Friday, October 11, 2019

Finally, a common writing system for all Inuit languages and dialects

I always thought it was as simple as to say that the Inuit of northern Canada (in fact, all the indigenous people from the arctic regions of Alaska, Canada and Greenland) speak a language called Inuktitut. But, although there is only a shockingly small population of 47,000 Inuit in Canada, their language profile is actually extremely complex.
For one thing, in addition to Inuktitut, there is also something called Inuktut, which is the word used to represent all the Inuit dialects, or at least those spoken within the Nunavut territory of northern Canada, which is where the majority of the Inuit live. This includes Inuktitut, Inuinnaqtun and others. In fact, it turns out that there are 5 different dialects of Inuktut, and no less than nine different writing systems. The dialects are distinct, but they are related, so that speakers of different dialects can usually more or less make themselves understood. The writing systems, though, which were mainly developed by well-meaning Christian missionaries from the 17th century onwards, are less consistent. Some make use of syllabics (characters to represent syllables), and some use the more familiar Roman alphabet.
So, finding - and agreeing on - a common written system for all Inuit has become something of a linguistic holy grail, especially given that consensus is an important part of Inuit culture. But, after eight years of negotiation, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, the main "national" Inuit organization, has managed to come up with a new writing system, created by Inuit for Inuit, called Inuktut Qaliujaakpait. The system uses Roman letters to represent the sounds in all five dialects.
Of course, even with a consensus, not everyone is happy about it. Some still prefer the old system(s), even if it was a colonial imposition, and a "long transition period" is anticipated. Me, I will miss the aesthetically pleasing characters of Inuktitut syllabics, which I got to know and love on canoe trips to the Northwest Territories.

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