It may be an exaggeration to believe the claims made by anthropological linguists Franz Boas and Benjamin Lee Whorf that the Inuit have hundreds of words for snow. What is clear is that it has not been helpful for Canada’s 60,000-strong Inuit population to be unable to fully communicate in Inuktut, the Inuit language, thanks to their varying dialects and distinct written characters.
‘Currently there are nine different forms of Roman orthography and four syllabic systems for one language that possesses 12 main dialects,’ explains Natan Obed, president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, the national organisation representing Canada’s Inuit. ‘It has been costly in terms of producing, publishing and distributing common Inuit language materials.’
“A unified Inuit writing system will strengthen the Inuit language, help to improve literacy and education across Inuit Nunangat, and strengthen Inuit unity and culture”
Therefore, the Atausiq Inuktitut Titirausiq, a task force comprising Inuit Linguists and language experts from each Inuit region, is currently gathering the existing characters used across the four Inuit regions of Canada, in order to begin the arduous process of creating a single alphabet for Inuktitut, with common grammar, spelling and terminology.
‘A unified Inuit writing system will improve mobility and allow consistency in the education system for students and teachers moving from one region to another,’ explains Obed. ‘It will strengthen the Inuit language, help to improve literacy and education across Inuit Nunangat, and strengthen Inuit unity and culture.’
Obed insists that the process won’t compromise or replace any regional or community dialects, and that each region will be able to continue to communicate in their respective dialects using the new common symbols. ‘Writing systems are tools to communicate language – they are not the language itself,’ he says. ‘This will enhance learning and retention of the Inuit language.’
This was published in the April 2016 edition of Geographical magazine.