Nunavut summit ponders standardized Inuit language
"This is an easier sell now than 20 years ago”
Inuit from three different countries spoke in favour of a standardized Inuit language at last week’s Nunavut language summit in Iqaluit
“This is an easier sell now than 20 years ago, because people are seeing the necessity of a common dialect and writing system,” Jose Kusugak, the president of the Kivalliq Inuit Association and a longstanding proponent of language standardization, said at the meeting.
Arctic Canada, Greenland and Alaska were all represented at the “Writing and Standardizing the Inuit Language” session of the language summit on Feb. 10.
Carl Christian Puju Olsen, director of the Greenland language secretariat, said Greenland has used a standardized written and spoken language since the 1960s.
Olsen explained that the spoken language of Greenland, Kalallisut, developed out of the dialect of mid-western Greenland, supplemented by northern Greenland’s vocabulary for hunting on the ice: a lifestyle unknown in the shepherding south.
The standardization of Greenland’s language began in the 1960s. Olsen said Kalallisut is used for all official communications, but local dialects are still used in the communities.
In Alaska, only a few thousand Iñupiak-speakers remain and are mostly elderly, said Edna McLean, an Iñupiaq linguist from Barrow, Alaska.
Out of roughly 14,000 Iñupiat, only 3,000 still speak their original language, she said.
McLean compared the writing systems of the Inuit languages that use Roman orthography, but did not examine the syllabary because she doesn’t know the system.
McLean was one of several voices at the summit pushing for a common writing system for Inuit languages that would allow direct communication from Greenland to Alaska.
Such a writing system would be “auxiliary” to the systems that already exist, not replacing them within the individual jurisdictions, she said.
Through the centuries of European and North American colonization of the Arctic, Inuit languages have established divergent writing systems, most having little in common with each other.
If a standardized auxiliary language ever comes to be, such a writing system would no doubt use Roman orthography, as does Kalallisut, Inuinnaqtun, Inuvialuktun and Iñupiak, though Iñupiak’s orthography includes several irregular modifications.
Kalallisut’s orthography mostly uses the standard Roman alphabet, but Danish words that have been added to the language use Danish modifications.
The advantages to such standardization are that Greenlandic writing would be more readily available to Inuit readers in Arctic Canada and Alaska.
Kusugak heartily endorsed Inuit-language standardization for both the written and spoken language.
For decades, Kusugak has called for standardization similar to the Greenland model, using a specific dialect as the base for a standard language of government.
But Kusugak and McLean both acknowledged that standardization is a hard sell for people who are worried about losing local dialects and orthographies.
“People cling to what is familiar to them,” McLean said of Inuktitut syllabics. “It’s a very natural reaction to change.”
Iqaluit interpreter-translator Jacopoosie Peter spoke in favour of using Roman orthography for a standardized Inuit language, pointing out that syllabics were introduced by missionaries and a fairly recent addition to Inuktitut.
Some of the elders of his youth wrote in Roman orthography, Peter said.
Kusugak said there’s more of a push for standardization now than in the past, as people see the need for a common dialect and writing system.
“There’s still hangers-on, traditionalists, fundamentalists,” Kusugak admitted. “You can’t change their minds.”
One of the thornier issues raised by language standardization is the relationship between language and religion.
Kusugak said the syllabic system used in the old Anglican version of the Bible is an older form, more like the original Cree syllabics.
He said the current Roman Catholic version is closer to modern Inuktitut syllabics.
So for some traditionalists of both churches, changing the language could be tantamount to changing the word of God.
Nunavut’s approach is not to try to create a standard Inuit language, except for the technical vocabulary necessary for government documents and other specific, non-traditional applications, a member of the GN’s recently-formed Inuit language authority said.
Edna Elias — a member of Inuit Uqausinginnik Taiguusiliuqtiit — said Taiguusiliuqtiit is charged with developing this kind of vocabulary, such as medical terms.
The Tauguusikiuqtiit language authority was established under the Inuit Language Protection Act.
“We’re not trying to do away with the local lingo,” Elias said.
Elias explained Nunavut’s plans for Inuit-language education are to maintain education in local dialects with teachers recruited from the communities where they teach.
But there are some regional differences nonetheless. In the Kitikmeot region, Inuinnaqtun is mostly spoken as a second language, behind English.
In most of the rest of Nunavut, Inuktitut is still common as a first language, so different teaching methods apply.