University of Alaska Anchorage Student’s Yup’ik Spellchecker Breaks Ground

by Charles Enoch on May 7, 2014

A student at the University of Alaska in Anchorage has created software that can spellcheck the Yup’ik language. Yup’ik language experts are excited about the possibilities even though the designer is not a fluent speaker.

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Early this month at the ConocoPhillips Integrated Science Building in Anchorage Eric Steven Iv’aan Wassilie Somerville presented a model for Yup’ik spellchecking software. For someone who hasn’t studied computer science his model would be useless but by reaching the “proof of concept” phase, as it’s called by designers, Somerville has overcome an important hurdle. “It’s not perfect, but I’ve shown that it can be done,” says Somerville.

Creating the software had many challenges, especially for someone who does not consider himself fluent in the Yup’ik language. “I’m trying to understand the Yup’ik language and I’m trying to translate it in my head in order to get enough understanding in order to then teach it to a computer,” explains Somerville.

He says for someone who already speaks the language building a word becomes automatic, but for a computer each step must be programmed. One of the biggest challenges according to Sommerville is “Finding a way to account for what professors over here like to call morphophonological magic.”

A whole English sentence can be contained in just one Yupik word, but because of morphophonological magic changing just one syllable will change the entire meaning of that word. Learning those rules is complicated.

Fortunately for Sommerville linguists before him have been working on deciphering those words.   Early efforts were made to translate the bible. Then half a century ago American and Japanese linguists advanced written translation,

“Linguists got together in the 60’s with UAA employees and students to make a better written form for Yup’ik. They kept working at it till it got better,” says UAA Yup’ik professor Marie Meade.

Then in the 1980’s Steven Jacobson created a complete breakdown of the Yup’ik language. His books and dictionaries are still considered the authority on the language. Sommerville says he relied on that to build his software.

Meade says the integration of Jacobson’s work with Sommerville’s software could be an important advancement. “It should be good for people who use the language if its done right. It should assist Yup’ik teachers in teaching proper grammar,” says Meade.

But before that happens Sommerville has a ways to go. He envisions many possibilities for the spellcheker once it’s completed. He’d like to see it in common word processing programs like Microsoft Word. Other possibilities include a smartphone app or website that could provide immediate translations. It’s not clear how long that will take.

Sommerville says he’ll be looking for grant funding to complete the spell checker.  But if the app comes out don’t expect it to turn you into a Yup’ik speaker immediately. Meade says there’s no app for that. “You can’t learn Yup’ik in one try, you have to keep practicing.”

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