Dave Wilton has posted a Big List entry for Alaska; here’s the first paragraph, which gives you the basics (go to the link for the interesting details):

The name Alaska comes from the Aleut alaxsxix̣, meaning mainland, originally only a reference to the Alaska Peninsula, from which the Aleutian Islands extend. Later it was applied to the entire territory that would eventually become the state.

At the discussion page, I wrote:

A fascinating post, but can you expand on “Aleut alaxsxix̣, meaning mainland”? Can that be broken down morphologically?

Dave said “I’m sure it can, but I don’t have the expertise and resources to do it.” So: anybody know anything about Aleut?


  1. David Eddyshaw says

    Knut Bergsland’s Aleut Grammar actually gives the form as Alaxsxa “Alaska Peninsula.” I can’t see any very obvious possibilities in his lists of derivational suffixes that would help to analyse the form further, unfortunately. I suspect the Aleut Dictionary would be more helpful, but I haven’t got that. The final -x̣ in Dave Wilton’s form might perhaps be the absolutive flexion, -x̂ I think (= Eskimo -q.) But I am very far from clued up about Aleut.

    (My interest in it was – apart from the obvious fact that it’s way cool because Aleut – more to do with its unusual syntax, about which Bergsland has a lot to say, and how it presumably got that way from an Eskimo-like starting point.)

  2. Which non-island languages have distinct words tor “mainland” and “continent”? Not many in Europe.

  3. Which non-island languages have distinct words tor “mainland” and “continent”?
    German, Polish, and Russian, at least: G Festland P (stały) ląd R materik “mainland”, G Erdteil / Kontinent, P kontynent R kontinent “continent”

  4. There is an attempt at an analysis here, in J. Ellis Ransom, “Derivation of the Word ‘Alaska’.” American Anthropologist New Series, Vol. 42, No. 3, Part 1 (Jul. – Sep., 1940), pp. 550-551. Any summary I could attempt would be almost as long as the article itself, and I am not qualified to evaluate the analysis given therein.

    (For LH readers who don’t otherwise have institutional access, JSTOR offers access to 100 articles a month with free registration.)

  5. Here is free access to Ransom’s article.
    Wiktionary, btw, quotes Etymonline, which quotes Bright’s Place Names of North America, which quotes Ransom. I wish people would quote the original and save me the trouble of tracking it down.

    I’ll look at Ransom later today with Bergsland’s grammar and try to figure it out better. I don’t have the dictionary handy. Ransom’s analysis of Aleut roots as meaningless VCV “partial roots” plus a “root index” (here a consonant suffix) which gives them meaning seems silly to me, but I’ll take a look.

  6. Knut Bergsland (1994) Aleut Dictionary/Unangam Tunudgusii, at his entry for the word, under Alaxsxix́, p. 49, does not offer an etymology or morphological breakdown for the word.

    Correction: Alaxsxix̂

  7. David Eddyshaw says

    It does align with Bergsland in suggesting that the correct Aleut form should be Alaxsxax̂ (where x̂ is Bergsland’s symbol for the uvular.)

    The actual proposed etymology seems to involve a fair bit of special pleading (though it’s hard to be certaIn of this when knowing so very little about the actual language.) I think one can fairly conclude that the word is not really etymologically transparent within modern Aleut itself, at any rate.

    [Ninja’d x2; must type faster
    Ah: so Bergsland’s Dictionary gives Alaxsxix́! I’m officially out of my depth. Maybe it’s a dialect thing: the dialects of Aleut seem to have differed pretty substantially]

  8. Thanks, Xerîb! Here’s the conclusion of the brief article:

    Aláxsxaq means literally, The object toward which the action of the sea is directed,

    Syllabically the word from which Alaska derives its name should be written. aláγ- -sxaq. In spelling the original with an x, Veniaminoff apparently inadvertently overlooked the root index of the primary root, the gamma, transcribing it as it is actually pronounced the medial surd fricative (x). The fact that the ‘x’ is the mechanical result from the proximity of the following consonant plus the fact that the word is a place name, unique in itself, and therefore not affected by the vagaries of everyday speech confused the early investigators in their search for the all important primary root.

    In isolating the proper root index with which to trace down the meaning of the seemingly non-existent root, aláx- –, an analysis of all available data was made. In his dictionary Veniaminoff lists but seven words beginning with the partial root, ala- –, and seventeen beginning with the closely allied aḽa- – (alya- -). My privately secured texts yielded a scant twelve of both including some listed by Veniaminoff. This scarcity of ala- – partial roots is in sharp contrast with the number of words having a different partial root initiated by the vowel ‘a’.

    By the elimination of obviously unsuited root indices, only one is left, the gamma, which in itself is so closely allied to the medial ‘x’ as to suggest a sound shift. By taking a different partial root series with the gamma index it can be conclusively proved that wherever the medial ‘γ’ is followed by an ‘s’ (from the element – -sxa- – as in aláxsxaq), this ‘γ’ becomes medial ‘x’.

    Therefore it becomes immediately obvious that the root of the word for Alaska is aláγ- – –, instead of aláx- – –. So simple and apparently unimportant a thing, and yet it has prevented a correct derivation of Alaska’s name for well over a hundred years. Likewise a little further investigation provides but one possible meaning — pertaining to the sea.

    Thus the true construction and meaning of the word, Alaska, becomes simple upon analysis, consistent with Aleut thought, and descriptive within the cultural background of his heritage.

    Whereas the European who called the continental land mass, the mainland, derived his word from his consciousness of the land, the Aleut has taken his from an overpowering consciousness of the sea.

    Aláxsxaq,– The object toward which the action of the sea is directed.

    In other words; Alaska, the Mainland.

    J. Ellis Ransom

    I agree that it’s more poetic than convincing.

  9. My bad, it’s circumflex (I am typing on my phone) in Bergsland. Apologies for the confusion. I’ve corrected my posting with a note.

  10. David Eddyshaw says

    Which non-island languages have distinct words tor “mainland” and “continent”

    Kusaal, which is as non-island as well can be, has no word for either. Nor for “island” … (it has a word for “sea”, loaned from Hausa, but adapted to Kusaal morphophonemics pretty thoroughly.)

  11. By taking a different partial root series with the gamma index it can be conclusively proved that wherever the medial ‘y’ is followed by an ‘s’ (from the element – -sxa- – as in aláxsxaq), this ‘7’ becomes medial ‘x’.

    OCR problems there: the ‘y’ and ‘7’ should be gammas (γ), as in aláγ- (y and γ are barely distinguishable in the font here). You probably already corrected a lot more OCR problems if you copy-pasted from the pdf, these are just the last two.

  12. Fixed, thanks!

    You probably already corrected a lot more OCR problems if you copy-pasted from the pdf

    Yes indeed.

  13. In French, le continent is used for “mainland” and “continent”.

    What is and is not an island

    Some years ago I travelled several times to Swindle Island*, one of many such places off the coast of British Columbia, then the home of the last speaker of a variety of Tsimshian.** This lovely spot was not very big but large enough to include a village*** and a small but busy harbour, backed by a mountainous and forested area populated by enough deer to keep a hunter busy. At one point I referred to this place in English as an island. My consultant did not like that word at all: “This is not an island! It has a river!” – ‘What is it then?” – It’s a LAND.”

    *Named for an 18C British naval officer, like many such places in the area.
    ** Mrs Violet Neasloss, 1914-2013, much regretted. In addition to the two Maritime Tsimshian varieties, she was fully fluent in Heiltsuk, (a Wakashan language also spoken in the village) as well as the local variety of English.

  14. Why is it Аляска in Russian?

  15. Wiktionary says it started as Alakshak then changed to Al’aksa (and the letter ѯ was actually used, wow) and then metathesized. They also say “from Aleut Alax̂sxax̂ presumably deciphered as ‘whale place'” with no elaboration or reference.

    I found an internet copy (from Alaska library) of Aleut language of 1944. The basic word for whale is given as alaq and place is isxaq or tanaq. But as my knowledge of Aleut would put Socrates to shame, I shouldn’t have come even that far.

  16. The poet Nora Marks Dauenhauer translated it as “where the sea breaks its back.”

  17. Jen in Edinburgh says

    Which non-island languages have distinct words tor “mainland” and “continent”? Not many in Europe.

    Which island languages do? Not Gaelic, as far as I can tell.

    I feel like it’s quite a specific situation which would throw up the distinction – a cluster of all similarly sized islands might not want it, but small islands clustered round the edge of a continent might.

    This wikipedia article suggests that Norwegian not only has the distinction between (true) mainland and not, but the use to mean ‘main island of a group of otherwise smaller islands’. (On the map it looks like a proper name in e.g. Shetland, but I believe that if you live there you go first to the mainland and then to Scotland.)

    I’d be interested to know about Greek, given the geography.

    Sticking with English, the OED gives examples of ‘mainland’ for Australia as seen from Tasmania and the rest of British Columbia as seen from Vancouver Island.

  18. Lars Mathiesen says

    Like in Nw, Danish fastlandet can be used for a larger island when you are on a small one. Typically where your car is parked (because actual roads) and where the supermarket and the gas station are. Sjælland and Funen are not felt to be actual islands — geologists talk about “Sjælland og øerne” and “Fyn og øerne,” where ‘the islands’ are clearly context dependent.

    Going up from there, Hovedlandet was used for Jylland in certain kinds of contexts. (Jutes are strong and silent and deserve more financing and representation than the chatterboxes on Sjælland. They actually have that, in that land area figures (less than population, but significantly) in the distribution of Parliament mandates between (pre-1920) Jylland, the Capital Region and the rest, with the result that less votes are need for a mandate in Jylland).

    And then there is kontinentet, all those foreign-type dudes south of the Elbe.

  19. PlasticPaddy says

    I was not sure about usage of the various words, so I looked up míntír, mórthír and mór-roinn on the corpus at
    mórthír na hEorpa-2 hits
    míntír na hEorpa-0 hits
    mór-roinn na hEorpa–54 hits
    míntír-68 hits
    From a inspection I would say
    1. míntír is reserved for mainland in contrast with an island or islands (I do not know if it also applies to the main island of a group)
    2. mórthír (or mór-thír) for mainland is broader, for example:
    Cé mhéad uair a bhí tú thar lear anuraidh?
    Más dóigh leat gur mórthír atá sa Bhreatain, cúig huaire, muna gcreideann deich n-uaire.
    = How many times were you abroad/overseas [thar lear] last year?
    If you think Britain [with respect to Ireland] is a mainland, 5 times, if you don’t believe that, 10 times.
    3. mór-roinn means continent and is often capitalised

  20. I remember a BBC documentary about Sark in which the presenter referred to “the mainland” and it took some time for me to work out they meant Great Britain as opposed to Guernsey or Normandy.

  21. ほんど【本土】 ローマ(hondo)
    the mainland; the country proper.
    ▲日本本土 Japan proper; the Japanese mainland; the mainland of Japan
    ・中国本土 the Chinese mainland; China proper
    ・アメリカ本土 the ┌US [American] mainland
    ・イギリス本土 the British Isles.

    たいりく【大陸】 ローマ(tairiku)
    a continent; 〔日本から見た中国〕(China as seen from Japan) the Chinese Continent; 〔台湾から見た中国〕(China as seen from Taiwan) mainland China; 〔英国から見た欧州〕(Europe as seen from the UK) mainland [continental] Europe; the (European) Continent.

  22. marie-lucie says

    Jillian Parker

    The poet Nora Marks Dauenhauer translated it as “where the sea breaks its back.”

    She was a Tlingit speaker, not an Aleut. The two languages are unrelated.

  23. This reminds me of the habit on the part of haut-ton, anglophile Americans (at least in my youth) of referring to a trip to Europe as “a visit to the Continent,” as if they didn’t live on one themselves.

  24. D.O.

    > and the letter ѯ was actually used, wow

    There was a lot of resistance to the making of the iota obsolete in Bulgarian orthography in the 19th century. ѯ is arguably more useful than the iota for transcription. EDIT: depends on the register.

  25. John Cowan says

    The largest island in the Shetland archipelago is called Mainland; after all, it is the fifth-largest of the British-and-Irish Isles.

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