About Inuktitut

Everything you want to know about the Inuit Language.

ᐃᓄᒃᑎᑐᑦ ᐅᖃᐅᓯᓕᕆᓂᐅᑉ ᒥᑦᓵᓄᑦ

Inuit are a people who live in communities along the Arctic coastline, stretching from eastern Siberia to the east coast of Greenland.  This vast area is known as Inuit Nunaat or the Inuit homeland.

The language that Inuit speak evolved through centuries of interaction between Inuit communities and the Arctic environment. It expresses precisely the knowledge, skills and wisdom developed by countless generations.There is incredible diversity within Inuit Nunaat in terms of its wildlife, climate and landscape.  This diversity is reflected in the Inuit Language with its spectrum of dialects that vary considerably from one end of the Arctic to the other.

In 1999, a new territory was created in Canada where 85 percent of the population are Inuit.  Here, the Inuit Language is known as Inuktitut, except in the communities of Qurluqtuq (Kugluktuk) and Iqaluktuuttiaq (Cambridge Bay) where they call the language Inuinnaqtun.

Today, with jet travel and satellite communications Inuit speaking different dialects are in much closer contact with one another.  Inuit living in Greenland, Alaska, and the four Inuit regions in Canada are working on ways to make communicating easier across the range of dialects.

Explore the following pages to learn more about the Inuit Language.

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What is Inuktitut?

What is Inuktitut?
This seems like a straightforward question, but it’s not. The simplest answer is that Inuktitut is the language spoken by Inuit living in the eastern part of the Canadian Arctic. Approximately 75 percent of Inuit in the territory of Nunavut speak Inuktitut as their mother tongue.

Inuit Language MapInuit Language MapInuktitut is just one part of what is known as “the Inuit language”, spoken from Alaska in the west to Greenland in the east. It might best be understood as a spectrum of dialects that vary enormously from one end of the Arctic to the other. Communities close to one another generally have few problems communicating between dialects, whereas an Alaskan and a Labradorian would not be able to.

Even within Nunavut, vocabulary and pronunciation vary from place to place and between generations. Up until 50 years ago, most Nunavut Inuit lived in isolated camps where distinct speech forms evolved. As they settled into permanent communities, speakers of varying dialects often became neighbours in the same hamlet. This mixing has intensified with the modern-day migration of Inuit in search of employment and opportunities in other communities.

Daily life helps break down communication barriers. So, too, does media, like CBC (Canada’s national radio and television broadcaster), by exposing Inuktitut speakers to a range of dialects spoken throughout the territory. Today, fluent speakers in all parts of Nunavut can normally understand each other with only minor difficulties.

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Inuit Dialects in Nunavut

What dialects are spoken where?

How many Inuktitut dialects are there in Nunavut? Among Inuit, as well as among linguists there is no consensus.  Nonetheless, most would group the different forms of speaking Inuktitut in Nunavut along these lines:

dialectcommunity
Inuinnaqtun 

Qurluqtuq (Kugluktuk)

Iqaluktuuttiaq (Cambridge Bay)

Ulukhaqtuq (Ulukhaktok) in the Northwest Territories

Nattiliŋmiut
 

Uqšuqtuuq (Gjoa Haven)

Talurjuaq (Taloyoak)

Kuugaarjuk (Kugaaruk)

Kivallirmiut

Qamani’tuaq (Baker Lake)

Kangiqłiniq (Rankin Inlet)

Paallirmiut

Tikirarjuaq (Whale Cove)

Arviat

Aivilingmiut

Naujaat (Repulse Bay)

Igluligaarjuk (Chesterfield Inlet)

Salliq (Coral Harbour)

Kangiqłiniq (Rankin Inlet)

North Baffin

Ikpiarjuk (Arctic Bay)

Mittimatalik (Pond Inlet)

Kangiqtugaapik (Clyde River)

Iglulik (Igloolik)

Sanirajaq (Hall Beach)

Qausuittuq (Resolute)

Aujuittuq (Grise Fiord)

Central Baffin

Panniqtuuq (Pangnirtung)

Qikiqtarjuaq

South Baffin

Iqaluit

Kimmirut

Kinngait (Cape Dorset)

SanikiluarmiutSanikiluaq

There is increasing mobility in Nunavut as Inuit leave their home communities in search of opportunities for work and education.  In larger centres, and especially in the capital, Iqaluit, one can hear a range of dialects spoken in the same community.

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Differences between the dialects

How is one dialect different from another?

The Inuktitut dialects spoken in Nunavut share the vast majority of their vocabulary. Nonetheless, among them there are some striking differences in very common terminology:

 

 nothank you
Inuinnaqtunimannaq  
quana
Nattiliŋmiutiiqiqujanaqqutit
Kivallirmiutnauk
ma’na
Aggurmiutaakkaqujannamiik
Uqqurmiutaagganakurmiik

          
In addition to differences in basic vocabulary, dialects can also vary considerably in terms of the affixes they use and what they mean.

PRONUNCIATION

Where Inuktitut dialects vary most is in the area of pronunciation. 

S vs. H
Words that in eastern Nunavut are pronounced with an s are often (but not always) pronounced with an h sound in the west : 

dialect"sun""she thinks""knife"
Inuinnaqtunhiqiniqihumayuqpingahut
Nattiliŋmiuthiqiniqihumařuqpiŋahut
Kivallirmiuthiqiniqihumajuqpingahut
Aggurmiutsiqiniqisumajuqpingasut
Uqqurmiutsiqiniqisumajuqpingasut


Speakers of Inuinnaqtun use the h sound although you may see s in some words that are borrowed from English, like suka ( sugar).

All Qikiqtaaluk (Baffin) dialects use the s sound, with the h sound appearing in some borrowed words, like haakiqtuq (he plays hockey).

Speakers of the Kivallirmiut Nattiliŋmiut dialects may use s or h in different situations.

The syllabic writing system tries to minimize this difference by using the same chacter ( ᓯ ᓱ ᓴ ) for both pronunciations.

ᐱᖓpingasut
ᐱᖓpingahut

Double consonants
Inuktitut learners will notice that some dialects use double consonants much more than others. Nunavut’s western dialects very seldom use double consonants. Instead, you will see a wide range of consonants put together. To demonstrate just a few :

ilvityou
uplaaqmorning
ugjuk
bearded seal
apqut
road

Speakers of Nunavut’s eastern dialects, meanwhile, tend to merge many of these pairs of consonants together when they speak. In doing so, the first consonant twins iteslf with the second, resulting in a double consonant.

In the east, the words we looked at above would be:

ivvit
ullaaq
ujjuk
aqqut

Generally, you will encounter more double consonants in the Inuktitut language, as you move from west to east across the Canadian Arctic. Within Nunavut, Inuktitut speakers in Panniqtuuq probably use the most double consonants, while speakers of Inuinnaqtun the fewest.

SPECIAL SOUNDS

There are several sounds that are unique to specific dialects.

łi, łu ,ła (ᖠ, ᖢ ,ᖤ)

This is a sound made by putting the tip of your tongue on the roof of the mouth and blowing air over the sides of the tongue. Speakers of Aggurmiut, Nattiliŋmiut, Kivallirmiut and Aivilingmiut dialects make this sound. As for speakers of Nunavut’s other dialects, not only is this sound absent from their speech, they often have great difficulty pronouncing it. Instead, they substitute other consonants in place of the łi, łu ,ła sound.

The word for "rope" for example:

Inuinnaqtunakhunaaq
Nattiliŋmiutakłunaaq 
Kivallirmiutakłunaaq 
Aggurmiutakłunaaq 
Uqqurmiutatsunaaq 

Retroflex R ( ř )

All Inuktitut dialects have an r sound that is made at the back of the throat, much like it is in French. But one dialect, Nattiliŋmiut, also uses a retroflex r, which is essentially the r sound used in English.  On Tusaalanga, we use the character ř to represent this sound:

iři  
eye
ugřuk
bearded seal
kiuřuqShe replies. 

B

B is a sound that is heard throughout the Kivalliq and Qitirmiut (Kitikmeot) regions. It is almost always heard before an L sound. The Qikiqtaaluk (Baffin) dialects do not make this sound and use double L instead.     

Inuinnaqtunqabluublaaq
Nattiliŋmiutqabluublaaq
Kivallirmiutqabluublaaq
Aggurmiutqalluullaaq
Uqqurmiutqalluullaaq

 

Glottal Stop

The glottal stop is a little catch in the back of the throat that temporarily stops the flow of air coming from the lungs. An example where English speakers make this sound is between the syllables in the expression « uh-oh».

Speakers of the Kivallirmiut dialect use this sound in a small number of words such as ma'na (thank you) and  Qamani‘tuaq.  This sound is much more common in the Nattiliŋmiut dialect. The other dialects do not make this sound.

Final N or NG

When the syllabic and roman writing systems for Inuktitut were standardized in the 1970s, it was agreed that words could only end with a vowel or with one of three consonants: q, k or t. In practice, though, many Inuktitut speakers have a tendency to pronounce these final consonants as an n or an ng sound.

This can be a dialectal difference – Inuinnaqtun speakers do this quite frequently - or it can be a generational difference. Inuit elders are more likely to do this than younger speakers.This tendency spills over into the written language. Many Inuinnaqtun speakers will end words with a written n. In syllabics, although one may see words ending in or it is generally discouraged among educators and language professionals.

EXPRESSING TIME

An important difference between dialects is how they describe events in the past, present or future. The affixes that are used to indicate that events have happened in the immediate, recent or distant past, or those in the future are not the same across dialects.

The differences go deeper than this, though. Some dialects (especially those spoken on Baffin Island and in parts of the Kivalliq) are very explicit and precise about gradations of time:

nirirataaqtungaI ate just now.
niriqqaujungaI ate recently.
niriniaqtungaI will eat soon.
nirilaaqtungaI will eat (tomorrow or farther into the future).

 

Other dialects (Nattilingmiutut in particular) are a little more vague and it will often be the context of the conversation that tells you when something happened:

nirihaaqtuŋaI just ate.
niriřuŋaI am eating / I have eaten.
niriniaqtuŋaI will eat now / I will eat soon.
nirijumaaqtuŋaI will eat eventually.
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Writing the Inuit Language

Writing the Inuit Language

Apart from their Siberian cousins, Inuit across the circumpolar world use two types of orthography to write their language. The roman or Latin alphabet is the only writing system used in Alaska, the Northwest Territories, Labrador and in Greenland. This is also the case in Nunavut’s Inuinnaqtun speaking communities. Everywhere else in Nunavut and in Nunavik, a unique and easily recognized writing system, known as syllabics is predominant although roman letters are often used as well.

Both the syllabic and roman writing systems for Inuktitut were originally developed by Christian missionaries who needed a way to write the bible, hymns and other printed texts in Inuktitut. Syllabic orthography, in particular, was easy for Inuktitut-speakers to learn. Inuit trained in syllabics were able to pass along their new skills to others so that writing reached some areas of Nunavut before missionaries managed to get there.

Missionaries working in different areas and for different churches, developed their own unique ways of writing with syllabic and roman characters. By the 1960s this was creating problems for Inuit living in different regions to communicate with each other.

In 1976, the Inuit Cultural Institute (ICI) approved a new standardized writing system that could be used to write Inuktitut consitently. ICI orthography has two forms, one in roman orthography (using the Latin alphabet) and one in syllabics. In Inuktitut these are known respectively as qaliujaaqpait and qaniujaaqpait. The syllabic and roman forms of the ICI system mirror each other so that it is easy to convert text from one to the other.

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Syllabics (qaniujaaqpait)

Syllabics (qaniujaaqpait)

Don't let Inuktitut syllabics put you off trying to learn the language. They aren't nearly as complicated as they first appear and can easily be mastered with a couple weeks worth of practice.

Click here to see the syllabic writing system. The first trick to learning syllabics is understanding that when we use the roman alphabet to write English and French, each letter represents an individual sound.

The difference with syllabics is that each character represents an entire syllable - normally a consonant followed by a vowel.

Inuktitut has 14 consonants, each represented by a particular syllabic character. That character is then rotated clockwise or reversed to represent Inuktitut’s three vowel sounds, i, u and a:

= m + i   = m + u   = m + a   = n + i   = n + u   = n + a

When a vowel is not preceded by a consonant, one of the following syllabic characters is used:

( i )   ( u )   ( a )
ᖃᓗᒻᒥᑕᖅ   Iqalummiutaq   resident of Iqaluit

When a consonant is not followed by a vowel, special characters known as naniit, or “finals” are used. Finals are are smaller characters that appear in superscript.

ᒥ = mmi

Children learning how to write syllabics are said to be learning their “i, pi, ti’s”. They memorize each column going down (i, pi, ti, gi, mi, ni, etc.). If you keep this in mind, you will quickly see, the i characters have a vertical orientation, the u characters tend to point to the right and the a characters to the left.

Vowel sounds are often lengthened (drawn out) in Inuktitut. These sounds are represented by a dot that is placed above the syllabic character. In qaliujaaqpait (roman orthography), these sounds are represented by double vowels.

ᓇᑯᕐᒃ    nakurmiik    thank you

Generally, no more than two vowels can appear in a row. The same holds for consonants - no more than two can appear in a row. When writing Inuktitut words, two finals never appear together.

Quirky Characters

Pay attention to a few syllabic characters that look like a final plus another character, but are in fact a single character:

    qi
   qu
   qa

  ngi
   ngu
  nga

Although ng looks like two consonants in roman orthography, linguistically, it is considered one. When ng is doubled, it is written nng in roman orthography and like this in syllabics:

   nngi
  nngu
    nnga

ᐱᙳᐊᕐᕕᒃ    pinnguarvik   recreation centre

Another tricky character is a double q sound. In Nunavut, this sound is written:

ᖅᑭ   qqi
ᖅᑯ   qqu
ᖅᑲ    qqa

ᖅᑲᕆᑦ   Nuqqarit!   Stop!

In syllabics, the roman letter H is inserted for certain words borrowed from English

Hᐋᑭ    haaki    hockey

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Roman Orthography (Qaliujaaqpait)

Roman Orthography (Qaliujaaqpait)

When most people think about writing in Inuktitut, syllabics come immediately to mind. Nonetheless, roman orthography (the Latin alphabet used to write English and French) has an even longer history among Inuit.

Roman orthography was first used to write the Inuit Language almost a century before syllabics were developed. Today, even in communities that normally write in syllabics, roman orthography is frequently used. This is especially true with computer technology, e-mail and text messaging and among younger generations who are less confident reading and writing syllabics.

Most material for people learning Inuktitut as a Second Language also appears in roman orthography to make it easier for English and French speakers to use. Learning to write Inuktitut well in roman orthography has a number of advantages:

There are a couple of important differences in how Inuktitut and English use roman letters.

Difference 1:  Inuktitut has a simpler writing system

In Inuktitut,each letter represents a distinct sound.  And each sound made in the language has ONE corresponding letter used to write it.

In English, depending on the word, the same sound may be written with different letters:  

calf

cough

or the same letter can make different sounds:

girl

giraffe

For this reason, English speakers have to learn and memorize the spelling of each word in their language, where as an Inuktitut speaker is able to just 'sound it out' when writing.

Difference 2: Inuktitut words match their pronunciation.

In English, pronunciation has evolved over the centuries and, in many cases, old spellings of words have not kept up with these changes. So, we end up with written words that no longer reflect how they are pronounced today:  

tomb

knight

Inuktitut words, on the other hand, are almost always written to reflect accurate pronunciation.

VOWELS

ICI roman orthography has just three vowels: a, i, and u.

There can be some slight variations in how these vowels are pronounced. For example, i and u make a softer sound when they appear before the letters q or r. You will become more comfortable with these variations as you learn how to pronounce each word.

Vowels can also be combined:

auaullaqtuq
aiaiviq
ianiaquq
iu niuvirvik
ui  tui

                    

The letters e and o are never used in standardized roman orthography, except to write names borrowed from other languages.

CONSONANTS

There are 18 consonants in ICI roman orthography. These consonants in Inuktitut are pronounced similarly to English:

bfghklmnps
t
v


The following consonants are pronounced differently than in English:

j is pronounced like the English y in the word yak  

r This sound is not made in English but is similar to the way r is pronounced in French or the j in Spanish. It sounds like a slight gargle at the back of the throat.

q Another sound produced at the back of the throat. To begin, close your throat with the very back of your tongue, as if you were about to pronounce a g. Release air as if you were pronouncing a k.

ł Put your tongue in the same position as you would to pronounce an l. Without using your vocal cords, breathe out, as if you were pronouncing an sh. This sound is not made in the South Baffin dialect.

jj Sounds like a d + j

The apostrophe represents a glottal stop, which is a little catch in the back of the throat that temporarily stops the flow of air coming from the lungs. An example where English speakers make this sound is between the syllables in the expression « uh-oh ». It appears in words from the Kivalliq and Nattilik regions, such as ma’na (thank you in the Kivalliq).

DIALECT NOTES

DOUBLE VOWELS AND DOUBLE CONSONANTS

Double vowels and double consonants are used to reflect correct pronunciation in Inuktitut. It is very important to learn to write words correctly using double vowels and consonants.

Long vowels are pronounced as above, except that the sound is drawn out so that it is twice as long:

iinakurmiik
uuuujuq
aaataata

ii  aa  For double consonants, the sound that is made is also held twice as long as a single consonant:

qujannamiik

Kimmirut

As a general rule in Inuktitut, no more than two vowels or two consonants can appear in a row.

WARNING

Keep in mind that much of what appears in roman orthography in Nunavut is not in written using the standardized ICI writing system.

Many Inuinnaqtun speakers have been reluctant to abandon older forms of writing used by Elders. Also, many Inuktitut names and words are written in roman letters using spellings that were made up by English speakers and do not reflect how they are pronounced by Inuit.

ICI standardized orthography unstandardized roman orthography
qamutiikkamotik
igluigloo
qajaqkayak
QitirmiutKitikmeot
PanniqtuuqPangnirtung
QurluqtuqKugluktuk
Qilavvaq (personal or family name)
Kilabuk
ijitsiaq (personal or family name)
Eegeesiak
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Pronunciation

The Inuit Language in most of Canada and in Kalaallit Nunaat (Greenland) uses a phonetic writing system that (unlike English or French) faithfully represents on paper how words are actually pronounced. This makes the task of learning to pronounce new words much easier.

SIMPLE VOWELS

There are three basic vowel sounds in the Inuit Language, represented by the letters i, u & a in qaliujaaqpait (standardized roman orthography).  Go to the glossary and listen to simple vowel sounds in words like:

timiumiknuna

VOWELS plus Q and R

So far, pretty easy. But watch the letters q and r. When the vowels i or u appear before q or r, they tend to become softer.

In the glossary, click on the following words, listening carefully for the highlighted sounds:

iqaluit

irniq 

imiq
anijuqQurluq tuquqsuq

  LONG (DOUBLE) VOWELS

To get the rhythm of the language right, pay attention to the fact that some vowels are held longer than others. The written language marks these long vowel sounds with double vowels.

As each word below is read, focus on how long each vowel sound is pronounced.

In the glossary, click on the following words, listening carefully for the highlighted sounds:

aqsarniit   uumajuqataata  

VOWELS IN COMBINATION

Two vowels can also be put together to create a new sound.

amauti 

tiguaq

niaquq

aiviq  

niuvirvik 

tui  

  CONSONANTS: THE EASY ONES

The following consonants are pronounced the same way in both the Inuit Language and English.

 paa - tuktu - kamik - kiguti - matu - haakiq

nipi - Sanikiluaq - iqaluk - katimavik - uvanga (uvaŋa)

THE TRICKIER CONSONANTS

R

This sound is not made in English but is similar to the way r is pronounced in French or the j  in Spanish. It sounds like a slight gargle at the back of the throat.

 ArviatKimmirutnirijuq

   

ř

One dialect though, Nattiliŋmiut, also makes an r sound in some words that is similar to the English (retroflex) r.  To distinguish it from the r sound described above it is written ř.

With the Nattiliŋmiut dialect selected, you can click on these words in the glossary:

apiriřuqniriřuthanauřaaq