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Aleut language

Unangam Tunuu / Унáҥам Тунý
Native to Alaska (Aleutian and Pribilof Islands), Kamchatka Krai (Commander Islands)
Ethnicity Aleut people
Native speakers
150  (2007)[1]
Latin (Alaska)
Cyrillic (Alaska, Russia)
Language codes
ISO 639-2 ale
ISO 639-3 ale
Glottolog aleu1260[2]

Aleut (Unangam Tunuu), also known as Unangan, is a language of the Eskimo–Aleut language family. It is the heritage language of the Aleut (Unangax̂) people living in the Aleutian Islands, Pribilof Islands, and Commander Islands. Various sources estimate there are only between 100 and 300 speakers of Aleut remaining (Krauss 2007, p. 408)[3][4][5][6][7]


  • Dialects 1
  • Orthography 2
  • Phonology 3
    • Consonants 3.1
    • Vowels 3.2
  • Grammar 4
    • Overview 4.1
    • Comparison to Eskimo grammar 4.2
  • Research history 5
  • Endangerment 6
  • Revitalization 7
  • Bibliography 8
  • References 9
  • External links 10


Aleut is alone with the Eskimo languages (Yupik and Inuit languages) in the Eskimo–Aleut group. The main dialect groupings are Eastern Aleut, Atkan, and Attuan.

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, p. 14), 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). Ironically, today Copper Island Aleut is spoken only on Bering Island, as 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 Aleut (Latin) alphabet currently used in Alaska has 4 vowels and 21 consonants.

Majuscule forms (also called uppercase or capital letters)
Minuscule forms (also called lowercase or small letters)
a b ch d f g ĝ x h i k l m n o q r s t u v w y z

The historic Aleut (Cyrillic) alphabet found in both Alaska and Russia has the standard pre-1918 Russian orthography as its basis, although a number of Russian letters were used only in loanwords. In addition, the extended Cyrillic letters: г̑ (г with inverted breve), ҟ, ҥ, ў, х̑ (х with inverted breve) were used to represent distinctly Aleut sounds.[8] [9] [10]

A total of 24 letters were used to represent distinctly Aleut words, comprising: 6 vowels (а, и, й, у, ю, я), 2 reduced vowels (ъ, ь) and 16 consonants (г, г̑, д, з, к, ҟ, л, м, н, ҥ, с, т, ў, х, х̑, ч). The letter ҟ has been used in modern Aleut Cyrillic publications to denote the letter ԟ (Aleut Ka) traditionally used to mark the voiceless uvular plosive /q/.

Majuscule forms (also called uppercase or capital letters)
А Б* В* Г Г̑ Д Е* Ж* З И І* Й К Ҟ Л М Н Ҥ О* П* Р* С Т У Ў Ф* Х Х̑ Ц* Ч Ш* Щ* Ъ Ы* Ь Э* Ю Я Ѳ* Ѵ*
Minuscule forms (also called lowercase or small letters)
а б* в* г г̑ д е* ж* з и і* й к ҟ л м н ҥ о* п* р* с т у ў ф* х х̑ ц* ч ш* щ* ъ ы* ь э* ю я ѳ* ѵ*
* denotes letters typically used in loanwords

† only found in Atkan Aleut



The consonant phonemes of the various Aleut dialects are represented below. The first line of each cell indicates the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) representation of the phoneme; the second indicates how the phoneme is represented in the Aleut orthography. Italicized orthographic forms represent phonemes borrowed from Russian or English; bold orthographic forms represent native Aleut phonemes. Note that some phonemes are unique to specific dialects of Aleut.

  Labial Dental Alveolar Palatal Velar Uvular Glottal
Stop /p/
Fricative /f/
Nasal /m̥/
Lateral   /ɬ/
Approximant /ʍ/
  /ɹ/, /ɾ/
* Only found natively in Attuan (/v/ is also found in loanwords)
Only found in Eastern Aleut
Only found in Atkan and in loanwords

Taff et al. (2001, p. 234) note that modern Eastern Aleut has done away with most voicing distinctions among nasals, sibilants and approximants.


Aleut has six native vowel phonemes: the short vowels /i/, /a/, and /u/, and their long counterparts /iː/, /aː/, and /uː/. These are represented orthographically as i, a, u, ii, aa, and uu respectively.

Before or after a uvular consonant, /i/ is retracted to [e], /a/ is retracted to [ɑ], and /u/ to [o]. Before or after a coronal consonant, /a/ becomes [e] or [ɛ], and /u/ becomes [y] or [ʉ] (Bergsland 1994, p. xix; Bergsland 1997, pp. 21–22; see also Taff et al. 2001, pp. 247–249).



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 postbases (derivational suffixes).

Nouns are obligatorily marked for grammatical number (singular, dual, or plural) and for absolutive or relative case (some researchers, notably Anna Berge, dispute both the characterization of this feature as "case" and the names "absolutive" and "relative". This approach to Aleut nouns comes from Eskimo linguistics, but these terms can be misleading when applied to Aleut). The absolutive form is the default form, while the relative form communicates a relationship (such as possessive or contrastive) between the noun and another member of the sentence, possibly one that has been omitted. Absolutive and relative are identical in most combinations of person and number.

In possessive constructions, Aleut marks both possessor and possessum:

 `[the] man'
 `[the] father'
 tayaĝu-m ada-a
 man-REL father-POSSM
 `the man's father'

The possessor precedes the possessum.

Positional nouns are a special, closed set of nouns which may take the locative or ablative noun cases; in these cases they behave essentially as postpositions. Morphosyntactically, positional noun phrases are almost identical to possessive phrases:

 tayaĝu-m had-an
 man-REL direction-LOC
 `toward the man'

Verbs are inflected for mood and, if finite, for person and number. Person/number endings agree with the subject of the verb if all nominal participants of a sentence are overt; in general, if a complement (including the complement of a verb, the object of a positional noun, or the possessor of a noun) is omitted, its absence will be reflected by anaphoric marking on the verb; in such situations, the subject will usually be in the relative case. Compare:

Piitra-x̂ tayaĝu-x̂ kidu-ku-x̂.
Peter-SG.ABS man-SG.ABS help-PRESENT-3SG

`Peter is helping the man.'

Piitra-m kidu-ku-u.
Peter-SG.REL help-PRES-3SG.ANA

`Peter is helping him.'

(Bergsland 1997, pp. 126-127)

When more than one piece of information is omitted, the verb agrees with the element whose grammatical number is greatest. This can lead to ambiguity:

 `He/she helped them.' / `They helped him/her/them.'

(Sadock 2000)

Both nouns and verbs are subject to extensive derivational morphology. Aleut words begin with a content morpheme, called a `root' or a `base', optionally followed by any number of derivational suffixes (`postbases'). Inflectional endings are obligatory; interestingly, there is no "zero" (null) inflectional ending for either class of words.

Aleut's canonical word order is subject object verb (SOV).

Comparison to Eskimo grammar

Although Aleut derives from the same parent language as the Eskimo languages, the two language groups (Aleut and Eskimo) have evolved in distinct ways, resulting in significant typological differences. Aleut inflectional morphology is greatly reduced from the system that must have been present in Proto-Eskimo–Aleut, and where the Eskimo languages mark a verb's arguments morphologically, Aleut relies more heavily on a fixed word order.

Unlike the Eskimo languages, Aleut is not an ergative-absolutive language. Subjects and objects in Aleut are not marked differently depending on the transitivity of the verb (i.e. whether the verb is transitive or intransitive); by default, both are marked with a so-called absolutive noun ending. However, if an understood complement (which may either be a complement of the verb or of some other element in the sentence) is absent, the verb takes an "anaphoric" marking and the subject noun takes a "relative" noun ending.

A typological feature shared by Aleut and Eskimo is polysynthetic derivational morphology, which can lead to some rather long words:

Ting adaluusanaaĝiiĝutamasux̂takux̂.
Ting adalu-usa-naaĝ-iiĝuta-masu-x̂ta-ku-x̂.

`Perhaps he tried to fool me again.' (Bergsland 1997, p. 123)

Research history

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 on the parish's Aleut library.[11]


Graded Intergenerational Disruption Scale: 7 (shifting) [12]


Revitalization efforts are a recent development for the Aleut language and are mostly in the hands of the Aleutians themselves. The first evidence of the preservation of the language came in the form of written documentation at the hands of the Russian Orthodox Church missionaries. However, as the historical events and factors transpired, Aleut’s falling out of favor has brought upon a necessity for action if the language is to survive much longer. Linguistic experts have been reaching out to the Aleut community in attempts to record and document the language from the remaining speakers. Such efforts amount to “100 hours of conversation, along with the transcription and translation in Aleut, that will be transferred to compact disks or DVDs”.[13] In the unfortunate event that Aleut does go extinct, these records will along linguists and descendants of the Aleutian people to pass on as much knowledge of the language as they can. Efforts like this to save the language are being sponsored by universities and local community interest groups, like the Aleutian/Pribilof Islands Association Task Force for Language Revitalization, while government relations with the Aleut people are severely limited. Similarly to the native languages of California, the native languages of Alaska had been given little attention from the United States government. While linguists are working to record and document the language, the local Aleutian community groups are striving to preserve their language and culture by assisting the linguists and raising awareness of the Aleut population.[14]


  • Berge, Anna; Moses Dirks (2009). Niiĝuĝis Mataliin Tunuxtazangis: How the Atkans Talk (A Conversational Grammar). Fairbanks, AK: Alaska Native Language Center, University of Alaska. 
  • Krauss, Michael E. (2007). "Native languages of Alaska". In: The Vanishing Voices of the Pacific Rim, ed. by Osahito Miyaoko, Osamu Sakiyama, and Michael E. Krauss. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Sadock, Jerrold M. (2000). "Aleut Number Agreement". Presented at Berkeley Linguistic Society 26th Annual Meeting.
  • Taff, Alice; Lorna Rozelle; Taehong Cho; Peter Ladefoged; Moses Dirks; Jacob Wegelin (2001). "Phonetic structures of Aleut". Journal of Phonetics 29 (3): 231–271.  


  1. ^ Aleut at Ethnologue (17th ed., 2013)
  2. ^ Nordhoff, Sebastian; Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2013). "Aleut". Glottolog 2.2. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. 
  3. ^
  4. ^
  5. ^
  6. ^
  7. ^
  8. ^  
  9. ^  
  10. ^  
  11. ^ on-line
  12. ^
  13. ^
  14. ^

External links

  • Aleut University of Alaska Fairbanks, Aleut Collections List
  • (Russian) Aleut Language
  • Alaskan Orthodox Christian texts (Aleut)
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