Government of Canada
Symbol of the Government of Canada

Inuit: the people

Elijah Tigullaraq
Qikiqtanai School Operations
Government of Nunavut

2013-03-04

For thousands of years, Inuit thought they were alone in the world. They called themselves Inuit, or "the people." There are different groups of "Inuit" across the circumpolar world: Yupik in Siberia; Inuppiat/Yupik in Alaska; Inuvialuit in Canada's western Arctic; Inuinnaqtun in the Kitikmeot Region of Nunavut; Inuit across all of the regions, from Kivalliq, Qikiqtaaluk and Nunavik to Labrador; and finally, Kalaalliit in Greenland.

Inuit, not Eskimo

Inuit were given the name Eskimo—as we are widely known around the world today—by the early Europeans. We have always called ourselves Inuit, and most of us regard Eskimo as the foreign word that it is. In fact, many Inuit today find the word Eskimo to be offensive and derogatory. We prefer the name Inuit, as that is what we call ourselves. The word Eskimo comes from Cree and means "eater of raw meat." But Inuit are known to eat cooked meat once in a while!

Singular, dual and plural forms

Inuktitut—our language—has singular, dual and plural forms, while English has only singular and plural forms. For example, Inuk means "one person," Inuuk means "two persons," and Inuit means "three or more persons." When referring to Inuit as a collective, some English speakers say "the Inuit people." This expression is redundant to Inuktitut speakers because the word "people" is repeated. "Inuit" by itself is sufficient, and that is what we prefer.

Inuit language and dialects

Even though Inuit are scattered all over the globe, they share one language—the Inuit language1. Although the terms referring to animals, landscapes, ice and weather are very stable and do not vary much across the Inuit world, there are variations in pronunciation, and some words differ completely—especially terms for "new" technologies and political/social realities.

The Inuit language has different dialects which are spoken in major regions, such as North and South Baffin. Further, within a region, each community has its own variation of the dialect spoken. Inuit can tell where an Inuktitut speaker comes from by the way he or she speaks. Some can even identify which family a speaker comes from! This is because each family tends to have its own distinctive patterns of speech and/or pronunciation.

Writing systems

There are different writing systems in the Inuit world. In Canada's eastern Arctic, which includes Kivalliq, Qikiqtaaluk and Nunavik, Inuit use two writing systems that were standardized by the Inuit Cultural Institute in the 1970s: roman orthography and syllabics. In the central Arctic, Inuvialuit and Inuinnaqtun speakers use their own forms of roman orthography. Finally, Inuit in Greenland (Kalaalliit Nunaat) also use their own form of standardized roman orthography.

Back to the note1 According to linguistic classification, the Inuit language belongs to the Eskimo-Aleut language family.