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Sirenik Eskimo Language

Sirenik Yupik, Sireniki Yupik (also Old Sirenik or Vuteen), Sirenik, or Sirenikskiy is an extinct Eskimo–Aleut language. It was spoken in and around the village of Sireniki (Сиреники) in Chukotka Peninsula, Chukotka Autonomous Okrug, Russia . The language shift has been a long process, ending in total language death. In January 1997, the last native speaker of the language, a woman named Vyjye (Valentina Wye) (Russian: Выйе), died. Ever since that point, the language has been extinct; nowadays, all Sirenik Eskimos speak Siberian Yupik or Russian. Сиӷы́ных [siˈʁənəx] is the endonym for the eponymous settlement of Sireniki. The endonym for the people itself is сиӷы́ныгмы̄́ӷий [siˈʁənəɣˈməːʁij] "Sirenikites"; the singular form is сиӷы́ныгмы̄́ӷа [siˈʁənəɣˈməːʁa]). This article is based on Menovschikov (1964), with cited examples transliterated from Cyrillic transcription to the International Phonetic Alphabet.

eskimo–aleut sireniki sirenik

1. Classification

1.1. Genealogical


Some argue that the Sirenik language is a remnant of a third group of Eskimo languages, in addition to Yupik and Inuit groups[1][2][3][4][5] (see a visual representation by tree and an argumentation based on comparative linguistics[6][7]). In fact, the exact genealogical classification of Sireniki language is not settled yet,[1] and some others regard it belonging to the Yupik branch.[8][9]

Many words are formed from entirely different roots than in Siberian Yupik.[10] Also, the grammar has several peculiarities compared to other Eskimo languages, and even compared to Aleut. For example, dual number is not known in Sireniki Eskimo, while most Eskimo–Aleut language have dual,[11] including even its neighboring Siberian Yupik relatives.[12] The peculiarities amounted to mutual unintelligibility with even its nearest language relatives. This forced Sirenik Eskimos to use Chukchi as a lingua franca when speaking with neighboring Eskimo peoples.[13] Thus, any external contacts required using a different language for Sireniki Eskimos: they either resorted to use of lingua franca, or used Siberian Yupik languages (being definitely a mutually unintelligible, different language for them, not just a dialect of their own).[14] This difference from all their language relatives may be the result of a supposed long isolation from other Eskimo groups:[15][16] Sireniki Eskimos may have been in contact only with speakers of unrelated languages for many centuries in the past, influenced especially by non-relative Chukchi.[13]


Although the number of its speakers was very few even at the end of the nineteenth century, the language had at least two dialects in the past.[17]

1.2. Typological

As for its morphological typology, it has polysynthetic and incorporative features (just like the other Eskimo languages).

2. Phonology

Some notes (very far from being a complete description):

  • The alveolar lateral approximant /l/ has its voiceless version /l̥/, and it can be also palatalized /lʲ̥/
  • glottal stop /ʔ/

3. Morphology

Like all other Eskimo languages, the morphology is rather complex. A description grouped by lexical categories follows.

3.1. Nominal and Verbal

Although morphology will be treated grouped into a nominal and a verbal part, many Eskimo languages show features which “crosscut” any such groupings in several aspects:

  • the ergative structure at verbs is similar to the possessive structure at nouns (see section #Ergative–absolutive);
  • a physical similarity exists between nominal and verbal personal suffix paradigms, i.e., in most cases, the respective person-number is expressed with the same sequence of phonemes at:
    • possessive suffixes (at nouns)
    • verbal suffixes;
  • nomenverbum-like roots, becoming nominal or verbal only via the suffix they get;
  • Eskimo texts abound in various kinds of participles (see section #Participles);

Common grammatical categories

Some grammatical categories (e.g. person and number) are applicable to both verbal and nominal lexical categories.

Although person and number are expressed in a single suffix, sometimes it can be traced back to consist of a distinct person and a distinct number suffix.[18]


Paradigms can make a distinction in 3rd person for “self”, thus the mere personal suffix (of the verb or noun) can distinguish e.g.

a nominal example
“He/she takes his/her own dog” versus “He/she takes the dog of another person”.
a verbal example
“He/she sees himself/herself” versus “He/she sees him/her (another person)”

Thus, it can be translated into English (and some other languages) using reflexive pronoun. This notion concerns also other concepts in building larger parts of the sentence and the text, see section #Usage of third person suffixes.


Although other Eskimo languages know more than the familiar two grammatical numbers (by having also dual), Sireniki uses only singular and plural, thus it lacks dual. As mentioned, Sireniki is peculiar in this aspect not only among Eskimo languages, but even in the entire Eskimo–Aleut language family,[11] even its neighboring Siberian Yupik relatives have dual.[12]

Building verbs from nouns

Suffix -/ɕuɣɨn/- meaning “to be similar to sth”:

Root Becomes verbal by suffix[19] Indicative mood, singular 3rd person
/mɨtɨχlʲ̥ux/ /mɨtɨχlʲ̥ux-ɕuɣɨn/- /mɨtɨχlʲ̥ux-ɕuɣɨn-tɨ-χ/
raven to be similar to a raven he/she is similar to a raven
Predicative form of a noun

Predicative form of a noun can be built using suffix -/t͡ʃ ɨ/-:[20]

Root Predicative form Examples
Singular 2nd person Singular 3rd person
/juɣ/ /juɣɨ t͡ʃ ɨ/- /juɣɨ t͡ʃ ɨtɨn/ /juɣɨ t͡ʃ ɨχ/
man to be a man you are a man he/she is a man
Verbs built from toponyms
  • /imtuk/ (a toponym: Imtuk)
  • /imtux-tɨqɨχ-tɨ-ŋ/ (I travel to Imtuk.)[21]

3.2. Nominal Lexical Categories

Grammatical categories

Not only the grammatical cases of nouns are marked by suffixes, but also the person of possessor (use of possessive pronouns in English) can be expressed by agglutination.

Excerpt from cases and personal possessive form of /taŋaχ/ (child)[22]
  Sing 1st person Sing 2nd person
Absolutive /taŋaqa/ (my child) /taŋaʁɨn/ (your child)
Ablative / Instrumental /taŋamnɨŋ/ (from my child) /taŋaχpɨnɨŋ/ (from your child)
Dative / Lative /taŋamnu/ (to my child) /taŋaχpɨnu/ (to your child)
Locative /taŋamni/ (at my child) /taŋaχpɨni/ (at your child)
Equative (comparative) /taŋamtɨn/ (like my child) /taŋaχpɨtɨn/ (like your child)

It is just an excerpt for illustration: not all cases are shown, Sirenik language has more grammatical cases. The table illustrates also why Sirenik language is treated as agglutinative (rather than fusional).

There is no grammatical gender (or gender-like noun class system).


Sireniki is an absolutive–ergative language.

Cases (listed using Menovščikov's numbering):

  1. Absolutive
  2. Relative case, playing the role of both genitive case and ergative case.
  3. Ablative / Instrumental, used also in accusative structures.
  4. Dative / Lative
  5. Locative
  6. Vialis case, see also Prosecutive case, and "motion via"
  7. Equative (comparative)

To see why a single case can play such distinct roles at all, read morphosyntactic alignment, and also a short table about it.

Some finer grammatical functions are expressed using postpositions. Most of them are built as a combinations of cases

  • lative or locative or ablative
  • combined with relative (used as genitive)

in a similar way as we use expressions like "on top of" in English.

3.3. Verbal Lexical Categories

Also at verbs, the morphology is very rich. Suffixes can express grammatical moods of the verb (e.g. imperative, interrogative, optative), and also negation, tense, aspect, the person of subject and object. Some examples (far from being comprehensive):

Phonology Meaning Grammatical notes
Person, number of Mood Others
subject object
/aʁaʁɨ-tɨqɨχ-tɨ-mkɨn/ I lead you Singular 1st person Singular 2nd person Indicative  
/aʁaʁɨ-ɕuk-ɨ-mɕi/ Let me lead you Singular 1st person Singular 2nd person Imperative[23]  
/nɨŋɨ-sɨɣɨŋ-sɨn/ Don't you see me? Singular 2nd person Singular 1st person Interrogative Negative polarity[24]

The rich set of morphemes makes it possible to build huge verbs whose meaning could be expressed (in most of widely known languages) as whole sentences (consisting of more words) . Sireniki – like the other Eskimo languages – has polysynthetic and incorporative features, in many forms, among others polypersonal agreement.

Grammatical categories

The polysynthetic and incorporative features mentioned above manifest themselves in most of the ways Sirenik language can express grammatical categories.


For background, see transitivity. (Remember also section #Ergative–absolutive.)

See also.[25]


Even the grammatical polarity can be expressed by adding a suffix to the verb.

An example for negative polarity: the negation form of the verb /aʁaʁ-/ (to go):

  • /juɣ aʁaχ-tɨqɨχ-tɨ-χ/ (the man walks)
  • /juɣ aʁaʁ-ɨ-tɨ-χ/ (the man does not walk)[24]

Grammatical aspect:

  • /aftalʁa-qɨstaχ-/ (to work slowly) and /aftalʁa-qɨstaχ-tɨqɨχ-tɨ-χ/ (he works slowly),[26] from /aftalʁa-/ (to work)

Also linguistic modality can be expressed by suffixes. Modal verbs like "want to", "wish to" etc. do not even exist:[27]

Suffix -jux- (to want to):
/aftalʁaχ-/ (to work) /aftalʁaʁ-jux-/ (to want to work)[27]
/aftalʁaχ-tɨqɨχ-tɨ-ŋ/ (I work)[28] /aftalʁaʁ-jux-tɨqɨχ-tɨ-ŋ/ (I want to work)[27]

The table illustrates also why Sirenik is treated as agglutinative (rather than fusional).


Four grammatical voices are mentioned in:[29]

confer -/ɕi/- that variant of Siberian Yupik which is spoken by Ungazigmit[30]
middle (medial)
/malikam aʁaχ-ɕaχ-tɨqɨχ-tɨ-ʁa kɨtuɣi qurŋi-nu/ (Malika makes Kitugi go to the reindeer.)[29]

all of them are expressed by agglutination, thus, no separate words are required.

3.4. Participles

A distinction between two kinds of participles (adverbial participle and adjectival participle) makes sense in Sireniki (just like in Hungarian, see határozói igenév and melléknévi igenév for detailed description of these concepts; or in Russian, see деепричастие and причастие).

Sireniki has many kinds of participles in both categories. In the following, they will be listed, grouped by the relation between the “dependent action” and “main action” (or by other meanings beyond this, e.g. modality) – following the terminology of [31]. A sentence with a participle can be imagined as simulating a subordinating compound sentence where the action described in the dependent clause relates somehow to the action described in the main clause. In English, an adverbial clause may express reason, purpose, condition, succession etc., and a relative clause can express many meanings, too.

In an analogous way, in Sireniki Eskimo language, the "dependent action" (expressed by the adverbial participle in the sentence element called adverbial, or expressed by the adjectival participle in the sentence element called attribute) relates somehow to the “main action” (expressed by the verb in the sentence element called predicate), and the participles will be listed below grouped by this relation (or by other meanings beyond this, e.g. modality).

Adverbial participles

They can be translated into English e.g. by using an appropriate adverbial clause. There are many of them, with various meanings.

An interesting feature: they can have person and number. The person of the dependent action need not coincide with that of the main action. An example (meant in the British English usage of “shall / should” in the 1st person: here, conveying only conditional, but no necessity or morality):

“I” versus “we”
/mɨŋa iŋɨjaxtɨk-t͡ʃɨ-ʁɨjɨqɨɣɨ-ma, ajvɨʁaʁjuʁuχtɨki/
If I were a marksman, we should kill walrus

Another example (with a different adverbial participle):

“he/she” versus “they”
/ɨ̆ l̥tɨʁinɨq ȷ̊an, upʃuχtɨqɨχtɨʁij/
when he/she sings, they keep frightening him/her

They will be discussed in more details below.

Reason, purpose or circumstance of action

An adverbial participle “explaining reason, purpose or circumstance of action” is expressed by suffix -/lɨ/- / -/ l̥ɨ/- (followed by appropriate person-number suffix). Examples:[32]

Persons Sentence
Adverbial participle Verb
1st—1st /jɨfkɨ-lɨ-ma itχɨ-mɨ-t͡ʃɨ-ŋ/
(I) having stood up I went in
3rd—3rd /jɨfkɨ-lɨ-mi itχɨ-mɨ-tɨ-χ/
(he/she) having stood up he/she went in

Another example,[33] with a somewhat different usage:

Adverbial participle Verb
/nɨŋitu l̥ɨku pɨjɨkɨŋa/
To examine him/her2 (another being) he/she1 went
Dependent action ends just before main action begins

Using the adverbial participle -/ja/- / -/ɕa/-, the dependent action (expressed by the adverbial participle in the sentence element called adverbial) finishes just before the main action (expressed by the verb in the sentence element called predicate) begins.[34]

Dependent action begins before main action, but they continue together till end

It can be expressed by suffix -/inɨq ȷ̊a/-.[34] Examples:

/nukɨ l̥piɣt͡ʃɨʁaʁɨm aninɨq ȷ̊ami qamt͡ʃɨni tiɣɨmɨra(x)/
the boy, going out [of the house], took his [own] sledge [with himself])


/nukɨ l̥piɣt͡ʃɨʁaʁɨm/
Phonology Syntax Semantics
/nuˈkɨ l̥piɣˈt͡ʃɨʁaχ/ noun boy
-/ɨm/ case suffix relative case
/aninɨq ȷ̊ami/
Phonology Syntax Semantics
/an/- root go out
-/inɨq ȷ̊a/- the suffix of the adverbial participle dependent action begins before main action, but they continue together till end
-/mi/ person-number suffix for adverbial participle in intransitive conjugation[35] subject of singular 3rd person
Phonology Syntax Semantics
/ˈqamt͡ʃa/ noun sled
-/ni/ possessive suffix for nouns singular, 3rd person, self: “his/her own …”
Phonology Syntax Semantics
/tɨɣɨˈraχ/ verb he/she took something
-/mɨ/- / -/ɨmɨ/- tense suffix past tense (not the “near past” one)

Another example:

/ɨ̆ l̥tɨʁinɨq ȷ̊an, upʃuχtɨqɨχtɨʁij/
when he/she sings, they keep frightening him/her

Dependent action is conditional: it does not takes place, although it would (either really, or provided that some—maybe irreal—conditions would hold). Confer also conditional sentence.

Sireniki Eskimo has several adverbial participles to express that.[36] We can distinguish them according to the concerned condition (conveyed by the dependent action): it may be

  • either real (possible to take place in the future)
  • or irreal (it would take place only if some other irreal condition would hold)

It is expressed with suffix -/qɨɣɨ/- / -/kɨɣɨ/-, let us see e.g. a paradigm beginning with /aʁa-qɨɣɨ-ma/ (if I get off / depart); /aʁa-qɨɣɨ-pi/ (if you get off / depart):

Singular Plural
Person 1st /aʁa-qɨɣɨ-ma/ /aʁa-qɨɣɨ-mta/
2nd /aʁa-qɨɣɨ-pi/ /aʁa-qɨɣɨ-pɨɕi/
3rd /aʁa-qɨɣɨ-mi/ /aʁa-qɨɣɨ-mɨŋ/

Confer counterfactual conditional. Sireniki can compress it into an adverbial participle: it is expressed with suffix -/ɣɨjɨqɨɣɨ/- / -/majɨqɨɣɨ/-.

The dependent action is expressed with an adverbial participle. The main action is conveyed by the verb. If also the main action is conditional (a typical usage), than it can be expressed with a verb of conditional mood. The persons need not coincide.

An example (meant in the British English usage of “shall / should” in the 1st person: here, conveying only conditional, but no necessity or morality):

/mɨŋa iŋɨjaxtɨk-t͡ʃɨ-ʁɨjɨqɨɣɨ-ma, ajvɨʁaʁjuʁuχtɨki/
If I were a marksman, we should kill walrus.

The example in details:

Dependent action:

/iŋɨjaxtɨk-t͡ʃɨ-ʁɨjɨqɨɣɨ-ma/ (if I were a marksman)
Phonology Syntax Semantics
/iŋˈɨːjaxta/ noun marksman
-/t͡ʃɨ/- suffix building a verb out of a noun predicative form of noun
-/ɣɨjɨqɨɣɨ/- / -/majɨqɨɣɨ/- the suffix of the adverbial participle irreal condition
-/ma/ person-number suffix for adverbial participles in the intransitive conjugation subject 1st person

Adjectival participles

There are more kinds of them.

  • /imtuɡnu aʁaqt͡ʃɨχ qɨmɨ l̥ɨʁaχ utɨχt͡ʃɨmɨt͡ʃɨχ/ (The sledge [that went to Imtuk] returned.)
  • /juɣ qavɨ l̥ɨʁɨχ nɨŋɨsɨmɨrɨqa/ (I saw [perceived] a sleeping man.)

They can be used not only in attributive role (as in the above examples), but also in predicative role:[37]

  • /juɣ qavɨ l̥ɨʁɨχ/ (The man is sleeping.)

Adjectival participle -/kajux/ / -/qajux/ conveys a meaning related rather to modality (than to the relation of dependent action and main action). It conveys meaning “able to”.[38]

  • /taŋaʁaχ pijɨkajux pijɨxtɨqɨχtɨχ  l̥mɨnɨŋ/ (A child who is able to walk moves around spontaneously)

4. Syntax

4.1. Ergative–Absolutive

Sireniki is (just like many Eskimo languages) an ergative–absolutive language. For English-language materials treating this feature of Sireniki, see Vakhtin's book,[1] or see online a paper treating a relative Eskimo language.[39]

4.2. Usage of Third Person Suffixes

Although the below examples are taken from Inuit Eskimo languages (Kalaallisut), but e.g. Sireniki's distinguishing between two kinds of 3rd person suffixes can be concerned, too (remember section #Person above: there is a distinct reflexive (“own”-like) and an “another person”-like 3rd person suffix).


For a detailed theoretical treatment concerning the notions of topic (and anaphora, and binding), with Eskimo-related examples, see online Maria Bittner's works, especially.[40]


For a treatment of obviation in (among others) Eskimo languages, see online[41] and in more details (also online)[42] from the same authors.

4.3. Word Order

See also.[25]


  1. Linguist List's description about Nikolai Vakhtin's book: The Old Sirinek Language: Texts, Lexicon, Grammatical Notes. The author's untransliterated (original) name is “Н.Б. Вахтин ”.
  2. Support for Siberian Indigenous Peoples Rights (Поддержка прав коренных народов Сибири) – see the section on Eskimos
  3. Vakhtin 1998: 161
  4. "Error: no |title= specified when using {{Cite web}}" (in Russian). ICC Chukotka. Inuit Circumpolar Council.
  5. Меновщиков 1997
  6. Representing genealogical relations of (among others) Eskimo–Aleut languages by tree: Alaska Native Languages (found on the site of Alaska Native Language Center)
  7. Lawrence Kaplan: Comparative Yupik and Inuit (found on the site of Alaska Native Language Center)
  8. Ethnologue Report for Eskimo–Aleut
  9. Kaplan 1990: 136
  10. Меновщиков 1964, p. 42
  11. Меновщиков 1964, p. 38
  12. Меновщиков 1964, p. 81
  13. Menovshchikov 1990: 70
  14. Меновщиков 1964, pp. 6–7
  15. Меновщиков 1962, p. 11
  16. Меновщиков 1964, p. 9
  17. Vakhtin 1998: 162
  18. Person and number in a single suffix, or in two distinct ones: p. 61 of Меновщиков 1964
  19. Suffix -/ɕuɣɨn/- meaning “to be similar to sth”: p. 66 of Меновщиков 1964
  20. Predicative form of a noun (suffix -/t͡ʃ ɨ/-): p. 66–67 of Меновщиков 1964
  21. Verbs built from toponyms: p. 67 of Меновщиков 1964
  22. Personal possessive form: p. 44–45 of Меновщиков 1964
  23. Imperative: p. 86 of Меновщиков 1964
  24. Negation form of a verb: p. 89 of Меновщиков 1964
  25. Nicole Tersis and Shirley Carter-Thomas: Integrating Syntax and Pragmatics: Word Order and Transitivity Variations in Tunumiisut. It treats an Inuit language: not Sireniki, but a relative. Availability: on paper and restricted online.
  26. Suffix -/qɨstaχ-/ for slow action aspect: p. 72 of Меновщиков 1964
  27. Modality: p. 68 of Меновщиков 1964
  28. Present tense: p. 61 of Меновщиков 1964
  29. Grammatical voices: p. 78–80 of Меновщиков 1964
  30. Рубцова 1954, pp. 121–123
  31. Меновщиков 1964
  32. Adverbial participle -/lɨ/- / - /l̥ɨ/- “explaining reason, purpose or circumstance of action”: pp. 90–91 of Меновщиков 1964
  33. Adverbial participle -/lɨ/- / -/ l̥ɨ/- “explaining reason, purpose or circumstance of action” exemplified in another usage: p. 99 of Меновщиков 1964
  34. Adverbial participle -/ja/- / -/ɕa/- (dependent action ends just before main action begins): pp. 91–92 of Меновщиков 1964
  35. Intransitive conjugation of adverbial participles -/ja/- / -/ɕa/-, -/inɨq ȷ̊a/-: p. 91 of Меновщиков 1964
  36. Adverbial participles conveying conditional dependent action: pp. 92–93 of Меновщиков 1964
  37. Attribute versus predicative usage of adjectival participles: p. 95 of Меновщиков 1964
  38. Adjectival participle -/kajux/ / -/qajux/ (able to): p. 97 of Меновщиков 1964
  39. Bodil Kappel Schmidt: West Greenlandic antipassive
  40. Word Order and Incremental Update. See also the author's Kalaallisut materials.
  41. Maria Bittner and Ken Hale: Comparative notes on ergative case systems. Rutgers and MIT. 1993.
  42. Maria Bittner and Ken HaleErgativity: Towards a theory of a heterogenous class
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