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Names we call each other

Taissumani: 2009-02-20

By Kenn Harper

The names we call each other as a group and the names that groups use to refer to themselves make a fascinating study. Technically, such words are called "ethnonyms."

Last week I wrote about one such word, the word "Yak" or "Yakkie" which whalers used to describe Inuit.

"Inuit" is an ethnonym, as is the out-of-fashion "Eskimo." But there are other ethnonyms used in the Arctic, and each one has its own fascinating derivation.

We know what the whalers called the Inuit. But what did the Inuit call the whalers? Of course, they were known as "qallunaat" – white people. And, as a group, they were referred to as arviqsiuqtiit (also arvagasuaqtiit or arvaniaqtiit), those who hunt the bowhead whale.

But in the eastern Canadian Arctic some of these whalers were Scottish and some were American. And words were needed to differentiate the two.

Inuit simply adopted the word "Scotch" into Inuktitut to describe the Scottish whalers. They were known then, and remembered today, as "Sikaatsi".

The word "American" was less malleable and required some adaptation to fit the sound system of the Inuktitut language. First the initial vowel was dropped so the word would start with "m". The "r" in the middle became an "l," something that happens often when English words are borrowed into Inuktitut. The "c" became a "g", and so on until the word became "Mialigaq" in the singular and "Mialigait" in the plural. This word is commonly used in south Baffin to describe Americans, because the American presence in Frobisher Bay was so dominant during the Second World War and the post-war years.

It even became incorporated into a place name. Crowell Island, named after Major John Crowell, who was in charge of the Crystal Two site, was named "Mialigaqtalik" – the place where there are Americans. If it had an earlier Inuktitut name, it has been forgotten, according to elders interviewed by Melanie Gagnon for an Arctic College project. Once the Americans were no longer there, the name acquired a suffix and became "Mialigaqtaliminiq" – the place where Americans once lived.

In whaling days, farther west, the word "American" may have been incorporated differently into Inuktitut. An Inuk born near Repulse Bay who worked closely with Captain George Comer and his whaling crews in Hudson Bay around the turn of the century was called Maliki (spelled also Meliki or Melichi in whaling literature), although this was not his birth name. In 1983 his grand-daughter, Kanayuk Bruce, told Dorothy Eber, "He got the name Meliki because Inuit couldn't pronounce ‘American.'"

Many of the American whalers were black men. Inuit called them "Puatugi." If you think this word bears a resemblance to the English word "Portuguese," you're right. But why? Portuguese may be darker than northern Europeans, but they are not black. And where would Inuit have come across Portuguese anyway?

The answer is not immediately obvious. The Cape Verde Islands off the coast of Africa had a black population, and these islands belonged to Portugal. Many Cape Verdians emigrated to the United States, particularly to the city of New Bedford, then an affluent bustling community made wealthy because it was the major whaling port on the American Atlantic coast. Many of these transplanted black Cape Verdians, once citizens of Portugal, sailed to Cumberland Sound or to Hudson Bay on American whaling ships. Probably the whaling captains or the white crews of their ships referred to a black whaler as "Portugee." They probably thought, incorrectly, that "Portuguese" was plural, and unnecessarily shortened it to "Portugee" in an attempt to make it singular. Hearing this word from the whalers, Inuit would naturally make the necessary changes to make it flow mellifluously from their own lips as "Puatugi."

The word survived the demise of whaling and is still used today to refer to black people.

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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