Inuktitut computing a welcome site to Guatemalans

“I saw plenty of relatives there”


You’d think her amauti would give her away.

But when Leena Evic left Iqaluit in early October for Antigua, in the Quetzaltenango province of Guatemala, she was surprised most residents assumed she knew Spanish.

She was also surprised how much the people there reminded her of Inuit. “I saw plenty of relatives there,” she said, joking.

Antigua city is full of crumbling colonial architecture, where volcanoes tower in the distance and the smell of flowers and diesel exhaust hangs in the air.

The backdrop may be different than Baffin Island’s, but Evic said the outlying villages she visited brought back memories of how home was, several decades ago. Mothers openly breast-fed children in public, people smiled at her on the street, and no one was reluctant to touch, hug, or hold hands.

“I felt so much at home. It was like I was in my home community, 30 years ago,” she said. “That’s the sort of energy I felt, and I didn’t realize I had missed it so much.”

Evic’s visit was part of a week-long trip sponsored by the Canadian International Development Agency. She traveled with Gavin Nesbitt to share what they’ve learned setting up, a platform of tools for publishing multilingual websites.

In Nunavut, Attavik is used by clients like the Office of the Language Commissioner and the Municipal Training Organization, which both publish web sites in more than one language, that users can visit without any special software.

Evic and Nesbitt also encourage Inuktitut computing through the Pirurvik Centre.

In Antigua, they met a Guatemalan group called Enlace Quiché, who had begun their own work to preserve their Mayan indigenous language, K’iche, also using the help of computers.

Technology lets both groups communicate instantly across vast distances, but they decided they should meet face-to-face first, to start what they hope will be a long-term, mostly electronic, partnership.

While roughly 30,000 Canadians speak Inuktitut, there are over one million speakers of K’iche. Unlike Inuit, they have no official representation of their language or culture in government today. “For them, it’s even more of a struggle,” Evic said.

Pirurvik has concentrated much of its work on the written language, like a current project to translate MS Office programs into Inuktitut. Enlace Quiché is interested in tools that develop spoken ability and listening comprehension. Nesbitt said these different interests mean both groups could benefit from each other’s strengths.

“That’s something we can definitely make use of as well,” he said. “It’s one of those balancing things.”

“By coming from Canada, we can elevate the profile of local organizations,” Evic added.

Evic and Nesbitt both heard their share of familiar sounds during their trip. K’iche speakers use sounds similar to Inuktitut, including a letter-q sound in the back of the throat.

“They could say a word perfectly the first time. Their accent was astonishingly good,” Nesbitt said.

“They found Inuktitut a very cool language. They liked to listen to it,” Evic added.

Even with all these similarities, the stone inuksuk came as a surprise. It stood facing a busy street in Guatemala City, where traffic rushed past the Canadian embassy. It turned out by Bill Nasogaluak from Tuktoyaktuk built the structure not long before they arrived.

“It was quite surreal,” Nesbitt said.

But perhaps nobody was more surprised than the mystified shop owners at outdoor markets, who heard a pale Nesbitt say “No, thank you” in K’iche to them, with the help of a translator who stood behind him, whispering tips.

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