Our words bring us together

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It is a rare and special thing to witness history in the making. That is how it felt in early September, when the ITK Board of Directors voted to adopt a unified writing system for Inuktut during a meeting of the ITK Board of Directors in Rankin Inlet. This new writing system, Inuktut Qaliujaaqpait, is a common writing system that bridges differences in existing writing systems that have historically made written communication between Inuit challenging.

Under former ITK president Mary Simon’s leadership, the 2011 National Strategy on Inuit Education emphasized the need for a unified orthography in educational resources and communication materials. Inuit have been working toward this goal ever since. I am pleased that ITK has successfully facilitated this important step forward.

The new writing system is a tool that can be used to effectively communicate in any dialect of Inuktut because it accommodates all the sounds that make each dialect unique.

Although the Inuit Cultural Institute (ICI) developed standardized roman orthography and syllabics in 1976, it fell short of being representative of all dialects. Inuktut Qaliujaaqpait builds on and improves ICI’s roman ortho­graphy by including sounds from every dialect.

For example, Inuvialuktun speakers have sounds in their dialect that are not reflected in writing systems used in Nunavut, Nunavik, and Nunatsiavut, such as ‘ff’. Even for communities that have historically used syllabics, some spoken sounds were never reflected in that writing system, such as the ‘shr’ or ‘rh’ sounds used in Natslingmiut dialect in the Kitikmeot Region.

Inuktut Qaliujaaqpait is a national writing system for Inuktut that will be used alongside the writing systems already being used regionally. It is not intended to replace syllabics or other writing systems but rather to complement them. The significance of this is far-reaching. For the first time, Inuit language materials can be distributed throughout Inuit Nunangat and beyond, breaking down barriers between regions and promoting Inuktut literacy.

The orthography is easy to learn and does not require special fonts, characters, keyboards, or programs to use. It uses no special characters, allowing it to be readily used on mobile devices and computers in Canada. By making it easily accessible, Inuktut Qaliujaaqpait is solidifying the place of Inuktut for future generations of our people. Over time, this will enable Inuktut to regain its place as the working language of Inuit Nunangat, including everything from businesses and industry to our health and education systems.

While educational materials will be the first major area to benefit from Inuktut Qaliujaaqpait, the possibilities are endless. Imagine Inuktut books that were once only available in syllabics that are now accessible to all Inuit, or being able to freely communicate in Inuktut via social media or email with Inuit in all regions of Inuit Nunangat.

Just as significantly, Inuktut Qaliujaaqpait represents self-determination in action. Nearly all other writing systems were developed and introduced to Inuit by non-Inuit Christian missionaries at various times in history, leaving us with nine different writing systems that isolated us from each other.

For eight years, Inuktut language experts worked together with elders and community members to develop an orthography that didn’t favour one dialect over others, but instead united them.

ITK’s Atausiq Inuktut Titirausiq (AIT) Task Group was comprised of Inuktut language experts from each region who visited communities and extensively investigated the best way forward. Their work was continued by the Atausiq Inuktut Titirausiq Development Team, who then began researching and developing the new orthography. Their final recommendation, Inuktut Qaliujaaqpait, was then approved by ITK’s Board of Directors, which includes Presidents of Nunavut Tunngavik Inc., Makivik Corporation, and the Nunatsiavut Government, as well as the Chair/CEO of Inuvialuit Regional Corporation.

This inclusivity has special significance for me as the president of the organization representing all Inuit in Canada. Inuktut Qaliujaaqpait is a tangible, physical representation of Inuit unity. Its development represents Inuit self-determination in action.

But that work is far from finished. Now, regions will decide how they will implement Inuktut Qaliujaaqpait and we will begin determining next steps to help teach and learn the orthography.

Inuit have always been inventive and Inuktut Qaliujaaqpait is simply another example of our resourcefulness. It is a 21st Century tool that will ensure our language not only survives but thrives in our schools, homes and businesses.

Inuktut Qaliujaaqpait creates extraordinary opportunities for the future without sacrificing our past. I look forward to seeing what tomorrow brings.

Natan Obed
President, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami