Unangax

Unangax (Aleut) is one branch of the Eskimo-Aleut language family. Its territory in Alaska encompasses the Aleutian Islands, the Pribilof Islands, and the Alaska Peninsula west of Stepovak Bay.

Unangax^ is a single language divided at Atka Island into eastern and the western dialects. Of a population of about 2,200 Unangax^, fewer than 100 speak the language. This language was formerly called Aleut, a general term introduced by Russian explorers and fur traders to refer to Native Alaskan of the Aleutian Islands, the Alaska Peninsula, Kodiak Island, and Prince William Sound (see the section on the Alutiiq language).

The term Unangax^ means 'person' and probably derives from the root una, which refers to the seaside. The plural form 'people' is pronounced Unangas in the western dialect and Unangan in the eastern dialect, and these terms are also sometimes used to refer to the language. The indigenous term for the language is Unangam Tunuu.

Although the early Russian fur trade was exploitative and detrimental to the Aleut population as a whole, linguists working through the Russian Orthodox Church made great advances in literacy and helped foster a society that grew to be remarkably bilingual in Russian and Unangax^. The greatest of these Russian Orthodox linguists was Ivan Veniaminov, who, beginning in 1824, worked with Aleut speakers to develop a writing system and translate religious and educational material into the native language.

 In modern times the outstanding academic contributor to Unangax^ linguistics is Knut Bergsland, who from 1950 until his death in 1998 worked with Unangax^ speakers such as William Dirks Sr. and Moses Dirks -- now himself a leading Unangax^ linguist -- to design a modern writing system and develop bilingual curriculum materials including school dictionaries for both dialects. In 1994 Bergsland produced a comprehensive Unangax^ dictionary, and in 1997 a detailed reference grammar.

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