Looking Back
The Early Years
The Road to Nunavut
What Price Nunavut?
The Next Generation
Inuit and The Land As One
Living with Change
Our Language, Our Selves
Inuit Art: The New Reality

Hunters and High Finance
The Subsistence Economy
A Public Government
The First MLAs
The World Looks North
What's In A Name?

Map of Nunavut

Inuktitut - Nunavut 99

"Tagak Curley, the president of Inuit Tapirisat of Canada, immediately
exclaimed that the new territory would naturally be called 'Nunavut.' "

—ITC legal advisor Peter Cumming, recalling the moment in June 1974 when,
on the steps of the Tuktoyaktuk school, the broad goal for Inuit land claims in the
Arctic narrowed to the creation of a new separate territory called "Nunavut"

Parents, with the help of schools
and government, will be key to making
Inuktitut a living, working language
in the generations ahead

By Alexina Kublu and Mick Mallon

[The nature of Inuktitut] [Standardization?] [The survival of Inuktitut] [Commitment in the home] [Education] [Government] [Language and culture tomorrow]

s there a Canadian culture? Is there an Inuit culture? An Inuktitut word for "way of life" is inuusiq. Based on the word for person, inuk, it means something like "the way of being a person." Is there a connection between the language I speak and the person I am? Let us tell you a story.

Some years ago, Kublu applied for a job with an Inuit organization in Ottawa, and dashed off the usual résumé. On checking it over, however, she thought, "But this is an Inuit organization. If the person who reads this résumé is a traditional Inuk, what will he think of it, and of me?"

So she translated it into Inuktitut . . . and it sounded arrogant, boastful, and cold, cold, cold. Then she sat down and wrote a résumé directly in Inuktitut. It came out fine, until she translated it into English. The English version was vague, unfocused, even wimpy!

In fact, studies have suggested that many fluently bilingual people shift their personalities (or shall we say their cultures?) as they shift language. So there is a connection.

For an Inuk like Kublu, language and culture are inextricably entwined in the perception of who she is, to herself and to others. In the eyes of older people in the community, she is a child who has tapped into the mysterious powers of the qallunaat (white people), but who still depends on her elders for so many answers about daily life in the past.

To her colleagues at the college where Kublu works, she is, we hope, an equal, with a professional competence extending beyond her particular role as instructor of interpretation and translation. To her students, she is a role model, one who has attained a balance between two worlds. To herself . . . well, she knows she can never be the kind of Inuk her elders were, but, with all due respect, she doesn't want to be. And she never could be a qallunaaq (white person).

The language of Inuit, Inuktitut, has changed in the last century, but it is still the same. In a good portion of the circumpolar world, it is alive and well. Kublu can communicate quite successfully with Greenlanders, for example, and if parachuted into Point Barrow in northern Alaska, which is much further away, she would be able to do the same after about a week or so.

The culture of Inuit has changed more than Inuktitut has, but most of those changes are on the outside. Kublu does not lead the same life her parents did, but in her approach to life, her system of values, her appreciation of the world around her, she is closer to them than to her qallunaat colleagues.

The nature of the Inuktitut language

In English, and in most other European languages, a sentence is a string of beads. Each bead is a tiny little word, and the beads are strung together to make meaning.

I am happy to be here.
Je suis content d'être ici.
Yo estoy contento de estar aquí.

But in Inuktitut the words are like Lego™ blocks, intricate pieces locked together to produce a nugget of meaning.

quviasuktunga tamaaniinnama
(happy + I here + in + be + because I)

How about this word, produced at random: Pariliarumaniralauqsimanngittunga, "I never said I wanted to go to Paris."

These words are produced by a grammatical system that is much more regular than anything in English. Inuit students like studying grammar. They get pleasure out of seeing the logical flow of something they always took for granted. The grammar is not only precise, it is complex.

In Inuktitut, there are several hundred basic verb endings, as well as variations depending on the sound system. Take, for example, the verb root malik - "follow."

maliktunga — "I follow"
malikkassik — "because you two follow"
malikkit — "follow them!"
malikkuttikkuk — "if we two followed those two"
malingmangaakku — "whether I followed her"

A simpler example of Inuktitut word-building is ui, a husband. An uiviniq is a former husband. ("Would he have to be dead to be called a uiviniq?" Mallon once asked one of his co-teachers. She paused thoughtfully for a moment and replied, "It would depend on what he had done.")

A uiksaq is a potential husband, a "fiancé." And, with complete logic, a uiksaviniq is a former potential husband, or an ex-fiancé. In fact, Inuktitut could be described as a more precise and analytical instrument for defining things than English is, for all its literary richness. When Quebec linguist Louis-Jacques Dorais analysed words for imported items in Nunavik (arctic Quebec), he found that less than six per cent of the new words were borrowed from English, whereas 76 per cent were descriptive expressions (the others were modifications of traditional words). Furthermore, of the descriptive words, nearly half described the new item by its function, rather than by its appearance — a pretty sophisticated approach to word definition. For instance, the Inuktitut word for computer is qarasaujaq — "something that works like a brain" — while qulimiguulik, meaning "that which has something going through the space above itself," is Inuktitut for helicopter.


Inuktitut has a long, rich history as an oral language, but its writing systems are fairly new.

Even though there are some seven or so major dialect groupings of Inuktitut in Nunavut, Inuit from across their territory understand one another. In the western Kitikmeot Region, the dialect is known as Inuinnaqtun and is written in roman orthography, just as it is in Labrador, the Canadian western Arctic, Alaska, and in Greenland, where a tradition of literacy based on the roman alphabet goes back centuries.

In the rest of Nunavut, however, Inuktitut is written in syllabics, a phonetic form of writing that was developed by Rev. James Evans for the Cree, adapted for the Inuit in the latter part of the 1800s by the Anglican missionaries John Horden and E.A. Watkins, and brought to the Arctic by their colleague, Edmund Peck. A standardized dual orthography for both roman and syllabics was established in the late 1970s by the Inuit Cultural Institute. Time has revealed one or two minor problems with the system, but on the whole it is accurate, learnable and logical. It has gained acceptance in the east, but westerners have been much less receptive, preferring to use an older roman style of spelling.

Standardization of the language, however, is a different matter. It is much more controversial. People who have pride in their language feel very strongly about their dialect. (This certainly comes across in college language courses, where students react immediately to anything they interpret as an attack on the autonomy of their own dialect.) Luckily, however, it can be argued that there is no need to standardize the basic core of the language. Experience over the last 30 years has shown that sophisticated Inuit across Nunavut can readily communicate with each other, either at formal conferences or in informal social situations. They make automatic minor adaptations to adjust to each other's patterns. Where standardization is necessary is in the development of technical terms, and that is usually not such an emotional issue.

Survival is a far more serious issue than standardization.

The survival of Inuktitut

The century that is passing has not been kind to the minority languages of the world, particularly the aboriginal languages (and cultures) of North America. A few years ago it was reported that, given the statistics, one would expect only Cree and Inuktitut to have a chance of surviving another 100 years in Canada. That opinion, however, is no grounds for complacency.

  After 31 years
of broadcasting, Iqaluit's Jonah Kelly signed off from CBC North radio in 1997. Inuktitut language programming has been essential to
the survival of the language

Today, very few native children in western Nunavut speak, or even understand, their native language. And it is the children who count. Visit a community and listen to the children playing. It doesn't matter how much Inuktitut is spoken in the store by adults shopping, or in the kitchens among elders visiting. What language are the children using? The first sign of decay is when the children play in English. The second is when the parents speak in Inuktitut and the children reply in English. The third is when the language of the home is English, except for the elders in the corner, a generation cut off from their grandchildren.

Linguists use a term to express the effort to revive a dying language: "salvage linguistics." The situation along the central Arctic coast of Nunavut — the communities of Cambridge Bay, Kugluktuk, Umingmaktok and Bathurst Inlet - can today be realistically described as one of salvage. There is a race against time, as a small group of Inuit teachers there work to preserve and transmit their language before it is too late.

Will they solve the problem? Or to put it more broadly: can institutions such as government and education save a language on their own? No.

Commitment in the home

The essential element is commitment in the home: commitment by parents. Institutions can't legislate that. What they can do is encourage and support it. But the essential element will come from the people. The essential element will be a pride in the language, and a determination to use it.

Two factors chip away at the stronghold of a minority language such as Inuktitut. One is that by the time parents realize its use is disappearing, it is already too late.

The second factor is the overwhelming power of English, a power felt today across the world. It's not just that English is the language of Shakespeare, and Ernest Hemingway, and Margaret Atwood. It is also the language of Coca-Cola, and the Apollo program, and Bill Gates, and Michael Jackson, and Disney World. English is the language of power, and of glitter. Parents use English to link their children to the source of power.


However, many people believe that Inuktitut will be a source of strength to Nunavut. So what else can the institutions do to ensure its survival and growth?

Education comes to mind immediately. Research and development in Inuktitut curriculum began soon after the birth of the NWT Department of Education in 1970, and has continued. A training program for Inuit teachers teaching in Inuktitut was started in the early 1980s.

But there is still room for improvement. While a fully developed curriculum for high schools is lacking, even more crucial is the need to develop skills in second-language instruction, and to ensure that there is funding for Inuktitut second-language curriculum and materials. It is not only that the situation in the central Arctic is critical, and that the handful of dedicated Inuit teachers there need skilled technical support. Even children in eastern Nunavut, in communities such as the territory's capital, Iqaluit, need an Inuktitut second-language emphasis in their language classes. This is especially true for children in cross-cultural families. In the vital area of adult education, there is a demand for classes in first-language literacy training, and in second-language training.


Inuktitut will be one of Nunavut's three official languages (English and French are the other two). What's more, Inuktitut is to be the working language of the government. For those who believe in the importance of the language, this is a laudable objective. But there will be obstacles along the way.

In the central Arctic, where many younger Inuit are much more comfortable working in English, will there be an exception to the rule of using Inuktitut, or some compromise permitted?

A second complication is that for years to come, certain specialized positions will need to be filled by skilled southerners until such skills are acquired by residents of Nunavut. If Inuktitut is to be the working language, then there must be Inuktitut instruction for non-Inuit.

This won't be easy. Thirty-odd years of French instruction in the Canadian federal government have had mixed results at best.

One possible compromise is an increased Inuktitut flavor in the workplace, combined with a well-thought-out language training program. Inuktitut expressions would increasingly be used in the office. A growing number of non-Inuit staff would be able to communicate at a very basic level before having to fall back on English to develop their ideas, and some would eventually be able to function in the language.

Language and culture tomorrow

So here we stand, on the threshold of the new century, facing a future that holds promise and challenges. Would we have the courage to accept the offer of a glimpse of Nunavut in 2099? Would such a glimpse show us homes where Inuktitut continues to be spoken, offices where it is in common use, a lively cultural scene with literature and music expressing our way of life? In our present situation there is indeed the promise of such a future. Let us hope and work for the strength and commitment to attain it.

Alexina Kublu is an Inuk who teaches interpreters and translators at Nunavut Arctic College in Iqaluit. Mick Mallon, also from Iqaluit, is a qallunaaq who teaches Inuktitut as a Second Language.

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