Government of Canada
Symbol of the Government of Canada

A taste of Inuit

Rhoda Cunningham
Official Languages and Services
Government of Nunavut

2011-09-26

The language and people

Inuit means "people" in the Inuit language. Inuit are a group of culturally similar and true indigenous peoples inhabiting the Arctic regions of Canada (Nunavut, Nunavik, Nunatsiavut, Northwest Territories), Denmark (Greenland), Russia (Siberia) and the United States (Alaska). The Inuit language belongs to the Eskimo-Aleut language family, which extends across these territories. Inuktitut (ee-nook-tee-toot) and Inuinnaqtun (ee-noo-in-nack-toon) are two main dialects of the Inuit language that are spoken and written in the Territory of Nunavut, Canada.

Nunavut, meaning "our land," is the least populous land mass in the world. It is a diverse territory spanning three time zones and covering 20% of Canada's land mass (equivalent to the size of western Europe). There are approximately 30,000 people living in 25 communities located in three regions. Of that population, 85% are Inuit, and 75% speak Inuktitut or Inuinnaqtun as their first language.

Dual writing system

The Inuit language has a dual writing system comprised of Qaniujaaqpait and Qaliujaaqpait.

Qaniujaaqpait means "likeness of the mouth." Qaniujaaqpait are a set of syllabics in which each symbol is positioned in three different ways to represent consonants and a particular vowel. Superscript symbols represent consonants only. There are 45 symbols in total.

You can construct a sentence in syllabics as one long word as long as it makes sense. During annual Inuit language celebrations each February, there is usually a competition to create the longest word. At the 2009 event, the winner, announced by the Languages Commissioner's Office, totalled 143 letters. It's challenging to read, to say the least. Here is the transliterated version—give it a try [hint: '?'sounds like 'sla']:

aangajaarnaqtuliuqtuqaqattalilauqsimanngittiammarirulungniqpalliila
innaujaqataunasu??annaaqtummarialuuvalilauqsima??apikkaluarmijungalittauruuq.

Basically, it means "(at a younger age) it is said that I had also been saying that I wished drugs were never made!"

Qaliujaaqpait are roman orthography letters like the English alphabet. Qaliujaaqpait represent some sounds that are non-existent in the English language, categorised into three sets called voiceless, voiced, and nasal consonants. The Inuinnaqtun dialect uses a modified form of Qaliujaaqpait.

A brief history of syllabics

Syllabics were introduced to Inuit by Edmund Peck early in the 1900s. Peck was an Anglican missionary who first introduced this system to Inuit of south Baffin Island. This original version contained four positional characters for each vowel and consisted of 60 characters. This syllabarium was subsequently adopted, and its use spread rapidly. In 1976 the Inuit Cultural Institute (ICI) introduced a standardised dual writing sytem that removed some of Peck's original syllabic characters for ease of reading and proper pronunciation. The ICI standardised writing system is now widely used throughout Nunavut.

Bridging the gap

The Qaliujaaqpait (roman orthography) system standardised by ICI is now common among Inuit and is used internationally to communicate effectively in the Inuit language, although standardisation of dialects has to be integrated with the Qaliujaaqpait writing. This change has met with some resistance from the Qaniujaaqpait (syllabic) users and those whose sense of identity is connected to the symbols. This reaction is similar to that experienced when ICI writing standards were first introduced in 1976.

With the recent establishment of the new language authority Taiguusiliuqtiit, the issue of language standardisation will begin to be addressed. Dialects and their unique differences will be considered. There are examples of other Inuit dialects, like the Kalaallisut in Greenland, that are using a common writing system but are each retaining their own spoken dialects.

Transliteration—representing letters or words written in one alphabet using the corresponding letters of another—is now a more convenient way to communicate electronically in writing.

Sharing linguistic knowledge

Conferences on various language topics have led to unity among Inuit from all the circumpolar regions. These language conferences provide a venue to share progress about what has already been accomplished, what is currently being done and what is planned for the future. These gatherings provide an amazing opportunity to share ideas and promote cultural and linguistic revivals. Delegates come away rejuvenated and eager to promote new ideas. The last exciting conference, Uqausivut Atausiujjutivut, meaning "our language brings us together," was a Nunavut language summit organised by Nunavut's Department of Culture, Language, Elders and Youth.

Performing arts are an integral part of these events. Art is a powerful means of expression which brings culture and language to life. It is captivating to watch traditional youth dancers dance and sing to the rhythm of a traditional Inuit drum. The dance and song communicate a story, building suspense with an abrupt ending and leaving the audience wanting more.

Technology and tools

Inuit around the world have utilised new technology to express themselves linguistically and culturally, as well as demonstrate their traditional forms of expression.

Traditional storytelling is often done by an elder in a relaxed physical setting or can be aided with song and dance, throatsinging, string games, and ancient imagery as in petroglyphs, carvings or tools. More modern storytelling can now be done through movies, dolls, puppets, cartoons, books, radio, video and performing arts. With these tools we hope that our traditional stories, complete with Inuit values, can be passed on to future generations.

There are many ways to share the stories, including the Internet, where there are even some websites that can be viewed in the Inuit language. In fact, the Government of Nunavut website must be available in English, Inuktitut, Inuinnaqtun and French. Young people are captivated by new technology, and our goal is to engage them in using the Inuit language through its use on the Internet.

While text messaging is as popular in Nunavut as in the rest of Canada, current technology allows users to text message using Qaliujaaqpait but not Qaniujaaqpait—but who knows what the future will hold?

What we do know is that with hard work and perseverance, the future of Nunavut will include the Inuit language.

References

Harper, Kenn. "Inuktitut Writing Systems: The Current Situation." Inuktitut Magazine 53 (September 1983): 36-84.