Indigenous Peoples Atlas of Canada

Inuktut writing systems

Globally, Inuit divide themselves into two closely related groups based on language, environmental factors and certain cultural features. The first is the Yupik who occupy coastal southwestern Alaska, including the Nunivak and St. Lawrence islands, and a small sector of the southeastern Chukchi Peninsula in Russia. The second group includes the Inupiat of north Alaska and eastern Russia, the Inuit of Canada, and the Inuit of Greenland.

Of these 172,000 Inuit, 2,000 live in Russia, 50,000 in Alaska, 65,000 in Canada and 55,000 in Greenland. Although certain differences in culture and language should be expected over such a vast expanse of Arctic and Subarctic territory, one of the truly amazing aspects of our culture is the extent of similarity from one group to another. You will find commonalities in tools, language, stories and traditions as you travel from the eastern shore of Greenland west across Canada and Alaska to the shores of Siberia.

In the 1920s, for example, Knud Rasmussen, an Inuit-Danish ethnographer born in Greenland, travelled by dog team from Greenland, west across Canada to the north coast of Alaska. As he did so, he was able to collect a vast quantity of information that we as Inuit can now use to help us understand our history and our cultural traditions. During his epic voyage, Rasmussen was able to understand, without great difficulty, all of the dialects he encountered along the way. In addition to language, Inuit from Siberia to Greenland share a similar cultural history — at least up to the time of contact with the outside world. We share many of the same values, stories, traditions and technology; and of course, Inuit everywhere take pride in being able to make our life comfortable and sustainable in what is so often described by outsiders as a hostile, even unlivable environment.

In addition to language, Inuit from Siberia to Greenland share a similar cultural history — at least up to the time of contact with
the outside world.

In Canada, the introduction of writing systems to Inuit varied from region to region as a result of colonization. It was mainly through contact with missionaries, but also under the influence of government officials, Inuit and non-Inuit linguists that strong regional views about the language developed.

In northern Labrador, now called Nunatsiavut, Moravian missionaries from Germany opened their first mission in Nain as early as 1771. The first written form of Inuktitut in what is now Canada was soon introduced, following the writing system that was similar to that used in Greenland, using roman orthography.

Anglican, Roman Catholic and other proselytizing missionaries introduced other writing systems in other regions, based on both roman and syllabic scripts. Roman orthography was used in Labrador and in the western Arctic, and syllabics were used in the central and eastern Arctic, yet the ways in which roman and syllabic orthographies were used to represent particular Inuktut sounds differed from region to region.

The syllabary was introduced in the 1870s to Inuit in northern Quebec, now Nunavik, when a Church of England (Anglican) missionary, Edmund Peck, adapted syllabic script for translation of parts of the Bible, the Book of Common Prayer and several hymns. Peck adapted the script that was already in use for the Cree language, just south of Nunavik in the James Bay area. The syllabics had been developed in 1845 by James Evans, a Wesleyan (Methodist) missionary and then later adapted to Inuktitut by the Anglicans Edwin Watkins and John Horden.

In 1894, Peck returned to Cumberland Sound, an area in what is now Nunavut, and founded the first Anglican mission on Baffin Island, building the first church at Blacklead Island. Syllabics were subsequently introduced in the central Arctic, Kivalliq and Natsilingmiut by Catholic and Anglican missionaries in the early 1900s through Bible translations, but as noted above, the syllabic systems in use at that time were not always consistent.

This historical and religious history of syllabic script adopted by Inuit in Nunavik and Nunavut explains some of the social and cultural attachments around its continued use today. This includes attachments to syllabic scripts in church literacy practices, but also in other contexts. This resulted in a number of inconsistencies that still exist, forming a total of nine writing systems now in use. These inconsistencies and the sheer number of scripts for a relatively small population of speakers inform the current drive to attempt to unify a writing system for Inuktut, the term used for the Inuit language in all of Canada, across Inuit Nunangat.

There are 12 main dialects, and nine different writing systems and, in some cases, three ways of writing Inuktut: the old unique syllabic orthography, the new Inuit Cultural Institute syllabic orthography and the roman orthography.

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