ALANA JOHNS | PROFESSOR

INUKTITUT


Overview

Inuktitut is one of the names used to describe language of the Inuit. Different names are used depending on the geographic area, e.g. Kalaallisut for the main language of Greenland; Inuttut for Labrador; Inuvialuktun for the MacKenzie Delta area; and Iñupiaq for the language spoken in Alaska. The language has been called Eskimo in English and other languages, and is a member of the Eskimo-Aleut language family. Now many Inuit do not want to be called Eskimo, although in Alaska and some other areas it is still used with no negative association.

These many names are the first indication that although Inuktitut is one language, it is composed of many distinct dialects. Each of these has many, many properties in common with all the other dialects but there are also very important differences in pronunciation, grammar and basic lexical items. Often these differences are great enough that a speaker of one dialect cannot accurately communicate with a speaker of another dialect, although they may get the gist of each other's speech. For this reason, it is advisable to have translations, interviews, etc. done by a member of the community in question and not by a speaker from a distant area.

Over time, I hope to add information about this language and its fascinating dialects.



Writing System

The writing systems or orthographies of Inuktitut are also varied but based on similar linguistic properties. Most outsiders have seen the syllabic writing system but there are a number of roman-based writing systems which are used as well. Different dialects sometimes have different orthographies. The best description of the history and explanation of the different Inuit writing systems was written by Kenn Harper. The differences between writing systems can sometimes give the appearance that the dialects are more different than they really are. In fact, when you listen to the spoken or oral language, the similarities become more clear. The oral language is the lifeblood of each and every language. Without it, a language is not alive. A language can be alive without a writing sytem. Human language is essentially an oral phenomenon. Writing, although it is very useful, has been added on to it. Children learn naturally to speak the spoken language around them. Writing must be learned through teaching. As I discuss each dialect or dialect region, I will introduce aspects of the writing system used in that area.

Advice to those printing Inuktitut in syllabics in magazines or on the web:

Make the fonts bigger!


Some Inuit are telling me that they read the English rather than the Inuktitut. Of course this also depends on the quality of the Inuktitut.



Dialects

There are many dialects of Inuktitut and our knowledge of the differences between them is incomplete. One of the best sources of information is Inuit Uqausiqatigiit - Inuit Languages and Dialects by Louis-Jacques Dorais of Université Laval. This book was written for linguists and Inuktitut teachers, i.e. it assumes that the reader has some linguistic background.

Here is some information about the dialects spoken in Labrador.



Resources

There are not a lot of books on or in Inuktitut but there are a few:

Inuit Nunamiut: Inland Inuit. Ed. and compiler, Hattie Mannik. This is a wonderful book of reminiscences of some of Baker Lake's elders. The stories are written in Inuktitut and translated to English. Available from the Baker Lake Inuit Heritage Centre.

The best source for books is from the library of Nunavut Arctic College. They sell books about Inuktitut as well as a fabulous series of Inuit traditional knowledge Interviewing Inuit Elders. These are available as books in either Inuktitut or English.Some of the English translations are available online and they promise to put the actual oral interviews online as sound files in the future.
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