Nunatsiaq News
TAISSUMANI: Around the Arctic January 24, 2014 - 10:38 am

Taissumani, Jan. 24

A Song About Syllabics


Traditionally Inuit often settled disputes through song contests, events in which one party would sometimes mercilessly deride in verse the shortcomings and vices of another.

These were verbal duels in which each tried to outdo the other. They were often accompanied by fisticuffs.

These songs were tersely sung, expressed almost in a kind of abbreviated form to a local audience familiar with the language and the speaking and singing styles of the participants. Local geographic references were all understood by the audience, as were the names of family and village members and their relationships to each other.

The audience also would be quite familiar with the events described, including personal mistakes and shortcomings of the participants. To an outsider, if one were present at all, these details were often impenetrable, and some explanation was required before the meaning became clear.

Among the inland Inuit, the so-called Caribou Eskimos of the Kivalliq region, two men were famous song rivals almost a century ago. Utahaania, who generally lived at Qamanerjuaq near the great lake Hikoligjuaq, was one participant.

His rival Kanaihuaq lived nearby. When Kanaihuaq exposed Utahaania’s sexual indiscretions with close relatives, for all to hear, Utahaania retaliated by relating how Kanaihuaq and his wife had come to blows in a fight in which the wife thoroughly thrashed her husband.

Utahaania then went on to sing another song in which he made fun of Kanaihuaq’s ability to write in the new Syllabic orthography. Kanaihuaq had learned to write what his opponent described as the “sign alphabet of the missionaries.”

Perhaps he had been to Chesterfield Inlet, where Father Turquetil had established a mission some years before and taught the skill of writing to Inuit who visited his post. Or perhaps he had visited the whalers who had frequented the coast in years past.

Some coastal Inuit had learned writing from them, or from the Baffin Island Inuit whom the whalers periodically recruited to accompany them to the Kivalliq coast. With Syllabics being so easy to learn, it was passed on from one Inuk to another, so that one was able to learn the system without even meeting a white man.

By whatever means, Kanaihuaq had become proficient in writing. Utahaania didn’t like this.

He thought that his rival was putting on airs, that he was “making up to the white man in a snobbish fashion.” And that he now thought of himself as a great man, a chief, “one who thinks for others and can order his neighbours about.”

And so Utahaania decided to lampoon his rival in the traditional manner, through song. The song, sung of course in Inuktitut, is given here in English translation.


          Ivmaiya — ayai
          Is there any sort of reason
          Why the Lord of the White Men
          Should pay heed to your words?
          Is he to put any trust in your words
          Because you and you Tupialaaq
          Drove him up to those
          Who dwell to the east of us?
          And yet all the same he listened to you
          (and thought you were wise)
          Because you could write down speaking signs
          With “writing hand”,
          And make your speech
          Like that of a chieftain.
          And now I sing
          Just to be nasty,
          A song such as that a bird sings
          With its beak
          Here in the qaggje.

Kanaihuaq’s response, unfortunately, was not recorded.

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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