The Indigenous Languages of Alaska and Siberia
(from the Aleuts to the Inuits to the Tlingits)

Dedicated to Jean François de Galaupe, Comte de La Pérouse, 18th Century French ethnographer and explorer.

ARCTIC VOYAGES OF DISCOVERY

    When Danish-born Vitus Bering navigated the ocean waters of the Artic Circle under the Russian flag for tsar Peter the Great in 1722, he and other later 18th Century navigators like the British Captain James Cook, his senior shipmaster William Bligh, and their assistant George Vancouver had landed on what could have been James Michener's tiny Aleutian island of Lapak in his novel Alaska. By that time, the Aleuts on that isolated island had already been subdued by Cossack Trofim Zhdanko and his fellow Russian sea otter-hunting shipmates. For they had landed on the shores of our planet's Last Frontier of Alaska. Some 12,000 years earlier, the great shaman Azazruk of Siberia had once called the islet of paradise Alaxsxaq, or the "Great Land". Today, the name of our 49th state in the Union still bears the clairvoyant shaman's terminology handed down to us through multiple generations later.

ALASKAN LANGUAGE FAMILIES

    Although American historical lingüist Joseph Greenberg (1915-2001) has classified most of the indigenous languages of the Americas as belonging to a single Amerindian language family (with the unique exception of Na Dené), clearly two population groups of North America stand apart from his somewhat sweeping, generic classification: Eskimo and Aleut, both forming their own lingüistic grouping known today as the Eskimo-Aleut language family. Yet the term Eskimo in itself is a bit deceiving, for it encompasses more than one single language, referring to a number of different languages spoken in the Artic circle region of our planet. These multiple languages called Eskimo, which are polysynthetic in nature with lengthy words built upon complex derivational suffixes, are currently spoken from the eastern tip of Siberia in the west all the way through Alaska and northern Canada to Greenland in the eastern most direction. These languages also contain a highly developed inflectional system of affixes. Greenlandic, which is a variety of Inuit, is the official language spoken in present-day Greenland and is heard throughout many parts of Scandinavia as well.

    Another language family permeating Alaska is the Athapaskan-Eyak family of languages. Although Eyak is a single language unto itself, Athapaskan, like Eskimo, includes many different languages too. Most of the Athapaskan languages are spoken throughout Alaska and northwestern Canada, yet Navajo and Apache, which are part of this language family, are still commonly used as far south as Arizona. And the Athapaskan language contains the greatest number of native speakers in the arctic region. Only Navajo, the indigenous language of the "Lower 48" states and Canada, boasts the largest number of native speakers among the indigenous peoples on the North American continent: over 100,000 to date.

    Most archeologists, cultural anthropologists, and historical lingüists believe that there were three major mass migrations from Siberia to the Americas across the Bering Strait. The Eskimo-Aleuts, it is widely held, traversed the land bridge some 2,000 years ago. Before them, about 6,000 years ago, the Na Dené made their venturous crossing. And back into further, even remoter times of antiquity, a Proto-Eskimo-Aleut language group had crossed over into Central Western Alaska during the last glaciations, perhaps 12,000 to 15,000 years ago. This latter migration is based upon fossil records left behind in the rocks and preserved in the artic ice.

    Within Alaska's two major language families (of Eskimo-Aleut and Athapaskan-Eyak stock), twenty (20) separate languages have been born and cradled in the "Land of the Midnight Sun". Among these languages are included Alaskan Tsimshian, Alaskan Haida, Yupik, Tlingit, Tanana, Inuit, Inuit-Inupiaq, Ahta, Ingalik, Koyukon (spoken in parts of the Yukon), and Han. All of these independent languages remain, to this day, mutually incomprehensible and unintelligible. Within the Eskimo-Aleut language family, clearly eight (8) independent languages are still spoken today: Aleut, Sirenikski, Naukanski, Yupik, Central Siberian Yupik, Central Alaskan Yupik, Aluttiq Yupik, and Inuit-Inupaiq.

THE DECLINE IN ARCTIC NATIVE LANGUAGES

    Much of cultural history throughout the world has been defined by the human tragedy of war. Spanning back over half of a millennium, the native aboriginal inhabitants of the Americas have suffered severely at the hands of many an avaricious and capricious European invader, the "outsider". Be they the Aztecs obliterated by Hernán Cortez, the Incas conquered by Francisco Pizarro, or the Modoc or Mojave tribes of California and Oregon demolished by the American U.S. cavalry, greedy Europeans have systematically tormented, tortured, massacred and ultimately dispossessed the American Indians of their culture and land. Many are the implicit excuses and false justifications for such atrocities and violations against humankind, including such religious bigotry as "Manifest Destiny", or the idea that such invasions were pre-ordained by God. As a result, the relatively rapid decline in the numbers of native speakers of hundreds of indigenous languages has permeated all native societies within the Americas, including Alaska. Within the Eskimo-Aleut family of languages, Aleut is currently spoken by about 95% of the Canadian Eskimos and by about 42,000 Greenlander Eskimos. Of the approximately 34,000 resident Eskimos and Aleuts still in Alaska today, only about 70% of them have still retained their native language.

    At the turn of the 19th and 20th Centuries, the beginning of the demise for native languages in Alaska, Canada, and lower forty-eight states came in the form of suppression of these languages being used outwardly in public society. Many government-run schools disallowed the use of native languages, thus forcing children to reject their family language of heritage at an early age, further alienating them from their fellow classmates. The psychological devastation that this brought upon children whose native language was anything but English ultimately had a fearsome impact on their lives, on their newly formed worldview, and on the continuance of their native culture in general. Much of this enforced eradication of the Eskimo-Aleut languages being spoken resulted in severe corporal punishment and further dire consequences for any infractions incurred! English and French in North America along with Spanish and Portuguese in Central and South America, respectively, eventually became the languages of preference in which to perform personal and business daily transactions. It was these stern, harsh policies more than anything else that caused the alarming decline of Native American languages during modern times, not only in Alaska but in the Pacific Northwest, Canada, and California as well.

     And within the realm of formal education and within the 19th Century "Little Red Schoolhouse" settings, Alaskan Eskimo children continued to be forbidden to speak their native language. Such strict language prohibitions marked the forthcoming decline in the regular use of Eskimo and Aleut. Even the parents of these Eskimo children were strongly urged to speak only in English at home, to their own offspring! These tightly controlled measures indeed prevented any further learning in the natural language by its native speakers. Thus, an unstoppable continuous cycle of social injustices and improprieties began to set in, further creating a chain reaction throughout the United States and other countries too.

    Yet ironically, before 1900, it was the Russian Orthodox priests of Sitka, Alaska who began to develop a written transcription of numerous Eskimo-Aleut languages. These newly written versions of many of the aboriginal languages of Alaska and Siberia were taught to Eskimo children and to young adults, thus preserving their languages in writing for future posterity. In addition to this, between 1903 and 1910, missionaries of the Anglican Church who were operating along the Alaska-Canada border developed a written system for some of the Athapaskan languages. Some years after, Catholic, Moravian, and Episcopal missionaries were soon to follow suit in like kindness.

NEW LEGISLATION

    In 1972, the Alaska Legislature passed a bill that gave Alaskan children the freedom to use their native language in school once again. This was quite a quantum leap for all Native Americans, not just for Alaskans, in light of the fact that these indigenous cultures had been severely browbeaten and kept asunder for some eight previous decades. In schoolrooms having eight or more students whose primary language was not English, Alaska state law now requires that there be a teacher who is fluent in those children's home language of heritage. This law does not, however, apply to schools operated by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, mainly in the "Lower 48" states. Many of these bilingüal schools are located out "in the bush", away from Anchorage, Talkeetna, Fairbanks, and other cities throughout Alaska.

    Yet still, the indigenous languages of Alaska and Siberia are rapidly disappearing. The first that is forecast to disappear off of the face of planet Earth is Eyak, now spoken by only two or three residents of the Cordova region! Most of the other native languages, such as Alaskan Tsimshian, Alaskan Haida, Tanana and Holikachuk are spoken only by a few remaining elders, people who won't be among the living for very much longer. No one under the age of twenty today speaks Tlingit, Ahta, Ingalik, Han, nor Koyukon. Sadly and most lamentably, this will spell the extinction of these precious languages that were brought over the Bering Strait land bridge many centuries ago. Yet, on a more optimistic note, many linguists are in the process of restoring and preserving these languages in song, dance, and storytelling rituals. Many are being retained even further in written form, thanks in large part to the Alaska Language Center, established in 1972. For further reading, see Dr. Krauss's magnificent publication Alaska Native Languages, Past, Present and Future, available from the Center in Fairbanks, Alaska. Many lingüistic reconstruction projects on Alaska's native languages continue to move forward in positive directions.

"When it's springtime in Alaska
 It's forty below."
    from country singer Johnny Horton (1929-1960)

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