The First Inuktitut Word List

Taissumani: 2007-08-17

By Kenn Harper

In 1576, on Martin Frobisher's first voyage, Christopher Hall or one of his seamen collected a list of 17 Inuktitut words.

These words have been analyzed by a number of scholars, among them William Thalbitzer, Vilhjalmur Stefansson and Louis-Jacques Dorais.

The list is the earliest Inuit vocabulary list to be collected by Europeans.

One must remember that Europeans had no knowledge of Inuit at this time, and that the sailor who collected the word list, as interested as he might have been in the new people he had just met, was undoubtedly a monolingual speaker of English. He would have equated the sounds he heard from the Inuit with sounds with which he was familiar in his own language, and written them clumsily in an orthography based on the English of his time.

He would have pointed to objects or touched them and asked what they were. Thus, the word list is naturally be top-heavy with nouns and deficient in verbs.

He would have been unaware that the Inuit language, unlike English, is a highly inflected language, and he would therefore not have recognized endings on words and would have assumed the naming feature of the word or utterance to be everything he heard, including any ending.

Indeed he would not have known what constituted a word. He would have been unaware of what to us is an old adage – that in Inuktitut a word can be a sentence. This describes in simple terms the structure of Inuktitut in which a sentence – or an utterance – can be built up by adding numerous suffixes to a base word.

Given the differences between the uninflected English language of our English sailor and the highly inflected and unrelated language of his mysterious Inuit informants, the miracle is that we can decipher any of the words on the list. In fact, we can decipher all but one, and learn something of the structure of the Inuit language of southern Baffin in the late 16th century.

The list collected was appended to Christopher Hall's account of Frobisher's first voyage, under the title "The language of the people of Meta incognita."

It is as follows:

Argoteyt, a hand
Cangnawe, a nose
Arered, an eye
Keiotot, a tooth
Mutchater, the head
Chewat, an eare
Comagaye, a legge
Atoniagay, a foote
Callagay, a paire of breeches
Attegay, a coate
Polleuetagay, a knife
Accaskay, a shippe
Coblone, a thumbe
Teckkere, the foremost finger
Ketteckle, the middle finger
Mekellacane, the fourth finger
Yacketrone, the little finger

The first scholar to comment, although briefly, on this word list was the Alaskan missionary Francis Barnum in his "Grammatical Fundamentals of the Innuit Language as spoken by the Eskimo of the Western Coast of Alaska."

Unfortunately, as the title indicates, Barnum had no direct experience of eastern Canadian dialects and restricted his comments on the Frobisher list to the following: "Some of these words are interesting from the fact that they show the difficulty of the first attempt at obtaining a vocabulary, owing to not knowing the grammatical structure of the language, and to the mistakes arising from mutual miscomprehension."

The first scholar to comment substantively on this word list was the Danish scholar, William Thalbitzer. The list has subsequently been analyzed by the explorer, Vilhjalmur Stefansson, and the linguist, Louis-Jacques Dorais.

Next week – A closer look at the words and their meanings.

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

Share This Story

(0) Comments