Duncan Pryde an appreciation

The legendary Inuktitut linguist and chronicler of Arctic life, Duncan Pryde, died last weekend.


Special to Nunatsiaq News

IQALUIT A northern legend has died. Duncan Pryde, an old Arctic hand and long-time northerner, died on November 15 on the Isle of Wight off the coast of England. He was 60 years old.

Duncan was born in Scotland and raised in orphanages. He went to sea at 15. Three years later, in 1955, he answered a newspaper ad placed by the Hudson’s Bay Company: “Fur traders wanted for the far north”. The ad asked for single, ambitious, self-reliant young men, and promised a life of isolation, hardship and adventure, all for $135 a month.

Duncan was accepted and spent his first three years in Canada in northern Ontario and Manitoba, where he learned the Cree language. In 1958 he moved to the Arctic, serving first at Baker Lake. From there he was posted to more and more isolated locations: Spence Bay, then Perry River in 1961, and finally Bathurst Inlet in 1965.

A mastery of the Inuit language

Everywhere he lived, Duncan immersed himself in the language of the Inuit. His grasp of Inuit dialects was phenomenal, and his life’s ambition was to compile the defnitive dictionary of the Inuit language as spoken in the Central Arctic.

Not content to remain at his isolated posts, Duncan mastered the art of dogteam travel, and travelled extensively throughout the region.

In 1966, Duncan was elected to the Territorial Council, as the Legislative Assembly of the Northwest Territories was known at the time.

This was the first time that representatives from the Inuit area of the Northwest Territories basically what is now Nunavut were elected. The territory was divided into three ridings and Duncan, Simonee Michael and Bobby Williamson were all elected that year to one-year terms. In 1967 Duncan was re-elected for a three-year term.

The council met twice a year in those days. Duncan devoted his attention to those issues most important to the Inuit whom he represented hunting and game laws. He was the first to propose the sports hunting of polar bears as a way of bringing extra dollars into Inuit communities.

On the cover of Time

He was the only person from the Canadian north to ever have his picture on the cover of Time magazine.

In 1969, Duncan married Gina Blondin in Yellowknife. They had one daughter, Fiona. Two years later, Duncan’s fame transcended the north when he published his autobiography, Nunaga: My Land, My Country.

Extremely controversial, the book was an instant bestseller and was translated into a number of languages. Nunaga

was the only book that Duncan wrote, although he had had at least one beautiful poem, “The Breath of Arctic Men”, published earlier.

Unfortunately, Duncan’s and Gina’s marriage ended a few years later, and Duncan left hastily for Alaska.

There he taught Eskimo languages at the fledgling Inupiat University in Point Barrow, an institution set up with Alaskan land claims money.

A love of language

Language research was his love, so much so that when he ran afoul of the administration and was fired from his teaching post, he stayed on as janitor so he would not have to leave the academic environment. A few years later he left Alaska and disappeared!

For many years no-one knew what had become of Duncan. Many thought him dead. And such was the charisma the man had always exuded, that many of his old friends wanted very much to find him.

Those of us non-Inuit who have studied the Inuktitut language and achieved some level of competence in it had long recognized Duncan for the linguistic genius that he was.

(In addition to many dialects of the Inuit languages, Cree, and some Slavey and Dogrib, Duncan spoke Scots Gaelic, Italian, German, Hindi and a smattering of a number of other languages.)

I introduced him to Mick Mallon in the 70’s, and Mick was astounded that this man with an elementary school education had taught himself the principles of scientific linguistics.

An Inuktitut dictionary

He had started often on his life-long ambition, the writing of a dictionary, but if there was one thing that Duncan could never manage, it was money, and always the necessity to make a living interfered. Indeed, “Duncan’s A’s” became a buzz word in Canadian Inuktitut studies, for despite many starts, he had never gotten past the letter “A.”

John MacDonald of Igloolik, who had first met Duncan in Baker Lake in 1959, eventually tracked him down. He was living in the town of Cowes, on England’s Isle of Wight, had a skipper’s ticket as a yachtsman, and had remarried.

The man who had billed himself as “the Pryde of the Arctic” now ran a little shop called “Pryde of Cowes” and lived at number 6 Arctic Road! MacDonald and I also tracked down a trunk full of Duncan’s memorabilia and language notes, which everyone including Duncan assumed had been sent to the dump after the breakup of his marriage.

The trunk was found in Bill Carpenter’s garage in Yellowknife. MacDonald made copies of all the language material; the originals went to Duncan, the copies to the Prince of Wales Heritage Centre where they will be an invaluable resource for future students of Central Arctic dialects.

Stricken with cancer

About three years ago Duncan was stricken with cancer. Chemotherapy put it into remission, but Duncan was no longer as robust as before.

John MacDonald convinced him to buy a computer, and begin the achievement of his dream, the Inuit dictionary. On Duncan’s behalf, I negotiated a grant with Arctic College for financial support for the first volume the letter “A.”

It was completed earlier this year. A multi-dialectal comparison with examples of usage, it ran in excess of 280 pages.

Like many who lack a formal education, Duncan appreciated recognition for his accomplishments, especially in the field of Eskimo linguistics.

Academic recognition

Earlier this year, he received a letter from Michael Fortescue at the Institute for Eskimologi, University of Copenhagen, perhaps the foremost linguist specializing in Eskimo languages today. Michael, a rigorous critic who knew Duncan only through reputation, wrote to congratulate him on the excellent work in the first volume of his dictionary.

Last December, John MacDonald and I visited Duncan and his wife, Dawn, at their home on Arctic Road. We sat up late, drinking rum as we had done in the past, and talking about what else the old days. And over and over the conversation returned to Duncan’s passion Inuit language.

Duncan was hard at work on the second volume of his dictionary when his cancer returned this past summer, and he suffered a stroke. Irreverent and feisty to the end, Duncan complained to his doctors that he needed four more years for his dictionary.

Two weeks ago, he was proclaiming that he was feeling stronger every day. But that was not to be.

At the end of Nunaga, Duncan remarked:

“There will never be a job such as the one which enticed me as a dreamy-eyed young man all the way from Scotland with romantic notions in my otherwise empty head. There will never be another fur trader in the old tradition, just as there will never again be an Eskimo in the old image.”
One might add that there will probably never be another linguist to match Duncan Pryde in the Canadian Arctic.

Indeed John Sperry, the former Bishop of the Arctic and an accomplished linguist himself remarked to me: “We will not see his like again. I always felt humbled by his knowledge.”

Share This Story

(0) Comments

Home Page Back to top of page

Use this form to request a PDF of Nunatsiaq News to be sent to you every week on Friday.