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date: 18 June 2024

Eskimo-Aleut Languages

International Encyclopedia of Linguistics

Lawrence D. Kaplan,

B. Grimes

Eskimo-Aleut Languages. 

This language family comprises the Eskimo and Aleut branches, which are believed to have diverged no more than 4,000 years ago. Useful general references are Bergsland 1986, Krauss 1973 and 1995, and Woodbury 1984.

1. Geography

As shown on Map 1, the Aleut branch contains a single language, Aleut, spoken in the Aleutian and Pribilof Islands of Alaska and the Commander Islands of Russia. The Eskimo branch has two divisions. One is Inuit, a dialect continuum spoken from Norton Sound in Alaska northward and eastward across the Alaskan and Canadian Arctic, to Greenland. Inuit displays a great deal of dialectal variation, but the gradual change from one dialect to another makes it difficult to identify separate languages. Inuit is referred to by a number of different names, of which the prin-cipal ones are Inupiaq in Alaska, Inuktitut in Eastern Canada, and Kalaallisut (or Greenlandic) in Greenland.

The other Eskimo branch, Yupik, includes at least three separate languages. Central Siberian Yupik is spoken on St. Lawrence Island, Alaska, and on the facing coast of the Chukchi Peninsula in the USSR. Central Alaskan Yupik is spoken in Southwest Alaska, from Norton Sound south to Bristol Bay. Alutiiq (also called Suk, Sugpiaq, or Pacific Yupik), is located in Alaska on the Alaska Peninsula, Kodiak Island, the southern Kenai Peninsula, and the shores of Prince William Sound. The divergent and nearly extinct language of Sirenik on the Chukchi Peninsula appears, from its conservative phonology, to be either another subbranch coordinate with the rest of Yupik, or a third division of Eskimo. Naukan Siberian Yupik appears in some respects to be intermediate between Central Siberian and Central Alaskan Yupik and may be considered a separate language. There is a degree of mutual intelligibility among the Yupik languages, especially Alutiiq and Central Yupik, but virtually none between Yupik and Inuit.

Many now prefer the name “Inuit” to “Eskimo” (which some consider derogatory). However, specialists feel that “Inuit” cannot properly include the Yupik languages or peoples, and thus they continue to use “Eskimo” as a cover term. The name “Inupik,” for the Inuit language, is out of date; its usage is discouraged, since it combines an Inuit stem (inuk ‘person’) with a Yupik suffix (-pik ‘real’).

There are about 140,000 Eskimos and Aleuts, of whom about 90,000 speak an E[skimo-]A[leut] language. More than half of this number are in Greenland—where, as in much of eastern Canada, the Inuit language remains fully viable. In Alaska and western Canada, Inuit is not spoken by younger generations, and is threatened with extinction. Aleut and Alutiiq are similarly endangered. Of the Yupik languages, only Siberian and Central Yupik have significant numbers of younger speakers.

Several distant relationships have been proposed for EA, although none has been proved. Among these are Indo-European, Chukotko-Kamchatkan, and Uralic; the last enjoys the greatest current support.

2. Phonology

(cf. Krauss 1985). Eskimo languages show variation primarily in their phonology and lexicon, rather than in syntax. Aleut phonology is quite unremarkable, compared to the interesting phenomena exhibited by most varieties of Eskimo.

Eskimo-Aleut LanguagesClick to view larger

Map 1. Divisions of the Eskimo-Aleut Language Family

Proto-Eskimo had four vowels, */i a u ə/, but few or none of the long vowels or diphthongs found in the modern languages. Nearly all dialects of Inuit have lost *ə (shwa), which has merged with i and sometimes a; however, its traces remain in processes of vowel alternation, which affect only reflexes of shwa, and in consonant assibilation and palatalization, which are conditioned only by reflexes of *i. The Proto-Eskimo voiced continuants have been largely lost between single vowels in the daughter languages (except in Sirenik), yielding contrastively long vowels and diphthongs. Inuit has undergone further consonant lenition and deletion: stops become continuants, and original continuants become glides, or disappear entirely. Related synchronic processes in Inuit are found both in East Greenlandic and in Bering Strait dialects; in the latter, these are related areally to syllable-adjustment rules in nearby Yupik languages. Assimilation in consonant clusters increases from west to east, severely limiting possible clusters in some dialects. Some Inuit geminate consonants may be historical; but others are morphologically conditioned, alternating with single consonants. Consonant metathesis appears sporadically throughout Inuit, and is systematic in some eastern and far western dialects. In many dialects, diphthongs tend to lose their distinctness, and to merge with other diphthongs or long vowels.

The Yupik languages are characterized phonologically by retention of Proto-Eskimo shwa, and by prosodically-based processes of vowel lengthening (e.g. in the second of two open syllables), or of consonant gemination—typically before an underlying long vowel or diphthong. Siberian Yupik lacks gemination, but lengthens initial syllables to preserve stem stress ([ku:vuq] ‘it spilled’); in the same words, Central Yupik may contain a geminate C ([kuv:uq]). Siberian Yupik maintains many velars which are deleted in other languages: SY [pani:ga], CY [pan:ia] ‘his daughter’. Yupik languages permit more varied clusters than Inuit, namely clusters of fricative plus stop. No Eskimo language permits consonant clusters initially or finally in the word.

Alutiiq consonants may be fortis or lenis, depending on complex rules of syllable adjustment, which may also shorten long syllables. Voiced fricatives have tense and lax allophones in Alutiiq; the former may be devoiced, and the latter may be deleted.

3. Grammar

(cf. Bergsland 1989, 1997, Fortescue 1983, 1984, Jacobson 1995). EA languages are polysynthetic; their remarkably long words are often equivalent to entire sentences in more analytic languages. A typical word consists of a nominal or verbal stem which is expanded by a number of derivational suffixes, with an inflectional ending. There is only one known prefix, *taž-, which is used only with demonstratives for specificity or anaphora. All nouns and verbs are marked for singular, dual, or plural number. Gender plays no role in the grammar, and is not reflected even in pronouns.

Eskimo languages have an ergative case system with two primary syntactic cases, absolutive and relative (ergative); the latter also acts as a genitive, marking possessor nouns. The possessum is inflected for number, as well as for the person and number of the possessor. Eskimo languages have six oblique cases: instrumental, ablative, locative, allative, aequalis (comparison), and vialis or prosecutive (means of transport or route taken). The Yupik languages have no separate ablative; this function is covered by the instrumental. Aleut has a different ergative system and is somewhat more analytic than Eskimo: it has auxiliary verbs, and spatial or temporal relations are expressed by possessed nouns rather than by cases.

Verbs are either transitive or intransitive; the former are inflected for person and number of both subject and object, and the latter for subject only. Eskimo also permits an intransitive construction, the antipassive, in which a noun in the instrumental case acts semantically, but not syntactically, like an object. Third person forms distinguish reflexive from non-reflexive, marking both possessed nouns and subordinate verbs as referring (or not) to the subject. Complex anaphoric processes in Aleut distinguish it radically from Eskimo. All EA languages have an elaborate system of demonstratives.

4. Vocabulary

Lexically, Aleut and the Yupik languages contain significant borrowings, for the most part recent: Aleut, Alutiiq, and Central Yupik have borrowed from Russian, and Siberian Yupik from Chukchi. Inuit has much less borrowing, and influence on EA from the adjacent Athabaskan languages has been very slight.


  • Aleut: Approximately 305 speakers in USA and Asian Russia. In USA: 300 speakers. Ethnic population: 2,000 as of 1995. Dialects are Western Aleut (Atkan, Atka, Attuan, Unangany, Unangan), Eastern Aleut (Unalaskan, Pribilof Aleut). All but 4 speakers can speak English well. Many school texts have been produced. In Asian Russia: Ethnic population: 702 as of 1989. Nikolskoye settlement, Bering Island, Commander (Komandor) Islands. The dialect is Beringov (Bering, Atkan). Bilingualism in Russian. All speakers of Beringov were 60 years old and older as of 1995. Aleut is taught in school until the fourth grade. Most ethnic group members in Russia speak Russian as mother tongue. Speakers have neutral to mild support toward Aleut.

  • Inuktitut, Eastern Canadian: also called Eastern Canadian “Eskimo,” Eastern Arctic “Eskimo,” Inuit. 14,000 speakers in Canada. Ethnic population: 17,500 as of 1991. West of Hudson Bay and east through Baffin Island, Quebec, and Labrador. Dialects are Baffinland “Eskimo,” Labrador “Eskimo,” Quebec “Eskimo.” In Labrador the youngest speakers average over 20 years old, except for possibly a few children at Nain. Vigorous language use except in Labrador, where less than half are speakers.

  • Inuktitut, Greenlandic: also called Greenlandic Eskimo, Greenlandic, Kalaallisut. 47,000 speakers in Greenland and Denmark. In Greenland: 40,000 speakers in about 80 communities of populations over 10. Dialects are West Greenlandic, East Greenlandic, Polar Eskimo (North Greenlandic, Thule Eskimo). Dialects border on being different languages. Bilingualism in Danish. Vigorous language use in Greenland. National language. In Denmark: 7,000 speakers.

  • Inuktitut, Western Canadian: 4,000 speakers in Canada. Ethnic population: 7,500 as of 1981. Dialects are Copper Inuktitut (Copper Eskimo, Copper Inuit), Caribou Eskimo (Keewatin), Netsilik, Siglit. Caribou Eskimo dialect may need separate literature. In Commer and farther west, parent and grandparent generations speak the language. Vigorous language use of Caribou and Netsilik.

  • Inupiatun, North Alaskan: also called North Alaskan Inupiat, Inupiat. “Eskimo” is a derogatory name sometimes used. 3,500 speakers in USA and Canada. In USA: Ethnic population: 8,000 as of 1990. Norton Sound and Point Hope, Alaska into Canada. Dialects are North Slope Inupiatun (Point Barrow Inupiatun), West Arctic Inupiatun, Point Hope Inupiatun, Anaktuvik Pass Inupiatun. Most speakers are over 30. Younger speakers often prefer English. In Canada: Mackenzie Delta region including Aklavik and Inuvik, into Alaska, USA. Dialects are West Arctic Inupiatun (Mackenzie Inupiatun, Mackenzie Delta Inupiatun), North Slope Inupiatun. Bilingualism in English. Most speakers are over 30. Younger speakers often prefer English.

  • Inupiatun, Northwest Alaska: also called Northwest Alaska Inupiat, Inupiatun. “Eskimo” is a derogatory name sometimes used. 4,000 speakers in USA. Ethnic population: 8,000 as of 1978. Alaska, Kobuk River, Noatak River, Seward Peninsula, and Bering Strait. Dialects are Northern Malimiut Inupiatun, Southern Malimiut Inupiatun, Kobuk River Inupiatun, Coastal Inupiatun, Kotzebue Sound Inupiatun, Seward Peninsula Inupiatun, King Island Inupiatun (Bering Strait Inupiatun). As of 1990, most speakers of Seward Peninsula were over 40.

  • Yupik, Central: also called Central Alaskan Yupik, West Alaska “Eskimo.” 10,000 speakers in USA. Ethnic population: 21,000 as of 1995. Nunivak Island, Alaska coast from Bristol Bay to Unalakleet on Norton Sound and inland along Nushagak, Kuskokwim, and Yukon Rivers. There are three dialects, which are quite different. People are very bilingual. All ages along the central coast and up the Kuskokwim River. In Bristol Bay, Yukon Delta, City of Bethel, and on Nunivak Island, the average age of youngest speakers is from 20 to 40.

  • Yupik, Central Siberian: also called St. Lawrence Island “Eskimo.” Approximately 1,100 speakers in USA and Asian Russia. In USA: 808 speakers. Ethnic population: 1,000. St. Lawrence Island, Alaska. In Alaska as of 1998, children are being raised speaking the language, but are beginning to show signs of preferring English. Vigorous language use. In Asian Russia: 300 speakers. Ethnic population: 1,200 to 1,500 as of 1991. Chukchi National Okrug, coast of the Bering Sea, Wrangel Island. The Chaplino live in Providenie region in Novo-Chaplino and Providenie villages. Dialects are Aiwanat, Noohalit (Peekit), Wooteelit, Chaplino. Chaplino and Naukan Yupik speakers have 60% to 70% inherent intelligibility with each other. Sirenik Yupik is a separate language. In Siberia only older people speak the language. Older people have active command of the language; those 35 to 50 have passive knowledge; children know what they have learned in school. 20% to 40% of the ethnic group speak it. Resettlement has weakened language use, but recent contacts with Alaska have increased the prestige. People are mildly to strongly supportive toward Central Siberian Yupik.

  • Yupik, Naukan: also called Naukan, Naukanski. 75 speakers in Asian Russia. Ethnic population: 350 as of 1991. 60% to 70% intelligibility with Chaplino.

  • Yupik, Pacific Gulf: also called Alutiiq, Sugpiak “Eskimo,” Sugpiaq “Eskimo,” Chugach “Eskimo,” Koniag-Chugach, Suk, Sugcestun, Aleut, Pacific Yupik, South Alaska “Eskimo.” 400 speakers in USA. Ethnic population: 3,000 as of 1995. Alaska Peninsula, Kodiak Island (Koniag dialect), Alaskan coast from Cook Inlet to Prince William Sound (Chugach dialect). Twenty villages. Dialects are Chugach, Koniag. Bilingualism in English. Most speakers are middleaged or older. The youngest are in the late twenties at the tip of the Kenai Peninsula and the fifties or sixties on Kodiak Island.

  • Yupik, Sirenik: also called Sirenik, Sirenikski, Old Sirenik, Vuteen. Formerly spoken in Asian Russia on Chukot Peninsula, Sireniki village. It became extinct in 1997. Eskimo residents of Sirenik village now speak Central Siberian Yupik.

See also North American Languages.


Bergsland, Knut. 1986. Comparative Eskimo-Aleut phonology and lexicon. Journal de la Société Finno-Ougrienne 80.63–137.Find this resource:

Bergsland, Knut. 1989. Comparative aspects of Aleut syntax. Journal de la Société Finno-Ougrienne 82.7–74.Find this resource:

Bergsland, Knut. 1994. Aleut dictionary. Fairbanks: Alaska Native Language Center, University of Alaska.Find this resource:

Bergsland, Knut. 1997. Aleut grammar. (Research Paper 10.) Fairbanks: Alaska Native Language Center, University of Alaska.Find this resource:

Fortescue, Michael. 1983. A comparative manual of affixes for the Inuit dialects of Greenland, Canada, and Alaska. (Man and society, 4.) Copenhagen: Commission for Scientific Research in Greenland.Find this resource:

Fortescue, Michael. 1984. West Greenlandic. London: Croom Helm.Find this resource:

Fortescue, Michael, Steven Jacobson, and Lawrence Kaplan. 1994. Comparative Eskimo dictionary: With Aleut cognates. (Research Paper 9.) Fairbanks: Alaska Native Language Center, University of Alaska.Find this resource:

Jacobson, Steven A. 1995. A practical grammar of the Central Alaskan Yup'ik Eskimo language. With Anna W. Jacobson. Fairbanks: Alaska Native Language Center, University of Alaska.Find this resource:

Krauss, Michael E. 1973. Eskimo-Aleut. In Current trends in linguistics, vol. 10, Linguistics in North America, edited by Thomas A. Sebeok, pp. 796–902. The Hague: Mouton.Find this resource:

Krauss, Michael E., ed. 1985. Yupik Eskimo prosodic systems: Descriptive and comparative studies. (Research Paper 7.) Fairbanks: Alaska Native Language Center, University of Alaska.Find this resource:

Krauss, Michael. 1995. Inuit nunait/Nunangit yuget [map of Eskimo-Aleut languages]. Fairbanks: Alaska Native Language Center, University of Alaska.Find this resource:

Tersis, Nicole, and Michele Therrien, eds. 2000. Les langues eskaléoutes. (Sciences du Langage.) Paris: CNRS.Find this resource:

Woodbury, Anthony C. 1984. Eskimo and Aleut languages. In Handbook of North American Indians, vol. 5, Arctic, edited by David Damas, pp. 49–63. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution.Find this resource:

Lawrence D. Kaplan

B. Grimes