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Asinnguqpaluajut - The process of change


On Baffin Island, Saturday—Sivataaqvik—means Biscuit Day. It’s a lexical vestige from when Inuit received rations from whalers, and but one example of how the Inuit language is antiquated. In many ways, Inuktitut is behind the times. 

Try to describe the size, weight or distance of an object using the word uukturauti, which simply means “a form of measurement”—it could be inches, pounds, miles or anything. Math is next to impossible to convey with no Inuktitut word for percentage. The number nine—qulingiluaqtut—literally means “not quite 10.” Speakers usually count up to 20 before resorting to English. And the syllabic alphabet, which missionaries invented more than a century ago and then adapted for Inuktitut, lacks the consonants B, D, F, K, W, X, Z and the sounds CH and SH, so translating simple phrases can be difficult.

For example, ExxonMobil is Iksaan-Muupil and British Columbia is Puritis Kalampia.

“When British Petroleum had an oil spill I had to say Pee-Pee had a spill,” jokes Suzie Napayok-Short, a professional interpreter of 30 years. “In this language you have to laugh a lot. You have to do the best you can to keep the language alive.” Napayok-Short insists the Inuit language must evolve quickly to keep pace with development. She is an outspoken critic of written Inuktitut, arguing in an op-ed it is an outdated system introduced by “non-speaking religious types of old who didn’t seem to understand the depth and complexities of the language.” She likens switching from syllabics to Roman orthography (writing Inuktitut using English letters) to going from Imperial to metric; it makes more sense but people don’t like change. “Inuktitut has been lacking for a long time,” she says. “We do what we can with it because as Inuit we are adaptable.”

Anglican missionaries introduced syllabics in the 1850s, and those have become one of the icons of Inuit culture. The system, based on shorthand writing, was initially developed for the Ojibwa in central Ontario, then modified for Cree, before being adapted again for Inuktitut.

Geographically speaking, Inuktitut is one of the world’s most widely used indigenous languages. It is spoken from Alaska to Greenland, and in Canada, it is the indigenous mother tongue with the second-largest number of speakers, around 35,000. It is an official language in Nunavut and the NWT and a semi-official language in Nunavik and Northern Labrador. Yet for all this, the Inuit language in Canada continues to decline. 

Nunavut Language Commissioner Sandra Inutiq estimates over 4,000 Inuit don’t speak their language. She says with different pockets of projects and funding it makes it hard for teachers to implement spelling and grammar rules, let alone an entire agreed-upon writing system.

“We’re going to be quite challenged to take the measures to protect the language and teach the language,” she says, explaining the urgency for standardization. “It needs to happen. It needed to happen yesterday.”

“How do you standardize without people feeling like you are degrading or taking away?”

Standardization isn’t just about choosing Roman orthography over syllabics, which only Nunavut and Nunavik use, or about inventing new words, which happens regularly with new legal, medical and technological terms. It is about balancing the preservation of regional dialects with the survival of the language as a whole. Inutiq says much of her work in preserving and promoting Inuktitut is trying to reverse what she calls the “assimilation expectations up to now.” What she means is, language is touchy. Many people have lost their language once; it’s natural they react emotionally.

“How do you standardize without people feeling like you are degrading or taking away?” she says. Nunavut has yet to scratch the surface of standardization, but could look to Greenland for how to do it. There, the predominant dialect spoken by Nuukmiut—residents of the capital city—was officially adopted for all government communication, though regional dialects still abound. Inutiq says in Nunavut’s case, the predominant dialect would likely be a mix of North and South Baffin. “It’s not an impossible task.”

The next, or simultaneous, step is getting younger generations speaking the language. Nunia Anoee helped write Inuktitut curriculum and wanted to see it in action by teaching. However, at the high school level she was surprised some students couldn’t write their last name. She decided to teach at the middle school and then younger still. She currently teaches Inuktitut to kindergarten students at Arviat’s Levi Angmak Elementary School.

Having seen students learn (or not learn) the language at three different levels, Anoee knows the importance of beginning small—days of the week; objects in the classroom; song lyrics. She says this way even non-Inuit students learn Inuktitut. She is optimistic about the future of the language—“as long as we speak it at home,” she adds.

Inuktitut was Franco Buscemi’s first language, but throughout school he spoke very little because he was in the English stream. After moving south, he stopped speaking it entirely. Buscemi had to relearn Inuktitut as an adult, defying the myth that it's a difficult language by speaking it publicly.

“Since I started working in Inuit organizations I have tried to improve my vocabulary every year,” he says, “and force myself into situations that force me to learn new terms and speak it publicly even if I’m making mistakes.” To Buscemi, it’s professionally important to serve people in the language of their choice, it’s personally important to honour his mother’s language, and practically important when out hunting. He also says people will mistake him for being qallunaat (non-Inuit), which creates barriers. “I see many people relax when they hear me speak Inuktitut.”

A formidable challenge for the language will be overcoming social pressures to speak English as southern pop culture abounds in the territory’s capital. Inutiq says it’s common for Inuit youth to be embarrassed speaking Inuktitut for fear of getting it wrong. She compares a youth speaking Inuktitut with an elder to a layperson speaking with an academic. But she says patience is the important thing, and evidence shows over time the language self-corrects. 

There are bright spots on the language’s horizon. TV Nunavut is planning all-Inuktitut programming. Inhabit Media is publishing leveled reading books. Pangnirtuing-based Pinnguaq has apps to learn Inuktutiut through music, and Ilisaqsivik in Clyde River hopes to offer a full immersion program for people to learn the language beyond the classroom. The website also has grammar and glossaries for all regional dialects. 

“Above all it has to be spoken in the home,” says Napayok-Short, adding it is important for children because it helps them know who they are. She draws an analogy from East Indian immigrants who adapt well to English society but come home to speak Punjabi. 

“I feel Inuktitut will survive. It is getting more support now than it ever got before.”