Easier said than written. Aboriginals of the Arctic share a language, but not a script
Nov 7th 2015 Economist
Missionaries in northern Canada saw themselves as spreading the “three Cs” among the region’s Inuit peoples: Christianity, commerce and civiliZation. But in translating the Bible and other religious works into Inuktitut, the Inuit language, they accidentally left behind a fourth: confusion. Today Canada’s 59,500 Inuit have nine different writing systems, which makes it hard for them to communicate with each other and to keep their language alive. Their leaders want to adopt a single way of setting down the language, but finding agreement on just how to do that is proving difficult.
In the western Arctic and on the Labrador coast missionaries moonlighting as linguists used the Roman alphabet to capture Inuktitut in written form, but each had his own system for doing so. Sounds denoted by one combination of letters in one region are expressed by a different assortment in another. “You” can now be rendered as “ibbit”, “ivvit” and “illit”. In northern Quebec and the eastern Arctic, the proselytisers eschewed Roman letters in favour of phonetic symbols based on the Pitman shorthand system (see picture).
With no agreed-upon way of writing the language, documents composed by Canadian Inuit officials have to repeat the same text multiple times. Brief reports become massive—and expensively produced—tomes. Often, the bureaucrats resort to English. Teenagers are more adventurous spellers, so standardised writing should matter less to them, but even they tend to text each other in English.
This is slowly killing the language. The percentage of Inuit able to carry on a conversation in Inuktitut dropped to 63% in 2011 from 69% in 2006, according to the Canadian census. A committee set up to investigate a unified writing system held most of its meetings in English, says a participant, Jeela Palluq-Cloutier, head of the language authority in the mainly Inuit territory of Nunavut.
Greenland’s Inuit, whose dialects resemble those in eastern Canada, worked out their differences over a decade starting in the 1960s and adopted their agreement as an official language in 2009. Canada’s have talked desultorily about doing the same thing. A report on Inuit education in 2011 gave the project a fresh impetus. It found that 75% of young Inuit fail to complete secondary school in part because the curriculum does not reflect their culture and history. The report’s authors said that students should be taught in their mother tongue, rather than in English and French, for the first few years of primary school. But without a unified writing system, which would allow for the distribution of Inuktitut texts across the scattered communities of Canada’s vast north, that recommendation is impossible to carry out.
On October 25th, after three years of contentious discussion among elders, linguists and community groups, the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, the Inuit national organisation, opted for a system based on the Roman alphabet rather than syllabic symbols. That is just a first step, says Ms Palluq-Cloutier. There will be arguments about which of the nine or so dialects and which grammar will become the basis for the new system. The Innu, an unrelated aboriginal group from Quebec and Labrador, agreed on a system that took the spelling from one dialect and the grammar from another. But many Inuit are reluctant to give up the script they grew up with. In Nunavut and Nunavik many older Inuit remain attached to syllabic symbols, believing them to be uniquely Inuit. But if the Inuit are to preserve their language, they will have to clear up the confusion that the missionaries left behind. Odds are they will—eventually.