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Story of an Inuit dictionary, Part 1

Dr. Jean Briggs, Professor Emerita
Department of Anthropology
Memorial University of Newfoundland


I am a psychological anthropologist. I began to learn Inuktitut when I lived as an adopted daughter with an Utkuhiksalingmiut (Utku) family in a small camp group in the Central Canadian Arctic, studying the role of emotions in their social life – first for 17 months in 1963–65, then for 8 months in 1968. As these Utku spoke only Inuktitut, I learned their dialect in order to communicate with them. Now I am writing two dictionaries of that dialect, a project that I will describe here.

Uses of my dictionaries

The Utku dialect has never been recorded before. In fact, there is no published dictionary of any Central Arctic dialect; I’m helping to fill that gap. It is important to record the Utku speech of the 1960s without delay, because the dialect is changing rapidly. It is also disappearing, dominated both by English and by other dialects spoken in the communities of Gjoa Haven and Baker Lake, where the Utku now live. Some words, now unused, are even being forgotten by the Utku elders themselves.

As Inuktitut is an official language of Nunavut, the government needs materials in all dialects for the use of the civil service, interpreters, translators, and Nunavut residents in general. The government is also trying to invent words for new technologies – law, medicine, or whatever – which are based on Inuktitut words, instead of just borrowing English words. One example of such adaptation is the Utku word qaritaur^aq, which literally means “resembles a brain.” Now it means “computer.” (The [r] in the Utku word is pronounced at the back of the mouth, like European French [r], while [r^] is pronounced like Canadian English [r].)  Linguists need the dictionaries, too, in order to understand more about the history of Inuktitut and how it has changed over time.

The Gjoa Haven Utku have their own reasons for wanting an Utku dictionary; they say it will help them preserve their Utku identity. Language is an essential ingredient in cultural and personal identity. Think of the way French is viewed in Quebec, or the deliberate destruction of native languages in residential schools. In Gjoa Haven, where the Natsilik dialect is dominant, Utku pronunciation is often slighted, so Utku appreciate the fact that we use Utku spellings in our dictionaries. Similarly, in a workshop that was held in Gjoa Haven a while ago on geographic terminology, only Natsilik elders were consulted. The Utku therefore appreciate the fact that our dictionaries contain the Utku words for the same geographic phenomena.  

The nature of Inuktitut

In Inuktitut each word consists of a series of parts, each with its own meaning, like the words in an English sentence. One might see an Inuktitut verb as a train. The longest word I know in Inuktitut is qupannuaqpaaryuaq-hiu-qati-gi-yuma-ngngit-taatigut-luunnii-nnguuq, which means “they said they didn’t even want to come hunting little horned larks with us.” The engine of this train, called a base, is qupannuaqpaaryuaq [little horned lark]. The cars that follow are postbases (or suffixes), which add up to “did not want to hunt together.” The caboose (technically, an inflection) is a mood-and-person marker – loosely, a pronoun [they-us]; and this is followed by two more cars or postbases, meaning “even” and “it is said.”  A noun, too, is made up of a base followed by one or more postbases – like qarita-ur^aq, “computer,” which is made up of qaritaq, a base meaning “brain,” followed by –ur^aq, a postbase meaning “resembles.”

Division of a word into base and postbases is only one of many differences between Inuktitut and English – the tip of the iceberg. First, there are two ways of speaking – with one-person words and two-person words. That is to say, some mood-and-person markers contain two persons, as the “little horned larks” word does. Others, like niri-vunga, “I am eating,” contain just one person, where the person marker refers only to “I.” Again, there are nine “moods”: The easiest to understand are declarative (making a statement); interrogative (asking a question); causative (making a causal statement or talking about when something happened in the past); and conditional (talking about something that might happen in the future). A Bible translator once told me that in Inuktitut one had to say “IF Jesus comes,” not “WHEN He comes.” There are also three numbers: singular, dual, and plural; and four persons: I, you, he/she/they, and that one/those ones. The person and mood markers are combined into one inflection. And since person markers are different in every mood, when you add everything up, you get more than 600 “pronouns.” 

Our bigger dictionary will define several thousand bases, which tell us what the verb or noun is about. The smaller one will list, analyze, and illustrate the uses of about 309 postbases, the parts of the word which elaborate on the base.

Constructing a dictionary

At the moment, we have about 34,000 Inuktitut words in our computerized database, all taken from everyday speech and tape-recorded. This database will be archived online and will be available for public use. But not all the words will go into the dictionary – just as you wouldn’t put all the sentences you hear in English into a dictionary. If you can understand the meaning of a word by adding up the base and the postbases – as you can understand the “little horned larks” word by adding up its parts – it need not be in the dictionary. But qaritaur^aq would be in the dictionary because by adding up “brain” + “resembles,” you could not arrive at “computer.”

When defining a word, one must try to capture as much as possible of its domain. This often requires careful questioning, or attentive listening to the contexts in which people use the word. Take, for instance, the base pilak-. In Utku, though not in every dialect, pilak- means to flense a sea mammal, cutting between the blubber and the meat. It has also come to mean “to perform surgery.” Therefore, it would be incorrect to define it as “to butcher,” “to skin,” or “to cut.” Utku has 14 words for cutting, breaking, and tearing, which speakers choose on the basis of 5 dimensions: direction of cut, instrument used, material damaged, etc.

We will include sample sentences in our dictionaries to illustrate the uses of bases and postbases, as at least two other dictionary-makers have done (Jacobson, Yup’ik Eskimo Dictionary, 1st ed., Fairbanks, 1984, and Jeddore, Labrador Inuit Uqausingit, 1976).