Eskimoaleut Languages

Languages of the Eskaleut—or Eskimo-Aleut—family are spoken by the Inuit, Yup'ik, and Aleut populations of the North American Arctic (and eastern most Russian Chukotka). The exact number of their speakers is difficult to establish, but it may be estimated at approximately 91,000 in the year 2000, out of a total population of 150,000 people of Inuit, Yup'ik, and Aleut ancestry. The bulk of these speakers (c.79,500; or 68% of all Inuit) use an Inuit/Inupiaq dialect, while 11,200 of them (37% of all Yupiit) speak a Yup'ik language, and 300 (10% of the group) use Aleut. One Eskimo-Aleut language, Sirenikski, died as a living spoken language in the early 1990s, when its last two speakers passed away.

According to a majority of specialists, the Eskimo-Aleut family (Sirenikski included) comprises seven separate languages, that is, linguistically related speech forms lacking mutual intelligibility. Most of these are themselves subdivided into a number of dialects, or regional varieties of the same language. The seven Eskaleut languages are the following: (1) Inuit/Inupiaq (spoken from Seward Peninsula, in central western Alaska, through Arctic Canada to Greenland); (2) Central Alaskan Yup'ik (spoken in southwestern Alaska); (3) Alutiiq (spoken on Prince William Sound and Kodiak Island, south central Alaska); (4) Central Siberian Yupik (spoken in three or four localities of eastern Chukotka, Russia, as well as on Saint Lawrence Island, Alaska); (5) Naukanski (formerly spoken in Naukan, at the easternmost tip of Chukotka; its speakers were later moved to other Chukotkan communities); (6) Sirenikski (formerly spoken in the village of Sireniki, south eastern Chukotka); and (7) Aleut (spoken on Alaska's Aleutian Islands, and also on the Alaskan Pribilof and Russian Commander Islands). The first six languages all belong—or belonged—to the Eskimo branch of the family: they share many more similarities among themselves than they do with Aleut. Within this Eskimo branch, four languages—Central Alaskan Yup'ik, Alutiiq, Central Siberian Yupik, and Naukanski—form a Yupik subgroup, since they stand linguistically closer one to another than to either Inuit/Inupiaq or Sirenikski.

Because of its number of speakers and geographical extension, Inuit/Inupiaq is the principal Eskaleut language. It comprises several dialects (from 13 to 18, according to sources), each of which belongs to one of four dialectal groupings: Alaskan Inupiaq, Western Canadian Inuktun, Eastern Canadian Inuktitut, and Greenlandic Kalaallisut. As a rule, mutual intelligibility is higher among dialects belonging to the same grouping than it is across grouping boundaries. Differences between dialects are principally phonological and lexical. The inventory of phonemes (the functional units of pronunciation), and the rules for combining phonemes together, may vary according to dialect, western dialects being more conservative (they allow more types of combinations) than eastern ones. In lexical terms, word-bases are generally similar (except for differences in pronunciation) from one area to the other, but the use of affixes (linguistic units added to the wordbase) may vary considerably among dialects. Of course, phonological and lexical variation is much higher between the Inuit/Inupiaq dialects taken as a whole and the Yupik languages, although the syntax and morphology (use of grammatical units) of all Eskimo lan-guages—Inuit and Yupik—remain amazingly similar.

The Inuit/Inupiaq dialects may be listed as follows:

1. Alaskan Inupiaq (c.5000 speakers)

• Bering Strait dialect (Diomede Islands and northwestern Seward Peninsula)

• Qawiaraq (southern Seward Peninsula; according to some sources, Qawiaraq would unite with the preceding dialect)

• Malimiutun (northwestern Alaska; it might be a subcategory of the following dialect)

• North Slope (Arctic coast of Alaska; some speakers now live in Canada's Mackenzie Delta)

2. Western Canadian Inuktun (c.6000 speakers)

• Siglitun or Inuvialuktun (Mackenzie coast of Canada)

• Inuinnaqtun (western Kitikmeot region of Nunavut)

• Natsilingmiutut (eastern Kitikmeot region of Nunavut)

• Kivalliq (Keewatin region of Nunavut; this dialect might belong to Eastern Canadian Inuktitut)

3. Eastern Canadian Inuktitut (c.18,500 speakers)

• Aivilik (northern Keewatin region of Nunavut)

• North Baffin (Igloolik and northern Baffin Island)

• South Baffin (southern Baffin Island)

• Labrador Inuttut (coast of Labrador)

4. Greenlandic Kalaallisut (c.50,000 speakers)

• Thule or Avanersuarmiutut (northwestern Greenland)

• West Greenlandic (west coast of Greenland)

• East Greenlandic (east coast of Greenland).

Some dialects are themselves subdivided into sub-dialects, that is, well-characterized local speech forms. For example, the South Baffin dialect includes two relatively divergent forms: South West Baffin (spoken in Cape Dorset) and South East Baffin (used in Iqaluit, Kimmirut, Pangnirtung, Broughton Island (Qikiqtarjuaq), and Clyde River (Kangiqtugaapik)). In a similar way, the Nunavik dialect is split into two well-defined subdialects: Tarramiut (northern Arctic Québec) and Itivimiut (east coast of Hudson Bay).

The rate of linguistic retention (i.e., the percentage of Inuit who still speak their ancestral language) varies considerably among dialects. As a general rule, in the eastern Arctic (Greenland, Nunavik, and the Baffin and Keewatin regions of Nunavut), between 90% and 100% of all Inuit have their local dialect as mother tongue. The only exception is Labrador, with only 35-40% of Inuttut speakers. The situation is different in the western Arctic. Natsilingmiutut is spoken by 80% of the local Inuit population, but Inuinnaqtun is only used by some 40% of all Inuinnait, and Siglitun (Inuvialuktun) and the Alaskan Inupiaq dialects by less than 20% of the Inuvialuit and Inupiat. Language loss is due to many decades of sustained contact with non-Inuit, and to the early existence of schools whose sole teaching medium was English.

About 45,000 people (almost all the individuals of Inuit ancestry born on the west coast of Greenland) speak the West Greenlandic dialect, which thus qualifies as mother tongue for almost 50% of all speakers of an Eskaleut language. West Greenlandic, called Kalaallisut ("the way of the Greenlanders") by its speakers, has now become the official idiom of autonomous Greenland. It is used in the local parliament and administration, heard on the national radio and television network, and taught in school up to the end of the secondary level. Knowledge of Danish, the second language of Greenland, is even said to have receded since Greenland Home Rule was granted in 1979. The situation of the other Inuit dialects and Yupik languages is quite different. They survive as minority speech forms, although some efforts are being made to ensure their survival, at least in the eastern Canadian Arctic. In Nunavut and Nunavik, they generally constitute the sole teaching medium up to grade three, while elsewhere they are often taught as second languages to English-speaking native children. Since the advent of Nunavut in 1999, local Inuit dialects have become official in this new territory of Canada.

Looking at some phonological and grammatical features of the Eskaleut languages, generally speaking, the inventory of consonants and consonant groupings is larger in Aleut and the Yupik languages than it is in Inuit/Inupiaq. There are few vowels: in Aleut and Inuit/Inupiaq there are only three—a, i (pronounced as in see), and u (pronounced as in zoo); in the Yup'ik languages, there are four—a, i, u, and e (pronounced as in golden). In all Eskaleut speech forms, vowel length (usually marked in the orthography by doubling the vowel symbol) is phonemic. In Eastern Canadian Inuktitut for instance, the words kinakkut—with a short i—and kiinakkut—with a long ii—have two very different meanings. The former means "who (in the plural)," while the latter can be translated as "across your face."

Eskaleut consonants must belong to one of four positions of articulation: bilabial, palatal-alveolar, velar, and uvular. There are four main modes of articulation: plosive, fricative (and/or aspirated), lateral, and nasal. Aleut differentiates between aspirated and nonaspirated consonants, and the Yupik languages between labialized and nonlabialized velars and uvulars. Yupik also makes a distinction between voiced and voiceless fricatives and nasals, while in Inuit/Inupiaq, the only voiced/voiceless distinctions occur—in certain dialects—with lateral palatal-alveolar phonemes l (voiced) "and" (voiceless), and J (a voiced palatal whose phonic realization sounds approximately like English r) and sr (the voiceless counterpart of J).

By way of example, the North Baffin dialect of Eastern Canadian Inuktitut comprises a total of 17 phonemes: three vowels (a, i, u, either short or long) and 14 consonants. According to their positions and modes of articulation, the consonants are distributed as follows:

• bilabial: plosive (p); fricative (v); nasal (m)

• palatal-alveolar: plosive (t); fricative (s, j—realized as English y); lateral (l, and); nasal (n)

• velar: plosive (k); fricative (g—realized as Greek gamma); nasal (ng)

• uvular: plosive (q—sounds like kr); fricative (R—realized as French r).

In the Yupik languages, as well as in the westernmost dialects of Inuit/Inupiaq, groupings of two consonants may start with a bilabial, palatal-alveolar, velar, or uvular consonant, which is more or less assimilated—as to mode of articulation and voicing— to the second consonant of the grouping. As one moves east, however, the types of first consonants become more and more restricted. For example, groupings starting with a palatal-alveolar in western speech forms become geminates in eastern dialects (compare Alaskan North Slope angatkuq and North Baffin angakkuq, "shaman," where the tk consonant grouping has become kk through gemination). The dialect that assimilates the most is Labrador Inuttut, where, with one or two exceptions, no consonant groupings are found. They have all become geminates.

In terms of their grammatical structure, Eskaleut languages are agglutinative: words are formed by adding one or more affixes to a word-base. Up to a point, they may also be considered polysynthetic, that is, a single word can express several concepts. However, their degree of polysynthesis is limited, and it has nothing to do with that of most American Indian languages. By comparison with Yupik and Inuit/Inupiaq speech forms, Aleut is less agglutinative, since it often uses independent words to convey notions that are expressed by way of affixes in other Eskaleut languages.

Any Yupik or Inuit/Inupiaq word—except for a limited number of conjunctions and interjections—must include a word-base, which gives it its basic meaning, and a morphological affix, which indicates the word's grammatical function in the sentence. A number of lexical affixes, which complete or modify the meaning conveyed by the word-base, may be inserted between the two obligatory components. Here is an example of a two-word sentence in North Baffin Inuktitut:

iglujjuaraalungmut pisungniaqpunga ("towards a very big house, I shall walk") iglu-: "house" (word-base); -jjuaq-: "big" (lexical affix); -aaluk-: "very" (lexical affix); -mut: "towards (singular)" (morphological affix) pisuk-: "walk" (word-base); -niaq-: "future tense" (lexical affix); -punga: "first singular person of the indicative" (morphological affix).

There are two principal categories of word-bases, which broadly correspond to the nouns and verbs of English and other Indo-European languages. In the example given above, iglu- ("house") is a nominal word-base, while pisuk- ("to walk") is a verbal one. Word-bases that correspond to the personal—and, to a certain extent, demonstrative—pronouns of English, as well as to its numerals, may be considered nominal, while qualificative adjectives are generally expressed in a half-verbal form (e.g., North Baffin piujuq, "it is good" or "that which is good").

When a word-base is directly followed by a morphological affix, this affix must belong to the same category (nominal or verbal) as the word-base. Nominal affixes express the number—singular, dual (which has disappeared from Greenlandic Kalaallisut), and plural—of the word, as well as its grammatical function (there are seven or eight different functions). They may also act as possessive adjectives. Here are a few North Baffin examples: iglu ("house"; with a zero affix, i.e., the significant absence of any formal morpheme); igluuk ("two houses"); igluit ("many houses"); igluup ("the house's"); iglunut ("towards many houses"); iglunnut ("towards my house"); iglungni ("in your house"); igluagut ("through his/her house").

Verbal affixes express the subject person (1st, 2nd, 3rd, and—in subordinate moods—reflexive) and the grammatical mood of the verb. Some affixes also express the person of the direct object. The number of moods varies slightly among languages and dialects. North Baffin Inuktitut has ten of them. Here are a few examples in this dialect: tusaqpunga ("I hear"); tusaq-pagit ("I hear you"); tusarit ("hear!"); tusanga ("hear me!"); tusaqpat ("if he/she hears"); tusaqpaatik ("if he/she hears both of you"); tusarluta ("while we shall be hearing"); tusarlugit ("while we shall be hearing them").

A number of lexical affixes can transform nominal word-bases into verbs, and vice versa. In such cases, the morphological affix must correspond to the transformed nature of the word. For example, iglu- ("house") and pisuk- ("walk") may undergo such transformations, as in the following North Baffin sentence:

iglujjuaraaluliuqpunga pisungniarvingmi ("I build a very big house in a place where one shall walk") iglu-: "house"; -jjuaq-: "big"; -aalu(k)-: "very"; -liuq-: "to build"; -punga: "first singular person of the indicative"

pisuk-: "walk"; -niar-: "future tense"; -vik-: "place where"; -mi: "in".

Of course, lexical affixes may also follow the transforming element, as in igluliurniaqpunga ("I shall build a house") or pisugvigjuarmi ("in a big walking place").

Besides nominal and verbal word-bases, the Eskaleut languages possess what several linguists call localizers, or deictics, that is, bases that express a position in space and are followed by a special set of morphological affixes. Localizers enable the very precise expression of the spatial localization of a person or object, in relation to the speaker. Their number varies from ten to twenty, according to language or dialect. Here are a few North Baffin examples: uvani ("here near the speaker"); uvunga ("towards a position near the speaker"); unani ("down there far away"); pikan-ngat ("from a position up here"); qamuuna ("through a position here inside").

Various theories have been developed as to the origin of the Eskaleut languages. Linguists have tried to connect them to the Uralic (Finno-Ugric), Altaic (Turkish, Mongol), Chukotko-Kamtchatkan (Chukchi, Koryak), or even Indo-European families. The most scientifically researched hypothesis, however, has been exposed by Michael Fortescue in Language Relations Across Bering Strait. According to this linguist, the language(s) spoken by the last wave of prehistoric migrants to the New World, Proto-Eskaleut, belonged to a linguistic mesh that Fortescue calls Uralo-Siberian. This web of typologically similar—at different degrees—speech forms, which might or might not have been genetically related, would have included present-day Uralic, Yukaghir (now represented by one northeastern Siberian language), Chukotko-Kamtchatkan, and Eskaleut families. In a very distant past, it could also have been influenced by Proto-Altaic languages, with which it shares several similarities. Proto-Uralo-Siberian might have been spoken somewhere between 8000 and 10,000 years ago across a wide area of southern Siberia centered on the region between Lake Baikal and the Sayan.

If this hypothesis holds, the date for Proto-Eskaleut's entry into America should be revised downward from what is commonly believed. According to Fortescue, speakers of this language, ancestral to all modern Eskaleut speech forms, probably crossed Bering Strait some 4500 years before present, a much later date than what had been previously asserted. Their presence in Alaska would have been contemporary with the Cape Denbigh/Arctic Small Tools archaeological tradition, whose bearers most probably spoke an Eskaleut speech form. From central eastern Alaska, some Proto-Eskaleut speakers started migrating toward the Aleutian Islands and, c.2000 BC, across Arctic North America, eventually reaching Greenland. However, these first North American Arctic natives were not the ancestors of present-day Inuit. Instead, they descend from another migratory movement out of Alaska, which took place some 1000 years ago. In the meanwhile, linguistic change had occurred, and Proto-Eskaleut had evolved toward the Aleut, Yupik, and Inuit/Inupiaq languages of today.

Over the centuries, Eskaleut languages developed a rich oral literature, consisting of myths, legends, stories, and songs. The themes of these traditional texts may vary from one area to another, but some topics are common to most Aleut, Inuit, and/or Yupik groups: the girl who refused to have a human husband, married a bird, and finally became the mistress of sea mammals; the brother who had incestuous relations with his sister and was later transformed into the moon, his sister becoming the sun; the mistreated blind boy who took revenge on his bad mother, after having been magically cured by three loons. Nowadays, such stories are only known by a dwindling number of elders. Fortunately, however, many texts of oral literature have been put into written form by ethnographers and other researchers, including an increasing number of Yupiit and Inuit interested in the preservation of their own traditions.

Writing was introduced in the North American Arctic by Europeans, mostly by Christian missionaries who wanted their flock to read the Holy Scriptures. The first mission was established in Greenland in 1721 by Hans Egede, a Dano-Norwegian Lutheran priest. He and his son Poul started to translate the Scriptures into Kalaallisut using the Roman (European) alphabet. Their orthography was adopted by the Moravian Brethren when they founded missions in Greenland (1733) and Labrador (1771). Both groups of missionaries opened schools where the native language was taught, with the result that by the beginning of the 19th century, most Inuit from West Greenland and Labrador were able to read and write in their language. Greenlandic orthography, which had been standardized by Samuel Kleinschmidt around 1850, was reformed in 1973, in order to take into account the phonological changes that had affected Kalaallisut since Kleinschmidt's time. In Labrador, though, Moravian orthography remains essentially the same as what it was a century ago.

In the Canadian Arctic, from 1876 on, the Anglican Edmund J. Peck introduced a syllabic writing system among the Inuit, more or less akin to stenography, that had first been developed by Rev. James Evans for the Cree Indians. It rapidly became popular and still constitutes the preferred way for writing Inuktitut in most of Nunavut and Nunavik. In the Canadian western Arctic, as well as in Alaska, the Inuinnaqtun, Inuvialuktun, Inupiaq, Yupik, and Aleut languages and dialects were transcribed in the Roman alphabet, although only in the 1970s were their orthographies standardized by school authorities. Finally, in Russian Chukotka, Central Siberian Yupik has used Cyrillic characters since the 1930s.

Louis-Jacques Dorais

See also Alaska Native Language Center; Aleut; Alphabets and Writing, North America and Greenland; Alutiit; Inuit; Inupiat; Languages of the Arctic; Siberian (Chukotkan) Yupik; Yupiit

Further Reading

Berge, Anna, "Eskimo-Aleut." In Encyclopedia of Linguistics, edited by P. Strazny, New York and London: Routledge, 2004

Bergsland, Knut, Aleut Dictionary. Unangam Tunudgusii, Fairbanks: University of Alaska, Alaska Native Language Center, 1994

Berthelsen, Christian, Birgitte Jacobsen, Inge Kleivan, Frederik Nielsen, Robert Petersen & J0rgen Rischel, Oqaatsit Kalaallisuumiit Qallunaatuumut. Gr0nlandsk Dansk Ordbog, Nuuk: Atuakkiorfik, 1990 Collis, Dermot R.F. (editor), Arctic Languages: An Awakening,

Paris: UNESCO, 1990 DeReuse, Willem J., Siberian Yupik Eskimo. The Language and its Contacts with Chukchi, Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1994 Dorais, Louis-Jacques, Tukilik. An Inuktitut Grammar for All, Québec: Association Inuksiutiit Katimajiit (Inuit Studies Occasional Papers 2), 1988

-, Inuit Uqausiqatigiit. Inuit Languages and Dialects,

Iqaluit: Nunavut Arctic College, 1990

-, La parole inuit. Langue, culture et société dans l'Arctique nord-américain, Paris: Peeters, 1996 Fortescue, Michael, A Comparative Manual of Affixes for the Inuit Dialects of Greenland, Canada and Alaska, Copenhagen: Meddelser om Gr0nland (Man and Society 4), 1983

-, West Greenlandic, London: Croom Helm, 1984

-, Language Relations Across Bering Strait, London and

New York: Cassell, 1998 Fortescue, Michael, Steven A. Jacobson & Lawrence D. Kaplan, Comparative Eskimo Dictionary. With Aleut Cognates, Fairbanks: University of Alaska, Alaska Native Language Center, 1994

Jacobson, Steven A., Yup'ik Eskimo Dictionary, Fairbanks: University of Alaska, Alaska Native Language Center, 1984

-., A Practical Grammar of the Central Alaskan Yup'ik

Eskimo Language, Fairbanks: University of Alaska, Alaska Native Language Center, 1995 Krauss, Michael E., Alaska Native Languages: Past, Present, and Future, Fairbanks: University of Alaska, Alaska Native Language Center (Research Paper No 4), 1980 Schneider, Lucien, Ulirnaisigutiit. An Inuktitut-English Dictionary of Northern Quebec, Labrador and Eastern Arctic Dialects, Québec: Les Presses de l'Université Laval, 1985

Woodbury, Anthony C., "Eskimo and Aleut Languages." in Handbook of North American Indians, Volume 5, Arctic, edited by David Damas, Washington: Smithsonian Institution, 1984

Project Management Made Easy

Project Management Made Easy

What you need to know about… Project Management Made Easy! Project management consists of more than just a large building project and can encompass small projects as well. No matter what the size of your project, you need to have some sort of project management. How you manage your project has everything to do with its outcome.

Get My Free Ebook


Post a comment