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Borrowed words

Taissumani: 2009-02-06

By Kenn Harper

A century ago, when bowhead whaling was still an important industry in the waters off Canada's eastern Arctic, Inuit and whites were faced with the problem of communicating with each other.

Many of the whalers who returned year after year learned to speak Inuktitut, as did the traders who followed them. In fact, of the few white people who lived in the ­Canadian Arctic in those far-off days, probably a larger percentage spoke Inuktitut then than do now. Many Inuit – especially men who formed the crews of local whaleboats – also learned to speak English well, and others learned a kind of trade jargon that was a mixture of both languages.

But the whalers who came to the Arctic did not all speak the same kind of English – some were from the United States, some were English, and some were Scottish. And even among the Scots, there was a variety of dialects, with those from Dundee speaking very differently than those from ­Peterhead.

Sometimes Inuit borrowed words from English and took them into their own language, often modifying their pronunciations to suit the sound requirements of Inuktitut. Over time some of the words have passed out of common usage in English, so that a "loan word" in Inuktitut is not always recognizable as such.

I'll give a few examples.

In some Inuit communities the word for a cup is "panika" or "panikak." In others it is "irngusiq." Most people, whether white or Inuit, do not realize that the first word is of English origin. It is the mostly-forgotten English word "pannikin," which referred to a metal mug with a handle. Inuit acquired pannikins from English or Scottish whalers as trade goods. In the 1880s the anthropologist Franz Boas, in describing the fall festival of the Inuit in Cumberland Sound, wrote about the tug-of-war competition between those born in the summer and those born in the winter. He wrote, "Then the rope was laid down. A large tin pot was placed in the middle and the women brought some water from every house in pannikins." Forgotten in English, the word survives in Inuktitut.

Another word, the origin of which may be obscure, is the word generally pronounced as "uasakua," often with a slight hint of a "t" at the end. This is a word used in some eastern Inuktitut dialects to describe a vest. The word comes from the English word "waistcoat," which – for reasons known only to the British – is pronounced "wescot". Inuit took the British pronunciation and modified it to suit their own needs.

An even more obscure example is a word that today is used to describe a servant, or a person who is subservient to another person. The word is "siala." It comes, strangely enough, from the English word "sailor." Think about it. In whaling days a ship had a captain and sailors. The captain was referred to in Inuktitut by the borrowed term "kapitan" or "kapitai." But the word for sailor required some modification. It became "siala."

As whaling transformed itself into trading, many Inuit became dependent on the traders at the shore stations for ammunition, tobacco and some food items. The traders described these Inuit as their "sailors." In a fascinating description of the general rules that governed trade between Inuit and white, the missionary, E. W. T. Greenshield, wrote, "When a trader says to a native in the fall, ‘You are going to be my sailor', and gives him his pay in kind, the man is in his service throughout the ensuing fall, winter, and spring."

"Sailor" in this context shows up many times in the testimony gathered from Inuit about the murder of Robert Janes in 1920 near Arctic Bay. Inuit who had refused to trade with Janes – there were two other traders in the area – were quoted as telling Janes, "I am not your sailor." The word survives today with the meaning of servant or subservient person.

If readers would like to add other words to this collection of old borrowed words from the time of the whalers and early traders, I invite them to get in touch with their suggestions at

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

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