Since when is Aleut Eskimo?

A lot of people on various linguistics listserves are talking about an article on BBC, Why you should avoid ‘mingqutnguaq’, on the always popular “how many words do the Eskimos have for snow?” topic. The article brings nothing new to the table, really, but this is the part that really stood out to me:

Yup’ik has three dialects: Central, Siberian and Alutiiq there [Alaska].

There are also two other Eskimo languages apart from Yup’ik: Inupiat and Aleut, and that means plenty of ways of referring to snow and ice.

Really? Central Alaskan Yup’ik, Siberian Yupik, and Alutiiq are dialects of the same language? That’s news to me. The journalist apparently went to the trouble of consulting a Yup’ik dictionary by the Alaska Native Language Center, but didn’t think to check his other language information. See a list of Alaska Native languages here on the ANLC’s website. (Another minor quibble is that the language name is Iñupiaq, not Iñupiat. Iñupiat are the people who speak Iñupiaq.)

While it’s perhaps not too strange that the author confuses dialect and language – after all, the division is subjective at best and often political (yes, Scandinavia, I’m looking at you) – the strangest part is that the author refers to Aleut as an Eskimo language. Aleut is not Eskimo. The language family is called Eskimo-Aleut for a reason: Aleut (which is Unangam Tunuu in Aleut) doesn’t fall within the Eskimo group. Culturally the Aleut people are distinct from Eskimo peoples as well. Journalists are fond of writing about Eskimo words for snow, but it would be nice if they got their basic facts straight.


One thought on “Since when is Aleut Eskimo?

  1. James October 20, 2008 / 10:22 am

    I’d complain, but it just seems so pointless. If they won’t listen to Language Log, then the rest of us won’t change things much…

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