Unangan (Aleut) Language


The Unangan (Aleut) Language  is the heritage language of the Aleut (Unangax̂) people living in the Aleutian Islands, Pribilof Islands, and Commander Islands.

Aleut (Unangam Tunuu), also known as Unangan, Unangas or Unangax̂, is a language of the Eskimo–Aleut language family.

Aleut is alone in its own branch of the Eskimo–Aleut language family, which also includes the Eskimo (Yupik and Inuit) languages. The main dialect groupings are Eastern Aleut, Atkan, and Attuan (Kraus, 2007).

Various sources estimate there are only between 100 and 300 speakers of Aleut remaining.

Within the Eastern group are the dialects of Unalaska, Belkofski, Akutan, the Pribilof Islands, Kashega and Nikolski. The Pribilof dialect has more living speakers than any other dialect of Aleut.

The Atkan grouping comprises the dialects of Atka and Bering Island.

Attuan, now extinct (Bergsland 1997), was a distinct dialect showing influence from both Atkan and Eastern Aleut.

Copper Island Aleut (also called Medny Aleut) is a Russian-Attuan mixed language, Copper Island (Russian: Медный, Medny, Mednyj) having been settled by Attuans. Despite the name, today Copper Island Aleut is spoken only on Bering Island, because the Copper Islanders were evacuated there in 1969.

All dialects show lexical influence from Russian. Copper Island Aleut has also adopted many Russian inflectional endings.

The modern practical Aleut orthography was designed in 1972 for the Alaska school system’s bilingual program. Written Aleut has total of 24+ letters used to represent distinctly Aleut words, 6 vowels and 16 consonants.

Most Aleut words can be classified as nouns or verbs. Notions which in English are expressed by means of adjectives and adverbs are generally expressed in Aleut using verbs or derivational suffixes.

The first contact of people from the Eastern Hemisphere with the Aleut language occurred in 1741, as Vitus Bering’s expedition picked up place names and the names of the Aleut people they met.

The first recording of the Aleut language in lexicon form appeared in a word list of the Unalaskan dialect compiled by Captain James King on Cook’s voyage in 1778.

At that time the Imperial Academy of Sciences in Saint Petersburg became interested in the Aleut language upon hearing of Russian expeditions for trading.

In Catherine the Great’s project to compile a giant comparative dictionary on all the languages spoken in what was the spread of the Russian empire at that time, she hired Peter Simon Pallas to conduct the fieldwork that would collect linguistic information on Aleut.

During an expedition from 1791 to 1792, Carl Heinrich Merck and Michael Rohbeck collected several word lists and conducted a census of the male population that included prebaptismal Aleut names.

Explorer Yuriy Feodorovich Lisyansky compiled several word lists. in 1804 and 1805, the czar’s plenipotentiary, Nikolai Petrovich Rezanov collected some more.

Johann Christoph Adelung and Johann Severin Vater published their Mithridates oder allgemeine Sprachkunde 1806–1817, which included Aleut among the languages it catalogued, similar to Catherine the Great’s dictionary project.

It wasn’t until 1819 that the first professional linguist, the Dane Rasmus Rask, studied Aleut. He collected words and paradigms from two speakers of Eastern Aleut dialects living in Saint Petersburg.

In 1824 came the man who would revolutionize Aleut as a literary language. Ioann Veniaminov, a Russian Orthodox priest who would later become a saint, arrived at Unalaska studying Unalaskan Aleut.

He created an orthography for this language (using the Cyrillic alphabet; the Roman alphabet would come later), translated the Gospel according to St. Matthew and several other religious works into Aleut, and published a grammar of Eastern Aleut in 1846.

The religious works were translated with the help of Veniaminov’s friends Ivan Pan’kov (chief of Tigalda) and Iakov Netsvetov (the priest of Atka), both of whom were native Aleut speakers.

Netsvetov also wrote a dictionary of Atkan Aleut. After Veniaminov’s works were published, several religious figures took interest in studying and recording Aleut, which would help these Russian Orthodox clerics in their missionary work.

Father Innocent Shayashnikov did much work in the Eastern Fox-Island dialect translating a Catechism, all four Gospels and Acts of Apostles from the New Testament, and an original composition in Aleut entitled: “Short Rule for a Pious Life”.

Most of these were published in 1902, although written years earlier in the 1860s and 1870s. Father Lavrentii Salamatov produced a Catechism, and translations of three of the four Gospels (St. Mark, St. Luke, St. John) in the Western-Atkan dialect.

Of Father Lavrentii’s work, the Gospel of St. Mark was published in a revised orthography (1959), and in its original, bilingual Russian-Aleut format (2007), together with his Catechism for the youth of Atka Island (2007).

The Atkan-dialect Gospel of St. John was also electronically published (2008), along with the Gospel of St. Luke (2009) in the original bilingual format, completing the set of Fr. Lavrentii’s biblical translations.

The first Frenchman to record Aleut was Alphonse Pinart, in 1871, shortly after the United States purchase of Alaska. A French-Aleut grammar was also produced by Victor Henry, entitled “Esquisse d’une grammaire raisonnee de la langue aleoute d’apres la grammaire et le vocabulaire de Ivan Veniaminov” (Paris, 1879).

In 1878, American Lucien M. Turner began work on collecting words for a word list. Benedykt Dybowski, a Pole, began taking word lists from the dialects the Commander Islands in 1881, while Nikolai Vasilyevich Slyunin, a Russian doctor, did the same in 1892.

From 1909 to 1910, the ethnologist Waldemar Jochelson traveled to the Aleut communities of Unalaska, Atka, Attu and Nikolski. He spent nineteen months there doing fieldwork.

Jochelson collected his ethnographic work with the help of two Unalaskan speakers, Aleksey Yachmenev and Leontiy Sivstov. He recorded many Aleut stories, folklore and myth, and had many of them not only written down but also recorded in audio.

Jochelson discovered much vocabulary and grammar when he was there, adding to the scientific knowledge of the Aleut language.

In the 1930s, two native Aleuts wrote down works that are considered breakthroughs in the use of Aleut as a literary language.

Afinogen K. Ermeloff wrote down a literary account of a shipwreck in his native language, while Ardelion G. Ermeloff kept a diary in Aleut during the decade.

At the same time, linguist Melville Jacobs picked up several new texts from Sergey Golley, an Atkan speaker who was hospitalized at the time.

John P. Harrington furthered research into the Pribilof Island dialect on St. Paul Island in 1941, collecting some new vocabulary along the way.

In 1944, the United States Department of the Interior published The Aleut Language as part of the war effort, allowing World War II soldiers to understand the language of the Aleuts. This English language project was based on Veniaminov’s work.

In 1950, Knut Bergsland began an extensive study of Aleut, perhaps the most rigorous to date, culminating in the publication of a complete Aleut Dictionary in 1994 and a descriptive grammar in 1997.

Bergsland’s work would not have been possible without key Aleut collaborators, especially Atkan linguist Moses Dirks.

Michael Krauss, Jeff Leer, Michael Fortescue, and Jerrold Sadock have published articles about Aleut.

Alice Taff has worked on Aleut since the 1970s. Her work constitutes the most detailed accounts of Aleut phonetics and phonology available.

Anna Berge conducts research on Aleut. Berge’s work includes treatments of Aleut discourse structure and morphosyntax, and curricular materials for Aleut, including a conversational grammar of the Atkan dialect, co-authored with Moses Dirks.

In 2005, the parish of All Saints of North America Orthodox Church, began to re-publish all historic Aleut language texts from 1840–1940.

Archpriest Paul Merculief (originally from the Pribilofs) of the Russian Orthodox Diocese of Alaska and the Alaska State Library Historical Collection generously contributed their linguistic skills to the restoration effort. The historic Aleut texts are available in the parish’s Aleut library.