Learning Yurok: An Outline of Yurok Grammar

1.6. Ways of Writing Yurok

Different writing systems are useful for different purposes; no system can replace the actual speech of native speakers when you are trying to learn a language. Many writing systems have been used for Yurok over the years. The one we use is different from the New Yurok Alphabet adopted by the Yurok Tribe, but if you are used to the NYA it should be easy to read words here; in addition, our online dictionary and texts always give NYA spellings in brackets after our spelling. In the two writing systems all consonants are spelled the same, and there are differences in only two areas.

Syllable Breaks

The writing system we use does not show syllable breaks. The NYA inserts hyphens between syllables (as in koy-poh "morning", which we spell koypoh). Syllable breaks may represent native speaker judgments about how a word should be divided when it is pronounced slowly. We do not show syllable breaks, however, because older Yurok sources did not record slow speech and native speakers of a language do not always agree where to put syllable breaks.

Vowel Symbols

The writing system we use is what linguists call "phonemic". This means that each "phoneme" or basic element of a language's sound system is written in the same way even when it has a slightly different pronunciation. For example, English does not write the difference between the two different pronunciations of the phoneme t in words like top vs. stop, even though the first t is aspirated (followed by a puff of air) but the second is not. Likewise, English does not write the difference between the noticeably shorter vs. longer vowel pronunciations in words like hit vs. hid. These and other differences are automatic aspects of English pronunciation, and do not need to be written down. When native speakers of another language learn English, they may need to learn these pronunciation rules to have a good English accent.

Yurok has many automatic pronunciation rules like this too. For example, vowel weakening sometimes makes unstressed vowels sound more neutral or more like an English "uh" sound; this can be heard in the second and fourth vowels of chinomewes "teenage boy, young man". We do not write these weakened vowels with different symbols because in slow or careful speech each vowel quality can be heard clearly, and because related words also show the basic vowels. In the NYA, the letters i and u are used to write weakened vowels. Since we do not write vowel weakening, we use the letters i and u for non-weakened vowels. This makes a simpler overall alphabet, with a e i o u r for the short vowels and aa ii oo uu rr for the long vowels.

New Yurok Alphabet Vowel Comparisons

The chart below compares the symbols we use for vowels, and for vowel + r/w/y combinations, with the symbols used in the New Yurok Alphabet. Please note that our NYA spellings have two special features: they do not represent weakened or reduced vowels, ordinarily spelled with the letters i and u in the NYA; and they do not represent the tense and low pronunciations of e, respectively spelled ey and (sometimes) a in the NYA. (The processes we do not represent here are variable processes, not present to the same degree in all speakers' speech.) Note also, since there may be small differences in how people use the NYA, that you may find other small differences between the two systems which are not shown here.

Click on any highlighted word to hear an example.

Our system New Yurok Alphabet Yurok example
a [a] chahchew [chah-chew] "it is difficult"
e [e]
[ey] when tense
[a] when low
hlkehl [hlkehl] "ground"
nepuy [ney-puy] "salmon"
segep [sey-gap] "coyote"
i [ee]
[i] when reduced
kihl [keehl] "redwood"
chiweyek' [chee-wey-yek'] "I'm hungry"
o [o]
[u] when reduced
hophl [hophl] "sinew"
'owook ['u-wook] "tomorrow"
u [ue] musmus [mues-mues] "cow"
r [er] 'rplrs ['er-plers] "apple(s)"
aa [aa] raak [raak] "creek"
ii [eee] chiishep [cheee-shep] "flower"
oo [oo] 'oohl ['oohl] "(Indian) person"
uu [uue] puuk [puuek] "deer"
rr [err] 'wrrp ['werrp] "butterfly"
ar [eyr] kwar [kweyr] "nail"
ir [eer] tesir [te-seer] "beaver"
or [or] mewimor [mey-wee-mor] "old man"
ur [uer] hipur [hee-puer] "downriver"
ew [ew] chahchew [chah-chew] "it is difficult"
ow [ow] ho'ow [ho-'ow] "cedar"
rw [erw] nrprw [ner-perw] "meat"
ey [ey] cheykeni [chey-ke-nee] "small"
ry [ery] nrhpry [nerh-pery] "berry"
uy [uy] nepuy [ney-puy] "salmon"