The Inuinnaqtun language—the foundation of Inuinnait culture—has less than 600 fluent speakers remaining.
By most estimates, it is a language that will be extinct in less than two generations.
As we face an advanced state of language shift across Inuinnait communities in the Central Canadian Arctic, Indigenous languages across the globe are disappearing at an alarming rate. The United Nations declared 2019 The International Year of Indigenous Languages to raise awareness of the consequences of the endangerment of Indigenous languages across the world, with an aim to establish a link between language, development, peace and reconciliation. This monumental announcement has shone a light on the urgent need for language revitalization.
As part of our five-year Strategic Plan, the Pitquhirnikkut Ilihautiniq / Kitikmeot Heritage Society is leading a coordinated and transformational effort to reverse the loss of Inuinnaqtun in our communities by partnering with Elders, language specialists, competent speakers, and academic linguists to create multiple, parallel programs to document the language, mentor the next generation of competent speakers, and develop digital tools for knowledge sharing. The recovery and revitalization of Inuit culture and language relies heavily on our ability to teach the next generation of fluent speakers and then encourage and foster the transmission of Inuinnaqtun with each new generation.
In 2019, we launched a movement called Uqarluta / Let's Speak Inuinnaqtun to engage Inuinnait communities in transformative language revitalization.
We're leading innovative language revitalization projects and initiatives:
The Mentor-Apprentice approach pairs a fluent speaker (mentor) with an learner (apprentice) for 300 hours of immersion per year. In 2019, we began working with partners at the University of Victoria for guidance and advice on the development of an Inuit-led Mentor-Apprentice Program. In 2020, we have activated a pilot program, with plans to implement the Mentor-Apprentice Program in spring of 2020 across the four Inuinnait communities.
Due to the rapid changes in Inuinnait lifeways since settling in communities we are in a position where many domains of language related to traditional life are rarely used or ‘sleeping’. We run annual language documentation workshops and work daily at the Cultural Centre with Elders, fluent speakers and language specialists to record vocabulary in traditional domains for which only our oldest generations have personal experience.
Through our Elders-in-Residence and staff language specialists, the May Hakongak Community Library & Cultural Centre is an immersive Inuinnaqtun environment. This team provides a language nest to many generations of Inuinnait, from teaching Inuinnaqtun words and reading to the children who attend our After School Program, to providing guidance and support to our staff and community.
It is going to take a collaboration of available human resources to tackle Inuinnaqtun revitalization and a comprehensive documentation of the language is one key activity. In partnership with Dr. Kumiko Murasugi, School of Linguistics and Language Studies, Carleton University, we have developed an online too where specialists can collaborate by entering vocabulary as well as related multimedia.
In 2018, we transcribed, formatted, and made publicly accessible two Inuit language resources from ethnographic material documented by the Danish Fifth Thule Expedition (1921-24). Through the work of trained language specialists, these original texts were transcribed from the Danish orthography used to represent Inuinnaqtun, to an accessible modern language standard.