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Many Tongues - Ancient Tales, Michael E. Krauss, September 1988, pp. 144-150 from Crossroads of Continents: Cultures of Siberia and Alaska, William W. Fitzhugh and Aron Crowell, Smithsonian Institution. Used with permission of the publisher, for educational purposes only.

Many Tongues — Ancient Tales

Michael E. Krauss


Table of Contents

Language Families

Asian-American Comparisons

Historical and Modern Development

Language Policy


The native languages shown on the map of the North Pacific area (fig. 175) fall into four main families or groupings, two on the American side of the Bering Strait and two on the Asiatic. From the earliest days of European discovery in this part of the world, linguists have considered possible genetic relationships between American language families and ones in Asia, whence they must have come. Though debate is as lively today as ever before, still no proof of genetic relationship of any native American language family to any Asiatic language family has yet been offered that satisfies even a majority of linguists who have carefully studied such subjects.

175. Languages of the Greater North Pacific Region, A.D. 1900


So the question remains not whether American languages came from Asia, which most linguists agree must be so, but rather whether any link between specific families has been convincingly demonstrated. At best, such genetic relationships are certainly not obvious, as they are for instance between English and German, or French and Spanish, and even between Germanic and Romance (both being branches of Indo-European). Rather, if they exist, they have been obscured by the passage of time, for establishing convincing links as one approaches 5,000 years of language separation becomes increasingly difficult, and as separations increase toward 10,000 years, it becomes generally impossible. Negative proof, that any two languages are not related, not descended from a common ancestor, is of course impossible. It is therefore possible that all the world's languages might ultimately be related. Thus, as yet, linguistic links between Asia and America remain unproven with the single obvious exception of Eskimo, of which closely related varieties are found on both sides of the Bering Strait.

Language Families

176. Na-Dene Language Group

The dominant Indian language family of northwestern America is called Na-Dene, coined by Edward Sapir (1915) from the Haida and Athapaskan words for "people." This family consists of Haida, Tlingit, Eyak, and Athapaskan, whose relationships are shown in figure 176. Athapaskan is itself a large family of closely related languages. Centering inland, Athapaskan has spread far beyond its original area of some 2,000 years ago, perhaps in the upper Yukon River region, throughout much of interior Alaska and northwestern Canada, and thence to southern Oregon and northern California, and separately in the Southwest, where it is spoken by Navajo and Apache. The Athapaskan family is a complex of languages and dialects, which consists of some 30 languages, 11 of which are found in Alaska. Today there are over 230,000 Athapaskans; 10,000 are Native Alaskan, 25,000 Canadian, 3,000 Californian and Oregonian, and 195,000 Navajo and Apache.

Coordinate to this vast Athapaskan family is the subbranch Eyak, a single language, which is now nearly extinct. Formerly spoken on the Gulf of Alaska coast from Yakutat Bay to Comptroller Bay, where it was being progressively assimilated to Tlingit, its last stronghold at Eyak Lake was discovered by Frederica de Laguna in 1930. Eyak proves to be an important link in showing genetic relationship between Athapaskan and Tlingit.

Of the many languages of the Northwest Coast, Tlingit occupies by far the longest stretch, virtually the whole of the Alaska Panhandle. A single language, Tlingit is easily intelligible throughout its wide distribution because of a relatively recent expansion from the south, judging from the greater dialectical differences within Southern Tlingit. The Tlingit population is approximately 10,000, some of which expanded into the interior of the Yukon Territory in early contact times. The genetic relationship of Tlingit to Athapaskan-Eyak is more distant and somewhat problematical in that although its grammatical structure is very similar to the Athapaskan-Eyak, much of its vocabulary seems to be unrelated and may come from some other unknown population.

Another major Northwest Coast power was the Haida, who inhabit the Queen Charlotte Islands and took over the southern half of Prince of Wales Island from the Tlingit in the early 18th century. After a catastrophic decline from 10,000 to 2,000 in the 19th century, the Southern Haida survivors gathered at Skidegate and the Northern survivors at Masset on the Queen Charlotte side and at Hydaburg in Alaska. Northern and Southern Haida are highly divergent dialects, only partly intelligible to one another. Sapir was the most influential of the linguists who have asserted that Haida in turn is genetically related to Athapaskan-Eyak-Tlingit, and he named the family Na-Dene to reflect this link. Franz Boas remained skeptical about this and about Athapaskan-Tlingit ties, and many modern specialists dispute it.


The Eskimo-Aleut family (fig. 177) is best known for its importance in arctic Canada and Greenland, but this represents the recent expansion over the last 1,000 years of but one branch of Eskimo, the Inuit, while the Yupik branch of the family and the Aleut language remain in their ancestral homelands about the Bering Sea.

177. Eskimo-Aleut Language Family

Though recognized on a sound basis as genetically related to Eskimo in 1818 by Rasmus Rask, the divergence between Aleut and Eskimo is far greater than any divergence within Eskimo, about what might be expected after 4,000 years or more, more than twice the time to which the divergence within Eskimo might be attributed. The sharp linguistic border between Aleut and Eskimo is no doubt due not to ancient separation but rather to the complete elimination of prehistoric intermediate languages by Eskimo and Aleut, which now meet on the Alaska Peninsula. Today Aleut is a single language with two main dialects, Western (Attuan and Atkan subdialects) and Eastern. The Aleut population was severely reduced during the 18th century. Also during the Russian period, colonies of Aleuts were established on the Pribilof and Commander islands and remain there to this day.

The Inuit branch of Eskimo (Inupiaq in Alaska, Inuktitut in Canada, Kalaallisut in Greenland) is a continuum of interconnecting dialects, as might be expected from their recent spread. Inuit is practically a national language in Greenland, with 45,000 speakers and an important literature since the 18th century. It is strong, too, in Canada, especially in the East, with 18,000 speakers among a population of 25,000. Inuit seems destined to remain the major native language of the New World Arctic. The dialect (Imaklikskii) spoken by the few Inuit remaining in 1948 on Big Diomede Island in the Soviet Union is now extinct.

The Yupik branch of Eskimo is a broken chain of five languages, which once must have connected from the Alaska mainland to the Chukchi Peninsula via the Seward Peninsula. Pacific Gulf Yupik (also known as Sugpiaq, Alutiiq, Suk, and popularly also known as Aleut because of Russian tradition) consists of two main dialects, Chugach and Koniag. This population was also severely reduced, from about 10,000 to 3,000, during the colonial period.

Central Alaskan Yupik is the largest ethnic group in Alaska and is the language now spoken by the largest number of native persons in both the American and Soviet sides of the North Pacific Rim. It is a single well-defined language with four dialects diverging from the main one: Egegik (Aglegmuit-Tarupiaq); Nunivak; Hooper Bay-Chevak, diverging in the direction of Pacific Gulf Yupik; and Unaliq in Norton Sound, diverging in the direction of Siberian Yupik or Naukanski in the Soviet Union.

The next link in the Yupik chain is Naukanski, spoken at Naukan on East Cape and since 1958 mainly in St. Lawrence Bay. This language is in several respects intermediate between Central Alaskan Yupik and Siberian Yupik. Siberian Yupik was spoken by the Eskimo along most of the east coast of the Chukchi Peninsula during the 19th century and perhaps also along its Arctic Ocean coast. Siberian Yupik was and still is not only the main Eskimo language of the Soviet Union, where it is known as Chaplinski, but is also virtually identical with the language of St. Lawrence Island, Alaska, where it is now spoken by an even larger number of people, including most children.

Sirenikski is now remembered by only two elderly persons at Sireniki. All but replaced by Chaplinski, Sirenikski is a relic of the Eskimo language earlier spoken more widely on the southern coast of the Chukchi Peninsula. Sirenikski shows evidence of having been so different from Chaplinski that it should perhaps be classed not only as a separate branch of Yupik but also as a coordinate subbranch of Eskimo, with Yupik, as shown in figure 177, or even as a third branch of Eskimo.

It is proposed that the Eskimo languages on the Siberian side represent relatively minor westward movement back to and into the Chukchi Peninsula from Alaska, and that Sirenikski represents the oldest wave of that movement, Siberian Yupik the second, and Naukanski the latest. The Yupik chain was then broken between Asia and America not by the Bering Strait but by progressive Inuit occupation of Seward Peninsula, while on the Asiatic side Chukchi expanded into much of the coastline during the late prehistoric period.


On the Soviet side, except for Eskimo and Commander Island Aleut, the easternmost language family or grouping may be called Chukotko-Kamchatkan, consisting of two groups: the Itelmen (Kamchadal) and Chukchi-Koryak. Itelmen was formerly spoken throughout most of Kamchatka in three forms, which may have been separate languages rather than dialects, by a population of perhaps 20,000. Kamchatka was Russianized early, however, and the population was decimated; only Western Itelmen remained long into this century, and that too is now approaching extinction.

178. Chukotko-Kamchatkan Language Group

The Chukchi-Koryak group, though traditionally considered to consist of two, or more recently four, languages, is perhaps no more diverse than Itelmen was and might yet be considered as a single complex or chain of dialects. The largest and most uniform by far is Chukchi, represented also by the largest population of any of the Soviet native groups on the North Pacific. On the coast between Chukchi and Koryak is Kerek, formerly considered a dialect of Chukchi or of Koryak and now recognized as a separate language, but now also nearing extinction. Within Koryak itself there is significant dialectal diversity; the southern three Koryak subgroups are now considered by some authorities to be a separate language, named Aliutor. The markedly decreasing diversity within Chukotko-Kamchatkan from Kamchatka towards Chukotka may well imply that this family spread in a northeastward direction. Some authorities even propose that Kamchadal is genetically related to Chukchi-Koryak (fig. 178).


Tungusic and Others

Southwest of the Chukotko-Kamchatkan language area is the Tungusic (fig. 179). The major language group of the mainland Okhotsk shore belongs to the northern branch of this Tungusic family. Two languages of this branch, Evenk and Even, have undergone vast expansion. Evenk (or Tungus) is found even past the Yenisey, 2,000 miles to the west, while Even (or Lamut) not only dominates the upper Kolyma region but has also spread to the Arctic Ocean, the Lena River, and Kamchatka. However, the density of Northern Tungusic speakers in the Soviet Union is low, 28,000 Evenk and 12,000 Even, and is mixed with Yakut and others and increasingly with Russian. Negidal is a third variety of Northern Tungusic spoken by a small group on the Lower Amur. Still other varieties of Northern Tungusic are spoken on the Chinese side of the Amur, Orochen and Solon, both probably most similar to Evenk.

179. Tungusic Language Family

The Southern Tungusic languages are a far more compact and diversified branch, subdivided into the Southeastern and Southwestern subbranches. Southwestern Tungusic is Manchu, now said to be approaching extinction but once the language of the ruling class of China and an empire. Southeastern Tungusic, the dominant language group of the Amur region, is in turn divided into two subgroups, the Nanai-Ulcha-Orok and the Udege-Oroch; the Nanai (or Goldi) are numerically by far the largest group. Here again, the much greater diversity of Tungusic in the south probably implies northward spread.

Another language that has undergone a vast and spectacular spread into Northeastern Siberia, still more recently, during the last few centuries, is Yakut, belonging to the expansive Turkic family, whose origin must lie far to the southwest. Yakuts are by far the most numerous of all Native Siberians, numbering more than 300,000 and occupying much of Siberia to the arctic coast, now even to the Okhotsk shore.

It was, however, the Yukaghir that were formerly spread over the largest part of Northeastern Siberia. As in the case of the Northern Tungusic, Yukaghir population density was very low. They once occupied most of the northern Yakut and Even territory but are now reduced to one of the smallest of Soviet nationalities, in two widely separated and divergent dialect enclaves, the Tundra and Upper Kolyma. The Yukaghir language is not proven to be genetically related to any other.

Another such isolated language is the Nivkhi (or Gilyak) of the Lower Amur and northern Sakhalin, not yet shown to be genetically related to any other. Ainu, formerly spoken on the Kurile Islands and southern Sakhalin, where it is entirely extinct, and on Hokkaido in northern Japan, where it is nearly extinct, is also not yet proven to be genetically related to any other.

Yukaghir and Nivkhi, and sometimes Ainu, have been classed together with Chukotko-Kamchatkan in a grouping called Paleosiberian or Paleoasiatic. This grouping does not imply any claims of genetic relationship but rather emphasizes that these languages are relics of families much more ancient to the Soviet Far East than the Tungusic and Turkic, which expanded more recently into it from the south and west.

Asian-American Comparisons

The general direction of these movements accords with the obvious eastward trend across the Bering Strait area. Of the movements of languages into America, a most recent theory (Greenberg 1987) is that all but Na-Dene and Eskimo-Aleut belong to a single family called Amerind that came to America 12,000 to 15,000 years ago. Though this theory of the genetic unity of Amerind has not won widespread acceptance, the notion that Na-Dene, as previously noted by Sapir (1916:455), belonged to a different and later wave, and Eskimo to a still later wave, is more widely accepted. Even these much later movements, of approximately 6000-7000 and 4000-5000 years ago according to Greenberg, are old enough that most linguists do not believe Asiatic links for them are proven. Nevertheless Eskimo-Aleut and Na-Dene remain of course the best candidates for such linking.

The most promising candidate for intercontinental linkage would be Eskimo-Aleut, the newest and westernmost American family, with Chukotko-Kamchatkan an old and easternmost Asiatic one. This possibility was examined in the 1770s by P. Pallas (Coxe 1780:303), who noted that Aleut was remarkably unlike Koryak and Itelmen (and Ainu). Although some typological similarity in sound and grammatical structure exists, studies by linguists over two centuries attempting to link these two families (Swadesh 1962) remain disappointing. At best, they are no more convincing than attempts to link Eskimo-Aleut with other language families of Eurasia. As probably the latest in the long chain of such attempts, one may mention the ideas of one group of Soviet comparativists including S.A. Starostin and others who believe that Eskimo belongs to the so-called Nostratic macrofamily together with Indo-European, Uralo-Altaic, Semito-Khamitic, Dravidian, and others, while Na-Dene belongs to a quite different macrofamily together with Sino-Tibetan, Ket, North Caucasian, Burushaski, and others, called Sino-Dagestanic.

Historical and Modern Development

We shall now consider the historical period, contact of these languages with Russian and English, and their present situation. By 1648 Russian speakers had reached East Cape, and a century later the Aleutians. In 1778 these people heard English for the first time, from members of Capt. James Cook's expedition. Now, in 1988, the vast majority of each of these native populations speaks Russian on the Soviet side and English on the American (and in most cases, on both sides, their children now speak only Russian or English).

However, there are some significant historical twists to this. During the period 1741 to 1867, when Alaska was Russian, Russian was the first contact language for many of the Alaskan groups. The degree and type of this Russian impact can be measured by the number of Russian loan words, usually names for new materials and concepts, in each. These figures can be calculated from our documentation of these languages and because the diffusion from Russian mostly ceased after 1867. Aleut has the most, with about 600; Pacific Gulf Yupik has about 500, Tanaina Athapaskan about 400, Central Alaskan Yupik about 200; Koyukon, Upper Kuskokwim, and Ahtna Athapaskan each have about 80; Ingalik 60, and Innoko 50. One sees the influence fading in the three dialects of the Tanana language as one ascends the Tanana River, from 45 to 35 to 25 such loans, with finally 5 in Tanacross. Upper Tanana, Han, and Kutchin have no loans from Russian, the first contact language in that area being "Slavey" jargon (with French) and English. Eyak has about 30 (mainly via Chugach Yupik). Interestingly, Tlingit has only 9, in spite of the fact that the very capital of Russian Alaska was in their territory, an indication of the cultural resistance of the Tlingit people to Russian domination. In the Bering Strait area, Russian presence was relatively weak. In Inupiaq there are about 15 Russian loan words, and on St. Lawrence Island even fewer, only 10.

In fact, in the Beringian area from about 1850, and on the Asiatic as well as American side of the strait into the 1920s, the dominant contact language was English, first from the Franklin search expeditions and later from American whalers and traders. Thus, ironically, the Alaskan Yupik words for butter, soap, cat, and cow are from Russian: maslaq, miilaq, kuskaq, kuluvak; but in Siberian Yupik they are from English: bara, suupa, kiti, and kaakw. Some of the English loans can also be found in Chukchi and perhaps also in Koryak. This exchange of loan words continues cultural, genetic, and historical exchanges that have characterized the North Pacific region for millennia and is paralleled most especially in the history of ethnological collecting on which this exhibition rests.

Language Policy

During the 1830s and 1840s in Alaska the Russian Orthodox priest Ioann Veniaminov began a remarkable mission school system that included written use of four Alaskan languages: Aleut, Pacific Gulf Yupik, Central Alaskan Yupik, and Tlingit, adapting the Cyrillic alphabet rather well (in the case of the first three) to the sounds of these languages. The first book, an Aleut catechism, was printed in 1834. Vernacular literacy soon became a part of Aleut culture, and to a lesser extent also in Pacific Gulf and Central Alaskan Yupik. Toward the end of the 19th century, American missionary work included some written use of several Alaskan languages, while on the Russian side there was relatively little such activity. During most of the 19th and 20th century, however, American (and Canadian) educational systems excluded and even suppressed the use of these native languages. On the Asian side, in contrast, after the Russian Revolution, Soviet schools began instruction in many of the languages of the northern minority peoples in the early grades, using books in these languages first during the early 1930s printed in the Roman-based "Alphabet of the Peoples of the North" but converted to Cyrillic alphabet in 1936-7. Thus for these schools books were printed in Soviet Eskimo (Chaplinski), Chukchi, Koryak, Itelmen, Nivhki, Even, Evenk, Nanai, and Udege (though not in Oroch, Ulcha, Orok, Negidal, or Yukaghir, because their numbers were so small; not in Kerek, Aliutor, Sirenikski, or Naukanski, because these were not officially recognized as separate languages). A primer was drafted in Commander Island Aleut but was not printed, and for Itelmen and Udege the vernacular programs were short-lived or not implemented. For the others, however, Soviet educational use and cultivation continued into the 1950s. But in the 1960s a policy began to dominate that resembled the American, with vernacular education and publication declining sharply. In the 1970s American educational policy began to favor the use of the native languages of the area, followed soon also by the Soviet. However, on each side, under the cultural pressure of English and Russian, children were no longer learning their ancestral languages from their parents. On the American side most of these languages are spoken now by few or none under the age of 40, with the exception of St. Lawrence Island, where most children still learn the language, as also in a large part of the Central Alaskan Yupik region, and Aleut at Atka. The languages on the Soviet side, with the definite exception of Yakut and possible exception of some Chukchi, are now spoken by few or none under the age of 20. It thus becomes a race against time to document these languages as fully as possible before they are lost, and their revival or survival as living languages in both Asia and America is a question for the coming century.

Eskimo Hunter With Harpoon and Gun, Cape Prince of Wales, Alaska.