Tuesday, 8 March 2011

technical issues to consider in creating "standardized" Inuktitut orthography(ies)

The word "standardization" in the context of Inuktitut writing systems for Nunavut is really a red herring for the simple fact that Nunavut already has two very workable writing systems: syllabics and roman orthography (latin script), that was constructed by the now defunct Inuit Cultural Institute in Nunavut, and advocated  for by one of the strongest personalities and great thinkers of Nunavut, Jose Kusugak.

The no-end-to-troubles come about because there are strong emotions tied into the syllabic system (in the east) and a form of "roman orthography" (in the Inuinnaqtun region out west), which are regarded by most Inuit on both ends as uniquely tied to the Inuit identity. In fact, this feeling is dogma. And like any article of faith, beyond the pale of rational discussion.

This is an unfortunate state of affairs.

On the one hand, I understand and feel intimately for the Inuit who've had so much existential angst to deal with in recent history  - I'm an Inuk, nothing Inuit is strange to me -, and on the other hand, as a rationalist Inuk I can see that our stubborn, unexamined pride might be just another nail in our collective coffin. Our default unwillingness to discuss the issues reasonably, so far, mires our individual efforts to rethink the issues. Clearly, we need a reformation.

But, with already two workable systems in place, we need a reformation of political thought and awareness. This is a strength, a positive not yet recognized as such. What I mean is that we, in Nunavut, have no tradition of literature. Our reading material consists entirely of the Bible (with its beautiful Inuktitut) and boring government documents (I call it writing English in Inuktitut).

We must now make something with the tools that we already have, with the realization that if we don't use the two writing systems our unique cultural insights will die, not to mention our language. We can do this first by affecting a program (a deliberate effort) of translating existing literary classics, works of scientific achievements, and "Inuktitutizing" textbooks of substance for Inuit students. What was done with the Moravian Bible must now be extended to other fields of discourse.

The strength of using roman orthography in translating existing masterpieces is that cited works, latinized names of personages, place names outside of Nunavut, etc. can be "transliterated" without breaks in the visual field. This is a problem with syllabic-tizing foreign names and acronyms and trademarks that are cumbersome and rendered confusing in syllabics, enough to make the act of reading a boring chore.

In fact, some things are technically impossible with syllabic writing which has no symbolic segments like "b", "d", "z" etc. (or consonantal combinations) like "ch", "st", etc. which are required for scientific writing or the simple act of citation of referenced works in most public discourse. Foreign names and titles of important works in roman orthography can easily be italicized to denote their non-indigenous status in Inuktitut.

Then, there is the amenability to "sight-reading" which is easily acquired with roman orthography, but difficult to do with syllabics without much practice. The grammar of Inuktitut is also made explicit in roman orthography...

Despite the impression here, I'm not advocating for either writing system. I can use both comfortably. What I'm trying to initiate here is looking at the strengths and weaknesses of either system in a rational (technical) manner. Contrary to the uncritical view, either system, in my view, is very much capable of preserving and enhancing the Inuit Language. It all depends on how and what we use our language for.

But an important point to think about is that our children need to learn our language. And not just the writing system as syllabics is currently passed as Inuktitut instruction in Nunavut schools (much to the detriment of Inuktitut) but the actual grammatical use of the language, which only speaking, reading and thinking can impart.

There is a deep fascination with modernity by Inuit. Most Inuit admire the capabilities of the modern world with its almost magical powers to create stuff and discuss ideas which have something about them just outside our comprehension. This is a wrong-headed view. We, as Inuit, need to start translating these ideas behind much of the modern world so we can know and understand it in and on our own terms.

Inuit and the Inuit Language have much insight to offer the modern world and humanity in general. I don't know about you, but the idea of my children's childrens' full participation in the modern world in Inuktitut is to me a very worthwhile goal for our society.

We need to believe in ourselves, to seek out knowledge and use our language to create and contribute to the global discourse.


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