Intermission – The Beauty of Nunavut Inuktitut

So last year I did a little segment on learning the lesser known languages and I did cover a bit on Nunavut Inuktitut. And now, here is a post dedicated to the wonders of this poly-synthetic language.

Many people have heard of this language because of its alleged diversity of words to mean snow and ice. While it seems as fascinating as the hundreds of Sami words to mean reindeer, Nunavut Inuktitut has about a dozen basic words to describe snow and ice, while many other words are like Lego creations, using different blocks to build different words that can translate to something related to snow. So some of the basic words for snow and ice are:

qanik – snow falling

aputi- snow on the ground

pukak – crystalline snow on the ground

aniu – snow used to make water

siku – generic ice

nilak – freshwater ice for drinking

qinu – slushy ice by the sea

It is interesting to see how a constant exposure to the Arctic climate and terrain can lead to the Inuit devising various words for such snow and ice. After all, all languages tend to find an easy way to say what they need to say. Snow and ice which can be used for survival, pose as a hazard or a quick description of the snow/ice’s appearance would tend to receive different terms. One can argue that illusaq literally means “what can become a house” but to the communities living in Arctic climates, where snow is everywhere, “what can become a house” would usually be snow that is rigid and movable enough to be made into bricks to make a house. Similarly, maujaq, literally meaning “something in which one sinks”, when used in the Arctic context, would usually mean snow in which one sinks, or very soft snow on the ground.

The main beauty of Nunavut Inuktitut lies in its highly poly-synthetic and agglutinative nature. Remember the basic words for snow and ice? Suffixes and prefixes can be added to basic words like these to give additional meaning, creating a word that would normally translate into a phrase in most languages. Consider words like qanittaq, from qanik+taq, to mean freshly fallen snow, and sikuaq, siku+aq, to mean a skim of ice. You can see how Nunavut Inuktitut builds words like Lego blocks.

As agglutinating stuff together continues, entire sentences in English can be translated into what seems to be a single word in Nunavut Inuktitut. Consider this word in the South Qikiqtaaluk dialect:

pulaarvimiittuuk (The two of them are in the living room)

Okay, let’s break it down into its basic components.

pulaarvi(k) + miit + tuuk

Pulaarvik means “living room”, miit is a locative particle, and tuuk is a suffix to mean two of them. Now put them all together and you’ve got a sentence! Now let’s see another word, now having four components:

titirarvigijanga (She writes to him)

Titiraq means “to write”, vik is a marker to indicate a receiver of the action, gi is a special particle attached to some roots, and janga is a suffix to mean he/she/it [verb] him/her/it.

Another unique part of this Eskimo-Aleutic language is the use of the Inuktitut Abugida, a writing system where vowels change according to which direction a character is flipped. For example, the letter ᑲ /ka/, when mirrored longitudinally, reads ᑯ /ku/, and when it is flipped vertically, it reads ᑭ /ki/. A long vowel is indicated by a dot above the character (ᑳ /kaa/), and a consonant without a vowel is minimised like ᒃ /k/.

All in all, Nunavut Inuktitut is a fascinating language to learn, and I hope you’re interested to know more about this wonderful language.

Bonus point: The Inuit have their own throat singing, but more competitive in nature than Tuvan throat singing. It is typically sung in duets between women to see who can outlast the other. The video below shows you what Inuit throat singing looks like. Hope you’ve enjoyed reading this post!


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