chapter  8
19 Pages

Standardization of Inuit Languages in Canada

WithDonna Patrick, Kumiko Murasugi, Jeela Palluq-Cloutier

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According to the UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger, Canada has 88 Indigenous languages, all of which are in danger (Moseley 2010). Of these, 11 are spoken by Inuit in the Canadian Arctic, which covers over 40% of Canada's landmass and constitutes the homelands of roughly 50,000 Inuit (Statistics Canada 2006). In addition to this diversity among spoken languages, there are at least five different writing systems currently in use, the result of variation in the original systems introduced by missionaries across the Arctic region and the influence of government officials, linguists, and Inuit and non-Inuit with strong views about the Inuit language (Palluq-Cloutier 2014). All of the writing systems are based on either syllabics (a script with one character for each type of consonant-vowel syllable) or the Roman alphabet. Each of the four Inuit land claim regions, Inuvialuit, Nunavut, Nunavik, and Nunatsiavut, uses one or more of these five systems in schools, churches, and other institutional contexts. While six of the 11 Inuit languages are among the most viable Indigenous languages in Canada, in recent years there has been renewed debate about the importance of standardization for education, government, and business and for the survival of the Inuit language (Palluq-Cloutier 2011).

In this chapter, we examine the process of language standardization in the Canadian Arctic, focusing on an ongoing project spearheaded by the national Inuit organization Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK), which seeks to develop a unified writing system that will facilitate the production and distribution of educational, government, and literary publications in an effort to ensure the continued strength of the Inuit language. With the goal being to initiate standardization through collaborative agreement, the project involves a multifaceted collaboration between ITK, regional Inuit representatives, territorial governments, education boards, university researchers, and community members. This process of seeking broad agreement involves consultations between project coordinators and community members across the Arctic in workshops, meetings, local radio phone-in shows, social media, and discussions with local Inuit language experts.

Our chapter examines language differences and the scope of the diversity (spatially, linguistically, historically, and culturally) and presents a description and analysis of the consultation process as it affects the users of the language. To what extent does the ongoing standardization process differ from previous attempts at standardizing Inuit writing systems? This is particularly pertinent because the current process is motivated by Inuit concerned with Inuit governance, education, and linguistic preservation. To what extent can the process be conceptualized as bottom-up or top-down, or a combination of both? It is bottom-up to some degree, since it is initiated by the users of the Indigenous language, yet standardization inevitably involves some form of top-down decision-making by those introducing or coordinating the process. In our chapter, we consider the complexity involved in gathering and disseminating information, and the inclusivity and reflexivity necessary to engage with, a variety of language speakers across vast regional distances.