Will Inuktut survive?

Probably, says Kenn Harper. But the Inuit language will be different. Much of it may even be unrecognizable.

Susie and Lucy Onalik enjoy a book at Kimmirut’s Qaqqalik School on Sunday, Jan. 27, 2019, during the 20th anniversary of Canadian Family Literacy Day, when parents and guardians spent time in the classrooms reading from books in both Inuktitut and English. (Photo courtesy of the Department of Education)

By Kenn Harper

ᐃᓄᒃᑎᑐᑦ ᐅᖃᓕᒫᕈᓐᓇᖅᑕ ᐅᓇ ᐅᕙᓂ ᐃᓄᒃᑐᑦ ᐱᑕᖃᐃᓐᓇᕐᓂᐊᖅᐹ?

We’re celebrating Nunavut’s twentieth birthday by reviewing the territory’s successes and its challenges in areas ranging from music and the visual arts to the economy, the state of Inuktut and climate change.

Nunavut was founded upon a desire to bring government closer to the people, primarily to Inuit who make up the vast majority of the population of this far-flung territory.

In large part, the promise of Nunavut was the promise of the preservation—and indeed the revitalization—of Inuktut, the expectation that the language, with all its richness and nuance, would take its rightful place in the operation of the government and in the provision of services to the population.

We hear, increasingly, that this has not happened, and we hear lamentations of why the dream has not become a reality. Occasionally we hear dire predictions that the language is doomed.

At the same time, we hear the opposite—optimistic statements that the language is healthy and thriving, and that increasing numbers of people are claiming fluency in Inuktut. Which is it? Will Inuktut survive?

Somewhere in the world, a language dies every 14 days. Linguists believe that half of the world’s 7,000 languages will be extinct by the end of the century.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization categorizes endangered languages according to their degree of vulnerability. Most dialects of the Inuit language spoken in Canada are listed as “vulnerable,” which means that “most children speak the language, but it may be restricted to certain domains (e.g., home).”

Inuinnaqtun is classified as “definitely endangered” (as is the Nunatsiavut dialect of Labrador); this means that “children no longer learn the language as a ‘mother tongue’ in the home.” (Other classifications, increasing in degree of vulnerability, are “severely endangered” and “critically endangered.” The final category is “extinct.”)

We know that Inuktut, like all languages, changes. But languages can also disappear.

Might Inuktut someday be one of them? One Canadian Inuit dialect has become extinct in the past decade. That is the dialect formerly spoken in Rigolet, Labrador, a community included in the Labrador Inuit Settlement Area.

But it could never happen again, you say. Don’t be so sure. Let’s look at indicators of the strength of the language.

“Coolness” helps explain greater reported use

Inuktut is the mother tongue of over 22,000 of the approximately 35,000 Inuit in Nunavut. That is a respectable number.

But UNESCO classifies Sicilian, with five million speakers, as “vulnerable,” and Lombard, spoken by

3.5 million people in parts of Italy and Switzerland, as “definitely endangered.” Clearly, the number of speakers is not an indicator of survivability.

But Inuktut is gaining users, you say. Indeed, census figures show us that the number of people reporting Inuktut as their mother tongue or the language of the home has increased in recent years, after years of slow decline. And the census must be correct, right?

Don’t be so sure. Census figures on language of the home or mother tongue are based on self-reporting. The census-taker only needs to tick yes or no.

If you say you speak Inuktut, that’s a yes. There is no way of knowing how much Inuktut the respondent speaks, or how well he or she speaks it.

But what, you ask, would cause a person who did not report Inuktut use in the past to report it now? Well, it’s the “coolness” factor. Indigenousness is “in.” People of mixed Inuit and Qallunaaq heritage almost all self-identify as “Inuit.” It’s “cool” to be Inuk or to identify as Inuktut-speaking.

This accounts, in large part, for the increase in self-reporting of Inuktut use.

When we think of language change, we tend to think in terms of vocabulary, and less in terms of phonology (the sounds) and grammar. Phonology and grammar do change over time, usually a long time.

But changes in vocabulary—some today call it terminology—can happen much more quickly. This is what people are usually commenting on when they talk about language change.

Sedentary life, smaller vocabularies

The move from camp life to settled community life in the 1950s and 1960s in most of Nunavut led ultimately to changes in vocabulary. As the occupations of many men changed from hunting to wage employment, a detailed knowledge of terms for weather, ice conditions, snow, freezing and thawing, the life stages of animals, and many other components of camp life became less functional.

Canon James teaching syllabics to Inuit children. (Kenn Harper collection)

If one didn’t need to use them, then those terms were less likely to be passed on to sons who may have opted for a more sedentary life in the community, with less practical attachment—though still an emotional one—to the land.

Within the home, traditionally the domain of female family members, some mothers may have had less need to pass on the rich vocabulary associated with sewing and food preparation to daughters, who may in any case have been destined for careers in the workplace and not for the traditional roles of stay-at-home wife and mother.

And so, without anyone having an agenda to change terminology, it nonetheless changed.

In changing, it weakened. In the last few years, translators and transcribers—and not all of them young people—who have worked with old Igloolik Oral History Project interviews and CBC archival tapes have reported that they come across terminology that they are unfamiliar with. In the course of half a century or less, some of the vocabulary once used by elders in everyday speech is no longer understood.

In looking at language change in Inuktut, it is apparent that traditional vocabulary is shrinking in its richness, at the same time as introduced vocabulary—the terms needed to describe technology, law, medicine, some aspects of science, administration—is increasing.

Uphill battle against English

There are two schools of thought on how to deal with the introduction of new concepts.

One is to accept the terms—borrowings or coinages—that have already entered the language as Inuktut words—like qamutaujaq and sikituu for snowmobile, depending on the dialect, or maligaliuqti for member of the legislature, or even iksivautaq (literally, a chair) for chairperson—but to simply borrow from English for new concepts as yet unnamed.

The second option is to coin new words in Inuktut for the new concepts.

Archdeacon Donald Whitbread teaching syllabics to adults in Frobisher Bay in 1972. (The General Synod Archives, Anglican Church of Canada, P8803-AR-53)

The path being followed in Nunavut seems to be the latter. The organization Inuit Uqausinginnik Taiguusiliuqtiit is tasked with developing new terminology for Nunavut. The real task, though, will be to disseminate their work in a way that will cause the general population to adopt their new terms.

The pace of change in Inuktut appears to be quickening. The cause of that change—the threats to the language’s survival—arise from the preponderance of English, especially television.

A woman whom I taught as a student in Arctic Bay in the 1970s has lived in Inverness, Scotland for the last four decades. There is no one in Inverness to speak with in Inuktut.

But Koonoo hasn’t forgotten her language; rather, she has preserved it. Her friends and relatives who speak with her occasionally by telephone marvel at the richness and “purity” of her spoken Inuktut, and conversely at how much their own language has changed.

But in the daily give and take of life in Nunavut, the ever-so-tiny increments by which language changes often go un-noticed. I’ve observed some language revitalization programs in action. They are uplifting to watch but heart- wrenching to analyze.

That’s because they often result in the learner—who is sometimes only one step behind the teacher—learning only a list of nouns, especially “pointable” nouns, the type of vocabulary one can elicit by asking a question like “una kisu?”— “What’s this?

This often results in an impressive vocabulary of nouns, but with no knowledge of how to string them together to make a sentence, a thought, a narrative. The end result is often discouragement for the student, who may abandon in frustration his attempts to learn what may be his ancestral tongue.

Parental involvement key to language preservation

Will Inuktitut survive? Probably. But in what form?

In some geographic regions, its use may decline to the point where it is used only symbolically. By that, I mean in prayers to open and close meetings, in greetings, or in standard speeches to accompany the ceremonial lighting of a qulliq at public events.

Symbolically, certain Inuktut words and roots are sometimes embedded within an English structure and used in everyday conversation by people whose knowledge of the language is limited to a few words; I’m thinking of expressions like “I’m going pulaaking”—from the Inuktut root pulaaq—to mean I’m going visiting. This type of usage may increase, to the horror of language purists.

It remains to be seen whether Inuktut will become the functional language of government that was part of the dream of Nunavut. It is used increasingly in the legislature, but the gains in use in administration seem to be elusive.

It’s used well in the classroom in the primary grades, although that varies by community and by region—but the goal of having it used as a language of instruction in the higher grades and through to the end of high school seems to be slipping away. Curricula are lacking, and there is a dearth of teachers and an apparent hesitancy on the part of many young Inuit about entering the stressful world of classroom teaching.

Many modern Inuit believe that the government must provide the solution to all their needs. So, if the use of meaningful Inuktut declines, it is the fault of the government.

Certainly, government has a responsibility to meet the terms of the land claim agreement. Schools have a responsibility to provide the best Inuktut-language instruction possible. But surely the community and the home have some responsibility in the area of language preservation.

Inuktut-speaking parents and grandparents can pass on their language to their children and grandchildren without any government assistance or intervention. In the glorious days before television destroyed the social fabric of northern communities—the sixties and early seventies—I remember visiting Inuit homes often where young children were sitting on their parents’ knees and learning the syllabic chart by rote by following it in the prayer book or Bible.

A page from an Anglican syllabic prayer book, 1939. (Kenn Harper collection)

Ai, i, u, a, pai, pi, pu, pa … and so on, they intoned monotonously. And by so doing they acquired literacy in syllabics.

I’m not advocating a return to rote learning from the Bible; I am advocating for more parental involvement and responsibility in teaching literacy to children. And I’m fully aware that a small part of Nunavut doesn’t use syllabics, but the same approach can be taken to learning reading in Inuinnaqtun.

Getting beyond the blame game

Inuktut will have more of a chance to survive and thrive if people will turn off the television and talk with each other, without distractions. A few decades ago, when television use was on the ascendant in Iceland, there were no broadcasts on Thursday. That was family day, a chance for families to be together.

Sadly, that is no longer the case. It is unrealistic to hope that that could ever happen in Nunavut. But parents and grandparents can voluntarily turn the damned thing off.

Sadly, some elders have become part of the problem rather than the solution. Some young people report that elders belittle them and ridicule them for their imperfect use of Inuktut.

That doesn’t inspire anyone to want to try again, or try harder. Encouragement works; ridicule doesn’t.

Similarly, comparing Nunavut and the rest of Inuit Nunangat with Greenland—comparisons in which Canada always comes up short—are also unhelpful.

An elder tells an Inuktitut story to students at Kimmirut’s Qaqqalik School on Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2018, during Inuktitut Literacy Day. (Photo courtesy of the Department of Education)

Canada is not Greenland. Greenland has done an admirable job of maintaining the use of Kalaallisut, but there are distinct socio-political reasons for this that are not part of the Nunavut or broader Canadian reality. And despite Greenland’s success, UNESCO still classifies Kalaallisut as vulnerable.

If we could fast-forward to 50 or 100 years in the future, we would probably hear Inuktut spoken in most communities where it is spoken today. But it will be different. A lot of vocabulary might even be unrecognizable. One linguist has optimistically suggested that, as long as Inuit are speaking it, it will still be Inuktut.

It took effort on the part of a small group of dedicated Inuit to make Nunavut a reality. Part of their goal was a territory where Inuktut would play an integral part of daily life. It is the responsibility of all Inuit now to put in the effort to make Inuktut survive and thrive in Nunavut—and elsewhere.

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.

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(9) Comments:

  1. Posted by Peter on

    With the territorial government unwilling to provide support for the Inuktitut language since Nunavut became a reality we are not surprised at how much our language has degraded.
    When we speak our language at home, but our kids spend so much time at schools where Inuktitut is not a priority and have no curriculum and a standard to be used how can we expect our kids to learn and advance in Inuktitut?

    Now the MLAs have pushed this further away because the department of education for a decade has done very little to provide Inuktitut to be taught in the schools, when the education act was approved more then a decade ago, the GN should of put priority in building capacity of Inuit teachers, the current NETP does not cut it and the teachers that do make it through have no support in the school system with no curriculum and very little resources to use. Burn out after a few years and move onto a higher pay with less hours in the GN. This has happened so many times and yet the GN does not address this. This has shown us that the GN does not put Inuktitut as a priority and it is failing Nunavut and it’s people because of it.
    Where there are great examples of other places that work great in teaching in their own language the GN has missed the boat and continue on this downward spiral.
    It is truly embarrassing.

  2. Posted by pissed off on

    Excellent article Ken.
    Actually much better that the myriad of consultant reports we have paid so dearly for in the past.

    You say it is “cool“ to call itself Inuit nowadays. You forget to mention that it is also very useful and valuable for anyone “upwardly mobile “ as they are sometimes called in polite conversations.
    One can get better jobs if any job at all, go to exotic places at faraway conferences on someone else`s dime , etc… with a very basic set of skills in communicating in Inuktitut.

    Also, you cannot “invent“ a new language behind closed doors the way the group mandated with dealing with the new terminology does at the moment.
    Language has to be organic in its development instead of being mandated from above.

    Unless we want to shut down the Inuktitut speaking region from the rest of the world affairs. i.e . turning off the TV for a while as you mentioned, we will end up with decrees that say that a transmission is : the thing that connects the motor to the differential.
    Pick the syllabic bits and end up with a mile long word that nobody will use.

    It is always going to be “The thing that…………“

    No other language describes what it intends to explain that way.
    Different languages have their roots in similar ancient languages and have evolved regionally but with very familiar structures . It is easy to figure out if someone wants to look . Look at the similarities between Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, French ,English, etc… They all have their roots in Latin and have evolved from there , not by committees.

    Thanks for the great article

    • Posted by Kenneth on

      I wonder what the difference is in Greenland where the language is used everywhere, schools, government offices and so on?

      How come it can work so well over there and not here in Nunavut? Is it the Scandinavian influence where every there speaks two or more languages? Most Canadians don’t speak more then one language.

  3. Posted by Jobie Weetaluktuk on

    I agree with so many points on this that I could have written most of it.
    I teach this outline and yes some of the worst enemies of Inuktitut are those who speak perfect Inuktitut. They discourage persons who are still learning when they belittle them. Let us not forget that a person can shift to English or French and do very well.
    Further those are persons who come to work at Inuit Nunangat who do not esteem Inuktitut. Qallunat such as ilisaijikutaaq have acquired Inuktitut and the esteem that goes with it.

  4. Posted by Monica Connolly on

    It would be a great shame to lose Inuktitut. Kenn’s suggestion to use it at home is very valid. I thought Paul Quassa’s push to make Inuktitut mandatory at work in the GN was admirable, and it’s about time there was social pressure put on all newcomers to learn Inuktitut just as they would learn German if they moved to Germany.
    There are still a lot of people around who were “born in an iglu”, and translators and grad students should be seeking grants to record them and get their help with translating old recordings and texts. Words that get lost often refer to concepts that are getting lost, and it would be a pity to lose both vocabulary and knowledge.

    • Posted by Memories on

      I remember your comments at the time Paul introduced this populist notion. They seemed to reflect his thought processes well; weak on logic and practicality, but high on emotion. So, unless you can provide people a way to learn then how can you expect them, by the magic of “social pressure” to do so? Referencing other places that do so is not an answer, so you know. The question is “how” not “where else?”

  5. Posted by Jean betzner on

    I am interested in Nunavut because my grandson is a gold miner at hope bay.
    He works twelve hour shifts seven days a week for three weeks, then back flownto his home near north bay, ontario.

  6. Posted by Tommy on

    Iqalufish. I just wrote Inuk’tut’. More than all of you who wrote here.

    • Posted by Tamusi on

      No you did not, that is not Inuktut, please do more research and ask for help if you don’t understand.

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