The hundred or so Aleutian Islands form the western-most part of the United States, extending from Unalaska island and the Alaskan peninsula in Southwest Alaska, to lonely Attu island, far out into the Bering Sea. The people of these islands have lived here for generations, and their language is known as Unangam Tunuu.
The language and its dialects
Unangam Tunuu is part of the Eskimo-Aleut language family, which also includes languages such as Yup’ik, Alutiiq, and Inuktitut that are spoken across Alaska and northern Canada, and Kalaallisut, or Greenlandic (the official language of Greenland). However, Unangam Tunuu is the sole remaining member of the Aleut branch of this family, with all other languages belonging to the Inuit or Yupik branches; it is believed that the Proto-Aleut diverged from Proto-Inuit/Yupik around 2000 BCE.
Figure 1: The Aleutian Islands
Today, the term “Unangam Tunuu” itself, however, does not represent one, unified language, but three quite observably distinct dialects that are spoken in different parts of the Aleutian Islands. The Eastern dialect is spoken on the Fox Islands of Unimak, Akutan, Unalaska, and Umnak, and is the dialect with the most number of speakers, while the much smaller Western dialect, known as Atkan, is spoken primarily on Atka island. The third dialect, the Pribilof dialect, is spoken on the Pribilof Islands of St. George and St. Paul, which are two small islands to the north of the Aleutian islands that were populated in the eighteenth century by people from Atka and Unalaska. A fourth dialect, Attuan, was previously spoken up to the time of World War II, but is now, sadly, most likely completely extinct. Finally, to the west of the Aleutian islands, in what is today Russian territory, a separate, creole form of Unangam Tunuu, Copper Island Aleut, still lingers on in the Commander Islands.
Unfortunately, all three remaining dialects of Unangam Tunuu are critically endangered; indeed, linguists such as Anna Berge and Knut Bergsland have estimated that altogether, there are just about 100 to 200 speakers of the three remaining dialects of Unangam Tunuu still alive today. This, however, wasn’t always the case.
Beginnings and explorers
Although debate continues in the scientific community over the original homeland of today’s inhabitants of the Aleutian islands, researchers generally agree that based on archaeological findings, speakers of Unangam Tunuu have been present on the islands for at least 6,000 years. Contrary to earlier portrayals of Aleutian island culture, more recent research has found that Aleutian society was large, with some researchers estimating a pre-colonization population of almost 20,000, and involved a number of social classes, including slaves. Additionally, there was a great deal of contact between the Aleutian island inhabitants and other pre-colonization societies in the area, with trade and even war occurring between the Aleutian island inhabitants and other nearby societies like the Chugach, the Tlingit, and the Dena’ina. This was generally the state of affairs in and around the islands until the eighteenth century, and the coming of the Russians.
In 1741, Russian explorers Vitus Bering (Витус Веринг) and Aleksei Chirikov (Алексей Чириков) charted the islands and ‘discovered’ them, paving the way for subsequent Russian colonization of the islands starting from the end of the eighteenth century. The arrival of the Russians in the Aleutians, unfortunately, had mixed effects on the language, as well as for the islands and their inhabitants. Many of the later colonists, especially priests, encouraged the development of literacy and literature among Unangam Tunuu speakers; Father Ivan Veniaminov, for example, developed dictionaries, word lists and religious texts in the language with local inhabitants. Sadly, not all of the arriving colonists were as tolerant, or, indeed peaceful, especially in early encounters between colonists and islanders; linguist and researcher Knut Bergsland notes the “extermination” of the inhabitants of the Islands of the Four Mountains in 1764, while Dr Anna Berge observes overall that the arrival of the Russians resulted in
The reduction of the Aleut population by three-quarters, the disappearance of several independent groups and the majority of the villages, and forced consolidations or relocations of the population by the end of the 18th century. (Berge, 2010, p. 565)
Separately, the Unangam Tunuu language also received a lasting and significant Russian influx into its vocabulary, gaining a sizeable number of lexical items that have remained with the language ever since. Relatively common words like ‘teacher’ and ‘dog’, for example, are Russian loans: ‘teacher’ in Unangam Tunuu is uchiitilax̂, taken from the Russian word for the same, учител (in Roman letters, roughly ‘uchitel’), while the word for ‘dog’ is sabaakax̂, again taken from the Russian word сабака (roughly ‘sabaka’). Other terms that are consistently Russian in origin include the days of the week — Monday is pundiilnikax̂ (Russian понедельник, roughly ‘ponedelnik’), Tuesday is uvtuurnikax̂ (Russian вторник, roughly ‘vtornik’) and so on — and festivals such as Christmas, which is Rudistvax̂ (Russian рождество, roughly ‘rozhdestvo’). However, the Russian influence on the more structural aspects of Unangam Tunuu, such as its grammar and word formation processes, have remained relatively minimal in contrast.
The American dream
In 1867, the Aleutian islands, together with all of what was then Russian America, was sold to the United States under the Alaska Purchase, and became the Alaska Territory. The United States, however, was arguably even less tolerant of the Unangam Tunuu language compared to the Russians. Many Unangam Tunuu speakers were aggressively encouraged to speak English instead of Unangam Tunuu, especially by Christian Protestant missionaries, as well as through the promulgation of English-only education and the establishment of English-only schools. Then, in World War II, the Japanese invasion of Attu island led to the forced American relocation of almost a thousand Aleutian island inhabitants to the lower 48 American states on the American mainland. This likely sounded the death knell for the Unangam Tunuu language, as the Attuan dialect likely became extinct when a significant number of the Unangam Tunuu-speaking inhabitants relocated to the mainland, never to return to the islands at war’s end in 1945. Of those who did, many had already shifted to using only English.
Today, Unangam Tunuu faces imminent extinction.
Linguists such as Berge have already observed, for example, the loss of many of the more complex types of language use previously extant in the language, such as narrative styles and metaphors, both of which have been largely eroded away in favor of their English equivalents.
Meanwhile, the language has gradually declined in daily life and is now often only heard at church or in s with an elderly relative who knows the language. Few, if any children are able to speak the language fluently.
An uncertain future
Recent efforts to revitalize Unangam Tunuu have met with some success. The Alaska Native Language Center (ANLC), in addition to Knut Bergsland’s seminal dictionary and grammar of the language, has also published conversational grammars accompanied by audio recordings that can be used to learn the Atkan and Pribilof dialects of Unangam Tunuu. Meanwhile, Anna Berge and her team at the University of Alaska Fairbanks have developed a free-of-charge online audio course that can be accessed here. A number of other linguists who participated in the 2016 Institute for Collaborative Language Research, including the author, have also begun developing materials for the language that are collected here. Nonetheless, as community leader Moses Dirks has observed, it continues to be difficult to engage younger speakers in learning the language and to help them understand why speaking Unangam Tunuu is important — the most crucial component of successful language revitalization.
Like many other languages around the world today, the future of Unangam Tunuu remains uncertain, as larger languages like English continue to dominate nearly all aspects of contemporary society and interaction. Unfortunately, despite the best efforts of many community leaders and researchers, it remains to be seen if the language of the Aleutian Islands will survive another 6,000 years.
Berge, A. (2010). Origins of linguistic diversity in the Aleutian Islands. Human Biology, 82(5–6), 557–581.