Skip to main content

Standardizing Inuit Language Is Tricky

  • Author:
  • Updated:

How to standardize a language when the letters and phonetics simply do not exist for some of the dialects?

That’s what Nattilingmiut educator and language activist Miriam Aglukkaq runs into when trying to spell out the dialect spoken in Gjoa Haven, Kugaaruk and Taloyoak. The current dual-orthography writing system taught in Nunavut schools does not have letters for certain unique sounds that exist in the dialect spoken in those three places, she told a forum on language standardization that was covered by the Nunatsiaq News.

“Because of this, is very difficult to educate the students,” Aglukkaq said. “They mispronounce many words.”

Aglukkaq pointed out that the dual orthography system, launched in the 1970s as an attempt to create a standard Inuit language writing system, actually makes it more difficult to teach the Inuit language in her region.

“Many people did not know the words would be mispronounced,” she said.

Aglukkaq devised a revised syllabary containing special rows of characters that represent sounds that occur among Nattilik speakers.

Participants from Nunavut, Nunavik, Nunatsiavut and Greenland attended the weeklong conference to work on standardizing the Inuit language, including noted Iqaluit linguist and historian Kenn Harper, who spoke of the difficulties inherent in attempting to take a syllabic language with many variations and introduce orthography. (He also published a February 2 piece in the Nunatsiaq News outlining the challenges inherent in standardizing a language whose speakers resist the notion of orthography at all.)

Standardizing the language is part of the charge given to the Government of Nunavut under the Inuit Language Protection Act, according to the Nunatsiaq News.

The task is monumental and faces many challenges, wrote Mary Simon, the president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK), in her blog.

ITK is the advocacy organization for 55,000 Inuit living in 53 communities across the Inuvialuit Settlement Region (Northwest Territories), Nunavut, Nunavik (Northern Quebec) and Nunatsiavut (Northern Labrador), land claims regions, the region that the Inuit call Inuit Nunangat.

She noted that the Canadian government has stopped underwriting the cost of coordinating between Inuit regions that’s necessary for the “substantial national discussion and strategic planning” that must take place.

“The Government of Canada has a role to play in funding the future development of our language,” she wrote on February 8. “After all, it is largely due to government interventions such as residential schools that our language is at such grave risk of decline and extinction.”