This month, we’re going to learn a fact or two about people from the Canadian Arctic and the language spoken by them. We’ve grown up doodling igloos and polar bears, but have you ever wondered what people on the Alaskan coast spoke? These Arctic people living across Canada, Alaska, Greenland and Russia, are known as the Inuit. Popularly recognised as “Eskimos” which came to be termed offensive, they are now officially known as the Inuit, which means ‘the people’. And undoubtedly, everything about the lives of the Inuit is influenced by the cold tundra climate in which they live.
Inuktitut – what, where and how much?
Inuktitut is an Inuit language spoken primarily in northern Canada, specifically in parts of Newfoundland and Labrador, Quebec, the Northwest Territories, and Nunavut (noo-nah-voot). Approximately 75 percent of the Inuit in the territory of Nunavut are known to speak Inuktitut as their mother tongue.
This indigenous language of the Canadian Arctic was recognised as one of eight official native tongues in the Northwest Territories in 1984. The 2016 census reported 39,770 speakers, of which 65 per cent were located in Nunavut and 30.8 per cent in Quebec. It is also one of the many dialects spoken between Alaska and Greenland, as well as peppered parts of Europe and Canada.
Tracing back the links
19th century colonialism brought over the European schooling system to Canada. During this time, missionaries of the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches were one of the first ones to deliver education to Inuit in schools. The teachers used the Inuktitut language for instruction and developed writing systems and the first residential school for Inuit opened in 1928.
Of scripts and lineages
Inuktitut has an official status in Nunavut, along with Inuinnaqtun, English and French. It is interestingly, a polysynthetic language, meaning that words tend to be longer and structurally more complex than their English or French counterparts.
Inuktitut uses a writing system called syllabics, created originally for the Cree language, which represents combinations of consonants and vowels. The language is also written in the Roman alphabet, while the Inuktitut-speaking Inuit of the territory of Nunavut and the Nunavik region in Quebec use an abugida-type writing system.
Nunavut, one of Canada’s youngest territories, has four official languages: English, French, Inuktitut, and Inuinnaqtun, of which the latter two are Inuit languages. Inuktitut is most certainly spoken in many communities, and each one has several regional dialects.
As for fun facts, did you know the name “Eskimo” (native American word) actually meant ‘eater of raw meat’? While it is commonly used in Alaska to refer to all Inuit and Yupik people of the world, this name is considered derogatory in many places today and so, it is recommended to call them the Inuit people instead!
You think this language might be interesting to learn? You can take a quick online course on the Tusaalanga app and find out!