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Aleut hunters from Bering Island. Approximately 1884–1886

‘The more languages we have, the better we can understand the world’ The vanishing Aleut language and the future of Russia’s linguistic diversity

Source: Meduza
Aleut hunters from Bering Island. Approximately 1884–1886
Aleut hunters from Bering Island. Approximately 1884–1886
Benedykt Dybowski / Wikimedia Commons

Interview by Anna Smirnova. English-language version by Sam Breazeale.

In early October, an 86-year-old man named Gennady Yakovlev died in the village of Nikolskoye on Russia’s Bering Island. Subsequent news reports referred to him as the last native speaker of the Aleut language — and many proclaimed that the language had died along with him. Meduza spoke to Evgeny Golovko, the director of the Russian Academy of Sciences' Institute for Linguistic Studies, about the history of the Aleut language, why languages disappear, and whether the Aleut language really died along with Yakovlev.

For the greater part of the 20th century, the language spoken by Russia's indigenous Aleut people had two dialects: Bering Aleut and Medny Aleut. The dialects' names came from the islands where they were spoken.

While Bering Aleut was effectively identical to the Aleut language spoken on Alaska’s Atka Island in the U.S., “Medny Aleut was characterized by its mixedness,” linguist Evgeny Golovko told Meduza. “[...] Medny Aleut is a combination of both one of the old dialects of the Aleut language that disappeared shortly after the Second World War and Russian.”

In 1968, the Soviet government forcibly resettled the Aleut people on Medny Island to Bering Island. “For Medny residents, that was a tragedy: their homes were boarded up and they were told to move,” Golovko said. “The last half-century has seen the gradual disappearance of both of the language's dialects.” In 2021, Vera Timoshenko, the last native speaker of the Bering dialect, died at 93.

Earlier this month, it was widely reported that the last native speaker of Aleut’s Medny dialect — and thus the last native Aleut speaker in Russia — died as well. The man’s name was Gennady Yakovlev. According to Golovko, who first met Yakovlev on Bering Island in 1982, Yakovlev didn’t just speak the Aleut language; for decades, he served as an ambassador for the Aleutian language and culture throughout the country.

“He recorded phrases, wrote poems in Aleut, and performed with a folk ensemble that traveled all throughout the Soviet Union. He tried to maintain Aleut traditions, and he recorded the things that only the old people remembered: how and what the Aleuts hunted, how they sewed clothes, and what names they had for various plants,” said Golovko. “[...] He wasn’t just a native speaker of Aleut — he was the center of Aleut cultural life in Russia. That’s why the news of his death received so much attention.”

The shore of Medny Island. Approximately 1882–1916
Smithsonian Institution / Flickr

Historically, the Aleut language didn’t have an alphabet. And while spoken-only languages are no less complex than languages with writing systems, the lack of historical documents has hindered linguists’ ability to study Aleut's origins. But despite not graduating from high school, Yakovlev didn’t let the lack of a writing system get in the way of his mission to preserve his native tongue.

“[He came up] with an Aleut alphabet himself,” said Golovko. “Creating an alphabet is a huge intellectual achievement. How do you indicate that a sound is a voiceless sonorant, which doesn’t exist in Russian? Yakovlev created a way: he used the Russia letters as a base and added special signs, tails, and rods — so-called diacritics.”

Golovko told Meduza that while Gennady Yakovlev’s death is a huge blow to the Aleut people and the linguistic community, it doesn’t necessarily mean the death of the language. For one thing, there’s actually one more native Aleut speaker left: 82-year-old Lidia Fedoseyeva. And because she’s a woman and gender roles are a significant part of Aleut culture, her experience of life on Bering Island has been markedly different from Yakovlev’s.

“[Yakovlev] was a hunter. He spent a lot of time roaming around the island; he knew what every rock was called, where every wind blew, and where which type of moss grew. Lidia, [on the other hand,] spends a lot of time at home; she knows how to cook everything, what different kinds of food are called. Unfortunately, she’s the last person who can tell us about all of these things in the Aleut language.”

The next generation

According to Evgeny Golovko, language disappearance is a natural process — and one that’s occurring in countries throughout the world. One of the main reasons an indigenous language can disappear is that the language’s speakers don’t have their own state. “A state language is the language of official paperwork, TV and radio, and schools and universities,” said Golovko. “[Historically,] education in indigenous languages has rarely been welcomed not only in the Soviet Union but also throughout the world. When that happens, minority languages are gradually supplanted [by the state language]; after all, every new generation is forced to lead a larger part of their lives in spaces dominated by the state language.”

Another factor that can greatly accelerate a language's disappearance rate is the resettlement of indigenous people by a colonial power, Golovko told Meduza: “Like when the Medny Aleuts were resettled to Bering Island.”

In the early Soviet period, the government did make some gestures towards supporting ethnic minorities, but the measures didn’t go very far. “The Soviet authorities nominally supported cultural diversity, and textbooks [for a number of indigenous languages] were made,” said Golovko. “But the Aleut textbook wasn’t published, just like [...] books in several other languages, because the authorities decided those groups were too small.”

In the early 1980s, according to Golovko, some schools started offering the Aleut language as an elective. While some students managed to learn the basics, the initiative wasn’t met with enthusiasm overall. “[People thought,] ‘I don’t need my kids to study Aleut — it won’t help them get a good job or education, it will only interfere with their Russian!’ People treated their own culture rather coldly — both in the USSR and in the 1990s," he said.

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The situation in the U.S. was similar, Golovko said. “For example, the language of American Aleuts, who live in Alaska, is also on the verge of disappearing completely. Although the process is much slower there, because there are a lot more Aleuts in America [than in Russia].”

Still, since the late 1980s, according to the linguist, many indigenous people in Russia have become more interested in their own cultures and languages — and have stopped relying on the state to take the lead. “People want to study their own language,” he said. “And rather than waiting for instructions or special guides [from the government], activists are starting to teach it on the ground.”

One school, for example, offers Aleut classes for both adults and children. The teachers aren’t native speakers, but they have gained proficiency and belong to the Aleut International Association.

Aleut people in Russia have begun trying to incorporate the language into other aspects of life as well. “During my last expedition to Nikolskoye in 2017, it turned out that local residents wanted all of the signs under the artifacts in the local history museum to be in Aleut as well as in Russian and English. I ended up spending part of my time there translating all of those museum exhibit signs,” Golovko said.

Perhaps paradoxically, Golovko attributes Aleut people’s growing desire to learn their ancestors’ language to globalization.

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“The desire to learn one’s own language is a desire for self-identification. And in a globalizing world, that’s especially important,” he said. “[...] On one hand, globalization hinders the preservation of indigenous languages, because we all need a single, unified language for communication. But on the other hand, it’s this kind of situation that gives people a desire to find themselves in this big world — to understand where they came from, and to remember and preserve the story of their ancestors.”

But as Golovko sees it, language preservation doesn’t only benefit people whose ancestors spoke the languages being saved; on the contrary, he said, language diversity is valuable for humanity as a whole.

“Language is an eminently important part of culture — the lens through which we look at the world. The more languages there are, the more lenses we have — and the better we can understand the world around us.”

Russia’s languages

Russia has 35 official languages and over 100 minority languages. While the situation overall is trending towards homogeneity, many of these languages are still actively used and will be for the foreseeable future.

“The Nenets language, [for example,] is doing a bit better [than Aleut]: there are more Nenets people than Aleuts, and while not all Nenets families use their native language, there are still plenty of native speakers,” Golovko said. “The Chukchi, Koryak, and Evenki languages, meanwhile, which were still considered ‘solid’ languages quite recently, are losing ground before our very eyes — though there are still a lot more people in those groups than there are Aleuts.”

If you go further south, to the Caucasus, you’ll find even more linguistic diversity, according to Golovko. “Dagestan [...] is a typologically rare region; there aren’t many places in the world where so many different languages arose. In Dagestan, it happened because people in the mountains lived isolated lives; village inhabitants rarely encountered people from other areas. Ultimately, every village developed its own language. But now, the linguistic diversity is far from what it used to be, and members of the younger generation practically don’t know their ancestors’ languages at all.”

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While it’s not impossible for a language that's no longer used in daily life to be “completely resurrected,” Golovko told Meduza, it is difficult. In fact, he said, there’s really only ever been one example: Hebrew.

“It used to only be used in liturgical settings, then it spread into all [...] spheres: official paperwork, education, domestic life, pronouncements of love, poetry,” he said. “That happened because the language was given every opportunity; the state of Israel appeared, and [Hebrew] was ‘designated’ the state language. [It’s as if] it were just ‘thrown out’ and told, ‘Now live!’”

While other language revival initiatives have been “relatively successful," such as the ones in Hawaii and Ireland, said Golovko, the languages in those places haven’t made the full return to all parts of daily life that Hebrew has in Israel. That suggests that Aleut revivalists have an uphill battle ahead.

“But I can assure you if [...] an Aleut state were ‘organized’ tomorrow, Aleut language would immediately come back to life,” said Golovko. “Any language can be revived, but you have to have the right conditions for it.”

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