Quassa: GN mulls Roman orthography as Nunavut-wide standard

“We are looking to explore the benefits of transitioning to the Roman orthography writing system”


This text from the spring 1987 issue of Inuktitut magazine shows identical versions of the famous Inuit-language story, known in English as “The Woman Who Married a Dog,” represented in syllabics and Roman orthography.

Paul Quassa, the Nunavut education minister, confirmed a process March 12 that could change the way the Inuit language is taught nearly everywhere in Nunavut: work on the use of Roman orthography as a standard writing system.

“Mr. Speaker, at the senior levels, we have discussed the issue of standardizing the writing system for Inuktut in our schools and we believe that a standard writing system has the potential to build an environment where students would be better equipped for learning more than one language,” Quassa said in a minister’s statement.

And that future Nunavut-wide Inuit-language teaching standard could be based on Roman orthography, Quassa said.

That’s because staff inside the education department are now exploring the feasibility of using a Roman writing system in Nunavut schools.

In that effort, the GN has gained the support of the Inuit Uqausinginnik Taiguusiliuqtiit language authority.

“I spoke with them and they passed a motion that supports our work. We are looking to explore the benefits of transitioning to the Roman orthography writing system,” Quassa said.

But at the same time, Quassa said this is a “complex initiative.”

The first step would be a big implementation plan that cabinet would have to approve, he said.

That plan, which officials are now working on, would include research on:

• the capacity of existing staff capacity to provide instruction in Roman orthography;

• the development of teaching resources, including an inventory of existing curriculum documents and resources;

• the design and preparation of field tests; and,

• communications and consultation.

Quassa said this effort would help the territorial government meet one of the goals set out in its Sivumut Abluqta mandate statement: to strengthen the use of Inuktut in Nunavut.

“In order to provide high-quality bilingual education, we are looking at the benefits of a standardized education system — one that would provide quality learning experiences and an equal opportunity for success for all students,” he said.

Throughout most of the eastern Arctic, versions of the church-developed syllabic system have been used to represent the Inuit language since the middle of the 19th century.

But in Greenland, Alaska, western Nunavut, and the Inuvialuit region of the Northwest Territories, most Inuit-language speakers use forms of Roman orthography.

At the same time Inuit leaders and language experts have debated the relative merits of syllabics and Roman orthography for many decades.

As far back as 1960, linguist Raymond Gagné developed a Roman orthography writing system for the Inuit language.

But most Inuit in the eastern Arctic, as well as the Anglican church, whose missionaries developed syllabics in the 19th century, rejected Gagné’s writing system.

In his Oct. 24, 2014 My Little Corner of Canada column in Nunatsiaq News, Inuit leader John Amagoalik repeated his support for a transition to Roman orthography from syllabics.

However, some language experts believe that such a transition could be hard to accomplish.

In his Feb. 4, 2011 Taissumani column, linguist Kenn Harper said any move from syllabics to Roman orthography could face strong resistance.

“These suggestions are generally met with an outcry of support for the retention of Syllabics. The suggestion of language change always excites passionate argument,” Harper wrote.

The Inuit Uqausinginnik Taiguusiliuqtiit language authority, set up under the Inuit Language Protection Act, is mandated to work on the standardization of the Inuit language across Nunavut.

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