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TAISSUMANI: Around the Arctic August 10, 2012 - 9:10 am

Taissumani, Aug. 10

The First Inuktitut Language Conference

A page from the first book to use Syllabics to represent the Inuit language. It was created in the winter of 1865-66 for use among the Inuit of Fort George on James Bay, using a Syllabic system that had been developed for the Cree language. (HARPER COLLECTION)
A page from the first book to use Syllabics to represent the Inuit language. It was created in the winter of 1865-66 for use among the Inuit of Fort George on James Bay, using a Syllabic system that had been developed for the Cree language. (HARPER COLLECTION)

Talk of standardizing the writing of Inuktitut is once again rampant in the offices of the Government of Nunavut. This column looks at previous efforts, including the little-known standardization of 1865.

In the 1970s, under the auspices of Inuit Tapiriksat of Canada, the Inuit Language Commission embarked on a major study of Canadian Inuit writing systems. This resulted in a standardization of the way Syllabics are used and the adoption of a parallel alphabetic system.

What is less well known is that over 100 years earlier a meeting had been held in London, England, with the same purpose – to standardize the writing of Inuktitut in Canada. Although no Inuit were in attendance – in fact there were only two participants – this was the first Inuktitut language conference ever held. This is the story of that important meeting.

The Syllabic writing system was created by James Evans for use among the Cree Indians. The credit for adapting it to use in the writing of Inuktitut is usually given to the Reverend Edmund James Peck, who arrived in James Bay in the sub-Arctic in 1876.

But the work of adaptation had in fact been done 20 years earlier by two missionaries of the Church Missionary Society, the Rev. John Horden working at Moose Factory, and E. A. Watkins at Fort George and Little Whale River.

At the time Moose Factory, as well as being the trading centre of James Bay, was an intellectual hotbed, largely as a result of Horden’s presence and his sincere interest in the Indian and Inuit people who traded there.

Moreover, he had a printing press on which he published religious items for the instruction of the native people. He was a strong supporter of the Syllabic system as the means of bringing the Gospel to his parishioners.

In the winter of 1855-6 Horden printed a small book in Inuktitut for Watkins to use among the Inuit at Fort George. This book was written in Syllabics – the only Inuktitut Syllabic publication to come from Horden’s press. It was, in fact, Inuktitut words written in Cree Syllabics complete with Cree finals. In letters to the mission headquarters back in London, Watkins expressed some difficulty in bending the Cree system to fit the needs of Inuktitut.

Horden, too, had written that the Inuit language placed a “very great strain on the system,” and another missionary, T. H. Fleming, noted that “there are difficulties connected with it.” In 1856 Horden and Watkins began to formally revise Syllabics to better suit Inuktitut, but their work was cut short when the missionary society transferred Watkins to Red River the following year.

In 1864 Henry Venn, the dynamic secretary of the Church Missionary Society, took the bull by the horns and decided that Syllabics should be formally adapted, once and for all, to the Inuktitut language. He proposed a conference of Horden, Watkins, and a third missionary, Joseph Phelps Gardiner, who had worked among Indians and Inuit at Churchill. The conference would be held in London and its purpose was “to promote an important object, the fixing of the Esquimaux language.”

But the ship on which Horden was to have left for England sank in James Bay in 1864, and the conference had to be postponed for one year. Unfortunately this meant that Gardiner could not be present. Nonetheless, in November of 1865, Horden and Watkins met under Venn’s direction. The minutes of that mini-conference have survived. They are as follows:

“1. It appears to us very undesirable that any changes, except such as are absolutely necessary, should be made in the Syllabarium as now used; though we quite agree that the system is not so scientifically accurate as could be wished…

“2. In reducing the Esquimaux language into Syllabic writing, we think that a change may be advantageously made in the final symbols. Instead of the arbitrary signs now in use for the Cree, we would propose the adoption of half-size characters of the same forms as those employed for the consonants in combination with the vowel a…

“3. The additional consonants, b and d, found in the Esquimaux, may… be represented… by the characters for p and t respectively…

“4. In the Esquimaux language there are some double consonants which will need to be represented. For these we have adopted signs which combine as nearly as possible the two separate consonants.”

Horden and Watkins signed the minutes of this conference on November 24, 1865. The major revision adopted for Inuktitut was the standardization of the representation of syllable-final consonants, an adaptation which remains to this day.

Had Henry Venn not called this conference, it is doubtful that Inuktitut Syllabics would look like it does today, for in 1875 Horden wrote these words: “If the correction and improvement of the Syllabarium had been undertaken by me, as an individual, I would not say a word in its favour. I wished for no change, and only undertook the duty, in conjunction with Watkins, at the request, or rather command of Mr. Venn, who approved of the work when we had completed it.”

Taissumani recounts a specific event of historic interest. Kenn Harper is a historian, writer and linguist who lives in Iqaluit. Feedback? Send your comments and questions to .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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