One Inuit language, many Inuit dialects
Arctic language experts grapple with standardization
People from every region of Nunavut gathered in Iqaluit this past week to confront a thorny problem that’s bedeviled linguists and educators for more than half a century: how to create a form of the Inuit language that’s understandable in all regions of the territory.
“We have to be understandable in all dialects to everyone, from Kugluktuk to Sanikiluaq,” Elijah Erkloo, chair of the Inuit Uqausinginnik Taiguusiliuqtiit language authority, said Feb. 10 at a discussion session on language standardization.
It’s Erkloo’s Taiguusiliuqtiit group that’s expected to lead a movement towards standardization made necessary by the Inuit Language Protection Act and the obligations it creates for the Government of Nunavut.
The symposium, which started Feb. 8 in Iqaluit and ended Feb. 11, was organized to help the language authority kick-start its work.
Erkloo said a big part of that work will involve terminology, that is, choosing common words that every one can understand.
“The proper terms have to be chosen and researched and agreed-upon by terminology committees — there should not be disagreement over the Inuit language,” Erkloo said.
It’s likely that a sub-committee of Taiguusiliuqtiit, which is provided for by a section of the Inuit Language Protection Act, will work on the development of standard terminology.
To that end, Erkloo urged communities to develop local language committees, similar to one that already exists in Sanikiluaq.
And to preserve knowledge local dialects, he said the language authority would sponsor the recording of Inuit language speakers in every community.
As for a standardized writing system, Erkloo said he doesn’t know if Nunavut will eventually choose Roman orthography over the syllabic system, the use of which is nearly universal throughout Nunavik and eastern Nunavut.
“I can’t predict what it will be,” Erkloo said about the future of syllabics.
But he reminded participants that a writing system is not a new language, but a representation of the spoken word.
“Everybody knows a picture of a chair is not a chair. It’s a representation,” Erkloo said.
Personally, Erkloo said he’s capable of reading either Roman orthography or syllabics.
“I like it [Roman orthography]. I can write both ways,” he said.
That’s because, many years ago, Erkloo worked with Raymond Gagné, a linguist who the federal government hired in 1960 to develop a new writing system for the Inuit language.
Gagné devised a Roman orthography and recommended its use, but the Inuit of the eastern Arctic rejected it, as did the Anglican church, whose missionaries first developed the syllabic system in the 1800s.
Speaking at the symposium, Kenn Harper, the well-known Iqaluit linguist and historian, said in a presentation that use of the syllabic system is still firmly entrenched in the eastern Arctic.
Quoting numbers from Statistics Canada, he said the vast majority of Nunavut Inuit live in syllabic-using communities and that Inuit language use is strongest in those places.
And although Harper said he couldn’t answer any of the big questions that the idea of language standardization raises, he suggested it’s likely that a move towards Roman orthography would generate much opposition even today.
“There is a resistance still, or non-acceptance, of qaniujaaqpait [Roman orthography],” Harper said.
But history shows rapid orthographic change can occur within languages — but only if imposed by coercive governments.
Harper cited the example of Turkey. In 1928, a new, modernizing dictatorship led by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk decreed the Turkish language would no longer be written in a script, used for more than 1,000 years, that was based on Arabic and Persian characters.
Instead, Atatürk imposed a writing system based on Roman orthography. By 1932, 70 per cent of Turks were literate in the new writing system.
That approach, however, could hardly work in today’s Nunavut, Harper said.
He also pointed out that, thanks to CBC radio, Inuit from all regions of Nunavut have learned to understand one another’s dialects, due to popular radio programs like Sinnaksautit, the bedtime storytelling program that runs every week night at 10:30 p.m. eastern time.
“CBC has allowed Inuit, through their broadcasts, to learn words from other dialects,” Harper said, adding that it’s not a good thing that the current emphasis on standardization is driven by the Government of Nunavut.
For example, the Inuit Language Protection Act allows the GN to declare that the Inuktitut versions of certain laws are legally “authoritative,” just like the English and French versions, nervous GN lawyers worry that because different translators use different terms to render English legislation into Inuktitut, the government could face big problems in the future, especially if these translated laws are used in court.
But Harper said language development isn’t about the needs of government.
“It’s for people in communities to be able to speak to each other,” Harper said.
The GN expends much of its limited resources translating government documents that nobody reads, but there is nothing in the Inuit language to read “for enjoyment,” he said.
“People don’t spend their evenings reading the Hansard. Nobody reads Hansard,” he said.