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To Save Their Language, Canada’s Inuit Rewrite It

One way to save the endangered Inuit languages is to create a standard writing system and introduce it in schools. But organizations pushing for the shift are facing resistance from those wary of change.

Written by Samia Madwar Published on Read time Approx. 6 minutes
Iqaluitstop
A bilingual stop sign in Iqaluit, Nunavut.Wikimedia Commons/Sébastien Lapointe

At an Inuit language conference in Iqaluit, capital of the Canadian territory of Nunavut, this past February, Jeela Palluq-Cloutier prefaced her presentation by asking the audience of Inuktut interpreters and translators for a show of hands. Were they in favor of adopting a new standardized writing system, yes or no?

The final tally was close: 44 supported adopting a new orthography, and 39 opposed the idea. Eleven were undecided. Or so it seemed.

With her question, Palluq-Cloutier, the executive director of the Nunavut Language Authority, had struck a nerve. Some translators claimed they’d misunderstood the question and demanded a recount. The experience proved the heated, complicated debate over the future of Inuktut in Canada is far from over.

Inuktitut dialect map with labels in Inuktitut inuujingajut or local Roman alphabet. (Wikimedia Commons/Asybaris01)

Inuktitut dialect map with labels in Inuktitut inuujingajut or local Roman alphabet. (Wikimedia Commons/Asybaris01)

The Inuit languages, including Inuktitut, Inuinnaqtun and Inuvialuktun, belong to the Eskimo-Aleut language family. The dialects and subdialects branch out across much of the Arctic, reflecting Inuit migration over thousands of years from far eastern Russia across Alaska, northern Canada and Greenland. Inuktut is an umbrella term that encompasses both Inuktitut, spoken in most of the Inuit regions, and Inuinnaqtun, a dialect of Inuvialuktun, which is spoken in western Nunavut and part of the Northwest Territories.

In Alaska and Russia, Inuit languages are rapidly declining, but the Greenlandic dialects remain strong: Kalaallisut, the West Greenlandic dialect, is one of Greenland’s official languages (the other is Danish). The majority of Inuit living in Nunavik, northern Quebec, speak Inuktitut. But in Canada’s other Inuit regions, including the territory of Nunavut, Inuit languages are in decline, with younger generations tending toward English. Given their delicate state in Canada, the mere suggestion of changing the way the languages are spoken or recorded can cause uproar.

Currently, in parts of Nunavut and northern Quebec, Inuit use syllabics, a writing system developed by Anglican missionaries in the 19th century. In Labrador, the Northwest Territories, and western Nunavut, Inuit use variations of Roman orthography, a writing system that uses the Latin alphabet to transliterate Inuit languages. Along with English and French, Inukitut and Inuinnaqtun are official languages in Nunavut.

That means official government documents in all regions have to be translated from English into French as well as Inuktitut and Innuinaqtun, which are then written in both syllabics and Roman orthography.

This affects not only how government-issued forms, manuals and reports are written, but also the way children learn Inuit languages at school. The number of speakers may be on the rise, but it’s not keeping up with population growth. For Palluq-Cloutier, the statistics say it all: in 2006, 68.8 percent of Canada’s Inuit population reported they could conduct a conversation in Inuktut; in 2011, the figure fell to 63.3 percent, according to Statistics Canada.

Since more than half of the Inuit population in Canada is under 25, a task group set up by Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK), the national Inuit organization, teamed up with the Nunavut Language Authority as well as representatives from the other three Inuit regions in Canada – northern Quebec, Labrador and the Inuvialuit settlement region in the Northwest Territories – to research ways to improve language education in schools. Their report recommended adopting a standardized writing system in the interest of making learning Inuktut easier for Inuit children, but leaves the final decision to the governments and administrative bodies in each Inuit region.

With 12 Inuit language dialects, not counting various subdialects, and older generations being accustomed to syllabics, introducing a standardized writing system for all Inuit won’t happen overnight.

A trilingual sign in French, English and Inuktitut. (Wikimedia Commons/Vigneron)

A trilingual sign in French, English and Inuktitut. (Wikimedia Commons/Vigneron)

A slow transition

The syllabics system isn’t ideal: several sounds are missing, including B, Ch, D, F, Sh, W, and Z. It makes life difficult for translators trying to transliterate English terms. “If I want to say British Columbia, I have to say Puritis Kalaampia,” said Suzie Napayok-Short, an Inuktitut translator based out of Yellowknife, the capital of the Northwest Territories. Using Roman orthography would eliminate that and other shortcomings.

But for many Inuit, the advantages of Roman orthography still don’t outweigh a significant downside: “Our elders don’t understand that writing system,” said Napayok-Short. “People don’t like change. We were taught to respect our elders.”

Some also fear a standardized system would erode dialectical differences.

Despite resistance, the momentum in favor of Roman orthography has been ramping up. Last March, Paul Quassa, Nunavut’s Minister of Education, announced the Nunavut government was looking into introducing Roman orthography as the standard writing system to the territory’s schools. Today, most Nunavut students learn syllabics until Grade 6.

Currently, the minister is visiting communities across the territory, asking locals to weigh in on what changes they would like to see made in the territory’s 2008 Education Act, which is now under review. Among other objectives, the act called for all Nunavut students to become fully bilingual in Inuktitut or Inuinnaqtun and English or French by the 2019-2020 school year, a goal that has since been criticized for being too ambitious.

The minister has declined to comment while consultations are underway. But for Palluq-Cloutier, the key to improving the education system is clear: schools need more Inuit-language teaching materials.

“The [standardized] writing system will allow different regions to share teaching resources,” said Palluq-Cloutier. “As it is now, with all the different writing systems, whatever resources are produced in one region stay in one region.”

The new writing system should also be malleable enough to reflect the nuances of different Inuit dialects, she said.

The standardized writing system would be introduced to the youngest generation of Inuit through teaching materials for pre-school and kindergarten classes. It would take years before new system became the standard for the majority of the population, said Palluq-Cloutier.

“We’re not taking anything away from what people are currently using … If they want to write emails using syllabics they can continue to do so.”

Lessons from the outside

Air Greenland sign at the Sisimiut Airport showing opening hours and check-in times in Kalaallisut (Greenlandic) and Danish. (Wikimedia Commons/Algkalv)

Air Greenland sign at the Sisimiut Airport showing opening hours and check-in times in Kalaallisut (Greenlandic) and Danish. (Wikimedia Commons/Algkalv)

Greenland is a favorite role model when it comes to Inuktut revitalization. When visiting their Arctic neighbor Greenland, Canadian Inuit often snap photos of store signs, food labels and menus written entirely in Kalaallisut, the Western Greenlandic dialect closely related to certain Inuktut dialects, marveling at how many Greenlanders are fluent in their native language.

Greenland never adopted a syllabics system; its missionaries introduced Roman orthography instead, and the written language was standardized in the 1960s. When it comes to Inuit language teaching materials, Greenland is ahead of Nunavut “by leaps and bounds,” said Palluq-Cloutier.

In Canada, those changes couldn’t be made overnight. But an experimental education model in Alaska might present a model for a more gradual approach.

Of the U.S. state’s 20 indigenous languages, Central Yup’ik, which belongs to the Eskimo-Aleut language family, is exceptionally robust, said Patrick Marlow, a linguistics professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. He points to the Lower Kuskokwim School District in southwestern Alaska, which in recent years has been implementing a new bilingual education system that aims to strengthen children’s use of Central Yup’ik.

Starting in kindergarten, the curriculum is split evenly between Central Yup’ik and English, with subjects assigned a particular language. Outside the classroom, students and teachers are expected to speak English on designated weekdays and Central Yup’ik on others. Schools that adopt this model hope to apply it incrementally, with a higher grade being added to the system every subsequent year.

“Of course, you run into reality,” said Marlow. For instance, although school libraries are intended to have an even split of English and Central Yup’ik texts, not enough Yup’ik texts currently exist to achieve that balance.

As in Canada’s Inuit regions, the education system also has to accommodate various dialects. Currently, teaching materials produced in one dialect can be taught in schools where a different dialect is spoken, with those differences incorporated into the lessons. “Teachers are encouraged to use the text and highlight for students, ‘This is how they say it in village A, and this is how we use it in village C,’” said Marlow.

It’s too soon to tell whether the new model is working, and some worry that introducing a new educational system will only weaken the language. Although these Alaskan schools adopted a standardized Roman orthography in the 1970s, older generations are still resentful.

“There are elders who are of the view that the church orthography is the right way of writing,” said Marlow. They “become concerned if their grandchildren are not familiar enough with church orthography.”

Like the Central Yup’ik, Canada’s Inuit face a difficult choice, said Marlow: Change the writing system to promote literacy among children, or alienate respected elders?

“That is something that the folks in Nunavut will have to weigh for themselves.”

Additional Inuktut Resources:

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