OTTAWA – There are 60,000 Inuit in Canada’s far north who use nine different writing forms and speak at least as many dialects. Starting Friday, linguists and Inuit regional representatives will meet in Ottawa to try to decide on a common alphabet for Arctic indigenous peoples.
The push to establish a standard Inuktitut writing form began last September, based on recommendations in a 2011 report on improving Inuit education.
“The Inuit have a universal culture and society, and our language has a common base, but the different dialects can make it difficult to understand each other,” said Natan Obed, head of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami. “I would say we get by, but there are limitations.”
Having a unified system, Obed said, would help to revitalize an ancient language that is also spoken in Alaska, Greenland and Russia, positively impacting Inuit education, culture, governance and business throughout the Arctic.
“We could all read in our language and understand each other across our regions,” he explained.
Inuktitut became fractured in this country over centuries because it was spoken by groups widely dispersed across Canada’s vast Arctic that rarely interacted.
It splintered further when missionaries developed writing for it based on Latin, as they sought to convert aboriginals to Christianity. Whalers and fur traders also shaped the language.
Dialects, meanwhile, have diverged so much that some speakers cannot pronounce sounds from other Arctic regions.
Last week, translators and interpreters at a meeting in Iqaluit in Canada’s northern Nunavut territory debated using Roman orthography — the Latin alphabet used to write English and French — or the triangles, dots and squiggles of syllabics for the new writing system.
“It’s a controversial issue,” Obed said. “Inuit did not have a writing system at all before the arrival of Europeans, so neither is native to our society.”
Syllabics are most common in the central and eastern Canadian Arctic while Roman orthography is widely used in western parts.
A majority of Inuit use syllabics, which is why they are often associated with Inuit culture, but linguists argued that Roman orthography preferred by Inuit youths is more utilitarian, providing greater access to the language in the digital age.
Work on standardizing Inuktitut is expected to wrap up next year.