Unravelling the intricacies of Inuktitut

Belfast-born instructor turns syntax into a sit-com


IQALUIT — It’s hard to tell what makes these five fluent Inuktitut speakers laugh so loud.

Maybe it’s the antics of their 73-year-old teacher, Mick Mallon, who manages to deliver each lesson as a comedy routine, using sentences such as this one to teach grammar: “You know my girlfriend Fifi is a beautiful little walrus.”

Then again, one student suggests, maybe all the laughter is from the fumes of whiteboard markers used inside this poorly-ventilated classroom, at Iqaluit’s old residence building.

Either way, the class was remarkably lively on Thursday last week, for a course with as boring a title as “Inuktitut phonology and morphology.”

The course teaches how to analyze Inuktitut, breaking each word down into chunks of meaning. Sound chunks are called phonemes. Chunks of meaning are called morphemes.

Knowing how to identify these chunks is the key to understanding how Inuktitut, in all its varying forms across the Arctic, is the same language, despite many different pronunciations for different words.

The course is offered through Nunavut Arctic College, usually for students enrolled in interpretor translator or teacher education programs.

This is the first time the course has been offered to students outside these programs, who are simply interested in learning more about how Inuktitut works.

All five students are fluent in Inuktitut. But just as English speakers aren’t born with the ability to tell a gerund from a participle, most of these students never knew how to break Inuktitut down into its basic parts.

It’s like asking yourself how you walk, says Rhoda Ungalaq, who is an Inuktitut teacher herself.

In both cases, if you think too much about it, at first, you stumble.

Several years ago Ungalaq took some language courses at a southern university, and was surprised to find herself failing assignments. She couldn’t remember all the linguistic jargon.

But now, three weeks into Mallon’s course, Ungalaq says she has a far better handle on the underlying structure of Inuktitut. That means she can explain it better to her students.

And it’s no easy feat to break apart some of Inuktitut’s longer words, which can change from a noun to a verb and back into a noun by the word’s end. As Ungalaq puts it, speaking Inuktitut is like stringing beads, with some words containing as much information as an entire sentence in English.

All students say the class has given them pride in their language. They also say more Inuit should have an opportunity to take the course – especially when Inuktitut is supposed to be the working language of government in Nunavut.

“I wish I learned this in Grade 7,” says Teresa Hughes, who works for the GN’s finance department. She says the Inuktitut she took in high school gave her little understanding of how the language works.

“It gives me pride that there’s a structure to the language,” she says. “I’d say structure gives strength.”

“There’s meaning in every chunk.”

Learning what makes Inuktitut tick is even more important at a time when many worry the language is in danger of being wiped out, especially in English-dominated Iqaluit, says Mary Wilman, who runs her own consulting business, designs clothing, and also teaches Inuktitut.

“If we want to hang on to our Inuktitut, we need to find ways to enrich it,” she says.

Making this course mandatory for more students at Nunavut Arctic College would be a good start, she says.

There’s a misconception that Inuktitut is a chaotic jumble of a language. In fact, while Inuktitut may have complicated rules, the language has fewer exceptions than English and other Indo-European languages do.

“I’ve always known my language is rich, and it’s very articulate,” Wilman says. “I think it’s valuable, just letting me see how well put together it is.”

That’s a lesson many English-speaking Inuit kids could use, she says.

“I think for young people, it’s more cool to speak English,” she says. But Inuktitut is “very structured, and very specific.”

“I think that young people need to see that.”

Annie Gordon, who works for the department of justice, says the course has made her more confident speaking Inuktitut, as well as correcting it on the written page – one of her responsibilities at work is to proofread traditional laws written by elders.

And Erika Alexander, who works for the housing authority, says such knowledge would also help front-line government workers who deal with unilingual Inuit.

Mallon is quick to correct his students when they make a mistake. And when his class catches him dropping a “u” from one word he writes on the white board, they jump on the error.

“You see it’s really valuable to learn from someone’s mistakes. That’s why I made that mistake. What, you thought I didn’t do it on purpose?” he jokes.

He doesn’t fool anyone.

Mallon, who was born and raised in Belfast, Ireland, first learned Inuktitut in 1959 before moving north from an old Hudson Bay trader, who he describes as “a miserable old bugger.”

“I’ve been bluffing every since,” he says.

In fact, he’s written most of the Inuktitut teaching material that exists in Nunavut.

He stopped teaching one year ago, but took up this course at the request of Jennifer Archer of the GN’s human resources department.

And despite receiving cancer treatment last year, his 74th birthday looming this March, and ongoing strife between him and college administration, he says he’d like to keep teaching, “otherwise my mind will go.”

Laughter continues through the afternoon inside Mallon’s classroom, as the teacher and his students hurl abuses at each other. Beneath it all, it’s clear there’s plenty of affection.

“I need to stop,” Mallon says, interrupting his lesson for a break.

“I’m glad to hear that,” one student shoots back.

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