Studying Syllabics

30 May

Despite my occasional spelling mistakes, and my tendency to wing it when it comes to grammar (like inserting commas where I feel they look nice) I want to describe myself as a linguist – someone who studies languages.

For example, as I was finishing up my Bachelors Degree in Art History and writing a paper about a church in Venice, it occurred to me that understanding Italian would be useful. And when I thought that I might some day work for a museum in Ottawa I quickly tried to recall all the French lessons I had previously tuned out in high school. I made it a a few steps further than my poor Italian pronunciation, but I still ended up getting distracted with old episodes of Téléfrancais! on YouTube.

When I lived in Korea I made an even more pronounced effort to pick up the local lingo by purchasing some serious study guides: a book featuring a cartoon rabbit who taught her pig friend how to read Hangul, DVD’s of television dramas (all of which starred Lee Min Ho), and private lessons with a Korean girl who quickly taught me all the slang kids around me were using to point out the foreigner (me).

Anytime I travel, I try to memorize some survival phrases. Things such as: hello, thank you, sorry, where is the.., how much is the…” and the rest I get by with my amazing Pictionary skills. And although I didn’t have to travel very far when I started interning here at the MIA, I’ve been slowly accumulating an assortment of random words in Inuktitut.

Now I say Inuktitut, but that deserves a better description because the Inuit language is made of a series of related but distinct dialects. Not everyone is in total agreement that all these dialects grouped together should be called Inuktitut. Inuktitut is just one section of Inuit language and the only one of those dialects that uses syllabics. In particular, Innuinaqtun is considered by some people to be a separate language/dialect from Inuktitut, not just a dialect of Inuktitut.

Tusaalanga’s Inuit Language Map listing six predominant dialects.

So far this was all making sense to me. And I could even follow along when I read how the syllabic writing system actually comes from Anglican missionaries in the 1870s. Another fun fact: the syllabic system used for Inuktitut was  based on Cree syllabics, which had been based on secretarial shorthand!

But here is where my little international intern brain started to fumble.
Whereas the other languages I had studied have been described by a fellow blogging linguist as forming strings of separate words (such as: subject-object-verb), Inuktitut grammar structure has been described as Duplo blocks, where a single word can be built upon over and over again. For example: to say, “I’ll have to go to the airport” would be qangatasuukkuvimmuuriaqalaaqtunga because very long words can be put together using many affixes. However, not all phrases in Inuit language can be composed of just one word.

My plan is to start out small, with some key words.
And since I have a flair for the cute, I loved loved LOVED working on this crossword puzzle from the Uqausirmut Quviasuqatigiinnirmut activity book produced by the Department of Culture, Language, Elders, Youth. You can find more activities and flash cards on the Government of Nunavut’s Language Promotion and Learning webpage.

My first study session: Crosswords and cookies!

While I doubt I’ll be able to master an entire language in the remaining few weeks I have here as an intern, I really want to celebrate this fascinating and complex system in June. It’s National Aboriginal History month and for each day I’m going to tweet a daily word in several different dialects including; both South and North Qikiqtaaluk, Inuinnaqtun, Nattilinmiut, and Paallirmiut. Just a heads up, even within the Twitter examples of the different dialects I’ll be giving, Inuit language differs from community to community so there really is no standard.

Hope you’ll follow along and be my next study buddy!

Posted by: Brittany Holliss, MIA’s Educational Assistant

Advertisements
%d bloggers like this: