UpHere Logo

It's Changing as we Speak - Part Two

It's Changing as we Speak - Part Two

In part two of our Inuktitut series, Samia Madwar looks across the Bering Strait, where the language originates
By Samia Madwar
Jul 13
From the July 2015 Issue

Qanuq Tamaunga Tikiutisimalirniqput - How we are where where are now


“Can anyone translate the word ‘university’ for me?”

Within three minutes, Madeleine Redfern’s question, posted on her Facebook page, generated the first response: Ilinniarvijjuaq—place of higher learning.

A minute after that, CBC Qulliq host Kevin Kablutsiak posted his response: Silattuqsarvigjuaq—a place where you can acquire sila, which, among other things, means wisdom. To which someone else quickly pointed out that in Greenlandic, silattuqsarvigjuaq means “the great place where you sober up.” 

Several comments later, Redfern, former mayor of Iqaluit and now president of Ajungi Arctic Consulting Group, still didn’t have a clear answer. There is, it turns out, no single, agreed-upon term. It comes down to the question of whether to use the root word ilinniaq, meaning “to learn,” or sila, meaning wisdom or knowledge. 

Then there are dialectical differences to consider. Many people know Inuktitut as the language of the Inuit, but it’s one of several dialects, which in turn each have subdialects. There’s Inuinnaqtun, spoken in Ulukhaktok, NWT, and Kugluktuk and Cambridge Bay in Nunavut; Inuvialuktun, spoken in the Mackenzie Delta; and Natsilingmiutut, spoken in the Western Arctic and around the Boothia Peninsula in the communities of Gjoa Haven, Taloyoak, Kugaaruk and Naujaat. Inuktitut has six subdialects: Kivalliq, Aivilik, North and South Baffin, as well as Nunavik (northern Quebec) and Nunatsiavut (northern Labrador).

No community wants to forfeit its dialect—an essential part of its identity—for a single standardized one (unless, of course, it’s theirs). And historically speaking, there is no way to identify a single, core dialect, according to Louis-Jacques Dorais, author of The Language of the Inuit, a comprehensive book on the subject. 

The Inuit languages belong to the Eskimo-Aleut, or Eskaleut, family tree, which includes Yupik languages spoken in southwestern Alaska and far eastern Russia; Sirenikski, a language that completely disappeared when its last speaker died in 2007); and Unangan, spoken in the Aleutians in Alaska. They share the same basic modular structure: start with root words, and add on certain elements and endings as needed, creating infinite possibilities for words. That means Inuit languages should theoretically be highly adaptable: you can easily string together words to create new vocabulary. But if the struggle to assign a word for university is any indication, there might just be too many possibilities. 

The word sila has haunting echoes in other tongues: sula in Manchu, sora in Japanese. The word qajaq, which most people know today as kayak, appears as kajuk in Tungus (a language in eastern Siberia), and qajiq in Old Turkish. Inuit call a brother ani, as do the Japanese; in Korean, it’s enni

It’s tantalizing to think that any of these might share an ancestor with the Inuit languages. By comparing the number of words still shared by two languages, linguists can estimate how recently they split apart. They’ve disputed whether Eskaleut stems from a single proto-family of languages, or an ancient network of families in close contact. The Inuit and their ancestors did, after all, migrate across the Bering Strait in several waves over a few thousand years, coming in close contact with several other ancient languages. 

“In Canada, English is a cancer. And radio and television are tobacco.”

The latest consensus among linguists is that they descended from a close network of ancient language families, rather than a single proto-family. The network would have included Japanese, Korean, and Chukotko-Kamchatkan—languages spoken in far eastern Siberia. 

Around 4,500 years ago, an ancient, proto-Eskaleut language was brought over to the eastern side of the Bering Strait, at about the same time the ancestors of the Inuit and those of the Unangan—also known as the Aleut—split. The peoples who crossed the Bering Land Bridge into Alaska would have been the first Eskimos, or Inuit, linguistically and culturally.  

Over the next few thousand years, the Paleo-Eskimos spread east in several waves of migrations, populating what is now the northern Northwest Territories, Nunavut, Greenland, Nunavik, and Nunatsiavut,  which is the name given to the Inuit lands along the northern coast of Labrador.

The latest wave was spurred on by climate change 1,000 years ago: as the temperature rose, whales and walruses moved into more northern waters off the coast of contemporary Alaska, and their hunters followed. Small groups migrated to the Mackenzie Delta. Some settled there, others travelled towards the northernmost islands of the Canadian Arctic. Some followed a northern route, migrating into northern Greenland (which is why Greenlandic Inuktitut is more similar to the languages spoken in the Mackenzie Delta than those in, say, the Baffin region), while others headed southward, populating what is now the rest of Nunavut, Nunavik and Labrador, developing subdialects in each region. 

It’s natural that people would want to protect their dialects, which, along with their natural environment, best express their identity. But what if that comes at the cost of losing the language entirely?

If you ask Mick Mallon, Inuktitut is doomed. Which is a shame, because he’s been teaching it for five decades. Mention his name to any Inuktitut teacher or translator today (as well as a few editors of this magazine), and they’ll not only recognize it, they’ll have a funny anecdote to tell. Despite Mallon and his peers’ collective efforts, though, he doesn’t think it’s enough.

“In Canada, English is a cancer,” he says. “And radio and television are tobacco.” Too many youth today don’t care about learning their language, he says. If that continues, Inuktitut will surely disappear in a matter of generations. 

Mallon stumbled into Inuktitut linguistics: in the 1950s, he and his then-wife were living in Ottawa when they met a couple who had worked for the government in Nunavik. Their stories fascinated Mallon and his wife, who were inspired to move to Puvirnituq, Nunavik. Mallon began to learn the language, and after a five-year sojourn in Indonesian Borneo, returned to the North—to Rankin Inlet, Nunavut, and began teaching. He’s been in love with Inuktitut ever since. Even now, in his 80s, he takes on students, purely for the joy of sharing his passion for a language whose infinite possibilities he reveres. 

There are success stories out there that give him the faintest of hope: Hawaiian, Maori, and even Gaelic, all of which are seeing a promising resurgence. But for Inuktitut, he says, “You need a missionary.”

What he means is, someone needs to take on the cause and spread the teaching of Inuktitut as effectively as, well, a missionary. It was missionaries, after all, who spread literacy among the Inuit.

Pre-contact, Inuit communication was entirely oral. Moravian missionaries in northern Labrador first began translating Christian texts into the local dialect, Nunatsiavut, at the end of the 18th century, using the Latin alphabet (also referred to as Roman orthography). Their system was very similar to that used in Greenland, where the writing system would be standardized in 1850, and then updated and standardized again in 1973. 

But their writing system didn’t entirely match the pronunciation. After a couple of attempts at reform in the 1970s and ‘80s, Labrador Inuit modified the Moravian script in the 1990s, and continue to use it today.

“A cool, analytical brain would say the world is losing languages all the time."

Anglican missionaries introduced syllabics in the 1850s, and those symbols 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. In the 1870s, Methodist missionary Reverend Edmund James Peck translated the Bible into Inuktitut using syllabic script and distributed it throughout the eastern Canadian Arctic. Inuit who learned it then passed it down through the generations, and syllabics spread throughout the Kivalliq, Baffin and Nunavik regions. 

Syllabics didn’t take hold in the Western Arctic, where the Inuinnait and Inuvialuit learned to write their languages in the Roman orthography from missionaries, trappers and traders. 

In the 1950s, the federal government commissioned two linguists to develop a standardized orthography to be used by all Inuit in Canada, on the assumption that syllabics were on their way to obsolescence, and a standardized orthography would save Inuktitut. But Inuit protested the change; they were never consulted on the matter.

Instead, Inuit Tapirisat of Canada set up its own language commission, which established two major conditions: the orthography should be able to adapt to all dialects, and those who used syllabics did not want to see them disappear. The organization worked with a linguist to develop a standard orthography that could be used in conjunction with syllabics, and formally adopted it in 1976, but it didn’t quite catch on. The Inuinnaqtun made some adjustments to adapt it to their dialect. The Nunatsiavut Inuit rejected it outright, preferring to use their own non-standard orthography, and the Inuvialuit later proposed their own orthography. 

That’s where it stands today. It’s still controversial to bring up the idea of doing away with syllabics as it is to suggest standardizing Inuktitut. But to preserve the language, something drastic needs to happen, and soon.

In the 2011 census, 32,415 people (out of 43,460) in Inuit areas listed Inuktitut as the language most often spoken at home; 350 listed Inuinnaqtun, and 370 listed Inuvialuktun—all declining figures since the previous census. 

When you get down to basics, the Inuit languages are fundamentally the same: they share many of the same words for the ice, the land, the animals, the sky. Walrus are some variation of aiviq, and caribou are tuktu wherever you go. 

They are also resilient. In addition to massive migrations over thousands of kilometres in a few thousand years, the Inuit languages have withstood contact and colonization for centuries. When Inuit were forced to move off the land and settle in communities in the 1950s, dialects were mixed, but not lost. Soon after, a generation of residential school students were punished for speaking their language; some survivors recall whispering it to each other defiantly. 

“A cool, analytical brain would say the world is losing languages all the time,” says Mallon. “But this one…” He trails off. The tragedy is not just in the thought that all those who fought to hold onto their native language may have been doing it in vain, it’s that the Inuit languages contain within their lexicon millennia of cultural knowledge. A simple place name is part of a story that the Inuit tell about the land, the ice and the wildlife that sustain them. There is no protecting the land without protecting the language, and vice versa. 

Witnessing the decline of Inuktitut is like watching the Library of Alexandria burn—while holding a single pail of water.