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Yukon Ket Orthography

September 2014. Edward Vajda, Western Washington University, and Doug Hitch, Yukon Native Language Centre

“Ket is practically an unwritten language. Its Cyrillic-based orthography, devised in 1989, is only found in school primers and readers, which are used sporadically in a few elementary schools.”

Georg 2007: inside cover flap.

Ket Cyrillic writing is not phonemic, shows influence from Russian, and is internally inconsistent. A simple transliteration from Cyrillic to Roman writing would be of limited usefulness. The Yukon Ket orthography used here reflects much of Cyrillic practice but adds some tone marks and is more internally consistent. It has several features:

  1. It is based partly on the roman orthographies used for Yukon Languages, Athabaskan and Tlingit, and is aimed to be as readable as possible by the general public while still being technically accurate.
  2. It reflects almost all of the distinctions noted in the Ket Cyrillic orthography which both underwrites and overwrites phonemic information.
    • a. The Cyrillic in current practice does not mark monosyllabic tones 1 and 4 or the disyllabic tonal contours. The 1989 Cyrillic originally had the macron for the first tone and the grave accent for the fourth, falling tone as part of the official alphabet. But for typographic reason these were not printed. All tones are indicated in Yukon Ket writing (see 3 below).
    • b. Because of the influence of Russian phonology and orthography there is overwriting of palatalization in the Ket Cyrillic orthography. This leads to some confusion and ambiguity with regards to the writing of vowels. After palatalized consonants in Russian, the Cyrillic letters <я, е, и, ё, ю> are used, while after non-palatalized consonants <а, э, ы, о, у> are used. At the same time, <я, е, ё, ю> can also be used to write /ya, ye, yo, yu/ under certain conditions such as in initial position. <и> is never is /yi/ in Russian (or Ket) because the initial syllable doesn't exist in Russian (or Ket). In Ket Cyrillic <а, э, ы, о, у, и> are used unambiguously but <я, е, ё, ю> may be used ambiguously. They can stand for either a simple vowel in a context where a Russian-educated speaker might feel there is phonetic palatalization, or for a sequence of /y/ plus vowel. For instance, in our text we have 5.3 далёбетибет=dalobetibet with ё=/o/ and 8.3 илёңқо=ilyongqo with ё=/yo/.
    • c. Again because of Russian influence, Ket Cyrillic can use the soft sign ь after consonants without phonemic import. There is no equivalent to the soft sign ь in Yukon Ket.
  3. Yukon Ket follows Vajda’s practice for marking tone on polysyllabic words where the initial two syllables show a tonal contour. Since the pitch peak in over 85% of the words falls on the first syllable, this contour in unmarked. But where the pitch peak falls on the second syllable, an acute accent is used.
  4. Yukon Ket writes all phonemic distinctions so can be a useful tool for linguistic study.

So while the Yukon Ket orthography is neither a transliteration of the Cyrillic, nor a purely phonemic representation, most of the information in Cyrillic and most phonemic information is reflected.

Writing Ket Consonants


Phonemic and
[phonetic]

Cyrillic

Yukon

b

б

b

<p>

п

p

t

т

t

d

д

d

k [k]

к

k

k [ɣ, g]

г

g

q [q]

қ

q

q [ʁ, ɢ]

ӷ

ɢ

s

с

s

h

х

h

l

л

l

j

й

y

m

м

m

n

н

n

ŋ

ң

ng

Writing Ket Vowels


Phonemic or
[phonetic]

Cyrillic

Yukon

i

и

i

e

э

e

[ʸe]

e

e

ye

e

ye

a

а

a

[ʸa]

я

a

ya

я

ya

o

о

o

[ʸo]

ё

o

yo

ё

yo

u

у

u

[ʸu]

ю

u

yu

ю

yu

ɨ

ы

ï

ə

ъ

ë

Writing Tone in monosyllables

Cyrillic Yukon
1 even, half-long

ā

2 abrupt rising

a’

a’

3 rise-low fall, long

aa

aa

4 fall, short

à

Writing Tone in initial disyllables in polysyllabic words

Cyrillic Yukon
first syllable peak

unmarked

second syllable peak

acute ´

References

Stefan Georg, A Descriptive Grammar of Ket (Yenisei-Ostyak). Part 1: Introduction, Phonology and Morphology. Folkestone, Kent: Global Oriental. 2007.