28 May /15


The origin of the word Eskimo has traditionally been unclear and use of this word today as an umbrella term for all indigenous people of Alaska, Canada, Greenland and Siberia may be considered derogatory. Eskimo was the name used by the first foreign settlers who arrived in these Arctic and sub-Arctic regions, and it was originally thought to derive from a word in the Algonquian languages meaning “eaters of raw meat”. Despite the fact it is now believed to derive from the Ojibwa word “to net snowshoes”, the negative connotations persist. In Greenland, the preferred term is “Greenlander” or “Kalaallit” and in Canada it is “Inuit”; but since the word “Inuit” does not exist in the Yupik language of Central Alaska, the term Eskimo is accepted there as a collective term for the Yupik and Inupiat communities (of northern Alaska).

In 1877, the word Eskimo appeared in the book Discourse Western Planting written by Richard Hakluyt, an English writer who promoted the settling of North America through his writing. Here, Hakluyt wrote: “The more northerly partes of the lande amonge the Esquimawes of the Grande Bay”. It’s unclear why he spelled Eskimos as Esquimawes, but perhaps it’s a variant of the French, which was “Esquimaux”. Esquimaux, itself, derives from Montagnais (an Algonquian language), which French traders came into contact with.

In the 1800s, the Yupik Eskimos of Alaska came into contact with Russian explorers and so began the process of cultural change. Central Alaskan Yupik is an example of how languages can diminish once a dominant language is introduced (that is, English). According to Ethnologue, a comprehensive web-based publication on world languages, on average six languages per year have become extinct since the publication started in 1950. On its language status scale which ranges from 0-10 (0 being an international language and 10 being a language that is extinct), it places Central Alaskan Yupik at 6b under the title of “threatened”. Here, threatened means: “The language is used for face-to-face communication within all generations, but it is losing users”. The Linguistics Society of America discusses the fate of languages in its article What is an endangered language? and mentions the case of Yupik Eskimo communities writing: “just 20 years ago all of the children spoke Yupik; today the youngest speakers of Yupik in some of these communities are in their 20s, and the children only speak English”. The article finishes with a warning of the consequences when languages becoming extinct: “Much of the cultural, spiritual, and intellectual life of a people is experienced through language…When a language is lost, all of this must be refashioned in the new language…Frequently traditions are abruptly lost in the process and replaced by the cultural habits of the more powerful group…The loss of human languages also severely limits what linguists can learn about human cognition”.