Delegates ponder language in Nunavut


JIM BELL Nunatsiaq News

IQALUIT – About 60 people from around Nunavut began the process of building a language policy for Nunavut at a gathering this week in Iqaluit.

Organized by the Nunavut Implementation Commission, the conference had entered its second day as Nunatsiaq News went to press this week.

In his opening remarks, NIC chief commissioner John Amagoalik told delegates that no quick decisions will be made at this week’s conference.

“There will be recommendations, lots of them, but as everyone knows it takes quite a while to implement recommendations from a meeting,” Amagoalik, the co-chair of the gathering, told delegates through an interpreter.

Amagoalik said the NIC wants to hold the gathering so that “we can re-focus on the language issue when the Nunavut government comes into being.”

Delegates were to have talked about writing systems, official language law, language and education, challenges faced by youth and elders, and how to make Inuktitut the working language of Nunavut.

In deference to the people of the western Kitikmeot, who call their language “Inuinaqtun,” the NIC and others now use the term “Inuit language” rather than “Inuktitut” to name the tongue that’s spoken by the majority of Nunavut residents. s

After the conference opened on Tuesday morning, Nunavut Tunngavik President Jose Kusugak gave a long talk on the work of the Inuit Language Commission, a group set up by the Inuit Tapirisat of Canada in 1971 to protect and promote the Inuit language.

One of the language commssion’s enduring accomplishments was the creation of the “dual orthography” system for writing Inuktitut. It’s now used by school boards and in the production of modern written materials in Inuktitut.

That system was designed so that all the sounds in the Inuit language could be produced either in syllabics or in a corresponding system of Roman orthography. It’s the syllabic side of that system that’s still used almost universally throughout Nunavik and most of Nunavut to write the Inuit language.

But creating that writing system wasn’t an easy job. Kusugak, who chaired the Inuit Language Commission, described the difficult issues that the commission had to deal with at the time.

“It was clear that was not going to be easy to reform the writing system,” Kusugak said.

He said many elders at the time were closely attached to an older syllabic system introduced by Anglican missionaries. Others were loyal to an orthographic system used by Roman Catholic priests.

“I had to talk to the Anglican and Roman Catholic bishops to get them to talk to their flocks about it,” Kusugak told delegates.

In 1976, the dual or “new” orthography was adopted at a meeting in Iqaluit.

It was quickly adopted by school boards, and soon became the preferred method for writing Inuktitut. A typing element for IBM Selectric typerwriters was developed for the new syllabic system, and in the mid-1980s, fonts for use on Macintosh computers.

Kusugak said, though, that the work of developing Inuktitut isn’t finished.

“The process of language development never ends,” Kusugak said.

He said the gradual shift in dialects from west to east is evidence of the relationship that Inuit have had with the land for the past 4,000 years, but that Inuit may now need a common dialect for the purposes of inter-regional communication.

“We need to look at a common dialect and a common writing system to communicate effectively,” Kusugak said.

He pointed out at the English language has many dialects, but only one writing system.

Some delegates at the conference have been making submissions about possible reforms to the writing systems now used for the Inuit language.

We’ll have more coverage of the Nunavut language conference next week.

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