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The history of Inuktitut writing systems

Jeela Palluq-Cloutier
Inuit Uqausinginnik Taiguusiliuqtiit
(Inuit Language Authority), Nunavut


Since our written language in Nunavut is very young, it is not too difficult to trace the history of written Inuktitut and identify the changes that have occurred. However, this history is not the same for our fellow Inuit in Alaska and Greenland, because these areas were colonized at different times. Even among Inuit communities within Canada, from Qitirmiut to Labrador, the history of written language is different.

In a 1983 article for Inuktitut magazine, Kenn Harper provides a historical perspective on Inuktitut writing. He says Inuit throughout the North had no traditional writing systems and made no attempts to develop writing until the missionaries arrived in different regions, bringing with them various writing systems and rules. An exception was the Alaskan Inuit, who attempted to develop their own picture‑writing systems in the early 1900s. As early as the 1700s, however, Lutheran and Moravian missionaries introduced writing to the Greenlandic Inuit. In 1751, Paul Egede—son of Hans Egede, the first missionary to Greenland—published a Greenlandic dictionary. He may have been the first person to record first-hand observations about the Greenlandic Inuit (C. C. Olsen, personal communication, January 2012). In the late 1700s, missionaries travelled from Greenland to Labrador, where they introduced a writing system similar to the one developed in Greenland (Harper, 1983).

Later, in the 1800s, two different types of writing systems were introduced to the Inuit of Nunavut: Roman orthography (letters like those used in English) in the western Arctic, and syllabics in the eastern Arctic. John Horden and E. A. Watkins, two missionaries from England, adapted Cree syllabics to suit the Inuit language. After struggling to devise a means of recording accurately the sound of native Ojibway speech in the Roman alphabet, Reverend James Evans, a British missionary, decided to borrow elements from the Pitman shorthand writing system. This modified system serves as the basis for most Canadian Aboriginal syllabic writing systems in use today. However, despite Evans' contribution, Edmund Peck, another missionary from England, is usually credited with introducing syllabics to the Inuit because he translated Biblical material into Inuktitut and spent considerable time in Nunavik and on Blacklead Island, in Cumberland Sound (Harper, 1983).

Most non-Inuit missionaries who introduced writing systems to Inuit were not trained linguists. As a result, these writing systems did not properly represent the sounds of the Inuit language and needed to be greatly improved. In the 1970s, orthography reforms took place in the Inuit regions of Canada, Alaska and Greenland.

In 1976, the Inuit Cultural Institute (ICI) developed a standardized dual writing system comprising syllabics and Roman orthography. Because these systems mirror each other, it is easy to convert one to the other. The dual writing system introduced new symbols for sounds that were not previously represented in the old writing systems. The reform also included "finals" and diacritics so that each letter represented one sound in the Inuit language. Today, the ICI standard writing system is used for all but the Qitirmiut dialects in Nunavut; however, it is used only partially in Nunavik, and not at all in Nunatsiavut and Nunakput. Even though some people in Nunavut are calling for changes (Bell, 2011, February 14 and February 15), the ICI standard system is widely used today by Nunavut teachers and translators, and has been taught since the late 1970s to students in most Nunavut communities. It is well established in government publications, school materials and books for children and adults.

The Inuit language commission recommended in 1976 that "this dual system of writing should be reviewed after five or ten years of use to measure its effectiveness and make revisions where necessary" (cited in Harper, 2011). However, the recommended review was never carried out. Today, very little information or research data is available on the use of either writing system in Nunavut. Despite the lack of data, some argue that the use of syllabics is holding Inuit back, but these arguments are usually met with an "outcry of support" for their retention (Harper, 2011). Whatever the arguments, Inuit usually end up in passionate debates over the proposed changes.

For her PhD dissertation, Aurélie Hot (2010) conducted research on syllabic literacy practices in Iqaluit (the capital of Nunavut) and Igloolik (a smaller community). She found that, apart from elders and specialized language professionals such as teachers and translators, few people are fluent enough to use syllabics daily. Many of the bilingual Inuit she interviewed told her that they prefer to read and write in English rather than in Inuktitut. Both the prominence of English in the workplace and the lack of fluency in syllabics were mentioned as reasons for their preference. This lack of fluency represents a major obstacle in making Inuktitut a language of work.

Hot (2010) also pointed out that with the prevalence of social media, youth, in particular, end up writing in English, and when they do write in Inuktitut, they use Roman orthography. She concluded that although the visibility of syllabics has increased since Nunavut was created, this visibility has not translated into functionality or daily use. In fact, literacy in Inuktitut is still a secondary form of literacy for many Inuit. To address this problem, Hot recommended increasing learning opportunities for adults, producing more reading materials in Inuktitut and fully supporting the implementation of bilingual education in higher grades. She further suggested that it might be relevant for Nunavummiut to discuss whether it would be appropriate "to legitimize writing in Roman orthography" (2009, Implementing Language Policy), particularly among young people Go to note 1 .

A little over thirty years have passed since our writing system was changed. Now it is time to go one step further and research how a standardized written language—with spelling and grammar rules based on either a dialect or a blend of dialects—can be introduced in Nunavut in modern fields such as education, government and business.


  • Return to note 1 Grenoble and Whaley also suggest that adapting an orthographic system used for the "dominant language" can actually help spread literacy more quickly among members of the "local language" group, and potentially attract and create new users: "Speakers of endangered languages are commonly literate, or semiliterate in the language of wider communication, and so adapting its orthography can spread the process of learning to read and write a local language. Moreover, because the very notion of literacy is often associated with the language of wider communication, it often makes good sense from the view of the community itself to use similar orthographic systems when possible" (Grenoble & Whaley, 2006,
    p. 145).


  • Bell, J. (2011, February 14). Teacher devises special syllabics for Nattilingmiutut: Amidst talk of standardization, regional writing system emerges. Nunatsiaq News, News section.
  • Bell, J. (2011, February 15). One Inuit language, many Inuit dialects. Nunatsiaq News, Features section.
  • Grenoble, L. A., & Whaley, L. J. (2006). Saving languages: An introduction to language revitalization. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.
  • Harper, K. (1983). Writing in Inuktitut: An historical perspective. Inuktitut (53),
  • Harper, K. (2011, February 2). Taissumani: Language standardization. Nunatsiaq News, Features section.
  • Hot, A. (2009, February). Implementing Language Policy in Nunavut. Poster presented at the 3rd DIALOG Research Forum, Montréal, Quebec.
  • Hot, A. (2009). Language rights and language choices: The potential of Inuktitut literacy. Journal of Canadian Studies / Revue d'études canadiennes 43(2),
  • Hot, A. (2010). Écrire et lire la langue inuit: Choix linguistiques contemporains à Iqaluit et Igloolik, Nunavut. Unpublished doctoral thesis. Université de Laval, Québec.