family of Native American languages consisting of Aleut (spoken on the Aleutian Islands and the Kodiak Peninsula) and Eskimo or Inuktitut (spoken in Alaska, Canada, Greenland, and Siberia). Aleut is the language of a few thousand people, and Eskimo is native to over 100,000 people. There are a few varieties of the Eskimo language. Eskimo and Aleut have enough similarities to justify the theory that they are descendants of a single ancestor language. A striking and important feature of both tongues is polysynthesism (see Native American languages
). In a polysynthetic language, a one-word unit composed of a number of word elements can convey the meaning of an entire sentence of an Indo-European language. Eskimo and Aleut make great use of suffixes, but almost never of prefixes. Internal vowel changes are rare. Both languages are highly inflected. The difference between transitive and intransitive verbs is clearly shown. Three numbers are found—singular, dual, and plural. Phonetically, there are three main vowels in Eskimo, and from 13 to 20 consonants, the number varying according to the dialect. In earlier times the Eskimos had only pictographic writing. Since the 18th cent., however, the Eskimos of Greenland, Canada, and Alaska have used an adaptation of the Roman alphabet, introduced by missionaries. The Eskimos of modern Siberia and the Aleut-speaking groups employ the Cyrillic alphabet.
See K. Bergslund, A Grammatical Outline of the Eskimo Language of West Greenland (1955) and Aleut Dialects of Atha and Attu (1959); L. L. Hammerich, The Eskimo Language (1970); M. E. Krauss, Alaskan Native Languages (1980).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
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