Monday, July 13, 2009

Inuitological musings

I have always been deeply drawn, for reasons largely unknown to me, to the Far North. I wondered what it would be like to live in Nunavik, where they speak Inuktitut.

I am fascinated by languages—how they’re constructed, how they sound, and especially, the words chosen to name or describe a thing. This site gave me the Inuit alphabet, a guide to its pronunciation, and a few phrases to get me started:





Thank you


You're welcome






How are you?


Are you well?


What is your name?


My name is...

... uvunga

Who is it?


What is it?




Come here!


I don't know


Oh well


Let's go, come along


Do you understand?


That's it, that's all




Would you like some tea?


Even in one's own culture, conversations can be sometimes surreal. I imagine two beings out walking alone one day each on opposite ends of the ice. They may or may not be Inuit but for the purposes of this exercise, let's say they speak Inuktitut. They meet in the middle of the tundra and pause a moment before passing one another. Using the guide above, I created a mini exchange whereby they attempt to communicate with one another but ultimately fail--because there is simply not enough vocabulary available here to make it even remotely interesting. Even with an arsenal of words at our disposal, this happens frequently to all of us at times and it is not the fault of language.

Let's say MAN1 is a friendly, inquisitive fellow out for his daily walk. MAN2, let's say, is pacing the tundra in search of himself; he suffers from an unspecified spiritual malaise with which he has not yet come to terms, much less is able to explain. [It is necessary to supply this mini-plot in order to make sense of the following, stilted exchange. Faced with limitation, lack of material and/or narrow parameters, one is forced to be creative!]

MAN 1: Ai.
MAN 2: Ai.
MAN 1: Qanuippit?
MAN 2: Aassuk.
MAN 1: Qanuinngilanga?
MAN 2: Qaijit, takugit.
MAN 1: Sunauna?
MAN 2: Tukisivit?
MAN 1: Auka.
MAN 2: Takugit atiilu.
MAN 2: Tukisivit?
MAN 1: Auka.
MAN 2: Ajurnamat, taima. Assunai.
MAN 1: Ai, Assunai.

M1: Hello.
M2: Hello.
M1: How are you?
M2: I don’t know.
M1: Are you well?
M2: Come here, look.
M1: What is it?
M2: Do you understand?
M1: No.
M2: Look again. Do you understand?
M1: No.
M2: Oh well, that’s it, that’s all. Goodbye.
M1: Yes, Goodbye.

I doubt that resembles anything like what a real conversation between two Inuit would sound like, ha ha. The utter inability of travel-book type phrases to get beyond mere pleasantries to the crux of the matter! The audacity to imagine all one has to do is master a few phrases to get by in a culture. My apologies to Inuits everywhere. But language is a door, and the more you know about one's language, the better equipped you are to enter into a deeper understanding of who and what a people are all about.

Quebec is home to roughly 12,000 Inuit, nearly all of whom live in Nunavik. According to the 2001 census, 90% of Quebec Inuit speak Inuktitut. [1] How has the language held up as a result of interaction with their French- and English-speaking neighbors to the south?

When Quebec linguist Louis-Jacques Dorais analysed words for imported items in Nunavik (arctic Quebec), he found that less than six per cent of the new words were borrowed from English, whereas 76 per cent were descriptive expressions (the others were modifications of traditional words). Furthermore, of the descriptive words, nearly half described the new item by its function, rather than by its appearance — a pretty sophisticated approach to word definition. For instance, the Inuktitut word for computer is qarasaujaq — "something that works like a brain" — while qulimiguulik, meaning "that which has something going through the space above itself," is Inuktitut for helicopter. [2]

Very few native children in western Nunavut speak, or even understand, their native language today. Not only does this people's language require salvaging, so, apparently does some of their land. Due to global warming, some of their villages will, in the not-too-distant-future, become completely uninhabitable. [3]

I am intrigued with their cosmology:

The Inuit cosmos is ruled by no one. There are no divine mother and father figures. There are no wind gods and solar creators. There are no eternal punishments in the hereafter, as there are no punishments for children or adults in the here and now. [4]

According to the Inuit thought, the universe is inhabited by human beings (humans, animals, vegetables), deceased’s and spirits (tuurnngait) each who live in different but inter-penetrating worlds. Every human being is provided with an anirniq “breathing, breath of life ” which, when the subject dies integrates a new animal or human body. The conception of the Inuit world represents a continuum, where every element is a part of a whole. [5]

Breath of life, prana, chi, soul, reincarnate into another being, we are all one ... how many of our various beliefs are interrelated.

I haven't looked at Inuit art in some time. Some people I know collect them: Hand-carved bears and whales and fish and caribou. The most amazing piece of Inuit creativity I ever saw was in the gift shop of a small museum house in Montreal some years ago. It was one of those items you occasionally come across that you just can't take your eyes off of, you go back to it again and again to stare at it, study it. There were far larger, much more beautifully sculpted pieces commanding, and getting, greater attention; I was instead inexplicably drawn to this tiny, crude, simple little object made from the bones of a caribou.

It was about the size of my index finger. It had a hole in the middle into which a string had been inserted attaching two second, smaller bones, so that they dangled, one on each side of the longer, vertical piece. Two miniscule holes were indented at the top, filled in with black ink. Those were its eyes. It looked like something a child might have made but in fact, it was made FOR a child. It was a primitive little doll, a child's plaything, made by a loving parent from the materials at hand using the tools of everyday life.

This little stick-thing with two dots for eyes--was a doll!! I picked it up and and turned it around, as a child might, wondering what could you DO with it? It had no hair, no mouth, no clothes, no feet. It didn't even have a real head--it was just basically two sticks joined together with a string--two animal bones waiting for an imaginary journey into the mind of an Inuit child. The simplest toys provide the impetus for the best imaginings. I've watched children have more fun playing with stones and a popsickle stick than with their battery-operated counterparts where all you do is turn on a switch and the toy performs, always in the same way. Eventually it gets boring. But with a wooden stick and a stone--why you can make them into anything you want.

At any rate, I found myself returning to this tiny bone doll again and again, as if it were the most important object in the universe. A simple trinket in a gift shop. I have never seen another like it and regret to this day not buying it.

These particular stone carvings (at the right) caught my eye today because, unlike the majority of Inuit art that I've seen, they portray a mood rather than a thing. Inuit artist Alec Lawson Tuckatuck creates sculptures that reflect "our spirits just starting to be awakened to the seriousness we are facing" vis-a-vis the urgency of climate change. This particular sculpture is called "It is Coming".
It could be the face of a modern-day native of Salluit, thinking about the gigantic mudhole his village may become, in his children's lifetime, because of global warming.

Likewise, when I look at Maudie Ohiktook's Shaman with Seal Spirit, I hear the cacophony of the times: From one corner, rage at the commercial clubbing of seals for pelts, and disgust at the idea of eating bloodied, raw seal meat, a practice the Inuits have engaged in as part of their survival; from another corner, loss of tradition, livelihood and land. [Note, the EU's ban on commercial hunting of seals exempts the Inuits, for whom seals provide an essential food source in Nunavut communities; they just can't sell the meat or products.]

What does the seal spirit think about all this? Is the expression in the eyes of Maudie Ohiktook's Inuit shaman one of surprise or anguish? I cannot tell. Perhaps it's both. Takugit! it seems to be trying to say. Look! Look!

Some other Inuktitut words, from the glossary in Interviewing Inuit Elders about Childrearing Practices, a book you can download here.

To cause disharmony.

To lose the ability to hear birds.

The toe beside the baby toe.

To display traits of a person you were named after.

Wood or stones placed at the edge of the bed to stop the bedding from moving.

Having a premonition or expectation that isn't fulfilled.

Hesitation while giving birth.

The sound that a qalupalik makes under the ice.

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