Saving Aleut: Linguist begins effort to preserve native Alaskan language

June 24, 2003

It's getting harder and harder for the few remaining residents of the Aleutian and Pribilof islands who speak Aleut to hold a conversation in the native Alaskan language.

The number of Alaskans who speak Aleut has fallen to around 100 from 620 just two decades ago. That's a far cry from the estimated 20,000 people who once spoke Aleut in the Aleutians and Pribilofs, which jut out hundreds of miles into the North Pacific Ocean off the Alaska Peninsula.

Aleut is one of 3,000 to 3,500 languages in danger of vanishing before the end of the 21st century. However, a University of Washington linguist and the Aleuts will begin a two-year effort to preserve the language later this year by recording everyday conversations on audio and videotapes, then transcribing and translating the conversations. Aleut, or Unangam Tunuu, is part of the Eskimo-Aleut family of languages.

Alice Taff, a research associate in the UW's linguistics department and a former schoolteacher in the Pribilof Islands, will return to Alaska next month to begin work on the project, which is being funded with a $151,000 grant from the Endangered Languages Documentation Programme at the University of London. She will be working with tribal communities in five villages - Unalaska, Nikolski and Atka in the Aleutians and St. George and St. Paul in the Pribilofs.

"Most fluent Aleut speakers today are 55 and older, although there are some who are 30-plus," said Taff. "There is usually a generation of people we call 'understanders' who comprehend the language but do not speak it. Understanders are an international phenomenon and perhaps 320 people fit this category among the Aleuts."

Aleut began declining after the United States purchased Alaska from Russia in 1867. Government policy and the schools, which for many years didn't teach Aleut and only used English, were major contributors to this decline. Other factors were economic pressures and what the people themselves considered to be unfashionable.

"For a while speaking Aleut wasn't cool," said Taff, who emphasized that the effort to save the language comes from the Aleuts themselves. She and a number of tribal members are part of the Aleutian/Pribilof Islands Association Task Force for Language Revitalization.

She said endangered languages typically "go underground" and are held or maintained by elders. As a community shifts to a new language, features of the ancestral language may appear in the new language. In this case of Aleut features crop up in the local English. When a language is not being passed on to the children it becomes endangered.

Aleut is both a written and oral language. A Russian priest compiled the first Aleut dictionary when Russia occupied the islands. An alphabet based on English letters was developed for Aleut in the 1970s and has been used in teaching Aleut as a second language. Taff will relocate from Seattle to Juneau in early August and will begin fieldwork recording the language later in the year. During the following two years she will record in each of the five villages twice each year, once in the summer and once in the winter.

"We want to record seasonally because different activities occur in the summer and winter," said Taff. "We are interested in recording things that are important in the language. For example, there are many words for the sea and water activities because the Aleuts are a marine people.

"We want to record indoors and outdoors so that the material will be rich. It will include people engaging in hunting and fishing, preparing dinner, eating meals, working in canneries in Unalaska and playing cards, whatever the community deems appropriate."

Taff will first hold meetings in each community to explain the project and get direction from each village on how she should go about recording the most natural language, and which settings are the most valuable and which are inappropriate to record. She plans to hire a language assistant in each village to help record conversations and to transcribe and translate them.

The end product will be 100 hours of conversation, along with the transcription and translation in Aleut, that will be transferred to compact disks or DVDs.

Taff believes that there are many compelling reasons to preserve endangered languages such as Aleut.

"The most important to me is that it is a civil rights issue. The people want to save their language and that is their right. In many instances languages have been wrested from people by colonial domination. This is the case with Aleut."

In addition, she said there are academic reasons (documenting the gamut of human languages), community identity issues (people identify themselves by the language they speak) and economic benefits (just as there were economic reasons for language suppression, the economy would benefit from having more multi-lingual people because they will be more productive).

"All languages are equally valuable and they allow us to see the range of human expression," said Taff. "Language strengthens the bonds between generations. It is really difficult on a community when grandchildren can't speak fluently with their grandparents."
For more information, contact Taff at or 206-543-2046.

University of Washington

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