Thursday, April 20, 2006


Inuttitut is one of the few remaining aboriginal languages in North America. Various dialects are in use in Greenland, Labrador, Nunavik (Northern Quebec), Nunavut (Canada's eastern Arctic), Alaska and Canada's western Arctic. I can personally attest to its vibrancy: it is my children's mother tongue and is the language of preference in my household. It is the first language of education, the only language spoken on the local radio station, the language of the streets and a continuing source of bafflement and isolation for me.

Ashamedly, after two decades up here, my command of Inuttitut is limited to a few expressions, mostly to do with weather. My French is passable, and I learned Latin, Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse in university. But either from laziness, poor choice of priorities or an innate difficulty in learning a language radically different from European linguistic structures, I am absolutely useless in the primary language up here.

I do not understand 85% of what is said in my own house. One of the first principles of raising children is that kids will exploit mercilessly any advantage or weakness they can find in their parents. My offspring use my feebleness in Inuttitut to their own devious ends by hiding linguistically their plots to liberate spare coins from my pocket, the nature of their squabbles, their schemes, where they are going, and what is happening in their lives.

Sure, the English comes out around allowance time or if they want me to download an mp3. But otherwise I am often completely in the dark about most domestic matters from the mundane and trivial to the most serious.

Neuroscientists say learning a language is an excellent cerebral exercise to ward off senility as we grow older. But can an old bear learn new tricks?

I have therefore decided to take one last stab at learning Inuttitut. I do this not only to communicate better with my family, but out of respect to the people of this remote region who have kindly and patiently allowed a "foreigner" to live his life up here.

[Ed. Note: Tukisinnginamaa = I don't understand]


Blogger The Wrath of Dawn said...

I don't understand 85% of what my kids say and they're obstensibly speaking English, but they're teenagers, so that explains that...

I assume Mrs. Nanuk speaks Inuttitut. Otherwise, you're both in big trouble!

9:28 AM  
Blogger Fuff said...

Sounds like a good plan, especially if you could keep it to yourself for a while,well until you manage to foil at least one of your children's plots....
My mum speaks no Greek at all. She gets rather stroppy if I don't translate everything, as she's paranoid about missing even the slightest detail. Your post has given me food for thought. Perhaps she should learn too.

10:53 AM  
Blogger nanuk said...

WoD: Fortunately, her mother tongue is Inuttitut. Unfortunately for me, she refuses to translate anything, suggesting (probably quite rightly) that I should get off my arse and learn it for myself.

Fuff: I have often dreamed of secretly mastering Inuttitut and suddenly springing my abilities at the moment the will least suspect it. Mahahahahahaha!

11:16 AM  
Blogger The Wrath of Dawn said...

Yes, I agree with Mrs. Nanuk. You should learn. After all, I've learned Newfoundlandish.

Oh. Right. It's not another language. It just sounds that way.

/ducks. gets coat.

3:18 PM  
Anonymous Nunya said...

Nanuk, how does Yuri feel about this?! heh

5:20 PM  
Blogger Eternally Curious said...

Language barriers come in all shapes and sizes: hubby refuses to wear his dentures, so son and I can NEVER understand him! LOL. We used to get perturbed, now we just repeat back to him what it sounded like he said - and then we all have a good laugh!

And don't feel badly about it being so difficult to learn a language. There have been too many studies proving that it's only easy for the young; get past adolescence and you're doomed!

6:45 PM  
Blogger nanuk said...

WoD: the problem with mastering Newfie is there are so many dialects, at least there used to be when all the outports were isolated. Now probably everyone speaks like a townie, eh?

Nunya: Still on about Yuri, eh? ;-). He probably knows more Inuttitut than I do. Apparently his great-uncle Vanya was half eskimoski, and Yuri as a lad had to listen to endless hours of his drunken ramblings in a variant of Inuttitut.

Eternally Curious: We'll see if there are any adaptable grey cells still left upstairs. It won't be easy, but I think I'll at least learn some more phrases.

8:09 PM  
Blogger The Phosgene Kid said...

Isn't there like 200 different words for snow?

I went to see the "Eskimo Olympics" (that was what the Native Americans were calling it)while in Alaska and I loved the music - they had drummers and singers. I didn't understand the words, of course, but couldn't get enough of the music. What are your experiences with Inuttitut music?

9:03 PM  
Blogger nanuk said...

TPK: Inuit music is predominantly gospel music (not Southern Baptist), with some country and one solitary heavy metal band à la Metallica. Actually, my indoor dog (a Lab)'s first owner sings in Inuttitut and sang on the same stage as Paul McCartney at the Glastonbury Festival in the UK two years ago. She should have harpooned him.

10:08 PM  
Blogger The Wrath of Dawn said...

The dialects still survive. Even within St. John's there are differences. Not so as to render people unitelligable but there can be the odd moment of confusion when someone dusts off an archaic term.

As for Inuttitut, I'd suggest learning key phrases, like "Where does Dad keep the condoms?" and "I'm betting pissed tonight!" and such. Even if you can't carry on much of a conversation in the language, if you know key phrases you can nail the kids before they get to have any fun... I mean, get in trouble...

Good luck!

10:22 PM  
Anonymous Nunya said...

Hmmm...I'm still not convinced there's a Yuri, lol. Still not willing to prove it?!

5:34 AM  
Blogger Tea and Books, etc said...

Nanuk, aside from your aspersions on women and our apparent inability to keep our mouths shut, I have no doubt you can learn Inuttitut... especially as you already have several languages under your belt.

You're a smart man, Nanuk, and being a smart man, you know that in order to keep your kids from liberating your moolah and practising more gross deceptions, and showing the Mrs how very clever you are, that you can master Inuttitut.

Besides, you undoubtedly are aware that the best time to spring your newfound Inuttitut skills is at a gathering of your kids and their friends by embarrassing the heck out of them. Isn't that what parents are for? ;-)

1:33 PM  
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12:48 AM  

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