Eskimo Aleut Language Family

The Eskimo-Aleut family consists of a continuum of languages/dialects spoken by close to 150,000 people who live in Alaska, Canada, Greenland, and in an area stretching along the Aleutian Islands into Siberia. It is one of the most geographically spread language families in the world. The name Inuit means ‘men.’ Eskimo is a derogatory word in Algonquian which means ‘eater of raw flesh’.

It is hypothesized that the nomadic Inuit people originated in northeastern Siberia. Some time around 2,000 BC they began to migrate eastward across the Bering Straits to Alaska and then across northern Canada to Greeenland. This migration may have taken as long as 1,000 years.

According to Ethnologue, there are 11 members of the Eskimo-Aleut language family, of which one is already extinct. They can be classified into three branches: Aleut, Eskimo (Inuit), and Yup’ik. The languages are listed in the table below. Most of them go by a number of different names (see Ethnologue). Greenland and Denmark have the largest number of speakers (about 54,000), followed by Canada (about 35,000). The languages are all but extinct in Russia with only a thousand or so speakers remaining.

Aleut (Unangax)
Aleut 300 Aleutian Chain, Pribilofs, Alaskan Peninsula. Also spoken in Russia.
Eskimo (Inuit)
Inupiatun, Northern Alaskan Norton Sound and Point Hope, Alaska. Also spoken in Canada
Inupiatun, Northwest Alaskan 4,000 Alaska, Kobuk River, Noatak River, Seward Peninsula, and Bering Strait.
Inuktitut, Eastern Canadian 14,000 West of Hudson Bay and east through Baffin Island, Quebec, and Labrador.
Inuktitut, Western Canadian 4,000 Central Canadian Arctic, and west to the Mackenzie Delta and coastal area
Inuktitut, Greenlandic
(Greenlandic, Kalaallisut)
54,800 Greenland, Denmark
Yup’ik, Pacific Gulf 400 Alaska Peninsula, Kodiak Island
Yup’ik, Central 10,000 Nunivak Island, Alaska coast from Bristol Bay to Unalakleet on Norton Sound and inland along Nushagak, Kuskokwim, and Yukon rivers.
Yupik, Central Siberian 1,050 St. Lawrence Island, Alaska; Gambell and Savonga villages, Alaska. Also spoken in Russia.
Yupik, Naukan 75 Chukotka Peninsula, Russia
Yupik, Sirenik extinct Chukotka Peninsula, Russia




Eskimo-Aleut languages are under extreme pressure. Speakers of most varieties are older adults. The languages are all but extinct in Russia, and extremely endangered in the U.S. Greenland and Denmark have the largest number of speakers, followed by Canada.

  • Greenland
    Inuktitut is recognized as an official language in Greenland (along with English). It is taught in schools, and as a result, literacy rates there are quite high. Inuktitut is also used in electronic and print media.
  • Canada
    In Canada, Inuktitut is recognized as the official language of the Nunavut Territory (along with English and French) and in the Northwest Territories (along with English, French, and several other indigenous languages). It also has legal recognition in Nunavik – a part of Quebec – where it is recognized in the Charter of the French Language as the official language of instruction for Inuit schools. It also has some recognition in Nunatsiavut – the Inuit area of Labrador. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation has Inuktitut broadcasts. Inuktitut is also used in the print media. The Inuit Circumpolar Conference has a commission dedicated to the preservation of Inuit and the development of a common writing system for the language.
  • U.S.
    Central Alaskan Yup’ik is the largest of the state’s Native languages with about 10,000 speakers out of a total population of about 21,000 people. Children still grow up speaking Yup’ik as their first language in some Yup’ik villages.
  • Russia
    In Russia, Yup’ik is a dying language with only about 1,000 speakers left. Most of them are older adults.



Eskimo-Aleut languages are spoken in wide-spread areas of the circumpolar region. Due to their geographical isolation from each other, they tend to exhibit dialectal variation based on geography as well as on political and social considerations. Despite their differences, the dialects of Eskimo-Aleut languages are quite similar in their grammatical structure. The differences among them mostly involve phonology and lexicon. Below are two examples of sub-dialecal variation in Alaska:

  • In Alaska, there are about 10,000 speakers of Yup’ik. The main dialect is General Central Yup’ik, and the other four dialects are Norton Sound, Hooper Bay-Chevak, Nunivak, and Egegik.
  • Alaskan Inupiat includes two major dialect groups: North Alaskan Inupiat and Seward Peninsula Inupiat, both of which are further subdivided into local varieties.
  • Inuktitut, Greenlandic is subdivided into West Greenlandic, East Greenlandic, “Polar Eskimo” (North Greenlandic, Thule Inuit).



Sound system

Eskimo-Aleut languages share a number of basic phonological features. Syllables start and end with a single consonant, with two-consonant clusters permitted only if both consonants are voiced, voiceless, or nasal.



Eskimo-Aleut languages have between three or four vowels that can be either short or long. For instance, Yupik, Central has four vowels /a, i, u, ǝ/. Vowel length makes a difference in word meaning. Long vowels are usually written as double letters.



Eskimo-Aleut languages have between 15 to 20 consonants, depending on the language. In most languages, all stop consonants are voiceless, which means that they have /p/, /t/, /k/ but not /b/, /d/, /g/. They also have /voiced and voiceless lateral, velar and uvular fricatives. The Nunavut dialects of Inuktitut have fifteen distinct consonants, including a voiceless uvular stop /q/ and a voiceless lateral fricative /ɬ/.



Stress in Eskimo-Aleut languages distinguishes the meaning of otherwise identical words. It is not marked in writing.



  • Eskimo-Aleut languages are polysynthetic, i.e., grammatical functions are represented by numerous suffixes attached to roots and stems. However, many of its grammatical suffixes combine in much the same way as in synthetic languages, e.g., a single suffix can simultaneously represent person, number, mood, and tense. An inflected Inuktitut verb can stand alone for a whole sentence. Eskimo-Aleut languages have many long words that are practically equivalent to whole sentences in less synthetic languages such as English. For example, the Inuktitut word tusaatsiarunnanngittualuujunga‘I can’t hear very well has the following composition: tusaa ‘hear’ + tsiaq ‘well’ + junnaq ‘able to’ + nngit ‘not’ + tualuu ‘very much’ + junga ‘lst person singular, present, indicative, non-specific’ (example from Wikipedia).
  • All Eskimo-Aleut languages are Ergative-Absolutive. This means subjects of intransitive verbs and objects of transitive verbs are marked with the absolutive case, while subjects of transitive verbs are marked with the ergative case. This contrasts with Indo-European languages which mark the subject of both transitive and intransitive verbs with the nominative case and the object of transitive verbs with the accusative case.



  • Nouns are marked for case and number.
  • Most languages have two numbers (singular and plural), but some have an additional dual number.
  • There is no gender marking.
  • There are 8-10 cases, including absolutive, ergative, equative, instrumental, locative, allative, ablative, and prolative.



Verbs have a highly developed system of grammatical marking.

  • Verbs can be specific or non-specific. Specific verbs have definite objects. They take suffixes that indicate the grammatical person of both the subject and the object, but not their grammatical number.
  • Verbs carry inflections for person and number of both subject and object..
  • Most languages have two numbers (singular and plural), but some have an additional dual number.
  • Inuktitut verbs start with a root morpheme and end with a suffix that indicates the grammatical person of its subject, e.g., pisuk ‘walk’ + tunga ‘1st person singular’ = pisuktunga ‘I am walking’.
  • There are up to 8 different moods, including indicative, imperative, interrogative, optative, and several forms of subjunctive.
  • Aspect is expressed lexically through derivation, rather than grammatically.
  • There are three tenses: present, past, and future. While Indo-European languages tend to make tense distinctions in terms of before or after some specific event, Inuktitut makes a number of somewhat fuzzy distinctions depending on how far into the past or the future the event took or will take place. In English, this distinction requires additional words to place the event in time, but in Inuktitut the tense marker itself carries much of that information, e.g., tikip– ‘arrive’ +niaq– ‘later today’ + –tuq ‘3rd person singular non-specific’ = tikimniaqtuq ‘he is arriving later’ (example from Wikipedia).


Word order

The normal word order in Eskimo-Aleut languages is Subject-Object-Verb.



  • Eskimo-Aleut languages tend not to borrow words from other languages but to build them from native elements. New words are easily formed from native and borrowed roots by the addition of various suffixes.
  • The vocabularies of different Eskimo-Aleut languages show different influences. For instance, Aleut and Yupik spoken in Siberia have borrowed words rom Russian (e.g., sabaakax ‘dog’ from Russian sobaka. Inuktitut spoken in Canada uses many English words, while Inuktitut in Greenland shows extensive lexical influence of Danish.

Below are some common phrases in two Eskimo-Aleut languages.


Good night (goodbye)
Angali Kingachxicax

Thank you.




Below are the numerals 1-10 in three Eskimo-Aleut languages.

Central Yupik



Until recently, members of the Eskimo-Aleut family were spoken languages with no writing systems.

  • Alaska
    At the beginning of the 19th century missionaries devised a writing system for Yupik by adapting the letters of the Roman alphabet to represent its sounds. Spelling was often inconsistent, and important sound contrasts were not properly identified. For example, the uvular /q/ was often not distinguished from the velar /k/, and long vowels were not distinguished from short ones. This alphabet was used to publish translations of the Bible and other religious texts in Yupik.
  • Siberia
    In Siberia, Russian scholars used the Cyrillic alphabet to develop an orthography for Yupik.
  • Greenland and Denmark
    A standardized Roman orthography is used.
  • Canada
    There is a dual orthography. Western Canadian Yup’ik uses the Roman alphabet, while a syllabic writing system, devised in the 1870’s by an Anglican missionary who adapted the Latin alphabet for writing is used to write Eastern Canadian Yup’ik. The issue over whether to have one or two writing systems has been a topic of debate for decades and is currently unresolved.

Take a look at Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Eastern Canadian Inuit and Greenlandic Inuktitut.

Eastern Canadian Inuit
eastern canadian inuit

Greenlandic Inuktitut
Immikkoortoq 1.
Inuit tamarmik inunngorput nammineersinnaassuseqarlutik assigiimmillu ataqqinassuseqarlutillu pisinnaatitaaffeqarlutik. Solaqassusermik tarnillu nalunngissusianik pilersugaapput, imminnullu iliorfigeqatigiittariaqaraluarput qatanngutigiittut peqatigiinnerup anersaavani.
Article 1
All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.



Language Difficulty

questionHow difficult is it to learn Eskimo-Aleut languages?
There is no data on the difficulty of Eskimo-Aleut languages for speakers of English.