Many Tongues Ancient Tales
Michael E. Krauss
Table of Contents
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.
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.
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.