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Inuktitut language

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Inuktitut (ᐃᓄᒃᑎᑐᑦ, lit. 'Like the Inuit') is the language of the Inuit people. The language is a member of the Eskimo-Aleut group of languages.



Specifically, Inuktitut is the dialect of the Inuit of the Canadian Eastern Arctic. It is also used to refer to the Inuit language as a whole, which is more in the nature of a dialect continuum than a single language; this continuum can be divided into roughly sixteen varieties, in four groups:

All Inuktitut varieties taken together have a speaking population of approximately 80,000. Inuktitut proper is spoken by roughly 20,000 people.

Broadly, Inuktitut proper can be divided into three main dialect groups, and various subgroups:

Keewatin - Spoken on the west coast of Hudson Bay.
Baffin - Spoken on the Islands to the north of Hudson Bay, most notably, as the name suggests, on Baffin Island.
Nunavik/Labrador - Spoken to the east of Hudson Bay, as the name suggests, in Nunavik(Northern Quebec) and Labrador.

Keewatin tends to be more conservative, preserving most consonant clusters, whereas the Nunavik dialects tend to be more radical, with the tendency to turn consonant clusters into geminates (Using the name of the language as an example - Keewatin Inuktitut is Nunavik Inuttitut). South Baffin dialects tend to be radical in this way, North Baffin ones more conservative.


It is related to the Aleut language, and together they form the Eskimo-Aleut family; while this has no proven wider affinities, some postulation has taken place as to the relation of Inuktitut to the Indo-European languages and to the Nostratic superphylum.


Inuktitut, like other Eskimo-Aleut languages, represents a particular type of agglutinative language called a polysynthetic language: it "synthesizes" a root and various grammatical morphemes to create long words with sentence-like meanings.

An interesting thing is naming of individuals. Some names include 'Ujaraq' (rock), 'Nuvuk' (headland), 'Nasak' (hat, or hood), 'Tupiq' (tent), 'Qajaq' (kayak), etc. There are also names that share names in the animal world: 'Nanuq' (polar-bear), 'Uqalik' (Arctic hare), 'Tiriaq' (ermine), etc. A third class are individuals with anatomic reference but are not descriptive of the person named, obviously, in that the names are derived from a long succession of people bearing that same soul. Examples include 'Itigaituk' (has no feet), 'Usuiituk' (has no penis), 'Tulimak' (rib), etc.

Words for snow

A popular belief exists that Inuktitut has an unusually large number of words for snow. This is not accurate, and results from a misunderstanding of the nature of polysynthetic languages. In fact, Inuktitut has only a few base roots for snow: 'qanik', which is used most often like the verb to snow, and 'aput', which means snow as a substance. Parts of speech work very differently in Inuktitut than in English, so these definitions are somewhat misleading.

Inuktitut can form very long words by adding more and more descriptive affixes to words. Those affixes may modify the syntactic and semantic properties of the base word, or may add qualifiers to it in much the same way that English uses adjectives or prepositional phrases to qualify nouns (eg. "falling snow", "blowing snow", "snow on the ground", "snow drift", etc.)

The "fact" that there are many Inuktitut words for snow has been put forward so often it is somewhat of a journalistic cliché (as evidenced by a collection of quotes from linguist Mark Liberman).


Inuktitut has fifteen consonants and three vowels (which can be long or short). Consonants are arranged with five places of articulationbilabial, alveolar, palatal, velar and uvular, and three manners of articulation — voiceless stops , voiced continuants and nasals, as well as two additional sounds — voiceless fricatives .

This leaves us with the following consonants:

And the vowels:

  • a /a/.
  • i /i/.
  • u /u/.

Reduplication of the vowel letters indicate lengthened vowels.

The Canadian Syllabary

The Inuktitut syllabary used in Canada is based on the Cree syllabary, which is in turn based on that of Ojibwe. Both of these were created by missionary James Evans. The syllabary for Canadian Inuktitut was adopted by the Inuit Cultural Institute in Canada in the 1970s. The Inupiaq in Alaska and Greenland use a Roman script and Inuit in Siberia use Cyrillic letters.


Though conventionally called a syllabary, the writing system has been classified by some observers as an abugida, since syllables starting with the same consonant have related glyphs rather than unrelated ones.

All of the characters needed for the Inuktitut syllabary are available in the Unicode character repertoire.

Legal status

Inuktitut is an official language in the following areas:

Also, according to the Charter of the French Language in Quebec, Canada, Inuktitut is the official language of instruction for Inuit school districts in Nunavik (northern Quebec).

See also

External links

Last updated: 10-12-2005 23:58:30
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