The Aleutian Language

General Information on the Language

The Main Ethnonym of the Ethnic Group

Bibliography on the Aleutian Language

For the first time ethnonym “Aleut” was mentioned in the documents of 1747, as a name of the ethnic group given by Russians after their exploration of the Aleutian Islands. There are also other interpretations of this ethnonym: aliut (алиут) as an islander (Chuk.), Alyaguk (алягук) as “the sea” (Aleut), alyav, elev (аляв, элев) – “to tie round”, “to wrap around” (Chuk., Kor.), allitkhukh (аллитхух) – “community”, “brigade”, “army”, “team”.

Ethnonym Allitkhukh (аллитхух) was also used earlier.

Self-Ethnonym of the Ethnic Group

  • Unangan (Унаңан). There are several versions of the origin of this name: 1) as originated from collective pronoun una– “there, on the flat shore (with the view on the sea)”, 2) self-ethnonym Unangan or Anangin, may originate from term antangik (антангик) “human”, angangik (ангангик) “one living here”, “dweller”).
  • Unangas (Унаңас) (western dialect)

The Main Name of the Language

The Aleutian language (archaic name – the Unangan language)

Name of the Language

  • Unangan tunguu (Унаңан туңуу)
  • Unangan umsuu (Унаңан умсуу)

Genetic Affilition

Is related to the Eskimo-Aleutian language family.

The Geographical Spread of the Language

In Russia Aleuts live on the Commander (Komandorskie) Islands (Medniy and Bering Islands). In 1928 the Commander Islands were included in the Aleutian National District which later joined Kamchatka Province. In the middle 1930s the national district was liquidated and reconstructed only recently. In Nikolskoe village situated on Bering Island, in the only place of the Aleuts community in Russia, 279 Aleuts lived there in 1990, on Medniy (Copper) Island - 253 Aleuts.

Number of Native Speakers

According to the census of 1989, 702 Aleuts lived in Russia, NIS and Baltic countries, with 644 of them living in Russia and 58 – in NIS and Baltic countries. According to the census of 2002, 540 Aleuts live in Russia, while 175 of them have a command of the Aleutian language. Approximately five thousand Aleuts live in the USA.

Some data evidence about six thousand people speaking the Aleutian language including several hundreds of inhabitants of the Pribilof Islands belonging to Russia and also inhabitants of the Aleutian Islands in the US. The number of Aleutian speakers in the USA equals to some 700 people.

Language Contacts

Russian in Russia, and English in the USA.

Dialects and Subdialects

The Aleutian language consists of four dialects: Unalaska (eastern), Medniy Island (language of Copper Island Aleuts), Atkan and Bering Island.

Distinctions in phonetics, grammatical system and vocabulary of different dialects are minor and present no obstacles to mutual understanding of Aleuts from different islands. Specific place is taken by Copper Island dialect which is often considered as an independent language formed on the basis of the convergence of two independent languages - the presently extinct dialect of Attu Island and Russian as a result of a deep language interference. The language of Copper Island Aleuts can be conventionally included in the group of compound languages.

Linguistic Description

All dialects of the Aleutian language, except for Mednovskiy, are characterized as agglutinative, polysynthetic. The composition of phonemes is the following: 3 vowels and 17 (20) consonants. The word has a suffixal agglutinative morphological structure. There are 7 parts of speech presented in the language with the exception of the adjective. The noun has the category of the number, possessive and other cases. Two cases are distinguished: absolute and possessive. The verb is presented in the categories of person, number, mood, aspect (indicative, imperative, preventive, optative, intentional, conjunctive, conditional). The only means of the word-formation is suffixion. As a result of contacts of Aleuts of Medniy Island (Russia) with Russians, the Aleut language adopted Russian system of conjunction while the lexical base of the Aleutian verbs remained well-preserved. On the syntactical level the Aleutian language is characterized by the grammatical agreement of the predicate with the topic. There is a fixed word order: SOV.

Sociolinguistic Characteristic of the Language

Legal Status, the Present Day Situation of the Language

The legal status of the Aleutian language is described in terms of a language of a numerically small indigenous people of RF. The Aleutian language is non-literate.

The present day ethnolinguistic situation can be characterized as following. In the beginning of the 1990s there were only several Aleutian native speakers, mostly older generation representatives. There are two Aleutian dialects – Beringovskiy and Mednovskiy, still preserved in village Nikolskoye. They are spoken by no more than 12-15 representatives of older generation (census of 1989). The rest of Aleuts perceive Russian as their native language. According to E.V. Golovko, linguistic situation in relation to the Aleutian language is more optimistic in the USA due to a more numerous community of Aleuts living there. In the 1950s all children of pre-school age living on Atka Island could speak only Aleutian, whereas 20 years later these children became bilingual (speaking both English and Aleutian). At present among 85 people living on Atka Island 80 people can actively speak Aleutian. There are no people younger than 40 among speakers of eastern (Unalaskan) dialect. There are exceptions on Pribilof Island: among 600-650 people living here around 375 people have a command of this dialect, the rest of the dialect speakers inhabit Akutan Island. In Alaska speakers of the eastern dialect are represented by 10-15 older residents of King Cove Island (former Belkovsky Island).

Writing and Orthography

The first attempts of creation of the Aleutian written system are traced back to the beginning of the XIX century. In 1829 Russian missionary Ivan Veniaminov introduced a Cyrillic-based alphabet to the Aleutian language. Missionary activity of Veniaminov and his followers, priests Y. Netsvetov and L. Solomatova resulted in the translation of four Gospels and several religious books and the establishment of a network of schools within the church system. However, the mentioned Aleutian writing system created on the basis of Russian alphabet in the beginning of XIX century ceased its existence after merging of the Aleutian Islands with the USA (1867). In the 1870s the Aleutian alphabet based on Latin graphics was created in the USA, textbooks and manuals for schools were published. In the mid-70s of the XX centuries Alaska center on the studies of indigenous languages introduced a course taught in Aleutian. The traces of the ancient Aleutian writing systems have not been discovered.

At the present moment attempts to reconstruct the Aleutian alphabet developed by I. Veniaminov on the Cyrillic basis with the introduction of additional diacritical signs are being taken. Bering dialect characterized by the most well-preserved features of the grammatical structure of the Aleutian language is considered as a basic one.

Social Functions of the Language

The Aleutian language had been taught for already 50 years before Alaska and the Aleutian Islands were included in the jurisdiction of the USA. The majority of Aleuts were bilingual having a command of both Aleutian and Russian. After the transfer of Alaska and the Aleutian Islands to the USA “Americanization” of indigenous population was launched. The priority was given to the liquidation of bilinguism in education and church service. The Aleutian language was no longer taught and 60 years later the system of American federal schools with English as the only language of instruction was spread. The last school located on St. Paul Island where two languages – Aleutian and English – were used for instruction was closed by the US administration in 1912. Aboriginals were prohibited to use their native language in any sphere except for every day life. State policy in relation to indigenous population in essence was oriented at the establishment of English in all spheres of life, on assimilation of aboriginal population and gradual extinction of languages. The situation improved during the 1970s, mostly thanks to the activities of the Center of Studies of the Languages of Indigenous Population of Alaska, University of Alaska in Fairbanks. In the USA the Aleutian language has been taught as an elective course in grammar school since 1983.

On the Commander (Komandorskie) Islands, Russia since the 1980s the attempts to establish teaching the Aleutian language as an elective course are being taken with the help of teachers’ manuals written by E.V. Golovko, N.B. Vahktin and A.S. Asinovskiy and dictionaries complied by E.V. Golovko.

Dictionary «Язык алеутов острова Беринга: словарь и тексты» (“Language of Aleuts of Bering Island: Dictionary and Texts”) in Aleutian, English and Japanese has been published recently. At present this sphere of functioning of the Aleutian language is rapidly developing in the USA.

  • History of Studies of the Aleutian Language

    First academic records of the Aleutian language were made by Russian missionary Ivan Veniaminov in the beginning of the XIX century. Later the studies of the grammar and vocabulary of the language were carried on by researchers G.A. Menovschikov, E.V. Golovko, N.B. Vakhtin and others from the Institute of Linguistics of Leningrad Branch, USSR Academy of Sciences (presently, Russian Academy of Sciences). Nowadays the studies of the Aleutian language are actively conducted in the USA.

    Photo and Video Records of the Ethnic Group

    • Aleuts. Photo from the website:
    • Aleuts. Picture from the website:

    Specialists studying the language

    • Nikolay Borisovich Vakhtin, Dr. Sc. in philology, a leading research fellow

      Institute of Linguistic Studies, RAS; Department of Palaeoasiatic and Samodian languages. Address (office): 199053 Tuchkov Pereulok, 9, St. Petersburg, Russia. Phone (office): +7 (812) 328-1611. E-mail:

    • Evgeniy Vasilievich Golovko, C. Sc. in philology, a senior research fellow

      Institute of Linguistic Studies, RAS; Department of Palaeoasiatic and Samodian languages. Address (office): 199053 Tuchkov Pereulok, 9, St. Petersburg, Russia. Phone (office): +7 (812) 218-1611. E-mail:

    Academic Centers Studying the Language

    • Institute of Linguistic Studies, RAS

      Address: 199053 Tuchkov Pereulok, 9, St. Petersburg, Russia. Phone: +7 (812) 328-1611

    • Institute of the Peoples of the North of Russian State Pedagogical University (RSPU) named after A.I. Hertsen

      Address: 198097, Prospekt Stachek, St. Petersburg, Russia. Fax: +7 (812) 312-1195, E-mail:, Website

    • Alaska Native Language Center, University of Fairbanks

      Address: Fairbanks, Box 757680 AK 99775-7680. Phone: (908) 4747874. Fax: (907) 474658. E-mail:

    Projects of the Language Studies

    In the frameworks of the project of preservation of the languages of peoples of Siberia, Far East and North America a dictionary of the language of Kamchatka Aleuts has been recently published. Book in Aleutian «Язык алеутов острова Беринга: словарь и тексты» (“The Language of the Aleuts of the Bering Island: Dictionary and Texts”) was prepared for publication, published and printed in Japan. The dictionary was published in Aleutian, English and Japanese languages. That project was developed by the Center of linguistic studies of Otaru University, Japan with the participation of the Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North of Kamchatka, Northern Academy of KSPU (Kamchatka State Pedagogical University) and Kamchatka Branch of Pacific Institute of Geography (PIG), Far Eastern Branch of RAS. In prospect the translation of the dictionary of the Aleut language published in Japan into Russian is planned.

    The following sources were used for collecting this information:

    • Письменные языки мира. Языки Российской Федерации. Т. 2. М., 2003,
    • Языки народов России. Красная книга.. М., 2002.
    • Большая советская энциклопедия. Т.1. М., 1970,
    • Лингвистический энциклопедический словарь. М., 1990.

    Translated into English by O.A. Povoroznyuk

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