duty it was to carry the king’s mantle when he wasn’t wearing it. As a highly trusted person, these officials were often entrusted with confidential missions. This usage is first recorded in French in 1507, and just once in English in 1597, but within forty years the meaning ‘valise’ is also being used in French and in fifteen more years in English too. There are a number of variants in English such as portmantua and portmantle, which are obviously etymologically equivalent, as well as bizarre forms in -mankle, -manque, -mante, -mantic, -manty, -mantium, -manten and more.

    The OED records both portmanteaus and portmanteaux, but they are both pronounced with [-z].

  24. marie-lucie says

    Merci JC!

    In Modern French a word with the structure verb-noun is likely to be an object, as in also un portefeuille ‘wallet’, un porte-documents ‘folder, attaché case’, un porte-bébé ‘baby carrier’, but in older French this structure could indicate a person, as in un portefaix ‘porter’ (carrying loads on his back), un porte-drapeau ‘flag bearer’ (as in a military parade), un porte-clés ‘turnkey’ (a prison official carrying the keys to all cell doors), and many others (not all with the same verb!). The two uses are not incompatible, as shown in un gratte-ciel ‘skyscraper’ and the now rather obsolete un gratte-papier ‘low level office employee’ (before typewriters and computers).

  25. Russian has a similar ambiguity: a дворник [dvornik, “courtyard-nik”] is a janitor, but a цветник [tsvetnik, “flower-nik”] is a flowerbed.

  26. “If vegetarians eat vegetables, what do humanitarians eat?”

    In addition, we have corn oil, safflower oil, peanut oil, rapeseed oil — and baby oil.

    ~~ shudders ~~

  27. I always laugh at one example of the -lik/-lık/-luk/-lük suffix in Turkish. It has…

    kitap = book, kitaplık = bookshelf
    tuz = salt, tuzluk = saltshaker
    kalem = pen/pencil, kalemlik = pencil case
    yağ = oil, yağlık = cruet

    and so forth… as well as…

    Arnavut = Albanian person, Arnavutluk = Albania.

    Like Albania is just a container for Albanian people! 🙂

  28. Stu Clayton says

    A Modest Proposal – help save the planet by frying your tofu in baby oil.

  29. Russian has portmanto (rare, probably obsolete), sacvoyage (ditto), and even valise (not sure what is the status of this one) as well as portfel’, which means not a wallet, but briefcase. But the most common word for suitcase is чемодан: from Persian جامه دان‎/jamadan = جامه/jāma clothes + دان/dān ?

  30. SFReader says
  31. marie-lucie: and “porte-parole”, a spokesman, which is still used.

    I rather like it (and “gratte-papier”, which I hadn’t encountered before), and would support an English equivalent. “The president’s Word Bearer said today…”

    Spokesman is a strange construction anyway (going off topic slightly). There are lots of English words that are noun+man, all of which are fairly transparent; chairman is a man who sits in (or carries) a chair, helmsman is a man at a helm (with an extra S for clarity, to avoid it sounding like hell-man), horseman is a man on a horse etc. But there are very few that are verb+man, and I can’t think of any that are verb in past tense + unnecessary extra S + man!

  32. marie-lucie says

    away: Indeed “word bearer” would be nice, and also avoid the gender problem.

  33. David Marjanović says

    Like Albania is just a container for Albanian people! ????

    Esperanto does this a lot, or at least it did originally.

  34. January First-of-May says

    Esperanto does this a lot, or at least it did originally.

    IIRC, Esperanto national/ethnic derivations are extremely varied, and I’m not sure which of them is used for Albania, but the “container for” derivation is indeed one of the possible options (I think Sweden is one example).

    My source for this is JBR, though (I haven’t learned a lot of Esperanto elsewhere).

  35. Esperanto national/ethnic derivations are extremely varied

    Conlang fail!

  36. Spokesman was apparently formed by analogy to craftsman. In its first OED appearance in the 16C it means ‘interpreter’. In the 14C, however, the less irregular speakman was in use.

    Earlier discussion of -man, with and without the genitive suffix.

  37. David Marjanović says

    I think Sweden is one example

    Was originally, though nowadays Esperantists go for Ŝvedlando, says JBR’s Ranto… oh, it did, but the current version brings up Belgium instead, which used to be the container for ethnic Belgians.

    (…which latter concept I interpret as deliberate snark – Austria was treated the same way.)

  38. the Alutiiq are claiming to be “God’s Frozen People”

  39. Trond Engen says

    Now I’m wondering if No. hav and its Germanic cognates could contain the same metaphor. Bjorvand & Lindeman derive it from *habján- in its later sense “lift”, but the older sense is “grip, hold”.

  40. Trond Engen says

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