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Inuktitut Scholar Speaks at Linguistics Colloquium

January 31, 2015

Above: Mick Mallon, Canadian Inuktitut instructor lectures at Linguistics colloquium

by Brent Woo, Linguistics

Mallon, who might possibly be Canada’s preeminent non-Inuktitut instructor, is better described through his past work than by giving him any one title. Mallon was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland in 1933. He graduated from Cambridge in 1954 and then emigrated to Canada as a high school teacher. In 1959, he began studying Inuktitut in Arctic Québec. In 1968, he founded the Federal Eskimo Language School in Hudson Bay. Since then, he has worked in various positions for curriculum development and directing teacher programs, all promoting the study of Inuktitut.The UW’s Department of Linguists hosted Mick Mallon, Inuktitut instructor at UW, as speaker for one of the largest department Colloquia talks given this academic year. An estimated 80 interested students and faculty members showed up for the talk in November where an enthusiastic Mallon gave an overview of the sounds, structure, and other linguistic features of the Inuktitut language.

During his talk, Mallon highlighted several peculiar aspects of Inuktitut that are unfamiliar to the typical English speaker. Person possession is expressed as suffixes on nouns rather than separate words as in English (my, your, his…). Verbs express mood such as the Dubative, Frequentative, and Conditional through a series of endings rather than in separate words as in English. Mallon demonstrated the difference between the sound indicated by the letter ‘k’ (voiceless velar stop) and the letter ‘q’ (voiceless uvular stop), the latter of which is absent in native English words and appears in words like Quran (Arabic).

Over 36,000 people in Canada speak Inuktitut. Providing materials for language education is key for language advocacy in the absence of a native language speaker. To that end, Mallon has published several books for use by both the seasoned academic and the interested language leaner. These include Introductory Inuktitut, Introductory Inuktitut Reference Grammar, and Inuktitut Linguistics for Technocrats.

Mallon kept the large audience fully captivated and engaged as he navigated through the intricacies of Inuktitut grammar. He peppered his talk with personal anecdotes and entertaining illustrations. At one point, he asked Linguistics graduate student Joshua Crowgey to stand up and parrot back some verb forms to illustrate how conversation works. He had the audience practice Inuktitut sounds, and the response was enthusiastic. At the end of his 45-minute talk, he fielded several questions. He emphasized that there is still so much about Inuktitut yet to be discovered and documented despite his 55-year history of studying the language.

Mick Mallon will be working with the UW Canadian Studies department and the Language Learning Center to develop digital materials for the study of Inuktitut.

Brent Woo is a graduate student in the Linguistics Department, in his second year of the PhD program. He is interested in the syntax of coordination in English and Slavic languages. Woo worked with Laura Panfili, co-organizer and fellow grad student on the department’s colloquium.