Continuing to review this piece by Artem Filippov, who is concerned about the Canadian government’s policy of cultural genocide against Canadian Inuits. Filippov brings an alarming statistic: at the current rate, by the year 2051 only 4% of the Inuits will be able to speak in their own native language.
To be sure, there is more than one “Inuit language”, as we learn from wiki. There are several languages and dialects spanning the Bering Strait and linking speakers ranging from the Canadian Northwest, Alaska, and across the Strait into Russia (for example, Russian Chukchi people).
In Canada, the term “Inuktitut” is used to refer to all Canadian dialects of the Inuit language, and is recognized as one of the three official languages of Nunavut. This is the language that Mr. Filippov is concerned about. Technically, this language is supposed to be taught in all the schools in Northern Quebec, according to the Charter of the French Language and agreements between the various aboriginal nations with the Canadian government. Canadian census reports about 35,000 Inuktitut speakers in Canada, most of them living in traditional Inuit lands.
The catalogue of Inuktitut phonology shows 15 consonants and 3 vowels; which is actually 6 vowels, because each vowel can be long or short. A fairly simple language, for a fairly simple lifestyle, right? Wrong! The phonology may be simple, but the grammar – oi veh! Inuktitut is catalogued by linguists as an “agglutinative” or “polysynthetic” type language: Inuktitut, like other Eskimo–Aleut languages, has a very rich morphological system, in which a succession of different morphemes are added to root words to indicate things that, in languages like English, would require several words to express.
In other words, write this down: Eskimo-Aleut languages have gluten whereas languages like English and Chinese are gluten-free. Which way is better? I reckon that depends what you are trying to say.
Okay, enough with the Linguistics jokes. Except I do want to mention that Inuktitut has its own alphabet, or rather, a “syllabary”. Who invented this syllabary? Well, a missionary of course. Just as the Slavic peoples had Father Methodius to devise a great alphabet for them; so too the Canadian Inuits had a Methodist missionary, James Evans.
Reverend Evans was said to be an “amateur” linguist, but even an amateur linguist is better than no linguist at all, assuming the guy knows what he is doing. Apparently Evans claims to have invented this syllabic writing system for the Ojibwe and Cree Indians, and then adapted for the Inuit. According to wiki, this may not be technically correct: perhaps the Cree already had this system of writing, and Evans merely adapted it for print. Either way, it was said to have worked out pretty well for all concerned.
Evans was ordained a Wesleyan Minister in 1833. He had picked up some Ojibwe along the way and initially thought he would adapt the Roman script to write it down; but then scrapped that idea. Later, he modified syllabics slightly and applied it to Cree, a related language. The scripts were based on Devanagari and Pitman Shorthand. They were easy to learn and led to almost universal literacy among the Canadian Ojibwe and Cree within a few years.
The modern form of the Inuktitut syllabary is similar to the Cree one and was adopted by the Inuit Cultural Institute in Canada in the 1970’s. It looks something like this:
I count 64 groups of characters in this syllabary. Sixty-four things to memorize. Since there are technically 21 phonemes in the catalogue, then, er, why not just create 21 letters, what am I missing here? Did Reverend James not understand universal concepts of phonology? Did he get distracted by the elaborate morphology and forget about the underlying layer? Well, granted, I only speak and read gluten-free languages; so perhaps I am judging with too much inflection or totally out of turn here. Anyhow, the important point is what was said above, about the universal literacy. That’s the key point, and an important goal for any society: Get your children reading quickly and early. If they have to learn a syllabary, then so be it. At least Inuit children would not have to waste their precious time studying for spelling bees, God help them! Oh wait, they have to learn English too, as well as French!
[to be continued]