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Story of an Inuit dictionary, Part 2

Dr. Jean Briggs, Professor Emerita
Department of Anthropology
Memorial University of Newfoundland (www) English Hyperlink Notice



This is the second of two articles about my work on Utku Inuktitut dictionaries. The first described differences between English and Inuktitut, some of the uses of an Inuktitut dictionary, and steps involved in constructing a dictionary. This one describes Inuit ideas about word meaning and how dictionaries fit into that picture.


I was not thinking of making dictionaries in the 1960s; I was learning to speak, and that’s quite a different process. I had to begin from scratch. When I arrived in the Utku camp, I knew only about six words: yes, no, have some tea, I don’t know, have some more tea, thank you – that’s it.

But I lucked out. My adoptive parents, Allaq and Inutsiaq (these are their pseudonyms from my book Never in Anger) were endlessly creative. Inutsiaq would act out verbs. He would say, “huliřunga?” [What am I doing?]. I’d say, “aatsuuk” [I don’t know], and then he would say, ”pihuktunga,” or “nalařunga” [I’m walking; I’m falling forward] and so on. I would repeat his word, and he would correct me, over and over, until finally he said, “Yes,” even when I was still saying it wrong – he was exhausted! He taught me the names of things by pointing to them and asking, “What’s this?” When I said I didn’t know, he told me – and later he quizzed me to see if I remembered: “What’s this?” and so on. I wrote down all this information with the speaker’s name and the date on tiny slips of paper and stored it in empty tobacco tins.

Eventually I began to take the initiative; I asked for definitions of words I didn’t understand. I wrote down this information, too, and stored it in the same way. In 1997 I began to tape discussions with Utku elders about word meanings, and now I have over 600 one-hour tapes of these discussions, all in Utku. In these discussions, I asked about the words I wrote down by hand in earlier years. I checked the forms and the definitions, and often learned additional words.

Here’s a sample discussion.

I find the word qiařuq in my corpus and ask Allaq, “Is that right?” She says, “Yes,” and I say, “What does it mean?” She makes the sound of a person crying. I write down cry, knowing already that the word means “cry.” Sometimes, if she’s puzzled by my word, she’ll ask, “Who taught you that word?” I’ll tell her, and if she thinks well of the person who taught me the word, she’ll say, “Okay.” If not, she’ll say, “I think that’s a Natsilik word,” or “I think that person didn’t really speak very good Utku.” But in this case she recognizes the word qiařuq as an Utku word. So I say, reading from my 1968 note, “Can you use that word for the sound that muskoxen make? Somebody told me that was what muskoxen say.” She looks a little nonplussed and asks, “Who told you that?” I say, “Your father.” She says, “I think he was probably just trying to make you understand another word, because muskoxen miaguqtut” (which means “howl”; miaguqtuq is usually used for dogs). “I don’t think muskoxen really qiařut; my father was using a word you know to make you understand miaguqtut.”

Then I probe, trying to find the limits of the domain in which the word can be used (“Can you use it for dogs? foxes? wolves? seals?”), trying to find out if it refers to all mammals, to all land mammals, only to large game animals, or only to muskoxen. Perhaps now you can see how the 10,000-word corpus increased to 34,000!

Another example: I ask a friend who often explains things to me, “Inutsiaq says he loves his favourite daughter too much. What does he mean by that?” My friend says, “Have you ever been loved too much?” I say, “Yes.” “Then you know.”

Again, I ask Allaq, “What does katsungaittuq mean?” She doesn’t say, “It means greedy and demanding”; she says, “That’s the way you were when you wanted to go fishing when Pala didn’t want to take you.” She is recalling an event that happened thirty-four years before. In this case, her explanation comes from an experience we both shared.

The nature of meaning and how dictionaries fit in

Looking back later at how I had learned, I discovered how very much my teachers had personalized and contextualized their definitions and taught me in a way that drew both of us in, socially and emotionally, to what I was learning. Why did they do that? Because, for them, meaning is experiential. Niakok, a North Alaskan Inupiaq (Inuit) man, once told an anthropologist that one can’t learn meaning from dictionaries. One doesn’t know what a word means until one can perform the actions that the word describes, or until one has experienced, or can use, what the word describes. One doesn’t know what “to hunt seal” means until one can hunt seal. One doesn’t know what “cold” means until one has experienced the difference between cold on the sea ice and cold on land. And one doesn’t know what “knife” means until one can use a knife.

So elders like Niakok see dictionaries as useless, devoid of meaning. But younger Inuit, like the Utku in Gjoa Haven, have learned to think about meaning as their schoolteachers do. They live in a different social world and have new concerns, which cause them to value dictionaries – at least Utku dictionaries – differently from their elders. These youth no longer speak Inuktitut, let alone Utku. They want to learn Utku words, both so that they can speak with their elders and because these words are part of their heritage and help them to hold on to that heritage and their Utku identity.

Moreover, there is more than one way to use a dictionary. Any young Inuit who wish to get a vivid sense of what Inuit life used to be like, and how traditional Inuit thought, could take the words they find in the dictionary and go and ask an elder, ”What does this mean?” That way, they may get definitions that are more like what Allaq gave me – which will be a much richer use of a dictionary than normal.

In these ways, dictionaries can fit into life.