[The nature of Inuktitut]
[Standardization?] [The survival
of Inuktitut] [Commitment in the home] [Education] [Government] [Language
and culture tomorrow]
s there a Canadian culture? Is
there an Inuit culture? An Inuktitut word for "way of life"
is inuusiq. Based on the word for person, inuk,
it means something like "the way of being a person."
Is there a connection between the language I speak and the person
I am? Let us tell you a story.
Some years ago, Kublu applied for a job with an Inuit organization
in Ottawa, and dashed off the usual résumé. On
checking it over, however, she thought, "But this is an
Inuit organization. If the person who reads this résumé
is a traditional Inuk, what will he think of it, and of me?"
So she translated it into Inuktitut . . . and it sounded arrogant,
boastful, and cold, cold, cold. Then she sat down and wrote a
résumé directly in Inuktitut. It came out fine,
until she translated it into English. The English version was
vague, unfocused, even wimpy!
In fact, studies have suggested that many fluently bilingual
people shift their personalities (or shall we say their cultures?)
as they shift language. So there is a connection.
For an Inuk like Kublu, language and culture are inextricably
entwined in the perception of who she is, to herself and to others.
In the eyes of older people in the community, she is a child
who has tapped into the mysterious powers of the qallunaat (white
people), but who still depends on her elders for so many answers
about daily life in the past.
To her colleagues at the college where Kublu works, she is,
we hope, an equal, with a professional competence extending beyond
her particular role as instructor of interpretation and translation.
To her students, she is a role model, one who has attained a
balance between two worlds. To herself . . . well, she knows
she can never be the kind of Inuk her elders were, but, with
all due respect, she doesn't want to be. And she never could
be a qallunaaq (white person).
The language of Inuit, Inuktitut, has changed in the last
century, but it is still the same. In a good portion of the circumpolar
world, it is alive and well. Kublu can communicate quite successfully
with Greenlanders, for example, and if parachuted into Point
Barrow in northern Alaska, which is much further away, she would
be able to do the same after about a week or so.
The culture of Inuit has changed more than Inuktitut has,
but most of those changes are on the outside. Kublu does not
lead the same life her parents did, but in her approach to life,
her system of values, her appreciation of the world around her,
she is closer to them than to her qallunaat colleagues.
The nature of the
In English, and in most other European languages, a sentence
is a string of beads. Each bead is a tiny little word, and the
beads are strung together to make meaning.
I am happy to be here.
Je suis content d'être ici.
Yo estoy contento de estar aquí.
But in Inuktitut the words are like Lego blocks, intricate
pieces locked together to produce a nugget of meaning.
(happy + I here + in + be + because I)
How about this word, produced at random: Pariliarumaniralauqsimanngittunga,
"I never said I wanted to go to Paris."
These words are produced by a grammatical system that is much
more regular than anything in English. Inuit students like studying
grammar. They get pleasure out of seeing the logical flow of
something they always took for granted. The grammar is not only
precise, it is complex.
In Inuktitut, there are several hundred basic verb endings,
as well as variations depending on the sound system. Take, for
example, the verb root malik - "follow."
maliktunga "I follow"
malikkassik "because you two follow"
malikkit "follow them!"
malikkuttikkuk "if we two followed those two"
malingmangaakku "whether I followed her"
A simpler example of Inuktitut word-building is ui,
a husband. An uiviniq is a former husband. ("Would
he have to be dead to be called a uiviniq?" Mallon once
asked one of his co-teachers. She paused thoughtfully for a moment
and replied, "It would depend on what he had done.")
A uiksaq is a potential husband, a "fiancé."
And, with complete logic, a uiksaviniq is a former potential
husband, or an ex-fiancé. In fact, Inuktitut could be
described as a more precise and analytical instrument for defining
things than English is, for all its literary richness. When Quebec
linguist Louis-Jacques Dorais analysed words for imported items
in Nunavik (arctic Quebec), he found that less than six per cent
of the new words were borrowed from English, whereas 76 per cent
were descriptive expressions (the others were modifications of
traditional words). Furthermore, of the descriptive words, nearly
half described the new item by its function, rather than by its
appearance a pretty sophisticated approach to word definition.
For instance, the Inuktitut word for computer is qarasaujaq
"something that works like a brain" while
qulimiguulik, meaning "that which has something going
through the space above itself," is Inuktitut for helicopter.
Inuktitut has a long, rich history as an oral language, but
its writing systems are fairly new.
Even though there
are some seven or so major dialect groupings of Inuktitut in
Nunavut, Inuit from across their territory understand one another.
In the western Kitikmeot Region, the dialect is known as Inuinnaqtun
and is written in roman orthography, just as it is in Labrador,
the Canadian western Arctic, Alaska, and in Greenland, where
a tradition of literacy based on the roman alphabet goes back
In the rest of Nunavut, however, Inuktitut is written in syllabics,
a phonetic form of writing that was developed by Rev. James Evans
for the Cree, adapted for the Inuit in the latter part of the
1800s by the Anglican missionaries John Horden and E.A. Watkins,
and brought to the Arctic by their colleague, Edmund Peck. A
standardized dual orthography for both roman and syllabics was
established in the late 1970s by the Inuit Cultural Institute.
Time has revealed one or two minor problems with the system,
but on the whole it is accurate, learnable and logical. It has
gained acceptance in the east, but westerners have been much
less receptive, preferring to use an older roman style of spelling.
Standardization of the language, however, is a different matter.
It is much more controversial. People who have pride in their
language feel very strongly about their dialect. (This certainly
comes across in college language courses, where students react
immediately to anything they interpret as an attack on the autonomy
of their own dialect.) Luckily, however, it can be argued that
there is no need to standardize the basic core of the language.
Experience over the last 30 years has shown that sophisticated
Inuit across Nunavut can readily communicate with each other,
either at formal conferences or in informal social situations.
They make automatic minor adaptations to adjust to each other's
patterns. Where standardization is necessary is in the development
of technical terms, and that is usually not such an emotional
Survival is a far more serious issue than standardization.
The survival of
The century that is passing has not been kind to the minority
languages of the world, particularly the aboriginal languages
(and cultures) of North America. A few years ago it was reported
that, given the statistics, one would expect only Cree and Inuktitut
to have a chance of surviving another 100 years in Canada. That
opinion, however, is no grounds for complacency.
of broadcasting, Iqaluit's Jonah Kelly signed off from CBC North
radio in 1997. Inuktitut language programming has been essential
the survival of the language
Today, very few native children in western Nunavut speak,
or even understand, their native language. And it is the children
who count. Visit a community and listen to the children playing.
It doesn't matter how much Inuktitut is spoken in the store by
adults shopping, or in the kitchens among elders visiting. What
language are the children using? The first sign of decay is when
the children play in English. The second is when the parents
speak in Inuktitut and the children reply in English. The third
is when the language of the home is English, except for the elders
in the corner, a generation cut off from their grandchildren.
Linguists use a term to express the effort to revive a dying
language: "salvage linguistics." The situation along
the central Arctic coast of Nunavut the communities of
Cambridge Bay, Kugluktuk, Umingmaktok and Bathurst Inlet - can
today be realistically described as one of salvage. There is
a race against time, as a small group of Inuit teachers there
work to preserve and transmit their language before it is too
Will they solve the problem? Or to put it more broadly: can
institutions such as government and education save a language
on their own? No.
Commitment in the
The essential element is commitment in the home: commitment
by parents. Institutions can't legislate that. What they can
do is encourage and support it. But the essential element will
come from the people. The essential element will be a pride in
the language, and a determination to use it.
Two factors chip away at the stronghold of a minority language
such as Inuktitut. One is that by the time parents realize its
use is disappearing, it is already too late.
The second factor is the overwhelming power of English, a
power felt today across the world. It's not just that English
is the language of Shakespeare, and Ernest Hemingway, and Margaret
Atwood. It is also the language of Coca-Cola, and the Apollo
program, and Bill Gates, and Michael Jackson, and Disney World.
English is the language of power, and of glitter. Parents use
English to link their children to the source of power.
However, many people believe that Inuktitut will be a source
of strength to Nunavut. So what else can the institutions do
to ensure its survival and growth?
Education comes to mind immediately. Research and development
in Inuktitut curriculum began soon after the birth of the NWT
Department of Education in 1970, and has continued. A training
program for Inuit teachers teaching in Inuktitut was started
in the early 1980s.
But there is still room for improvement. While a fully developed
curriculum for high schools is lacking, even more crucial is
the need to develop skills in second-language instruction, and
to ensure that there is funding for Inuktitut second-language
curriculum and materials. It is not only that the situation in
the central Arctic is critical, and that the handful of dedicated
Inuit teachers there need skilled technical support. Even children
in eastern Nunavut, in communities such as the territory's capital,
Iqaluit, need an Inuktitut second-language emphasis in their
language classes. This is especially true for children in cross-cultural
families. In the vital area of adult education, there is a demand
for classes in first-language literacy training, and in second-language
Inuktitut will be one of Nunavut's three official languages
(English and French are the other two). What's more, Inuktitut
is to be the working language of the government. For those who
believe in the importance of the language, this is a laudable
objective. But there will be obstacles along the way.
In the central Arctic, where many younger Inuit are much more
comfortable working in English, will there be an exception to
the rule of using Inuktitut, or some compromise permitted?
A second complication is that for years to come, certain specialized
positions will need to be filled by skilled southerners until
such skills are acquired by residents of Nunavut. If Inuktitut
is to be the working language, then there must be Inuktitut instruction
This won't be easy. Thirty-odd years of French instruction
in the Canadian federal government have had mixed results at
One possible compromise
is an increased Inuktitut flavor in the workplace, combined with
a well-thought-out language training program. Inuktitut expressions
would increasingly be used in the office. A growing number of
non-Inuit staff would be able to communicate at a very basic
level before having to fall back on English to develop their
ideas, and some would eventually be able to function in the language.
Language and culture tomorrow
So here we stand, on the threshold of the new century, facing
a future that holds promise and challenges. Would we have the
courage to accept the offer of a glimpse of Nunavut in 2099?
Would such a glimpse show us homes where Inuktitut continues
to be spoken, offices where it is in common use, a lively cultural
scene with literature and music expressing our way of life? In
our present situation there is indeed the promise of such a future.
Let us hope and work for the strength and commitment to attain
Alexina Kublu is an Inuk who
teaches interpreters and translators at Nunavut Arctic College
in Iqaluit. Mick Mallon, also from Iqaluit, is a qallunaaq who
teaches Inuktitut as a Second Language.