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Alternative name: Eskaleut languages.

Overview. Eskimo-Aleut languages are spoken by small communities of hunters and fishermen which have adapted to the extreme conditions of the harsh Arctic environment. Their speakers are supposed to have been part of the last large-scale migration from Asia across the Bering strait, around 5,000 years ago. After reaching Alaska they migrated southwesterly into the Aleutian islands, and northeasterly to the Arctic coasts of Canada and Greenland. Others migrated back to Siberia.

   Eskimo-Aleut languages have a rich morphology and are strongly polysynthetic which is their most distinctive characteristic. Polysynthesis is the capacity of building long and complex words by the successive addition to a root of several morphemes. As a result, a single word may function, sometimes, as a whole sentence.

Distribution. Eskimo-Aleut languages are spread over the Arctic coast and adjacent islands of Greenland, Canada, Alaska and eastern Siberia. The Aleut dialects are spoken on the Aleutian Islands, off the Alaska coast. Yupik, which belongs to the Eskimo branch, is spoken in Siberia and southwestern Alaska while the other Eskimo branch, Inuit, is spoken in northern Alaska, Canada and Greenland.

  1. Map of Eskimo-Aleut languages distribution

Internal Classification. The Eskimo-Aleut family has two branches: Aleut (or Unangan) and Eskimo. Eskimo is itself divided into Yupik and Inuit. Eskimo languages are much more closely related to each other than to Aleut.

  1. Aleut: western Alaskan Peninsula and Aleutian Islands.

  1. Eskimo:

  2. Yupik: southwest Alaska, St. Lawrence Island, and Chukotka Peninsula in Siberia.

  3. Inuit: north Alaska, north Canada, and Greenland.


  1. Aleut (Unangan). Aleut is a single language consisting of three dialects: Eastern Aleut, Western or Atkan Aleut, and Attuan. The total number of Aleut speakers is now between one-hundred and two-hundred.

  2. Attuan has become extinct. Eastern Aleut is spoken in the Alaskan Peninsula west of Stepovak Bay, in the Eastern Aleutian Islands and in the Pribilof Islands. Western or Atkan Aleut is spoken in the island of Atka, in Bering Island, and Commander Islands.

  1. Eskimo. The Eskimo branch is divided into Inuit and Yupik languages.

  1. 1.Yupik. Most of the close to 20,000 Yupik speakers live in Alaska but some are found in Siberia:

  1. Alaskan Yupik

  2. Central Alaskan Yupik: 18,700 speakers in Southwest Alaska

  3. Pacific Yupik (Alutiiq): apparently, just 8 speakers in Alaska Peninsula to Prince William Sound

  1. Siberian Yupik

  2. Central Siberian Yupik: 1,400 speakers in St. Lawrence Island (USA) and Chukotka

  3. Peninsula (Russia)

  4. Naukan Yupik: 70 speakers in Chukotka Peninsula (Russia)

  5. Sireniski: extinct; it was spoken formerly in Chukotka Peninsula (Russia)

  1. 2.Inuit. The Inuit people live in four vast regions: Greenland, Eastern Canada, Western Canada and north Alaska. In consequence, their language is divided into four regional dialects. Inuit speakers are over 90,000.

  1. Kalaallisut: 50,000 speakers in Greenland

  2. East Inuktitut: 34,100 speakers in Northeast Canada (north Labrador Peninsula and south Baffin Island)

  3. West Inuktitut: 1,400 speakers in Northwest Canada (Northwest Territories and Nunavut)

  4. Inupiaq: 5,600 speakers in North Alaska


In summary, Eskimo-Aleut languages are spoken by about by a little more than 100,000 people:


Status. Aleut is severely endangered with a declining tendency. Most Yupik languages are severely endangered as well. The exception is Central Alaskan Yupik which has still a substantial number of speakers and is taught in schools.

The status of Inuit varies in different regions. In Greenland is thriving, being employed by almost all of the native population. In Alaska and western Canada, it is endangered, being displaced by English, while in eastern Canada it is more robust thanks to active efforts to stop or reverse language loss.


  1. Phonology

  2. - The vowel systems of all Eskimo-Aleut languages have three basic vowels: a, i, u. Yupik has an additional short e (schwa).

  1. - Aleut lacks labial stops and allows clusters of up to three consonants as well as consonant clusters at the beginning of a word. In contrast, Eskimo languages permit only a single initial consonant and no more than two successive consonants between vowels.

  1. Morphology

  2. - The number of word stems is relatively small but by adding  derivational suffixes, whose number is very large, a virtually unlimited number of new words can be created. Inflectional suffixes mark case, number and possession in nouns. The combination of both, derivational and inflectional, suffixes allows to build long words composed of many morphemes, a phenomenon known as polysynthesis.

  1. - Inuit and Yupik, but not Aleut, have several grammatical cases like locative, instrumental, ablative, allative (direction to), and comparative, besides ergative and absolutive. The absolutive case marks the subject of intransitive verbs and the object of transitive verbs while the ergative case marks the subject of transitive ones. The ergative is also applied to possessors (like the genitive in other languages). Aleut ergative case marking is more restricted, being used only if a transitive object is not overtly expressed.

  1. - Singular, dual and plural nouns are marked by inflectional suffixes, and if they are possessed the number marker is followed by pronominal suffixes that specify the (human) possessor. They distinguish four persons without gender: my, your, his/her, his/her own. The last one specifies ownership in contrast with the precedent that does not e.g., his house versus his own house. A remarkable feature of Eskimo-Aleut languages is that they have numerous kinds of demonstrative pronouns able to make subtle distinctions which most languages make not.

  1. - Verb structures are very complex conveying meanings that in other languages require whole sentences. There are four persons and three numbers marked by pronominal suffixes in Eskimo languages. In contrast, Aleut uses independent pronouns, instead of pronominal marking on verbs.

  1. Syntax

  2. - Sentences are formed by clause chains in which dependent clauses are preceded by an independent one. In a clause, word order is typically Subject-Object-Verb.

Lexicon. Due to contact with Russian traders and colonizers in the 18th and 19th centuries, Aleut has incorporated many Russian loanwords. In contrast, Siberian Yupik has a number of English loanwords arising from contact with 19th century whalers, as well as many borrowed from the neighboring Chukotko-Kamchatkan language Chukchi. Alaskan Yupik has a large number of Russian loans, a reminder of  Russian colonization during the 18th and 19th centuries, as well as 20th century English loans.

Scripts. A variety of Roman and Cyrillic based scripts are used to write Aleut, Yupik and Inuit languages, except East Inuktitut which is written with a syllabary adapted from the script devised for the Cree (a native American people of central Canada).

  1. © 2013 Alejandro Gutman and Beatriz Avanzati                                                                               

Further Reading

  1. -'Eskimo-Aleut Family'. M. Mithun. In The Languages of Native North America, 400-410. Cambridge University Press (1999).

  2. -'Eskimo–Aleut'. A. Berge. In Concise Encyclopedia of Languages of the World, 371-374. K. Brown & S. Ogilvie (eds). Elsevier (2009).

  3. -'Comparative Eskimo-Aleut Phonology and Lexicon'. K. Bergsland. Journal de la Société Finno-Ougrienne 80, 63–137 (1986).

  4. -Variations on Polysynthesis. The Eskaleut Languages. M-A. Mahieu & N. Tersis (eds). John Benjamins (2000).

  5. -La Parole Inuit: langue, culture et société dans l’arctique nordaméricain. L-J. Dorais. Peeters (1996).

  6. -Alaska Native Language Center:

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Eskimo-Aleut Languages

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