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the Inuktitut language

Inuktitut: In the Way of the Inuit

Inuktitut is the traditional oral language of Inuit in the Arctic. Spoken in Canada and Greenland, as well as in Alaska, Inuktitut and its many dialects are used by peoples from region to region, with some variations. For thousands of years, from one generation to the next, Inuit have passed on their stories and legends through the spoken word and in song. Through contact with missionaries from the outside world, a written system was brought to Arctic peoples and developed, as a way of introducing them to Christianity and the Bible. Because contact with Inuit occurred at different times and stages, several types of writing systems evolved, depending on the region. Today, Inuit living in different parts of the Canadian Arctic use Qaliujaaqpait (roman orthography) or Qaniujaaqpait (syllabics), or sometimes both.

The earliest writing system to develop in the northern regions was roman orthography in Greenland during the 1760s. Over time, missionaries and linguists revised this system, and it is the root of the written language in use there today.

Moravian missionaries, who first arrived in Greenland and later travelled to Labrador in the late 1800s, developed a writing system similar to the roman orthography used by Greenlanders. Other peoples to use this written system were the Alaskan Yupik and Inupiat, and the Siberian Yupik. Interestingly, the Alaskans were the only peoples to develop their own picture writing, but this system eventually disappeared with its inventors.

Eastern Canadian Inuit were the last peoples to be introduced to a writing system, and the only group to develop one that was syllabic. Brought by the missionaries who had developed a similar written language for the Cree Indians, Qaniujaaqpait was introduced in this region around the 1860s. Netsilik Inuit, Netsilingmiut, in the Pelly Bay (Arvilikjuaq) area and north Baffin were the last peoples to encounter missionaries in the early 20th century, and therefore the last to adopt Qaniujaaqpait by the 1920s.

Today, Arctic peoples from different regions speak their own dialects of Inuktitut, Yupik and Inupiaq languages. The differences may be as minor as tone or sound variations, or may include different word usage altogether. Some dialects are easily understood between regions, while others pose difficulties to conversation. For example, eastern Canadian Inuit have difficulty understanding Siberian Yupik, who can easily converse with Alaskan Inupiat.

Besides the variations in dialects, another language difficulty encountered by missionaries during the early period of contact was that the phonology of Inuktitut differed greatly from that of English. This posed problems in the correct recording of Inuit names. Later, when photographers from southern Canada came to photograph Inuit, many were unfamiliar with the sounds in Inuktitut, and also often recorded Inuit names incorrectly. Typically, they replaced "q" with "k" and "r" with "g", among other misspellings. In addition, Inuit names sometimes have variances from one dialect to another, and from one region to another, which further complicated the recording process.

In spite of the regional differences in dialects and writing systems, all Inuit are united through their shared language roots, which date back thousands of years.