Spoken by over 90% of Nunavimmiut, the Inuktitut language is a source of pride, embodying its speakers’ history, culture and ancestral traditions that are closely linked to the land. Inuktitut is a remarkable example of the relationship between language and cultural identity.
Everyday affairs, the rules of society and shared values are expressed by this language, which in turn helps to define Nunavik culture. Inuktitut has the capacity to safeguard the past while providing a basis for developing ideas for today and tomorrow.
The Inuit language is spoken from the eastern tip of Russia to Greenland by nearly 100,000 people. In Canada, the term Inuktitut includes all linguistic variants. In Nunavik, the Nunavimmiutitut, one of ten dialects of Inuktitut of Canada, can be classified into two recognized sub-dialects: Tarramiut, generally spoken on the coast of Ungava Bay and Itivimiut spoken on the coast of Hudson Bay.
Inuktitut is one of seven languages belonging to the Eskaleut linguistic family. In its syntax and morphology it is related to the Yupit languages spoken in Alaska and northeastern Siberia. When the Thules arrived in North America, they spoke an ancient form of Inuktitut that was quite similar to these related tongues. Over the course of the Thules’ long migration from west to east, the old language gradually developed its own characteristics and evolved into its present form.
Until 1902-1903, an isolated group of Tuniit, called Sallimiut, lived on Southampton Island in the northwest of Nunavik. It was said that they spoke a “strange dialect,” which may have been Eskaleut but was very different from modern Inuktitut. The Sallirmiut all perished within the space of a few weeks in an epidemic that put a tragic end to a people and their entire culture.
Unlike English or French, Inuktitut is considered an agglutinating language, that is, a language in which vocabulary items are formed by juxtaposing basic elements, which are often invariable. Such languages also include Japanese, Swahili and those in the Turkic linguistic family. This type of word formation makes it possible for Inuktitut to express complex concepts in a single word, while languages like English or French would require several.
The vocabulary consists of words formed around a “base” element, whose meaning is modified or made more precise by adding on one or more suffixes. A frequently given example of the versatility and richness of Nunavik Inuktitut is the array of words (over 25) used to describe snow in various states. Here are four of them:
qanik: falling snow
qanittaq: recently fallen snow
qannialaaq: light falling snow
qanniapaluk: very light falling snow, in still air
The writing system used for Inuktitut is based on syllabic symbols invented by James Evans, a 19th-century missionary. Evans at first worked in Ontario, where he attempted to transcribe the sounds of the Ojibwa language precisely. Inspired by stenography, he developed a syllabic system in which nine basic symbols are written in different positions to represent vowels and consonants. This system was adopted by the Cree and then eventually adapted and introduced in the land that is Nunavik today. Initially used by missionaries for evangelical purposes, the writing system was adopted by the Inuit for correspondence, as well as for recording dates and everyday information.