There are two main groups referred to as Eskimo: Yupik and Inuit. A third group, the Aleut, is related. The Yupik language dialects and cultures in Alaska and eastern Siberia have evolved in place beginning with the original ( pre-Dorset) Eskimo culture that developed in Alaska. Approximately 4000 years ago the Unangam (also known as Aleut) culture became distinctly separate, and evolved into a non-Eskimo culture. Approximately 1500-2000 years ago, apparently in Northwestern Alaska, two other distinct variations appeared. The Inuit language branch became distinct and in only several hundred years spread across northern Alaska, Canada and into Greenland. At about the same time, the Thule Technology also developed in northwestern Alaska and very quickly spread over the entire area occupied by Eskimo people, though it was not necessarily adopted by all of them.
The earliest known Eskimo cultures were Pre-Dorset Technology, which appear to have been a fully developed Eskimo culture that dates at 5000 years ago. They appear to have evolved in Alaska from people using the Archaic Small Tools Technology, who probably had migrated to Alaska from Siberia at least 2 to 3 thousand years earlier; though they might have been in Alaska as far back as 10 to 12 thousand years or more. There are similar artifacts found in Siberia going back to perhaps 18,000 years ago. It is believed that the Mongols of China, Eskimos, and probably the Korean people too all share a common ancestor in northern Asia.
Today the two main groups of Eskimos are the Inuit of northern Alaska, Canada and Greenland, and the Yupik, comprising speakers of four distinct Yupik languages and originating in western Alaska, in South Central Alaska along the Gulf of Alaska coast, and in the Russian Far East.
The Eskimo-Aleut family of languages includes two cognate branches. The Aleut (Unangam) branch and the Eskimo branch. The Eskimo sub-family consists of the Inuit language and Yupik language sub-groups. The Sirenikski language is sometimes regarded as a third branch of the Eskimo language family, but other sources regard it as a group belonging to the Yupik branch. Sirenikski is virtually extinct.
Inuit languages comprise a dialect continuum, or dialect chain, that stretches from Unalakleet and Norton Sound in Alaska, across northern Alaska and Canada, and east all the way to Greenland. Speakers of two adjacent Inuit dialects can easily understand one another, but speakers of dialects at the extreme distant ends of the range have significant difficulty. Seward Peninsula dialects in Western Alaska, where much of the Inupiat culture has only been in place for perhaps less than 500 years, are greatly affected by phonological influence from the Yupik languages. Eastern Greenlandic, at the opposite end of the Inuit range has had significant word replacement due to a unique form of ritual name avoidance.
The four Yupik languages have existed in place, which probably includes the locations where Eskimo culture and language began, for much longer than the Inuit language. Alutiiq (Sugpiaq), Central Alaskan Yup'ik, Naukan (Naukanski), and Siberian Yupik, are distinct languages with limited mutual intelligibility. Even the dialectic differences within Alutiiq and Central Alaskan Yup'ik sometimes are relatively great for locations that are relatively close geographically.
While grammatical structures of Yupik and Inuit languages are similar, they have pronounced differences phonologically and differences of vocabulary between Inuit and any of one of the Yupik languages is greater than between any two Yupik languages.
In Canada and Greenland the term Eskimo is widely held to be pejorative and has fallen out of favour, largely supplanted by the term Inuit. However, while Inuit describes all of the Eskimo peoples in Canada and Greenland, that is not true in Alaska and Siberia. In Alaska the term Eskimo is commonly used, because it includes both Yupik and Inupiat, while Inuit is not accepted as a collective term or even specifically used for Inupiat (which technically is Inuit). No universal replacement term for Eskimo, inclusive of all Inuit and Yupik people, is accepted across the geographical area inhabited by the Inuit and Yupik peoples.
The primary reason that Eskimo is considered derogatory is the false perception that it means "eaters of raw meat". There are two different etymologies in scientific literature for the term Eskimo. The most well-known comes from Ives Goddard at the Smithsonian Institution , who says it means "Snowshoe netters". Quebec linguist Jose Mailhot, who speaks Innu-Montagnais (which Mailhot and Goddard agree is the language from which the word originated), published a definitive study in 1978 stating that it means "people who speak a different language".
Nevertheless, while the word is not inherently pejorative, since the 1970s in Canada and Greenland Eskimo has widely been considered offensive, owing to folklore and derogatory usage. In government usage the term has been replaced with Inuit. The preferred term in Canada's Central Arctic is Inuinnaq, and in the eastern Canadian Arctic Inuit. The language is often called Inuktitut, though other local designations are also used.
The Inuit of Greenland refer to themselves as Greenlanders or, in their own language, Kalaallit, and to their language as Greenlandic or Kalaallisut.
Because of the linguistic, ethnic, and cultural differences between Yupik and Inuit peoples there is uncertainty as to the acceptance of any term encompassing all Yupik and Inuit people. There has been some movement to use Inuit, and the Inuit Circumpolar Council, representing a circumpolar population of 150,000 Inuit and Yupik people of Greenland, Canada, Alaska, and Siberia, in its charter defines Inuit for use within the ICC as including "the Inupiat, Yupik (Alaska), Inuit, Inuvialuit (Canada), Kalaallit (Greenland) and Yupik (Russia)." However, even the Inuit people in Alaska refer themselves as Inupiat (the language is Inupiaq) and do not typically use the term Inuit. Thus, in Alaska, Eskimo is in common usage, and is the preferred term when speaking collectively of all Inupiat and Yupik people, or of all Inuit and Yupik people of the world.
Alaskans also use the term Alaska Native, which is inclusive of all Eskimo, Aleut and Indian people of Alaska, and is of course exclusive of Inuit or Yupik people originating outside the state. The term Alaska Native has important legal usage in Alaska and the rest of the United States as a result of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971.
The term "Eskimo" is also used world wide in linguistic or ethnographic works to denote the larger branch of Eskimo-Aleut languages, the smaller branch being Aleut.
Myths and misconceptions about the Eskimo
- "They live in Igloos." Actually only some tribes used igloos, and then only as temporary shelters. They no longer do so.
- "They have thousands of words for snow." See Eskimo words for snow.
The Inuit inhabit the Arctic and northern Bering Sea coasts of Alaska and Arctic coasts of the Northwest Territories, Nunavut, Quebec, Labrador, and Greenland. Until fairly recent times, there has been a remarkable homogeneity in the culture throughout this area, which traditionally relied on fish, sea mammals, and land animals for food, heat, light, clothing, tools, and shelter.
The Inupiat people are the Inuit people of Alaska's Northwest Arctic and North Slope boroughs and the Bering Straits region, including the Seward Peninsula. Barrow, the northernmost city in the United States, is in the Inupiaq region. Their language is known as Inupiaq.
Canadian Inuit live primarily in Nunavut (a territory of Canada), Nunavik (the northern part of Quebec) and in Nunatsiavut (the Inuit settlement region in Labrador).
The Inuvialuit live in the western Canadian Arctic region. Their homeland - the Inuvialuit Settlement Region - covers the Arctic Ocean coastline area from the Alaskan border east to Amundsen Gulf and includes the western Canadian Arctic Islands. The land was demarked in 1984 by the Inuvialuit Final Agreement.
The Kalaallit live in Greenland, which is called Kalaallit Nunaat in Kalaallisut.
The Yupik are indigenous or aboriginal peoples who live along the coast of western Alaska, especially on the Yukon- Kuskokwim delta and along the Kuskokwim River ( Central Alaskan Yup'ik), in southern Alaska (the Alutiiq) and along the eastern coast of Chukotka in the Russian Far East and St. Lawrence Island in western Alaska (the Siberian Yupik). The Yupik economy has traditionally been strongly dominated by the harvest of marine mammals, especially seals, walrus, and whales.
The Alutiiq also called Pacific Yupik or Sugpiaq, are a southern, coastal branch of Yupik. They are not to be confused with the Aleuts, who live further to the southwest, including along the Aleutian Islands. They traditionally lived a coastal lifestyle, subsisting primarily on ocean resources such as salmon, halibut, and whale, as well as rich land resources such as berries and land mammals. Alutiiq people today live in coastal fishing communities, where they work in all aspects of the modern economy, while also maintaining the cultural value of subsistence. The Alutiiq language is relatively close to that spoken by the Yupik in the Bethel, Alaska area, but is considered a distinct language with two major dialects: the Koniag dialect, spoken on the Alaska Peninsula and on Kodiak Island, and the Chugach dialect, is spoken on the southern Kenai Peninsula and in Prince William Sound. Residents of Nanwalek, located on southern part of the Kenai Peninsula near Seldovia, speak what they call Sugpiaq and are able to understand those who speak Yupik in Bethel. With a population of approximately 3,000, and the number of speakers in the mere hundreds, Alutiiq communities are currently in the process of revitalizing their language.
Central Alaskan Yup'ik
Yup'ik, with an apostrophe, denotes the speakers of the Central Alaskan Yup'ik language, who live in western Alaska and southwestern Alaska from southern Norton Sound to the north side of Bristol Bay, on the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, and on Nelson Island. The use of the apostrophe in the name Yup'ik denotes a longer pronunciation of the p sound than found in Siberian Yupik. Of all the Alaska Native languages, Central Alaskan Yup'ik has the most speakers, with about 10,000 of a total Yup'ik population of 21,000 still speaking the language. There are five dialects of Central Alaskan Yup'ik, including General Central Yup'ik and the Egegik, Norton Sound, Hooper Bay-Chevak, Nunivak, dialects. In the latter two dialects, both the language and the people are called Cup'ik.
Siberian Yupik reside along the Bering Sea coast of the Chukchi Peninsula in Siberia in the Russian Far East and in the villages of Gambell and Savoonga on St. Lawrence Island in Alaska. The Central Siberian Yupik spoken on the Chukchi Peninsula and on St. Lawrence Island is nearly identical. About 1,050 of a total Alaska population of 1,100 Siberian Yupik people in Alaska still speak the language, and it is still the first language of the home for most St. Lawrence Island children. In Siberia, about 300 of a total of 900 Siberian Yupik people still learn the language, though it is no longer learned as a first language by children.
About 70 of 400 Naukan people still speak the Naukanski. The Naukan originate on the Chukot Peninsula in Chukotka Autonomous Okrug in Siberia.
Some speakers of Siberian Yupik languages used to speak a very peculiar Eskimo language in the past, before they underwent a language shift. These former speakers of Sireniki Eskimo language inhabited settlements Sireniki, Imtuk, and some small villages stretching to the west from Sireniki along south-eastern coasts of Chukchi Peninsula, they lived in neighbourhood with Siberian Yupik and Chukchi peoples. As early as in 1895, Imtuk was already a settlement with mixed population, Sireniki Eskimos and Ungazigmit (the latter belonging to Siberian Yupik). Sireniki Eskimo culture has been influenced by that of Chukchi (witnessed also by folktale motifs), also the language shows Chukchi language influences.
The above mentioned peculiarities of this (already extinct) Eskimo language amounted to mutual unintelligibility even with its nearest language relatives: in the past, Sireniki Eskimos even had to use the unrelated Chukchi language as a lingua franca for communicating with Siberian Yupik.
Many words are formed from entirely different roots than in Siberian Yupik, but even the grammar has several peculiarities not only among Eskimo languages, but even inside the entire language family, thus, even compared to Aleut. For example, it is the only Eskimo-Aleut language that lacks dual number, even its neighboring Siberian Yupik relatives have dual.
Little is known about the origin of this diversity. According to a supposition, the peculiarities of this language may be the result of a supposed long isolation from other Eskimo groups, being in contact only with speakers of unrelated languages for many centuries. Influence by Chukchi language is clear.
Because of all these, the mere classification of Sireniki Eskimo language is not settled yet: Sireniki language is sometimes regarded as a third branch of Eskimo (at least, its possibility is mentioned), but sometimes it is regarded rather as a group belonging to the Yupik branch.
Inuit languages comprise a dialect continuum, or dialect chain, that stretches from Unalaska and Norton Sound in Alaska, across northern Alaska and Canada, and east all the way to Greenland. Changes from western (Inupiaq) to eastern dialects are marked by the dropping of vestigial Yupik-related features, increasing consonant assimilation (e.g., kumlu, meaning "thumb," changes to kuvlu, changes to kublu, changes to kulluk, changes to kulluq), and increased consonant lengthening, and lexical change. Thus, speakers of two adjacent Inuit dialects would usually be able to understand one another, but speakers from dialects distant from each other on the dialect continuum would have difficulty understanding one another.
The four Yupik languages, including Alutiiq (Sugpiaq), Central Alaskan Yup'ik, Naukan (Naukanski), and Siberian Yupik are distinct languages with phonological, morphological, and lexical differences, and demonstrating limited mutual intelligibility. Additionally, both Alutiiq Central Yup'ik have considerable dialect diversity. The northernmost Yupik languages — Siberian Yupik and Naukanski Yupik — are linguistically only slightly closer to Inuit than is Alutiiq, which is the southernmost of the Yupik languages. Although the grammatical structures of Yupik and Inuit languages are similar, they have pronounced differences phonologically, and differences of vocabulary between Inuit and any of one of the Yupik languages is greater than between any two Yupik languages.
The Sirenikski language is sometimes regarded as a third branch of the Eskimo language family, but other sources regard it as a group belonging to the Yupik branch.
An overview of the Eskimo-Aleut languages family is given below:
- Aleut language
- Western-Central dialects: Atkan, Attuan, Unangan, Bering (60-80 speakers)
- Eastern dialect: Unalaskan, Pribilof (400 speakers)
- Aleut language
- Eskimo (Yup'ik, Yuit, and Inuit)
- Central Alaskan Yup'ik (10,000 speakers)
- Alutiiq or Pacific Gulf Yup'ik (400 speakers)
- Central Siberian Yupik or Yuit (Chaplinon and St Lawrence Island, 1400 speakers)
- Naukan (70 speakers)
- Inuit or Inupik (75,000 speakers)
- Iñupiaq (northern Alaska, 3,500 speakers)
- Inuvialuktun or Inuktun (western Canada; 765 speakers)
- Inuktitut (eastern Canada; together with Inuktun and Inuinnaqtun, 30,000 speakers)
- Kalaallisut (Greenland, 47,000 speakers)
- Sireniki Eskimo language (Sirenikskiy) (extinct)