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Inuktitut 101 with Elena Bell

September 2, 2016

Elena Bell, a PhD student in International Studies, was awarded Summer 2016 and Academic Year 2016-17 Foreign Language & Area Studies (FLAS) Fellowships by the Canadian Studies Center.  She spent the summer studying Inuktitut with instructor and Inuktitut scholar Mr. Mick Mallon.  She writes:

The teacher greets his summer student

Thanks to the FLAS Fellowship my Summer 2016 language program became an excellent start to my PhD program at the University of Washington.  It granted me the rare opportunity to glimpse into the fascinating ancient culture and language of the Canadian Inuit.  As an Inuktitut language novice, I faced a tremendous challenge.  On the professional side, this intensive course was demanding and stimulating, whereas on the personal side, it turned out to be so fulfilling and memorable, that I consider it to be one of the best “workations” I ever had.

The core of each day consisted of five to six hours of studying.  And I also had plenty of opportunities to be close to nature, observe the marine life, and watch dusk turn into night.  My home in Victoria, BC —  a comfortable, roomy boat called “Slow Loris” –  featured a wonderful view of Oak Bay and its life, bustling by day and tranquil at night.

The boatLiving on the water in close proximity to wildlife added another dimension to my study of Inuktitut, a language tightly connected to nature and the basics of life and survival.

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Evening or afternoon walks with my teacher as well as sunsets in solitude provided time to analyze and digest the linguistic intricacies and the philosophical concepts of Inuktitut.  There is a lot to digest and practice.

When I signed up for this class I did not expect the many astonishments that this language would immediately unfold before me — super–long, hard to pronounce words; short morphemes packed with meaning and variety of conceptual ideas; remote, but never the less obvious, similarities with Uzbek, a Turkic language that I’ve also studied; an intricate and very logical grammatical structure used to describe both, down–to–earth activities and sophisticated philosophical notions.

Screen Shot 2016-08-19 at 12.32.27 AMThis course — anything but a regular language class, quite often reminded me of math lessons with lengthy formulas and complicated tables, and at times resembled an enthralling “back-in-time” journey. Fortunately, I was in the capable hands of highly skilled and experienced guides: my teacher, Mr. Mick Mallon, Inuktitut language expert and a prolific storyteller, as well as his wife, Alexina Kublu, an Inuktitut Instructor at the Nunavut Arctic College, who was always ready to help via the telephone.  Her patient and reassuring tone of voice never failed to calm me down in moments of desperation.

Many Inuktitut words, phrases and concepts gave me a sense that I am peeking into the distant past of peoples’ life.  Very much a living language, it managed to preserve and deliver itself to present times, avoiding a high degree of foreign contamination, so typical for other modern languages.   Of course, there are English loanwords in Inuktitut.  But the relatively low number of integrated ones surprised me just as much as the very clear divide between the non–integrated English and indigenous vocabulary.

Screen Shot 2016-08-19 at 12.14.28 AMLearning new morphemes and putting them together almost always led to discussions and analysis.  For example, the word qaukpat (tomorrow) roughly translates as “when the dawn comes” or “if the dawn comes”.   The explanation of the grammatical rule, that allows conditional “if” and “when” to be the same, grew into the contemplation of how this is not accidental.  That sense of doubt in the fact that the sun will rise makes you think about the time when this word came about.  What causes this doubt?  Is it the conviction that all are in the hands of nature?  Is it because the conditions are such that one might not make it to the next dawn?  Is it the Inuktitut version of “Insha’Allah”?  Or take the word inuujuŋa.  The vastness of this statement’s meaning, which could be translated as: “I am alive”, “I’m born”, “I am a person”, and “I am an Inuk” (if written with a capital “I”), made me think of the vast open spaces, which deeply impressed me during my trip to the Arctic region of Alaska.

Screen Shot 2016-08-19 at 12.21.33 AMToday, when so many languages are affected by anglification, it is surprising and satisfying to find Inuktitut’s descriptive equivalents of modern terminology.  To quote Mick Mallon, “while being very considerate and respectful to old terms, this ancient language is very well equipped to deal with the vocabulary of the 21st and even the 22nd century”.  The solid logic of Inuktitut grammar enables putting together such constructions as tiŋmisuuq – “the thing, which habitually flies” (an airplane).  These words make great riddles.  Some are easier to solve than others: qaritaujaq  – “like brain”
(computer); nunakkuuruti – “an instrument to go across the land” (an automobile); uqalauti – “an instrument for talking” (telephone); and my absolute favorite: qulimiguulik – “it has something going through the space above itself”.  This one made a couple of my fellow–interpreters scratch their heads.

Feeding sealsAnd then, of course, there are sentences.  Most of them are only a few words long, but those words are carefully built in accordance with the formulas and particular phonological behavior of the letters and morphemes.  These constructions can be quite lengthy.  A seemingly harmless expression like “While in Victoria, I tried to learn Inuktitut”, deceived me and turned into a bite too big to chew — “Victoriamiiłłuŋa Inuktitut ilinniarasulauqtuŋa”.

By the end of my summer session I still often sink midway through pronouncing a sentence, but I developed a taste for slowly building phrases block by block:  natsiq + nik … OK, and then:  niri + tit(si) + niq … almost there: quvia + naq + lauq + juq.  And finally with applied phonological modifications: natsirnik nirititsiniq quvianalauqtuq — “Feeding seals was fun.”  It feels so rewarding to get it right!

As I prepare to continue my linguistic exploration, I look forward to being further impressed with Inuktitut’s logic and purity; its simultaneous simplicity and complexity.  I left Victoria striving to some day tackle the following declaration: “Inuktitutuqarunnarlakkaluaqłuŋa tukisitsiarunnaŋŋitara.” (“I can speak Inuktitut a little, but I can’t understand it very well.”)  I also look forward to a future opportunity to travel north to Nunavut to experience language immersion and, if I am lucky, to catch a ride or two in a “it has something going through the space above itself” —  a helicopter.

Elena in a kayakFLAS Fellowships are funded by the International and Foreign Language Education Office of the U.S. Department of Education.  FLAS fellowships support undergraduate, graduate and professional students in acquiring modern foreign languages and area or international studies competencies.   Students from all UW departments and professional schools are encouraged to apply.  Find out more about the FLAS Fellowship here.