The Rev. Edmund James Peck. Known as “Uqammak,” or the one who speaks well, he opened in the first Anglican mission in the Baffin region. (Harper collection)

Taissumani, July 18

A Pioneer Missionary’s Guide to Learning Inuktitut

By Kenn Harper

In 1901, the Rev. Edmund James Peck was joined at his mission on Blacklead Island by a young Englishman, Edgar Greenshield. Under Peck’s tutelage, any new missionary’s first task was to learn the Inuktitut language.

On Jan. 26, 1902, Peck explained in his journal the methods he used to assist Greenshield in his language learning efforts, and to continue his own learning, even though he had arrived at Blacklead already fluent after almost two decades of service in northern Quebec.

“Good use is made of the native voice. We always have an Eskimo with us, and we vary our Eskimo teachers, for it by no means follows that if a person understands one Eskimo, he can understand all.”

This is good advice. A corollary of this is that not all Inuit are equally good teachers.

This explains the folly that happened within modern education systems in the Canadian Arctic during the last 30 or so years. Even when Inuktitut was not taught in any grades, many schools brought in local assistants or elders to teach Inuktitut a few times a week.

An assumption was implicit in this, that, just because a person could speak Inuktitut, they could also teach it. Happily, sometimes that was the case.

But, more often than not, it was not. Educators don’t do that in choosing English language teachers. Why should they do so when Inuktitut is the subject?

In Peck’s time, there were no trained Inuktitut teachers. But some people had more innate teaching ability than others. And that was another reason for him varying his and Greenshield’s instructors.

“The grammatical structure of language is attacked as follows:—In one lesson Mr. Greenshield learns a portion of the verb, and in another the adjective or noun. Adverbs of time, place, and interrogation are also committed to memory. This plan enables a student to construct sentences in a short time, and places him in a position to ask questions and get into actual contact with the people.”

In this piece of advice, it is obvious that Peck thinks of the grammar of the Inuktitut language in the same terms as he does English, and describes it using the same categories.

That works for some people. Lucky are those who can learn a language through simply hearing, then mimicking, and understanding without analyzing.

But those learners are rare. Most of us analyze, and we need some way to organize that analysis, mentally or on paper.

I love grammar. Some people hate it. What I’ve quoted was Peck’s method. But today’s learners should do what works best for them.

“Collection of words. These are, as far as possible, taken down from the lips of the Eskimo by Mr. Greenshield, and are finally revised before they are committed to memory.”

Word lists are at the heart of language learning. Learn large amounts of vocabulary, and then manipulate the words, practising them within the context of the grammar that you are simultaneously learning.

Unless you are blessed with a superhuman memory, you will need to write your word lists out so that you can practise them any time. Some people like to learn words thematically—family relationships, animals, land forms, emotions—there are any number of ways to categorize words.

Others learn them randomly, but still write them all down. This is a good practice to follow, especially in the early stages of language learning.

“Exercises in reading. We have one of the Natives who can read well to lead in this.”

In my experience, there is a time for learning to read, but it is after considerable fluency has been developed in speaking.

“We write down accurate accounts given to us by the people, or ask them to write out something relating to their mode of life, religion, etc. These we translate and arrange in a useful form. Several points are gained by this latter mode of study, the principal one being the correct idiom, which, I need hardly say, is an important matter.”

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if these excerpts from individual life stories had been preserved in an archive somewhere? But it seems they have not been. They must have been extremely helpful to Peck and Greenshield in vocabulary building.

Peck concluded his account of his method of helping Greenshield in learning Inuktitut with sage words, in which he recognized that one size does not fit all—that individuals learn in different ways: “Some of my missionary brethren may use different and better methods.”

He noted also that the acquisition of Inuktitut, as with any language, required patient and persevering work.

Taissumani is an occasional column that recalls events of historical interest. Kenn Harper is a historian and writer who lived in the Arctic for over 50 years. He is the author of “Minik, the New York Eskimo” and “Thou Shalt Do No Murder,” among other books. Feedback? Send your comments and questions to

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(8) Comments:

  1. Posted by Jay Arnakak on

    pikkunaqputit, Kenn.

    This is one of the best pieces I’ve read from your vast corpus of scholarly, cultural and social knowledge of all things Inuit and the Inuit language.


  2. Posted by Steve L on

    Complaint #1. If you are going to live here, learn the language.
    Complaint #2. You are not saying it right, but we wont help you.

    That can make a person cynical after a while.

    • Posted by Observer on

      You’re missing an even better one.

      Inuit Org: We insist Inuktitut is the language of the workplace!

      Employee: Great! I want to learn it! Are you arranging to bring in instructors during working hours, or giving me paid leave to do it on my own? Because either works. When can I get started?

      Inuit Org: (sound of crickets and a tumbleweed rolling by)

      • Posted by Steve L on

        continuing to be cynical, but crickets and tumbleweeds aren’t local, so the office is in Arizona?

        • Posted by Observer on

          “As with the sound of crickets, tumbleweeds can also be shown to emphasize an awkward silence after a bad joke or a character otherwise making an absurd declaration, with the aforementioned sound of wind and the plant rolling past in the background. ” – Also, Russian thistle, one type, is found in Alberta and Saskatchewan.

  3. Posted by Snow Snake on

    Reverend Edmund Peck’s work bears fruit today. Much of his work has some Inuttiut words that this generation had never heard before…based on the KJV our first translated Bible has power to refine our language speech and I encourage this generation today to read the first version of the Bible few have today. Worthy of being part of the history classes taken today.

  4. Posted by Sardonicus on

    So many people who are not Inuit have tried to learn the
    Inuktitut of Nunavut, but get ripped off every time by the
    people who are supposed to teach it, mostly by Inuit.
    For years people have been asking for proper Inuktitut
    language courses from the GN. , but have been ignored.
    If the GN. don’t give a damn about teaching it , why
    should I bother to learn ?
    Good realistic comments, and a good story by Kenn.
    I was told that when Jean Briggs went to Chantrey Inlet
    in the early 1960’s she was given a list of Inuktitut words by
    the wife of the Anglican minister in Gjoa Haven.

  5. Posted by Colin on

    Great feature!

    After infancy, learning a language requires intensive study and memorization. But it’s not the proverbial rocket science. In just three months, when staying with a family in Damascus just before the civil war started, intensive personal study enabled a friend of mine to learn enough Arabic to carry on an effective conversation.

    You need an accessible grammar (using English type not syllabics or hieroglyphs) like the ones used forever for learning other languages from English, like the ones for learning, Latin or French. Japan actually has three forms of writing.

    You need a good shirt-pocket two-way dictionary.

    Even as regional dialects may continue, as in German and Italian speaking lands, there has to be a common and generally accepted standard language.

    These tools have enabled the successful preservation of many minority languages around the world. But none of these three requirements exist in Nunangat.

    With young people knowing the obvious, that the fur trade’s long ago extinct, and wanting the opportunities of the modern world, Nunavut’s language preservation policy is counterproductive. Any idea of becoming an engineer designing spacecraft or becoming an astronaut would be ridiculous on the basis of Nunavut’s education system. I know young Inuit who regard Inuktitut as the language of second class citizenship. So they speak English all the time they can.

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