Aleut is alone with Eskimo in the Eskimo-Aleut group. The two main dialect groupings are Eastern Aleut and Atkan. Within the Eastern group are the dialects of Unalaska, Belkofski, Akutan, the Pribilof Islands, Kashega and Nikolski. Within the Atkan grouping are the dialects of Attu, Bering Island and Copper Island (or Mednyy).
The first contact of people from the Eastern Hemisphere with the Aleut language occurred in 1741, as Vitus Bering's expedition picked up place names and the names of the Aleut people they met. The first recording of the Aleut language in lexicon form appeared in a word list of the Unalaskan dialect compiled by Captain James King on Cook's voyage in 1778. At that time the Imperial Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg became interested in the Aleut language upon hearing of Russian expeditions for trading. In Catherine the Great's project to compile a giant comparative dictionary on all the languages spoken it what was the spread of the Russian empire at that time, she hired Peter Simon Pallas to conduct the fieldwork that would collect linguistic information on Aleut. During an expedition from 1791 to 1792 Carl Heinrich Merck and Michael Rohbeck, who collected several word lists and conducted a census of the male population that included prebaptismal Aleut names. Explorer Yuriy Feodorovich Lisyansky compiled several word lists in 1804, and in 1805 the czar's plenipotentiary, Nikolay Petrovich Rezanov collected some more. Johann Christoph Adelung and Johann Severin Vater published their Mithridates oder allgemeine Sprachkunde 1806-1817, which included Aleut among the languages it catalogued, similar to Catherine the Great's dictionary project. But it wasn't until 1819 that the first professional linguist, Dane Rasmus Rask, studied Aleut. He collected words and paradigms from two speakers of Eastern Aleut dialects living in St. Petersburg. In 1824 came the man who would revolutionize Aleut as a literary language. Ioann Veniaminov, a Russian Orthodox priest who would later become a saint, arrived at Unalaska studying Unalaskan Aleut. He created an orthography for this language (using the Cyrillic alphabet; the Roman alphabet would come later), translated the Gospel according to St. Matthew and several other religious works into Aleut, and published a grammar of Eastern Aleut in 1846. The religious works were translated with the help of Veniaminov's friends Ivan Pan'kov (chief of Tigalda) and Iakov Netsvetov (the priest of Atka), both of whom were native Aleut speakers. Netsvetov also wrote a dictionary of Atkan Aleut. After Veniaminov's works were published, several religious figures took interest in studying and recording Aleut, which would help these Russian Orthodox clerics in their missionary work. The first Frenchman to record Aleut was Alphonse Pinart in 1871, shortly after the United States purchase of Alaska. Shortly after, in 1878, American Lucien M. Turner began work on collecting words for a word list. Benedykt Dybowski, a Pole, began taking word lists from the dialects the Commander Islands in 1881, while Nikolai Vasilyevich Slyunin, a Russian doctor, did the same in 1892. From 1909 to 1910 the ethnologist Waldemar Jochelson traveled to the Aleut communities of Unalaska, Atka, Attu and Nikolski. He spent nineteen months there doing fieldwork. Jochelson collected his ethnographic work with the help of two Unalaskan speakers, Aleksey Yachmenev and Leontiy Sivstov. He recorded many Aleut stories, folklore and myth, and had many of them not only written down but also recorded in audio. Jochelson discovered much vocabulary and grammar when he was there, adding to the scientific knowledge of the Aleut language. In the 1930s two native Aleuts wrote down works that are considered breakthroughs in the use of Aleut as a literary language. Afinogen K. Ermeloff wrote down a literary account of a shpwreck in his native language, while Ardelion G. Ermeloff kept a diary in Aleut during the decade. At the same time, linguist Melville Jacobs picked up several new texts from Sergey Golley, an Atkan speaker who was hospitalized at the time. John P. Harrington furthered research into the Pribilof Island dialect on St. Paul Island in 1941, collecting some new vocabulary along the way. In 1944, the United States Department of the Interior published The Aleut Language as part of the war effort, allowing World War II soldiers to understand the language of the Aleuts. This English language project was based on Veniaminov's work. Knut Bergsland published a complete Aleut dictionary in 1994.