There are twenty Alaska native languages. Eskimo-Aleut is one language family, with Aleutian Aleut as one branch, and Eskimo as the other. There are four Eskimo languages in Alaska, three of them Yupik (Alutiiq [Sugpiaq], Central Yupik, and Siberian Yupik), and the other Inupiaq. Athabaskan-Eyak-Tlingit is another language family, with the nearly extinct Eyak as one branch and all the Athabaskan languages as another. Tlingit is in some ways distantly related to both. There are eleven Athabaskan languages in Alaska, differing from each other to varying degrees. Haida is a completely different language, spoken also in Canada. Tsimshian is also a completely different language, spoken mostly in Canada. The inset map of North America shows the great spread of Inupiaq Eskimo across Canada and Greenland, and of Athabaskan though Canada, in Oregon and California, and in the Southwest (Navajo and Apache).
None of the Alaska native languages were written before the coming of the Russians. The first written Alaskan language was Aleut, using a Slavonic alphabet. The first Aleut books were printed in 1834. By now, good writing systems have been developed for all Alaska native languages, and books have been printed in most of them.
Each Alaska native language has its own intricate beauty, a highly complex and regular grammar and enormous vocabulary. This has been developed by the people over the thousands of years they have lived in this area.
Recently the history of these languages has been tragic. From about 1900 until the 1960s, native languages were severely suppressed. Children were punished for speaking their native language in school. They were forced to abandon their language, in order to speak English only. In 1972, the Alaska State Legislature passed the Bilingual Education bill, giving children the right to use and cultivate their native language in school, and also established the Alaska Native Language Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Many important developments are taking place now to maintain for future generations of Alaskans the precious heritage of their native languages and cultures.
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Michael Krauss is professor emeritus of linguistics, University of Alaska. After devoting his student and postdoctoral years to Gaelic, Icelandic, and Faroese, Professor Krauss has spent his entire career since 1960 in the study of Alaska Native languages, all more or less severely endangered, with special attention to Siberian Yupik, documentary and comparative work with Athabaskan, and above all, Eya, which now has one surviving native speaker. His publications include Eyak Dictionary (1970) and In Honor of Eyak (1982). In 1972 he founded the Alaska Native Language Center at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, and directed it until 2000. Here he assembled the archive of Alaska Native language
documentation and has, especially since 1990, worked to alert the world's attention to the enormity of the language endangerment crisis.
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