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date: 24 March 2017


Summary and Keywords

The Eskimo-Aleut language family consists of two quite different branches, Aleut and Eskimo. The latter consists of Yupik and Inuit languages. It is spoken from the eastern coast of Russia to Greenland. The family is thought to have developed and diverged in Alaska between 4,000 and 6,000 years ago, although recent findings in a variety of fields suggest a more complex prehistory than previously assumed. The language family shares certain characteristics, including polysynthetic word formation, an originally ergative-absolutive case system (now substantially modified in Aleut), SOV word order, and more or less similar phonological systems across the language family, involving voiceless stop and voiced fricative consonant series often in alternation, and an originally four-vowel system frequently reduced to three. The languages in the family have undergone substantial postcolonial contact effects, especially evident in (although not restricted to) loanwords from the respective colonial languages. There is extensive language documentation for all languages, although not necessarily all dialects. Most languages and dialects are severely endangered today, with the exception of Eastern Canadian Inuit and Greenlandic (Kalaallisut). There are also theoretical studies of the languages in many linguistic fields, although the languages are unevenly covered, and there are still many more studies of the phonologies and syntaxes of the respective languages than other aspects of grammar.

Keywords: Eskimo-Aleut, language history, language contact, linguistic characteristics, polysynthesis, Yupik, Inuit, Aleut

1. Eskimo-Aleut family tree

The Eskimo-Aleut language family includes two major branches, Aleut and Eskimo, and is spoken from the Chukotkan Peninsula on the Siberian coast in the west to Greenland in the east. Aleut is considered a single language, with three well-attested dialects, one of which is no longer spoken. Eskimo consists of at least two further subgroups, Yupik and Inuit, and there is some question as to the proper classification of Sirenikski, which may be a Yupik language or may constitute a third branch of Eskimo. The terms “Eskimo” and “Aleut” both have unclear origins, and they are not universally in use within the respective areas. Thus, it was long commonly held that “Eskimo” was derived from a derogatory Algonquian term meaning “eaters of raw meat,” but this etymology is debated; regardless of the meaning, the sometimes derogatory use of the term “Eskimo” has led in general to its replacement in reference to both the language and the people with Inuit, the native term for “people,” in most of Canada. However, in Alaska and Russia, “Eskimo” is widely used as a cover term for both Inuit and Yupik groups, as well as for this branch of the language family. For most subgroups there are also distinct autonymic designations for both language or dialect and people. The term “Aleut” was bestowed on the people native to the Aleutian Islands and their language by Russians in the 18th century; although “Aleut” is preferred in Bering Island, among Alaskan communities the native term in use today for self-designation is Unangan or Unangas for the people and Unangam Tunuu for the language. Because there is still no other general term to describe all of the languages and dialects encompassed by the term “Eskimo,” and for reasons of linguistic tradition, both terms are still commonly used within the field of Eskimo-Aleut linguistics.

The language family consists of the following languages and dialects; major recognized subdialects are included, but this list is not exhaustive, and many subdialects are known by several names. Currently accepted approximate dates of proto-languages are given as well:

  • Proto-Eskimo-Aleut (ca. 4,000–6,000 years ago)

  • Proto-Aleut (differentiation between the current dialects is small; ca. 1,000 years ago; cf. Bergsland [1994] for a summary of the different Aleut tribes; the following refer to the attested dialects)

    • Aleut

      • Western dialects

        • Attuan

        • Rat Islands (extinct by 18th century)

        • Atkan

      • Eastern dialects

        • Eastern

        • Pribilofs (with Western elements)

  • Proto-Eskimo (ca. 2,500 years ago)

      • Sirenikski (ca. 2,500 years ago)

  • Proto-Yupik (ca. 2,000 years ago)

      • Central Alaskan Yupik (Yugtun)

        • Central Alaskan Yupik

        • Chevak Cup’ik

        • Nunivak Cup’ig

      • Alutiiq (Sugpiaq)

      • Naukanski

      • Central Siberian Yupik

        • Chaplinski

        • St Lawrence Island

  • Proto-Inuit (ca. 1,000 years ago)

      • Inuit

        • Inupiaq (Alaska, Western Canada)

          • Seward Peninsula Inupiaq

          • Northern Alaska Inupiaq

          • Uummarmiutun (Western Canada)

        • Western Canadian Inuktun/Inuvialuktun (Western Canada)

          • Kangiryuarmiutun/Inuinnaqtun

          • Siglitun

        • Central Canadian Inuinnaqtun (Central Canada)

          • Inuinnaqtun

          • Natsilingmiutut

          • Arviat

          • Qamani’tuaq

        • Inuktitut (Eastern Canada)

          • Baffin Island Inuktitut

          • Nunatsiavummiutut/Inuttut (Labrador)

          • Nunavimmiutitut/Inuttitut (Arctic Quebec)

        • Greenlandic (Greenland)

          • Kalaallisut (West Greenland)

          • Inuktun (Polar Eskimo region)

          • Tunumiisut (East Greenland)

2. Eskimo-Aleut origins and prehistory

Our understanding of both the migrations and the linguistic developments of the speakers of Eskimo-Aleut languages is currently undergoing some shift, based on the accumulation of new findings in archaeology, human biology, and linguistics over the past two decades. It has generally been accepted that the Eskimo and Aleut people were part of a relatively late migration from Asia across the Bering Land Bridge, some time between 4,000 and 6,000 years ago; further dispersal occurred from within Alaska, down to the Aleutians and eastward to Greenland. The differentiation of the two branches of the language family is thought to have taken place in Alaska because of the linguistic diversity found on the Alaskan side, specifically on the Seward Peninsula. The split between Aleut and Eskimo would have taken place around this time, and the development of the respective branches of the language family is thought to have occurred in relative isolation (Bergsland, 1986, p. 69). Recent archaeological, biological, and linguistic findings, however, suggest a different prehistory. For example, the divergence between Aleut and Eskimo may have occurred as a result of separate migrations from Asia (Dumond, 2001; Crawford et al., 2010); there is evidence of cultural continuity along the Aleutians as far back as 6,000–8,000 years ago, and there is no evidence of more than sporadic incursions in the eastern Aleutians of the quintessentially Eskimo culture known as the Arctic Small Tools tradition, precisely during the time the Aleut are supposed to have started their migration from the language family’s assumed homeland on the Seward Peninsula. And there is extensive evidence of a shared culture between the Aleut and neighboring Yupik and non-Eskimo groups (Crawford et al., 2010). Leer (1991) and Fortescue (1998, 2002) point out grammatical (and in some cases, typologically rare) features shared between Aleut and neighboring non-Eskimo languages. Various attempts have been made to link Eskimo-Aleut with other language families on the Asian continent and thus trace the history of the language family even further back in time. While there is little solid linguistic evidence of a genetic relationship between Eskimo-Aleut and other language families, there are strong suggestions of very early contact, particularly with Uralic (for a thorough discussion of possible linguistic affinities and contact, see Fortescue, 1998).

There is evidence for a culture that is associated with Aleut speakers on the Eastern Aleutians as early as at least 4,000 years ago (cf. Corbett et al., 2010; there is debate about the significance of earlier material culture), with gradual expansion westward over the next 1,500 years to the Near Islands. There is also evidence of a second, much later westward wave of migrations, from about 1,000 years ago, still going on at the time of Russian contact in the 18th century, which may explain the lack of obvious diversification of the Aleut dialects, with Eastern Aleut features having spread westward (Woodbury, 1984). This period is also one of cultural affinity with southeastern Alaska and the Pacific Northwest Coast (Dumond, 2001), which may explain linguistic features that Aleut shares with neighboring non-Eskimo languages, such as rules of plural formation (Leer, 1991; Fortescue, 1998; Berge, 2010a).

If the Eskimo and Aleut underwent separate migrations, there are new questions as to the origins of both Yupik and Inuit (since the diversification of the language family has long been held have been on the Seward Peninsula), although these have not been explicitly addressed within the field of Eskimo-Aleut linguistics. Thus, the major area of linguistic diversification and complexity among the Yupik languages is on the Seward Peninsula in Alaska, and it is clearly an area with a long-standing Yupik (and more generally Eskimo) presence, going back some 4,500 years or more, assuming a correlation between language and culture, in particular the Arctic Small Tools tradition and its offshoots (including Norton culture, probably associated with Yupik culture and found throughout coastal Alaska, including current Inupiaq areas; cf. Dumond, 2001). There is good linguistic evidence, including shared phonological and prosodic features between Yupik and neighboring Inuit speakers in areas now no longer predominantly Yupik (Kaplan, 1981), for positing the prehistoric (i.e., prior to European contact in the 18th century) presence of a continuum of Yupik speakers around the Bering Strait. From a presumed original home around the Seward Peninsula, Yupik speakers gradually occupied coastal areas both north and south. The Alutiiq (Sugpiaq) population in the Kodiak area, however, is thought to be the result of a secondary incursion of Yupik speakers as recently as 800 years ago, related to the spread of Thule culture (Clark, 1984, p. 145). This incursion resulted in significant contact with neighboring languages, evident in the many borrowings from Aleut, and likewise loans into neighboring languages such as Eyak and Dena’ina. The history of the Siberian Yupik languages is less clear, however. Krauss (1990b) proposes a back-migration of Yupik speakers westward across the Bering Strait and along the Chukchi Peninsula in Siberia, on the basis of linguistic features such as the relative levels of complexity of the prosodic systems in the different Yupik languages. Archaeological evidence (Dumond, 2001; Crawford et al., 2010), however, suggests continued development on the Asian side, and there are a number of similarities between Siberian Yupik and Inuit (and to some small extent Aleut; cf. Bergsland, 1986; Jacobson, 1990; Fortescue et al., 2010) (cf. *ð→ ž [irregular], *k retained in certain words, prefixed demonstratives, etc.) that remain unexplained, although again, Krauss refers to contact effects as a result of back-migration. This is complicated by the relatively small time-depth of separation between the Yupik languages, certainly less than 2,000 years, as opposed to 6,000 for the greater language family, which seems to support Krauss. Sireniksi is undisputedly thought to have originated and developed in Asia on the Chukchi Peninsula; if it is a separate branch of Eskimo, then it may have split off about 2,500 years ago. Central Siberian Yupik and neighboring Chukchi have gradually displaced Sirenikski, and the latter is now extinct.

The split between the Yupik and Inuit branches of Eskimo may have taken place about 2,000 years ago, if not somewhat later. Again, it has long been assumed that this linguistic split took place around the Seward Peninsula; however, the evidence for this is not clear. The ancestors of the Inuit are associated with the Punuk culture originating from the area around St. Lawrence Island (Mason, 2009). Archaeological evidence suggests an expansion eastward about 1,000 years ago, from Asia to north Alaska and thence across the Canadian arctic to Greenland by about 700 years ago. Known as the Thule culture, this very rapid migration is associated with the spread of the present-day Inuit language, both eastward to Greenland as well as southward into Yupik territory. The present dialect differentiation is likely as recent as the past 500 years (Dorais, 1996). There is also evidence for the spread of Inuit speakers into Yupik-speaking territory in the Seward Peninsula in the past two centuries; for example, many features of Alaskan Inupiaq of the Seward Peninsula today show influence from a Yupik substrate (Kaplan, 1981; Fortescue et al., 2010, p. x). Even more recently, there is evidence of Inupiaq language expansion in the interior of Alaska, through language and ethnic shift of erstwhile Athabaskan groups (Burch et al., 1999). In most of Canada, Thule Inuit culture largely replaced the preceding Dorset culture, leaving few if any obvious linguistic traces. In Greenland, however, there is some evidence, including linguistic evidence that the Thule Inuit and the Vikings interacted. For example, early trade pidgins suggested the use of Old Norse words (van der Voort, 1996), and it has been suggested that the ethnonym Kalaalleq “Greenlander,” of uncertain origin, may be derived from the Old Norse term skraeling, itself of uncertain origin (Dorais, 2014, p. 139).

3. Characteristics of Eskimo-Aleut languages

There are certain features which, taken together, are particularly characteristic of the Eskimo-Aleut language family:

  • All languages have three basic vowels (i, u, a), which are derived from an original four-vowel system (i, u, a, and schwa, represented by [e] in Yupik, which maintains the four-vowel distinction; [e] will be used to represent schwa in this discussion).

  • All of the languages are almost exclusively suffixing, the only exception being an anaphoric prefix ta- on demonstrative stems (e.g., pan-Eskimo una, tauna 'this one').

  • All are polysynthetic: to a greater or lesser degree within the language family, they allow for very complex verb structures that encode meanings for which other languages need whole sentences. This is particularly developed in Canada and Greenland; e.g., Holman Island Inuinnaqtun (example from Lowe; Tersis and Therrien, 2000, p. 167):


  • iqaluk-hiu-riaqtu-qati-gi-tqiktaqpak-kalua-ramiung


  • 'even though he went fishing several times with him'

This having been said, there are significant differences in the nature of the polysynthesis between Eskimo and Aleut. Eskimo allows multiple recursion, such that words can be nominalized and verbalized multiple times, and it allows complex verb constructions with suffixes denoting mental state or activity; neither are features of Aleut polysynthesis:


  • qayar-pa-li-qa-a-sqe-ssaaqe-llru-aqa

  • kayak-big-make-pol-ev-A.ask-but-past-1sg/3sg.ind

  • root-Nmod-NV-Vext-Vext-Vext-Vext-VTAM-Infl

  • 'I asked him to make a big kayak (but actually he has not made it yet)'

  • (Central Alaskan Yupik; Miyaoka, 2012, p. 86)

However, Aleut has constructions consisting of originally independent main and auxiliary verb constructions:




has become





'He is going to arrive.'

Bergsland (1997, p. 205)

  • All are clause-chaining: sentences typically consist of a series of dependent clauses headed by an independent clause. In the following relatively simple example from West Greenlandic, there is one indicative clause and two subordinated participial clauses; clause chains can be quite extensive (example from Fortescue, 1984a, p. 39):









'hei saw his sonj through his binoculars being attacked by a hooded seal while in hisj kayak'

  • All have SOV (subject-object-verb) word order to a more or less fixed degree (Aleut has essentially fixed word order). Note in the previous example that the object clause irniq qajarturtuq precedes the verb, and the subject of each of the subordinated clauses precedes its respective verb.

  • All have, or originally had, a largely ergative-absolutive case marking system (with extreme modifications in Aleut; see below), where the subject of intransitive verbs receives the same marking as the object of transitive verbs, namely absolutive case, while the subject of transitive verbs receives a different marking: ergative case.

The Eskimo languages are much more closely related to each other than to Aleut. In addition to the common features listed for Eskimo-Aleut, they share

  • certain restrictions on syllable and other phonological structures

  • up to four or five nongrammatical cases in addition to ergative and absolutive cases (locative, modalis, ablative, allative, vialis, and equalis)

  • transitive and antipassive structures, the choice of which appears to be partially determined by definiteness (Miyaoka, 2012), as in the Central Alaskan Yup’ik examples below, or discourse topic (Berge, 2011):







'The man eats the fish'






'The man eats a fish'

In the descriptions of the languages, there are also certain features that are commonly used to differentiate the individual languages or dialects. Below, Aleut, Yupik, and Inuit are described in terms of their major languages or dialects, the major linguistic features that differentiate them from each other, and their current status and outlook.

Aleut is a language with two clearly distinct, extant dialects and at least two other dialects historically attested. Eastern Aleut is spoken east of Amukta Island to the Alaskan Peninsula, as well as on the Pribilof Islands. Atkan, also variously called Western or Central Aleut, is today spoken on Atka Island, and a version of it is spoken on Bering Island. A third dialect, Attuan, is essentially dead, and it had close affinities with Atkan; a mixed language known as Copper Island Aleut, consisting of Attuan stems and Russian inflection, may still be spoken on Bering Island. In very early descriptions, there was apparently a separate dialect spoken on the Rat Islands in between Attu and Atka, although almost no information is available on this form of Aleut. Characteristic of Aleut are

  • phonological features such as its lack of a [p], and its aspirated nasals

  • consonant clusters which differ from those in Eskimo in their distribution (e.g., they are permitted word-initially, as in sngaxsix “to dream”), in the combinations of consonants possible (e.g., velar-uvular fricatives), and in their complexity (allowing up to three consonants, as in Eastern Aleut ixchxingin “his neck”)

  • use of independent pronouns, as opposed to the complex verb structures of Eskimo languages:







'I am teaching you'




'I am teaching you'

  • its typologically unusual agreement system, in which “ergative” case marking is only used if a transitive object or an object of posession is not overtly expressed. This is the remaining reflex of an originally ergative-absolutive case system. It has been extensively described and analyzed (e.g., Bergsland, 1997; Sadock, 2000; Berge, 2010d):








'The man eats the/a fish'





'The man eats it'

The Yupik languages include Naukanski, spoken around East Cape on the Chukchi Peninsula; Central Siberian Yupik, also spoken on the Chukchi Peninsula as well as on St. Lawrence Island; Central Alaskan Yup’ik, spoken from Norton Sound to Bristol Bay in Alaska; and Sugpiaq, also known as Sugcestun or Alutiiq, spoken around Prince William Sound, the Alaskan Peninsula, Kodiak and Afognak Islands, and the tip of the Kenai Peninsula. Yupik languages are characterized by

  • their retention of a fourth vowel that presumably stems from the ancestral (proto) Eskimo language (cf. Proto-Eskimo *neqe became Central Alaskan Yup’ik neqa 'food,' Iñupiaq niqi 'food')

  • more or less complex effects of intonational stress; in stressed syllables, for example, the vowel is often lengthened (for more on Yupik prosody, see Krauss, 1985).

There are some nonnegligible syntactic differences between the languages, although these have not yet been well described.

Sirenikski is considered related to the Yupik languages; however, it has also been regarded as a separate branch of Eskimo. It is seen as an important link to Proto-Eskimo because of particularly conservative features such as a retention of consonants between vowels which were lost in all other Eskimo-Aleut languages (e.g., Proto-Eskimo *ataRuciR, Sirenikski ategesegh, Central Alaskan Yup’ik atauciq, Iñupiaq atausiq 'one'). It has, however, undergone sound changes quite different from other Eskimo languages. For example, in all nonstressed (essentially noninitial) syllables (as in the example given above), the vowel changed to schwa, Unfortunately, it was first discovered and described at the end of the 19th century, when it was already highly moribund; the last speaker died in the year 2000.

Inuit is generally described as a language with four distinct dialect groups, each of which has its own recognizeable subdialects; these groups include Iñupiaq, with five major subdialects spoken from the Seward Peninsula and north (and including Uummarmiutun in Western Canada, as a result of a recent eastward migration of Alaskan Iñupiat); Western Canadian Inuit (sometimes called Inuvialuktun), with three subdialects spoken around the MacKenzie River Delta and north; Central Canadian Inuit, with four major subdialects, spoken over a vast area of Central Arctic Canada to Repulse Bay; Eastern Canadian Inuktitut, with six major subdialects, spoken in Baffin Island, Arctic Quebec, and Labrador; and Greenlandic Kalaallisut, with three major subdialects and spoken in Greenland (there is also a sizable population of speakers in Denmark). Characteristic of Inuit are:

  • lack of intonational stress as compared with Yupik

  • loss of the fourth vowel, with various important phonological traces

  • various degrees of consonant and vowel cluster simplifications (cf. Iñupiaq aglaun “pen,” Greenlandic allaat 'pen,' in which gl became ll and au turned into aa)

  • a tendency to merge parts of the mood system most important in narration (especially the indicative and participial moods), with most extensive merging in Alaska and least in Greenland.

4. Status of the Eskimo-Aleut languages today

The various language groups were affected by the respective colonizing languages, and most are endangered today, the notable exceptions being Eastern Canadian Inuktitut and Greenlandic. In the Aleut-speaking area, modern Aleut also has a large proportion of Russian loanwords, the result of extensive contact with Russian traders and colonizers in the 18th and 19th centuries. However, these loanwords do not in fact affect the basic vocabulary (Berge, 2014) and thus do not suggest undue influence on the language. There was also widespread literacy in Aleut as a result of Russian Orthodox documentation and missionary activities. Far more serious has been the impact of American policies on the Aleut population, particularly in the 20th century, including enforced education in English and enforced relocation of most communities during World War II. As a result, the language is severely endangered today, with fewer than 100 speakers with varying levels of fluency in the Aleutian Islands, the Pribilof Islands, and Anchorage, and fewer than 10 on Bering Island. With the exception of Atkan, speakers are elderly.

Both Russian and English influences are also found in the Yupik languages. Ironically, Siberian Yupik languages have a number of English loanwords, from contact with 19th-century whalers, and Alaskan Yupik languages have a large number of Russian loans from 18th- and 19th-century Russian colonization, as well as 20th-century English loans. Most Yupik languages are severely endangered today, with numbers of speakers ranging from 70 (Naukanski) to 1,300 (Central Siberian Yupik). The notable exception is Central Alaskan Yup’ik, with about 10,000 speakers (including children on the Kenai Peninsula) and with immersion programs in the schools and active production of learning materials. There is an active program of teacher training and curriculum development through the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

In most Alaskan and Canadian Inuit areas, the dominant colonial language was English, and large numbers of English loans are found; in Eastern Canada, there are also a few loans from French and German through the influence of missionaries. In Greenland, which was colonized by the Danes in the 18th century, loans are predominantly from Danish. The status and viability of the language is quite different in the different regions. In Alaska and Western Canada, the language is severely endangered, with only about 3,000 speakers, including at most about 400 speakers of Western Canadian Inuit, almost none of which are children (numbers from 2007 for Iñupiaq from Department of Canadian Heritage, 2003, for WCI). There is little literacy in the language, and orthographies were established or standardized relatively late in the 20th century for most of these dialects. In Eastern Canada, there are about 20,000 speakers, but there is widespread bilingualism in almost all age groups and a growing tendency for English to replace Inuktitut. Active efforts are underway to reverse this process, including the encouragement of Inuktitut programs in schools. Literacy in Inuktitut was widespread during the 20th century, and there has been an active interpreter/translator program to encourage the modernization of the language. In Greenland, over 95% of the native population of some 60,000 are speakers of Kalaallisut, and the language is thriving. Literacy in Kalaallisut was widespread by the 19th century, there are multiple types of media in the language, and education in Kalaallisut is through the university level. Whereas the western arctic is suffering especially from language loss, both Eastern Canadian Inuktitut and Kalaallisut show pervasive contact effects (from English and Danish, respectively) at all levels of grammar, including, for example, the increased used of nominalizations, changes in word order, paradigmatic simplification, and so forth (cf. Dorais, 2010: Fortescue, 1993).

5. Critical Analysis of the Scholarship

The languages have been documented in varying degrees since the 17th century, and the language family was identified as early as the early 19th century by Rasmus Rask, although analyses of the actual relationships between the languages and between Eskimo-Aleut and other language families continues to this day. Both the level and concentration of documentation, description, and theoretical analyses of the languages differ from language to language, depending partially on the number of speakers, number of researchers working on the languages, and length of time in which language studies were undertaken.

Scholarly work prior to the 1970s focused either on language documentation and description (i.e., vocabulary and text collection and grammatical sketches) or on establishing the relationship of the languages to each other and to other world languages. The most well-known early descriptive writers include Veniaminov (1846) for Aleut, Bourquin (1891) for Labrador Innuttut, and Egede (1750, 1760) and Kleinschmidt (1851, 1871) for West Greenlandic. All but Egede produced standardized orthographies of the languages, and Venniaminov and Kleinschmidt in particular are considered linguistically sound. Most other languages and dialects of Eskimo remained relatively poorly described well into the 20th century (for a historiography of the linguistic work of this period, see Krauss, 1990a). Descriptive work in the 20th century expanded greatly, particularly in the second half. These include Bergsland’s (1994) Aleut dictionary and (1997) grammar; Jacobson’s (1984, 2nd edition, 2012) dictionary and Woodbury’s (1984) and Miyaoka’s (1996) grammatical sketch of Central Alaskan Yup’ik; Menovshchikov’s (1964) grammar of Sirenikski (1967) grammar of Central Siberian Yupik and (1975) description of Naukanski; Lowe’s dictionaries and grammars of Western Canadian Inuit dialects (summarized in Lowe, 1991), Schneider’s (1985) dictionary of Eastern Canadian Inuktitut, Dorais’s many grammatical sketches of Eastern Canadian Inuit dialects, an example of which is Dorais (1988), Schultz-Lorentzen’s (1927) and Berthelsen et al.’s (1990) dictionary, and Fortescue’s (1984a) grammar of West Greenlandic; and Mennecier’s 1995 grammar of East Greenlandic. This work continues into the 21st century, with notable contributions by Golovko et al. (2004) for Naukanski, Miyaoka (2012) for Central Alaskan Yupik, Vakhtin (2000) for Sirenikski, and MacLean (2014) for Inupiaq. In addition, the new century has seen the development of a number of online descriptive resources, such as Webster and Ziebell’s (2000) interactive Inupiaq dictionary (although this appears to no longer be supported at, Briggs et al.’s Utkuhiksalingmiut Inuktitut Dictionary Project, the Inuktitut Living Dictionary, Langgård et al.’s ongoing Greenlandic parser project, etc. Many older drafts or editions of descriptive sources are being made available online as well, for example, the 2011 draft of MacLean (2014).

The second major focus of linguistic studies from the early 19th century on was on elucidating the place of Eskimo (in particular) within the languages of the world. The relationship of Eskimo and Aleut was first recognized by Rasmus Rask in a manuscript written in 1819, published in Thalbitzer (1916). During much of the 19th and 20th centuries, there were many attempts, albeit largely unsuccessful, to link Eskimo-Aleut with, variously, Indo-European, Uralic, Chukotkan, and more (cf. Fortescue, 1998, for a review of these proposals). Most recently, Fortescue (1998) lays out the typological groundwork for considering the evidence of prehistoric contacts with various Asian and Athabascan groups on Eskimo-Aleut. Systematic comparative reconstructions of Eskimo-Aleut are more recent (cf. especially Swadesh, 1951; Marsh and Swadesh, 1951; Bergsland, 1986, 1989; Fortescue et al., 2010), but the focus has largely been on reconstructing proto-Eskimo and deducing Proto-Eskimo-Aleut. Many questions remain, including, for example, the reflexes of the apical stops and fricatives, or of the Proto-Eskimo-Aleut schwa, and there is, as yet, no reconstruction of Proto-Aleut. Since the 1980s, Fortescue (1988, 1998, 2002), Leer (1991), and Berge (2010d, 2013, 2014) have suggested the probability of language contact as a factor contributing to the differentiation of Eskimo and Aleut. In Alaskan studies of the latter part of the 20th century, there was much discussion of the relationships of the various Eskimo languages and dialects to one another, their relative degrees of conservatism or innovation, and the migration history and settlement patterns of the Yupik and Inuit groups around the Seward Peninsula, the Diomedes, and other nearby islands (Krauss, 1980, 1990a, b).

Theoretical studies of the Eskimo-Aleut languages began especially in the 1970s. Not surprisingly, most of the studies initially involved phonology and syntax. The languages are unevenly covered, with Western Canadian Inuit, Inupiaq, Alutiiq, and Naukanski receiving almost no theoretical attention. In Alaska, the emphasis has been rather applied linguistics, specifically on the generation of language maintenance and revitalization materials, largely driven by the mission of the Alaska Native Language Center. Such activities are also found in the Canadian Arctic (e.g., the Committee for Original Peoples Entitlement’s commission of user-friendly dictionaries and grammars of Western Canadian Inuit, and Dorais’s many products geared toward Inuit students of the language). There were fewer such activities in Greenland, in part as a result of the health of the language. That being said, there are important theoretical studies for almost all languages. Phonological studies include Oshima (1994) for Aleut, Kaplan (1981) for Inupiaq, Rischel (1974) for West Greenlandic, and, in the case of Yupik languages, studies of prosody (Krauss, 1985). Many earlier syntactic studies of Yupik focused on verbal morphosyntax (Jacobson, 1990, 1995; de Reuse, 1994; Vakhtin, 2001a, b); studies of Aleut focused on anaphoric inflection (Bergsland, 1994; Fortescue, 1985); and studies of eastern Inuit varieties focused on transitive, intransitive, and antipassive structures (Kalmár, 1977; Johns, 1987; Bok-Benneka, 1991), or on the morphosyntax (e.g., Smith, 1982; Johns and Jensen, 1989). In addition, there was a family-wide interest in Eskimo deixis (Jacobson, 1984, for CAY; Denny, 1982, for Inuktitut; Fortescue, 1988, for Eskimo), This is, however, a gross oversimplification of the state of scholarship in the latter half of the 20th century; some scholars (e.g., Fortescue), published on a broad range of issues, including phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics, child language acquisition, historical and comparative linguistics; and many (if not most) scholars produced important works in both documentation and description and on theoretical questions. Although some fields are not well represented in the literature, almost all are represented to some degree, including semantics (Bittner, 1994; Therrien, 1987), discourse (Berge, 1997), language acquisition (Allen, 1996; Crago and Allen, 1997), sociolinguistics (especially in eastern Canada), and language learning materials (especially in Alaska). A variety of theoretical approaches are also found, including generative approaches to syntax (Woodbury, 1977) and autolexical syntax (developed, in fact, for West Greenlandic; Sadock, 1991); Berge (1997) is influenced by a variety of theoretical approaches, including relational grammar, tagmemics, and functional grammar; Lowe (1991) is heavily influence by the French linguist Gustave Guillaume (1994); Bittner (1994) is a formalist approach to semantics utilizing principles from Government-Binding; and so forth. In the 21st century we are seeing even more diversification in coverage, including language contact (Fortescue, 2002; Berge, 2010a, 2014), modern language development (Berge and Kaplan, 2005; Cancel, 2011), language revitalization (Berge, 2010c), information structure (Tersis and Carter-Thomas, 2005), language and new media (Jacobsen, 2009), gesture (Grove, 2009), sociolinguistic surveys (e.g., Dorais and Sammons, 2003), underdocumented dialects (e.g., Berge, 2010b), typology (Mithun, 2009), and more. Nevertheless, some languages continue to generate more research, especially Greenlandic, Eastern Canadian Inuktitut, Central Alaskan Yupik, and Aleut, while others have not (e.g., Western Canadian Inuit varieties, Naukanski, Alutiiq).

Future research should include more studies of the less well-understood aspects of Eskimo-Aleut grammar, including but not limited to those just listed, and the field would benefit from comparable studies in the different languages and dialects. For example, while there are a number of studies of child language acquisition for Inuktitut, only Fortescue’s (1984b) study of acquisition in Greenlandic is widely cited, and discussion of acquisition in Inupiaq seems largely focused on the evaluation of second language programs. Furthermore, perhaps because of the unevenness of description and theoretical work across the language family, there has sometimes been a tendency to minimize differences between the languages and dialects (e.g., the assumption that polysynthesis in the language family as a whole is more or less synonymous with polysynthesis in Eskimo; cf. Woodbury, 2004; Mithun, 2009). With ever-increasing studies of each of the languages, however, there is a greater basis for understanding not only how the languages are similar but also how they are unique (e.g., Fortescue’s 2002 discussion of the differences in polysynthesis between Eskimo and Aleut).

Important centers of study of the languages include the Alaska Native Language Center, the University of Toronto, Université Laval, Ilisimatussarfik, Institut før Eskimologi, and INALCO, among others. Études/Inuit/Studies is the journal specifically devoted to studies of the Eskimo (more specifically Inuit and related) cultures, with frequent articles on the languages.

Further Reading

Berge, A. (2011). “Eskimo-Aleut.” Oxford Bibliographies in Linguistics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

Bergsland, K. (1997). Aleut Grammar/Unangam Tunuganaan Achixaasix. Research Paper Number 10. Fairbanks: Alaska Native Language Center.Find this resource:

de Reuse, W. J. (1994). Siberian Yupik Eskimo. The language and its contacts with Chukchii. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press.Find this resource:

Dorais, L.-J. (2014). The language of the Inuit: Syntax, semantics, and society in the Arctic. Ithaca, NY: McGill-Queen’s University Press.Find this resource:

Fortescue, M. (1984). West Greenlandic. London: Croom Helm.Find this resource:

Fortescue, M. (1998). Language relations across the Bering Strait: Reappraising the archaeological and linguistic evidence. London: Cassell.Find this resource:

Lowe, R. (1991). Les trois dialectes inuit de l’Arctique canadien de l’ouest: Analyse descriptive et comparative. Québec: Association Inuksiutiit Katimajiit.Find this resource:

Miyaoka, O. (2012). A grammar of Central Alaskan Yupik (cay). Mouton Grammar Library 58. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.Find this resource:

Vakhtin, N. (2000). The Old Sirinek language: Texts, lexicon, grammatical notes. LINCOM Studies in Asian Linguistics 33. Munich: LINCOM.Find this resource:

Woodbury, A. (1984). Eskimo and Aleut languages. In D. Damas (Ed.), Handbook of North American Indians: Arctic (Vol. 5, pp. 49–63). Washington, DC: Smithsonian, 49–63.Find this resource:


Allen, S. E. M. (1996). Aspects of argument structure acquisition in Inuktitut. Studies in Language Acquisition & Languages Disorders 13. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.Find this resource:

Berge, A. (1997). Topic and discourse structure in West Greenlandic agreement constructions (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). University of California, Berkeley.Find this resource:

Berge, A. (2010a). Origins of linguistic diversity in the Aleutian Islands. Human Biology, 82(5–6), 557–581.Find this resource:

Berge, A. (2010b). Coordination in Pribilof Islands Aleut. Linguistic Discovery, 9(1). Retrieved from http://linguistic-discovery.dartmouth.eduFind this resource:

Berge, A. (2010c). Revitalisation et documentation de la langue chez les Aléoutes en Alaska. for Les Documents de Recherches Yawenda. Québec: Université Laval.Find this resource:

Berge, A (2010d). Unexpected non-anaphoric marking in Aleut. Rara & Rarissima: Documenting the fringes of linguistic diversity, ed. by Jan Wohlgemuth/Michael Cysouw: Berlin, New York: Mouton de Gruyter, 2010. (= Empirical Approaches to Linguistic Typology (EALT); 46), 1–22.Find this resource:

Berge, A. (2011). Topic and discourse structure in West Greenlandic agreement constructions. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.Find this resource:

Berge, A. (2013). Object reduction in Aleut. In T. Kurebito (Ed.), Asian and African languages and linguistics 7: Transitivity and its related phenomena (pp. 5–23). Tokyo: ILCAA.Find this resource:

Berge, A. (2014). Observations on the distribution patterns of Eskimo cognates and non-cognates in the basic Aleut (Unangam Tunuu) lexicon [poster]. Annual Meeting of the Alaska Anthropological Association, Fairbanks, AK, March 3–8, 2014.Find this resource:

Berge, A., & Kaplan, L. (2005). Contact induced lexical development in Eskimo languages. Études/Inuit/Studies, 29(1–2), 285–305.Find this resource:

Bergsland, K. (1986). Suomalais-Ugralaisen Seuran Aikakausaskirja Journal de la Société Finno-Ougrienne, 80, 63–137.Find this resource:

Bergsland, K. (1989). Suomalais-Ugralaisen Seuran Aikakausaskirja Journal de la Société Finno-Ougrienne, 82, 7–80.Find this resource:

Bergsland, K. (1994). Aleut dictionary/Unangam Tunudgusii. Fairbanks: Alaska Native Language Center, University of Alaska.Find this resource:

Bergsland, K. (1997). Aleut grammar/Unangam Tunuganaan Achixaasix. Research Paper Number 10. Fairbanks: Alaska Native Language Center.Find this resource:

Berthelsen, C., Jacobsen, B., Kleivan, I., Nielsen, F., Petersen, R., & Rischel, J. (1990). OQAATSIT Kalaallisuumiit Qallunaatuumut. Grønlandsk Dansk ORDBOG. Nuuk: Atuakkiorfik.Find this resource:

Bittner, M. (1994). Case, scope, and binding. Dordrecht, Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers.Find this resource:

Bok-Benneka, Reineke. (1991). Case and Agreement in Inuit. Studies in Generative Grammar. Berlin: Foris.Find this resource:

Bourquin, T. (1891). Grammatik der Eskimosprache wie sie im Bereich der Missionsniederlassungen der Brüdergemeine an der Labradorküste gesprochen wird. Gnadau, Germany: Unitätsbuchhandlung.Find this resource:

Briggs, J., Johns, A., & Cook, C. Utkuhiksalingmiut Inuktitut Dictionary Project. Retrieved from

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Crago, M. B., & Shanley E. M. A. (1997). Linguistic and cultural aspects of simplicity and complexity in Inuktitut (Eskimo) child-directed speech. In E. Highes, M. Hughes, & A. Greenhill (Eds.), Proceedings of the Twenty-first Annual Boston University Conference on Language Development (pp. 91–102). Somerville, MA: Cascadilla.Find this resource:

Crawford, M. H., Rubicz, R. C., & Zlojutro, M. (2010). Origins of Aleuts and the genetic structure of populations of the archipelago: Molecular and archaeological perspectives. Human Biology, 82(5–6), 695–717.Find this resource:

de Reuse, W. J. (1994). Siberian Yupik Eskimo. The language and its contacts with Chukchii. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press.Find this resource:

Denny, P. (1982). Semantics of the Inuktitut (Eskimo) spatial deictics. International Journal of American Linguistics, 48, 359–384.Find this resource:

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Dorais, L.-J. (1988). Tukilik: An Inuktitut Grammar for All. Quebec: Association Inuksiutiit Katimajiit Inc. and Groupes D’Études Inuit et Circumpolaires.Find this resource:

Dorais, L.-J. (1996). La Parole Inuit: Langue, Culture et Société dans l’Arctique Nord-Américain (The Inuit Word: Language, Culture, and Society in the North American Arctic). Paris: Peeters.Find this resource:

Dorais, L.-J. (2010). The language of the Inuit: Syntax, semantics, and society in the Arctic. Ithaca, NY: McGill-Queen’s University Press.Find this resource:

Dorais, L.-J., & Sammons, S. (2003). Language in Nunavut: Discourse and identity in the Baffin region. Iqaluit, Canada: Nunavut Arctic College Publications.Find this resource:

Dumond, D. (2001). Toward a (yet) newer view of the (pre)history of the Aleutians. In D. E. Dumand (Ed.), Archaeology in the Aleut zone of Alaska, some recent research. University of Oregon Anthropological Papers 58. Eugene: University of Oregon Press.Find this resource:

Egede, P. H. (1750). Dictionarium Grönlandica-Danico-Latina: complectens primitiva cum suis derivatis, quibus interjectaie sunt voces primariæ è Kirendo Augekkutorum. Havniae: Sumptibus &typis Orphan, regii excudit Gottm. Frid. Kisel.Find this resource:

Egede, P. H. (1760). Grammatica Grönlandica Danico-Latina. Havniae: Sumptibus &typis Orphan, regii excudit Gottm. Frid. Kisel.Find this resource:

Fortescue, M. (1984a). West Greenlandic. London: Croom Helm.Find this resource:

Fortescue, M. (1984b). Learning to speak Greenlandic: A case study of a two-year-old’s morphology in a polysynthetic language. First Language, 5(14), 101–112.Find this resource:

Fortescue, M. (1985). Anaphoric agreement in Aleut. In A. M. Bolkestein, C. de Groot, & J. L. Mackenzie (Eds.), Predicates and terms (pp. 105–126). Functional Grammar Series 2. Dordrecht: Foris.Find this resource:

Fortescue, M. (1988). The Eskimo-Aleut-Yukagir relationship: An alternative to the genetic/contact dichotomy. Acta Linguistica Hafniensia, 21(1), 21–50.Find this resource:

Fortescue, M. (1993). Eskimo word order variation and its contact-induced perturbation. Journal of Linguistics, 29(2), 267–289.Find this resource:

Fortescue, M. (1998). Language relations across Bering Strait: Reappraising the archaeological and linguistic evidence. London: Cassell.Find this resource:

Fortescue, M. (2002). The rise and fall of Eskimo-Aleut polysynthesis. In N. Evans & H.-J. Sasse (Eds.), Problems of polysynthesis (pp. 257–276). Berlin: Akademie Verlag.Find this resource:

Fortescue, Michael, Steven Jacobson, Lawrence Kaplan (2010). Comparative Eskimo Dictionary with Aleut Cognates (2nd ed.). Fairbanks: ANLCFind this resource:

Golovko, E. V., Dobrieva, E. A., Jacobson, S. A., & Krauss, M. E. (2004). Slovar’ iazyka naukanskikh èskimosov. Fairbanks: Alaska Native Language Center.Find this resource:

Grove, A. (2009). Space and structure in Greenlandic oral tradition. In M.-A. Mahieu & N. Tersis (Eds.), Variations on polysynthesis: The Eskaleut languages (pp. 215–230). Amsterdam: John Benjamins.Find this resource:

Inuktitut Living Dictionary.

Jacobsen, B. (2009). Chat—new rooms for language contact. In M.-A. Mahieu & N. Tersis (Eds.), Variations on polysynthesis: The Eskaleut languages (pp. 249–260). Amsterdam: John Benjamins.Find this resource:

Jacobson, S. A. (1984). Yup’ik Eskimo dictionary. Fairbanks: Alaska Native Language Center.Find this resource:

Jacobson, S. A. (1990). Comparison of Central Alaskan Yup’ik Eskimo and Central Siberian Yupik Eskimo. IJAL, 56(2), 264–286.Find this resource:

Jacobson, S. A. (1995). A practical grammar of the Central Alaskan Yup’ik Eskimo language. Fairbanks: University of Alaska, Alaska Native Language Center.Find this resource:

Johns, A. (1987). Transitivity and grammatical relations in Inuktitut (Doctoral dissertation). University of Ottawa.Find this resource:

Johns, A., & Jensen, J. T. (1989). The morphosyntax of Eskimo Causatives. In D. Gerdts & K. Michelson (Eds.), Theoretical perspectives on Native American languages (pp. 209–229). New York: SUNY Press.Find this resource:

Kalmár, Ivan. (1977). The antipassive in Inuktitut. Études/Inuit/Studies, 1(1), 129–142.Find this resource:

Kaplan, L. D. (1981). Phonological issues in North Alaskan Inupiaq. Alaska Native Language Center Research Papers 6. Fairbanks: ANLC.Find this resource:

Kleinschmidt, S. (1851). Grammatik der Grönländischen Sprache (Grammar of the Greenlandic Language). Berlin: G. Reimer.Find this resource:

Kleinschmidt, S. (1871). Den Gronlandske Ordbog. Copenhagen: Louis Kleins Bogtrukkeri.Find this resource:

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Krauss, M. (1990b). Typology and change in Alaskan languages. In W. P. Lehmann (Ed.), Language typology 1987: Systematic balance in language, papers from the Linguistic Typology Symposium, Berkeley, 1–3 December 1987 (pp. 147–159). Amsterdam: John Benjamins.Find this resource:

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