A gutsy move on language standardization

“We hope Nunavut residents will keep their minds open to the use of Roman orthography”


As the people of Nunavut contemplate the tarnished dream of April 1, 1999, it’s worth noting that not all is lost.

Just last week, we saw that when elected leaders make decisive use of the powerful instruments that the Nunavut project put into their hands, they can move on from the dithering and magical thinking of the past.

That’s what Education Minister Paul Quassa appeared to do this past March 12, when he announced that his department will look at the idea of adopting Roman orthography as the standard method for teaching the written form of the Inuit language within the territory’s schools.

By Nunavut standards, that’s a bold move.

But if the Inuit language is to even come close to achieving the status that Nunavut’s two language laws and the Education Act set out in theory, the Government of Nunavut must make some tough, urgent decisions on standardization and modernization.

In the Nunavut school system, only one language is used consistently at all grade levels: English. And for nearly all Grade 12 graduates, it’s proficiency in English, and only English, that matters to those who seek admission to colleges and universities.

And in the territorial government, there’s only one language that matters: English and only English. Yes, the Nunavut Official Languages Act grants official status to the Inuit language, and the Inuit Language Protection Act contains a variety of measures aimed at ensuring its health.

But at the GN, as in all of Nunavut’s Inuit organizations and quasi-government agencies, there’s only one functional language of work: English. That is the language in which all the real work is done: legislation, policy creation, report writing and pretty much all forms of external and internal communication.

Territorial law may grant official status to the Inuit language. But in reality, it functions only as a symbolic language — a nostalgic reminder of identity, a dress-up language displayed for show. In government, where the written word is paramount, the real work is done in English.

The Laval university linguist Aurélie Hot confirmed this in an article published in 2009, based on a study of Inuit language speakers in Iqaluit and Igloolik.

Her conclusion? “There seem to be a vicious circle that keeps the status of Inuktitut at the level of a symbolic language,” she said in a 2010 interview with Nunatsiaq News.

As a first step towards reversing that trend, the GN, together with the Inuit Uqausinginnik Taiguusiliuqtiit language authority, must move towards standardization of the written language. This means teaching it more or less the same way in every community, using a more or less standard writing system and terminology.

And it appears that Nunavut education officials now believe that first step may be easier to accomplish with Roman orthography than with syllabics.

Quassa and his staff must know, surely, that any movement towards the use of Roman orthography in eastern Nunavut will spark stiff resistance among those who have been attached to the use of syllabics for their entire lives. Numerous MLAs and cabinet ministers must also know that.

But a mature, informed government must sometimes make tough decisions that not everyone supports. A mature, informed government must sometimes make tough decisions that even a majority may not support.

As Quassa said last week, the process that lies before the Government of Nunavut on this issue is likely to be complex. They will start with an implementation plan for submission to cabinet at some point, but not before a lengthy period of consultation and research.

When governments promise “consultation” and “research” they often do so to create the wiggle room they might need if they end up choosing to back out later. So Quassa’s announcement comes with a built-in escape clause. There’s lots of opportunity for back-tracking and delay.

But give credit where credit is due. Last week, a Nunavut cabinet made a tough decision on a tough issue. We hope Nunavut residents will keep their minds open to the use of Roman orthography. JB

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