Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Some points to ponder in Inuktitut education (part ii)

One of the most difficult and frustrating aspects of Inuit rights advocacy (and I suspect it's the same for aboriginal rights advocacy in general) is in trying to distinguish the political (the why) from the technical (the how). If nothing else, this distinction is key to "critical thinking". And yet it's something that I feel has isolated me and conscientious people like me from communion with our own with the devastating help of "minions" of the system.

Now, I am not being paranoid. To be honest, the whole discourse on aboriginal rights is replete with these minions of the system. One of my colleagues when I was a policy analyst was fond of saying that all the (generic) "white man" needs to unravel years' worth of advocacy work is five minutes alone with an Inuit elected official to get the concessions he needs. This is because it is so easy to dissuade a "political" stance with "technical" reasons that the position holds no water. And why aboriginal peoples cannot seem to get anywhere in dealing with governments - I mean "governments" in plural because our own Nunavut Government's real interests and long-term agenda are at odds with Inuit interests and the rights the selfsame governments claim to recognize.

And we help them along. We help them along with our (aboriginal) ready need to distinguish our unique cultures and identities, our whys. We say: Inuktitut-only instruction from K to 3; we have our own writing systems, our own dialects; we do not need standardization; etc. etc.

These are laudable political statements, what are called "motherhood and apple pie". But they are just one side of the equation - the why - and without the "how" are just platitudes.

As I said in my earlier blogs that though we have our syllabics writing systems we cannot, must not, ignore literacy - literacy is not just the ability to read and write (syllabics); literacy is being able to comprehend and articulate the thoughts behind the text. In linguistics this is called, linguistic competence.

Linguistic competence is a technical distinction from linguistic knowledge: the former feeds the latter, and allows language learning to take place. In other words, what competence is to knowledge is what language is to text. The rub here is that linguistic knowledge can be and is largely passive - as syllabics learning in Inuit children so well illustrates. Linguistic knowledge allows for "passive" bilingualism. One can learn the syllabic writing system without ever learning Inuktitut. This is insidious.

The need for standardization of orthographies is different from the need for standardization of a language. Standard orthography does not threaten the integrity of language or dialects; it reinforces linguistic competence by allowing the essential reference points (if you like) to take hold in the student in a consistent, "standardized" way which also, by extension, brings out regional/dialectal distinctions between readers and writers without sacrificing either one's uniqueness.

The technical advantages of "roman orthography" over syllabics is that it is amenable to and allows sight-reading which comes with familiarity. But not only that, there are no visual jumps between symbols (ie, doesn't have superscripting of finals). But not only that, "roman orthographies" clearly and easily distinguish similar morphemes that may cause confusion and lack of clarity for the readers/learners - such as: [-mik]; [-mi]; and [-mit] - or where gemination of consonants (or lack thereof) is grammatically significant - such as: [-nngit-] vs [-ngit] - or where vowel quality makes a difference - such as: [-siuq] vs [-suuq-].

Now, I'm not suggesting that Inuit children learn all these technical subtleties and think of them consciously but that Inuit language instructors/teachers have some working knowledge of them to structure their teaching methods and to assess/evaluate learning in clearly positive and defensible manner.

There are excellent technical reference books out there (like Louis-Jacques Dorais' Inuit Uqausiqatigiit: Inuit Languages and Dialects, the COPES series on Inuvialuit by Rowe, the Labradorimi Ulinnaisigutet: an Inuktitut-English Dictionary of Northern Labrador Dialect, the Inuktitut dictionaries developed by Inuit elders, etc.) and Inuit language instructors/teachers need to learn to decipher to open up the treasure-troves of usefulness that lay within these already extant books.

We need to "professionalize" these key people we call our Inuit language teachers; we need to teach and equip them with the technical aspects of language instruction; we need writing systems that have flexibility and adaptability and efficacy and clarity and consistency and simplicity to really teach and pass on our language, to advance our knowledge and to base our own on technically sound and solid footing. We need to think in evolutionary terms to keep our language relevant for future generations and provide real currency for new learners.


Sunday, 19 June 2011

Post-Darwin dialectics

One of the best books I've read so far (am still reading) on Darwin is by Benjamin Farrington called, What Darwin Really Said: an introduction to his life and theory of evolution. Farrington just said something that I've always believed in though I've wandered the wilderness of despair at times for my lack of articulation and intellectual skill.

In talking about Darwin's lack of distinction between the biological and (what Farrington calls) psycho-social aspects of humanity Farrington, in my mind, provides an answer to the mindless, thoughtless application of Darwin's theory:

"The art of making stone tools did not happen to man, like the biological development of a new organ; it was something that he did. (the author's italics) So with speech, so with writing; so with the domestication of plants and animals; so with the arts and crafts; so with the creation of institutions like family and clan, like tribe and city, like nation and state. So with religion, codes of law, literature, music, architecture and painting. These are all achievements of man, monuments of his invention, solutions of his problems, tributes to his creativity...

...The process by which something new comes into existence is somewhat of a mystery. There is an element of the incalculable and the unforeseeable about it, and older generations of scientists were apt for that reason to ignore it...  ...and the science of astronomy became the superstition of astrology. A similar tendency accompanied the progress of geography. A knowledge of the climates and characters of the different regions of the world gave birth to the idea of explaining the histories of those regions as effects of geographical causes. Hot climates produce lazy men, cold ones stupid men, temperate ones active men... ...Blanket generalizations of this kind were applied to the neglect of the facts. Geographical determinism threatened the study of history, and it became necessary to protest that a great nation was a human masterpiece, not a natural product; that it was the fruit of innumerable human decisions, of well-weighed actions, of a steeled will, of creative intelligence...

...So it was that in Darwin's day both Darwin himself and other thinkers, impressed by the biological theory of natural selection and the doctrine of the survival of the fittest, thought it could be extended to cover also the sphere of human history...

...he distinguishes intellect, morality, and corporeal structure. But when he passes on to explain their transmission and development from generation to generation, all alike are regarded as part of man's biological inheritance. 'Tribes, including many members who were always ready to give aid to each other and to sacrifice themselves for the common good, would be victorious over most other tribes; and this would be natural selection. At all times throughout the world tribes have supplanted other tribes; and as morality is one element of their success, the standard of morality and the number of well-endowed men will thus everywhere tend to rise and increase'.

This is sad stuff. Patriots do not necessarily beget patriots. There is no gene for this virtue. Moral progress is not achieved in this mindless way. Nor did Darwin really think so. But he had no philosophy which could provide him with any other reasonable account of the true nature of the mental world... ...The brain is certainly biologically inherited. The propositions that 'It is sweet and noble to die for one's country' and 'Greater love hath no man than this that a man lay down his life for a friend' are certainly thoughts. Why then should not the brain that had secreted these thoughts in one generation secrete them also in the next? But this, of course, is non-sense. Such thoughts are part of the cultural history of mankind, which is superimposed on the biological and not to be identified with it. Darwin had failed to make a clear distinction between the brain and the mind, and the failure had a disasterous effect on his mental life and happiness." (Farrington, 1966, pp. 80-82).

What fine example of the dialectic in at first finding oneself in dark places in following (flawed or incomplete) logical, sometimes dispairing and wanting to succumb to the dark thoughts, then, seeing the light of transcendence from a place of ignorance to enlightenment. This is why I love philosophy and believe in humanism. Thank you, Benjamin Farrington.


Friday, 17 June 2011

A short essay on modernism and post modernism in light of Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis

As a novice student of linguistics I didn't take the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis (or linguistic relativity) very serious; in fact, I thought it very Euro-centric (ie, at once admiring and belittling of the mysteries of being of non-European extraction). Benjamin Lee Whorf (a student of Edward Sapir) wrote about his observations of the Hopi language and its apparent lack of temporal tense in its grammar (ie, no distinct between past, present and future tenses) in trying to prove the veracity of the hypothesis which he and his mentor is named after.

The hypothesis, or linguistic relativity, is a linguistic principle that comes in two different versions (taken from Wikipedia):

"(i) the strong version that language determines thought and that linguistic categories limit and determine cognitive categories; and,

(ii) the weak version that linguistic categories and usage influence thought and certain kinds of non-linguistic behavior.

[ie] that the structure of a language affects the ways in which its speakers are able to conceptualize their world, i.e. their world view".

It was for Whorf's famous analysis of this "ability to conceptualize (and limit) their world view" (in Hopi) that put me off and for no other significant reason.

As a student of language I knew that human languages have this amazing ability to compensate or account for grammatical distinctions (or lack thereof) at the supra-segmental level (ie, using tone, stress, prosody, and socio-temporal context) that are not immediately obvious and overt, especially for non-native speakers of a given language. In fact, there is another linguistic principle that any human language can be translated (or rendered) into any other human language - a position where I was coming from.

Over the years the hypothesis has worked its magic on me for I see its fugue and variety in thinkers that I admire in other other fields like mathematics, philosophy and science: Ludwig Wittgenstein; Bertrand Russell; Gregory Bateson; Umberto Eco; John Dewey; Paulo Freire; Ivan Illich; Max Weber; Northrop Frye, etc. etc. - all of whom have something significant to say about humanity and just treatment of human/social relations; not to mention that we (human beings) have this wonderful ability to learn and educate ourselves and transcend our present circumstances - all, by way of conscious and conscientious use of language.

Now, having set the mise-en-scène, I would like to talk about modernist and postmodernist use of language. From my present-day perspective (as an armchair philosopher), I take much of these two eras with (perhaps unfounded) irony.

The biting-at-the-bit optimism of modernism was a reaction against the stifling conservativism and its social structures of ages past which, in turn, post modernism tried to supplant. But the thing that strikes me as fools'-errandish about the two eras is the means and language both used to bring down the obsolete and passé: blunt force with sledgehammer, militaristic terms. The thing that makes them fools'-errandish, in my mind, is the superficial and ready buy-in to demagoguery without much thought given to the consequences and the contemporary, more humane alternatives that were in the air of the times. This is uncannily reminiscent of the rise of heretical cults and demagogues when Christianity was first introduced to Inuit.

There is something of narcissistic and fool-hardy about the two ages with hugely inflated views of their respective "exceptionalism" and justification for expansionist drives inherent in the ages. The influential and prevalent thought of the times - such as the doctrine of Malthus which states that the barbaric and violent "struggle" for existence (more precisely, thriving) of all living things "inevitably" results from the geometric progression of population growth and the arithmetic progression of food sources (ie, from agriculture) - sought philosophical and ideological currency in much the same manner in which their violent sadomasicism were couched.

In Darwinistic terms, these "successful" life forms (and peoples, by extension) were "selected" by Nature precisely because they were able to beat out their more numerous (ie, superfluous) lesser, weaker kind and therefore deserving to thrive from the benefits of the "spoils of war" and just rewards.

But there is an alternative, much humbler and humane interpretation, namely: that the geometric progression of population growth stems precisely from extremely high attrition/mortality rates found in Nature. Those that survive to reproductive maturity are no more "deserving" than their less successful kind; the blind designs of Nature make for random and accidental lots for us all (there but for the grace of Nature go I). In fact, the more humane and enlightened the life modes of human societies, the slower the population grows, the longer the life expectancies. This seems to be the way of better life prospects in general - at least in human societies.

The unfortunate choice of militaristic terms tend to give the wrong impressions. Scientific "revolutions", for eg, rarely supplant wholesale their predecessors nor do them violence by any stretch: these revolutions, more likely, refine and make closer the approximations to facts and accounting for their place in the perceptual frameworks that is the theories that came before them. Scientific revolutions are really more like maturation processes, as in St. Paul's epistle 1 Corinthians 13: when I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child...

Last point: why is it that the field of study of human societies is called "anthropology" for non-European cultures, and for Europeans, "sociology"?


Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Some points to ponder in Inuit (Inuktitut) education

I heard on the radio this morning an announcement from Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami regarding an Inuit Education Strategy. I was pleased to hear such a thing, and fully support such efforts, especially when/if it covers the whole Inuit Nunaat (Inuvialuit, Nunavut, Nunavik, and Nunatsiavut).

But one thing that's always a concern to me here in Nunavut is the degradation of Inuit Language though it's been exclusively Inuktitut from grades K to 3 for a long time now. The problem, as I see it, is not so much the policy but the lack of investment in Inuktitut (Inuit) teachers who are no longer taught basic Inuktitut grammar/linguistics in the Nunavut Teacher Education Program; that is, if they've gone through the NTEP program. Couple this substandard Inuit Language programming at the NTEP level with lack of teaching material (from what I've heard the individual Inuit teachers are expected to develop their own materials and methodologies) and it is no surprise these dropping rates in stats on Inuit language use.

When the Inuvialuit signed their land claims, the Committee for Original Peoples Entitlement did the most brilliant thing possible by commissioning a linguist (Ronald Lowe of Laval University) to document and publish a series of books on Inuvialuit grammars and phonologies (for Siglitun, Uummarmiutun, and Kangiryuarmiutun (a form of Inuinnaqtun)) to form a solid scientific basis for their then future language reclamation efforts and orthographic reform.

When I was a policy analyst for an Inuit organization here in Nunavut I was part of the national Inuit selection committee (project proposals) that was in charge of the Inuit portion of the federally funded Aboriginal Languages Initiative (which was forever in "sunset" mode - bureaucratese for "winding down for program death"). While there, I would sometimes speak of the Inuvialuit linguistic corpus above, and the need for similar efforts and development for all of Inuit regions of Canada.

But I seem to have this unfortunate habit of speaking over other people's heads. I know my heart is in the right place and my intentions are good. But this is the way I speak... sad but true.

Anyhow, I think an Inuit Education Strategy requires a development  for the other Inuit regions like what Inuvialuit did for their languages.

One other thing that needs to be looked at seriously is teaching methodologies for Inuit languages. There is clearly enough room for both syllabic and latin script-based orthographies to co-exist in the classroom. Though Inuktitut syllabic system is much-cherished and jealously guarded, the system is not really amenable to sight-reading because each syllable needs to be sounded out and requires much time and effort to become proficient in. Besides its unweldy nature, it is difficult to "see" the regularity of the grammatical elements which are so key to learning text-based Inuktitut.

Though syllabic systems are currently not-up-for-negotiations, this protectiveness is purely political in nature being that syllabic writing systems are seen to be "uniquely" Inuit (though the Cree also use a similar system). I can understand this reaction being Inuit culture is attacked, it seems, from all sides. But this uncritical and visceral protectiveness of syllabics is galactically misplaced and extremely counter-productive to language preservation and advancement because in the current state of affairs all that is taught (here in Nunavut) and passed for Inuktitut language instruction is learning to read syllabics (as opposed to learning Inuktitut).

The simplicity of syllabics is that it can be taught in a couple of days to adult learners who've already got knowledge of the basic grammar. But it can also be taught to people who have little or no knowledge of Inuktitut at all. Since it is phonetically based (sounding out, not text based) regularized spelling is difficult to teach.

For example, the morpheme -nngit- (negative) is liable to be rendered in syllabics as -nngit-; -ngit-; or, -git-. And the complementary distribution laws of voiced and unvoiced segments [q] and [r]; [k] and [g] are often confused, if not totally ignored and omitted. This is not so bad. But the same thing happens with the grammatically significant endings [-mik]; [-mit] and [-mi] - respectively: direct object marker; "from"; and, "in".

I've often heard from Inuit parents how very good their children become in writing syllabics (which is natural if all they're taught is the writing system). But the self-same parents complain that Inuit children can no longer speak Inuktitut (which is natural if all they're taught is the writing system).

The Inuktitut teaching methodologies should begin with latin-based text (the so-called roman orthography) based on Inuit Cultural Institute standard writing system (developed with the help of and much advocated for by the late Jose Kusugak) so the children not only learn regularized spelling of grammatically significant subtleties, such as [-mik]; [-mit]; and [-mi] but also acquire a writing system that will ease the transition to English from Inuktitut. They can learn syllabics at their leisure for the rest of their school years.

The Inuktitut-only from kindergarten to grade 3, then English from grade 4 on need not be so traumatic for Inuit children some of whom never recover from the quantum leap and remain stunned for the rest of their academic careers. Some of this existential confusion, I strongly suspect, is one of the causes of suicide later in life. My attitude is: anything, even small subtle things, that can give a leg up for our children.

Besides this shift to text-based (as opposed to spelling-based that is syllabic learning) methodologies, a huge Inuktitut translation effort should be made using the major dialects for the classics (preferably psychologically insightful literature) as well as directed and sustained development of literature based on Inuit legends and mythology. These books (written in a major or even mixed dialect(s)) can then form the basis of classroom discussion and comparison of dialects unique to the individual communities to make the language and grammar conscious within the Inuit child.

This system-wide effort is not as difficult as it seems: some great work (by people from Nunavut Bilingual Education Society, and Inhabit Media Inc. in partnership with QIA and GN Dep't of Education) have already published works in Inuktitut and laid the groundwork for more. These efforts need the support of all Inuit because they can also be used to strike Inuit inter-regional partnerships, and pooling-of-resources and, at the least, knowledge sharing opportunities.


Monday, 13 June 2011

Subconscious civilization

As a voracious reader, I often forget where I've read an insightful piece that I wanted to discuss and incorporate into a discourse - as if I had a discourse to join in. At any rate, as reader and thinker I find or come across many things that I consider worthy of discussion and reflection both for personal growth and for social development.

Anyhoo, I once read somewhere a reflection on whether giftedness and in-born talent was better than learning through effort and knowledge/talent made conscious. Personally, I think giftedness in children is a very fragile thing given that it normally doesn't translate into adulthood and is easily destroyed by incessant attention by doting, well-meaning adults which the child is yet incapable of coping with in a healthy manner.

At the level of society and civilization there is a corresponding element of claims to juvenile (ie, in-born) giftedness called, exceptionalism. In my readings and reflection on the history of Western philosophy I strongly suspect that it was a cynical reaction by Sophists of ancient Greece who were confronted by social and cultural relativism at its awakening awareness to other cultures and mores that challenged its (naturally) cherished sense of place and identity.

Exceptionalism, it seems, is the dark side of unheeded, as-yet-unarticulable needs of individual/societal growth where things are in a state of flux in an intellectual wilderness that one finds oneself in when confronted by challenges of I-Thou questions. This is a place of existential horror - a moral/ethical and political/ideological hell, if you like - which few if any rise up to in rational, humanistic terms. All of its consequences are horrific: out-right war; racism; general social displacement; devaluation of life; political apathy and disenfrachisement... for exceptionalism is really society's way of burying its head in the sand.

Wikipedia says of it: Exceptionalism is the perception that a country, society, institution, movement, or time period is "exceptional" (i.e., unusual or extraordinary) in some way and thus does not need to conform to normal rules or general principles. Used in this sense, the term reflects a belief formed by lived experience, ideology, perceptual frames, or perspectives influenced by knowledge (or lack thereof) of historical or comparative circumstances.

I would add that the term also reflects - more fundamentally - uncritical, subconscious thought that feels a disporportionate amount of entitlement while insisting that others ("them") live up to its espoused ideals of human rights, equality, and fraternity without affording the prospects of realizing them.

I'm not singling out any one group because, existentially, exceptionalism makes victims of all: the displaced, the "conquerers"; the "winners" and "losers". Where true cuplability lies is when a corporate body is created to arrest the process of social growth and transcendence from moral relativism that initially challenged the "normal rules or general principles" in the first place. Rightwing ideology, by its very nature, is exceptionally prone to this disease because it is, at its core, an unabashed indulgence of the sense of "separateness" and "entitlement" to the fruits not of its own labours (ie, it takes by force and/or cunning sophistry because of its barbarity and unsatiable will to power).

Unvoiced, unconscious assumptions of exceptionalism is an all-pervasive element of lop-sided power relations. The enlightened noble ideals of Canada, for example, are perversed and emptied of content when it comes to aboriginal-government relations where "the term [that] reflects a belief formed by lived experience, ideology, perceptual frames, or perspectives influenced by knowledge (or lack thereof) of historical or comparative circumstances" determines the life prospects of a mass majority of aboriginals from childhood on (wards of the state) with ersatz social programs and services which are perpetually under review and subject to fixing and reform (which never comes). Nothing good, it seems, is ever allowed to take root.

Buber's I-Thou, along with many others, should be required reading for non-aboriginal service providers and government employees who seem to come in two different flavours: those who resent and begrudge us; and, those who come with missionary zeal to reform us. There are good and decent people too, of course, but all end up, it seems, victims of the "success" of the system. The language of the discourse at some point has to shift from preponderance of clinical-psychological (pseudo-science) to humanistic-practical (phronesis).


Sunday, 12 June 2011

A couple of examples of Pittiarniq from Inuit legends

"The axiom of criticism must be, not that the poet does not know what he is talking about, but that he cannot talk about what he knows. To defend the right of criticism to exist at all, therefore, is to assume that criticism is a structure of thought and knowledge existing in its own right, with some measure of independence from the art it deals with". AC Hamilton, Northrop Frye: Anatomy of his Criticism

Just so people understand that what I say of pittiarniq is not of my invention, I would like to provide some examples from Inuit legends. Inuit legends have some depth to them that is not immediately apparent sometimes especially ones that are intended for general audience (ie, not just for young children), like Kiviuq, the old woman who turned into a narwhal, etc.

In many of the Inuit legends (which vary in detail but rarely in form), there is this element of providing examples of well-formedness (pittiarniq) and ill-formedness (pittiannginniq) and of growth (the transformation, or transition from immaturity to wisdom). Usually the "villian" or the questionable character or even the hero (at first) is unable to do something well: either in hunting, or the stitch and tailoring of clothes are poorly done; it goes from clumsiness to refined.

In the example of the transmigrating soul, the whole story is about pittiarniq. When the foetus (which is human) is miscarried, it is hidden in the snow in secret and a bitch happens upon it and eats it. And so it begins that the soul is born as a dog and achieves some success and becomes the lead dog. Because of its privileged position it becomes arrogant but is, in the end, taught a lesson in humility; after, the soul becomes a wolf, but a starving wolf because it cannot keep up with the pack in chasing down the prey.

After much frustration, it finally asks advice from its better; it is told that in order to run faster it has to do it consciously (apparently running is not a natural thing but learned). The wolf learns slowly but becomes a better wolf.

As a caribou, it cannot get fat like the others though it eats its full. It again seeks advice and is told to eat certain things in certain proportions.

And so it goes...

Then, there is this example that is zen-like: a blind boy who shoots an arrow at a polar bear whom he's sure has hit because he has not always been blind and knows the true arrow when it hits its mark.

Inuit legends abound with these examples, vignettes to ponder. The multiple layers are there to be interpreted but there has to be a willingness to listen to gain the valuable insights. The details vary from person to person and, even in the same person, vary over time, depending on the psychological issue being explored and examined by a wise and thoughtful teacher/storyteller.

This pittiarniq concept is not unique to Inuit culture: it is a conscious decision to try and do things excellently, to acquire a deliberate way of life, a goal to quiet the mind so it can open up to the "zen", the "tao", to the parable, the character or model worthy to emulate or learn moral lessons from. It is hero worship as much as it is a cautionary tale. All cultures and all times have it, this mark of excellence that the cluttered mind, the arrogant and the selfish cannot see nor achieve.

It is, in the words of Northrop Fry: being taken up by one's subject as opposed to just taking a subject. It takes time because it is driven and inspired by conscious effort, a moment of epiphany, an awakening. It is a taught thing not of native intelligence, and more permanent than a flash-in-the-pan, more surer because it is made conscious in a person.


Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Pittiarniq as a life principle

One of the IQ principles that I try and live by is pittiarniq. The frustrating thing, and the beautiful thing, about the term is that it’s kind of difficult to capture and translate. Pittiarniq refers to not only “behaving well” but also “doing something well”; “excellence”; “aesthetically sensible/pleasing”; etc. – as in pittiaqsimajuq.

The term, at any rate, has a quality and notion of “Zen” or it can so be rendered in talking about the perfection of Nature and all things “natural” where and when ego and selfishness play no role; at the least, when the self is minimized and made quiet.

When I was a child, it was something I heard often: pittiaqpallutit “always behave well and kindly”, but it is a principle that, when accepted, grows and stays with one though it can never be perfected in the self. In my maturing process it is something I contemplate often and am only beginning to understand its depth.

The beauty of the term is that it is complex, differentiated and all-encompassing of identity. It is an evolutionary term, a process acquiring of wisdom and maturity within a person, a process of learning and growing as a person.

When I was a child – and even up to today, for that matter – I had/have a tendency to be impetuous and impulsive. I did not have pittiarniq. And neither did I really heed the knocking at my heart’s door: pittiaqpallutit. Then, I started thinking about the devastation I have caused upon myself and others with my selfishness and thoughtless behaviour. I’m a hot-head, and rather difficult to live with: My pittiarniq is fragile.

In Antoine de Saint Exupery’s, The Little Prince, the prince owns a rose that he loves and thinks is unique in the world – and it is, in his world. Pittiarniq is like that. It requires cultivation and care in order to take root and thrive in this sometimes harsh reality. It is a treasure whose value is nothing but to the self, and, in that respect, the most valuable thing that a person can own (or, more precisely, be owned by).

As a pedagogical device, or an object of contemplation, pittiarniq is “striving for excellence” in all that one does and is capable of being. There are examples everywhere but what I’d like to focus upon are the examples in Inuit culture.

It is the way tailoring and stitching is done in traditional Inuit clothing; it is the varied design of the basic idea of a qajaq in the circumpolar world. It is beautiful to look at, and awe-inspiring in its simplicity and utility based on the best knowledge of materials and creativity:

(an example of my humble attempts to recreate pittiarniq in qajaq model-making)

The IQ principle of learning and teaching by observation and doing is precisely because of the hands-on and experiential nature of pittiarniq. It is the basis of all things Inuit, from acquiring mature and thoughtful behaviour to hunting tools and techniques to creating beautiful and useful things. It’s a life-long striving, a template or framework for living life as an art. It is everywhere but silent and only opens up to those with patience and imagination to see and do.

The sometimes violent outbursts and general breakdown of our society and persons is a reflection of pittiarniq's absence. This is not a moral/ethical judgement, merely a statement of fact. Without pittiarniq the existential world of a person is violent and chaotic seemingly requiring violent and chaotic response. Or, one can hit rock-bottom and build up again with pittiarniq as a conscious principle.

Like Zen, one doesn't really need talent (I don't think I'm particularly talented, just trying to be open to the concept of pittiarniq, the creative force of the universe - like my ancestors). The willingness to open up to pittiarniq builds up talent and will over time and patient cultivation.


Saturday, 4 June 2011

Les Derniers Humains (or Qallunology)

I must admit outright that the title I choose for this entry comes from two sources: the french part comes from Richard Desjardins' album; and, the Inuktitut part comes from Zebedee Nungark (sp?).

As a conscientious observer of my contemporary society (both Inuit and non-Inuit), I am still sometimes struck (though rarely surprised) by how little either side seems to comprehend the other. Much of the "discourse on Inuit" is rarely by Inuit themselves, granted. Most of the endless studies and reports are written by non-Inuit for other non-Inuit who are in power; oftentimes much of the "Inuit leadership" seems to be only there to legitimize the wishes and edicts of non-Inuit (with their need to leave their mark in history).

I'm not being cynical or bitter here, just stating an obvious fact.

Thucydides, the Greek historian (c. 460 - c. 395 BCE), wrote of a conference between Athens and Melos where the Athenian representatives spoke frankly:

"But you and we should say what we really think, and aim only at what is possible, for we both alike know that into the discussion of human affairs the question of justice only enters where the pressure of necessity is equal, and that the powerful exact what they can, and the weak grant what they must",

and that this law was not made by them but by the very nature of men, and that they (the Athenians and Melians) are not the first to act upon it, and were the "weak" only be as "strong" as their betters would act exactly the same.

This unfortunate truism is rarely acknowledged neither by Inuit commentators nor by their non-Inuit counterparts. But this is a logical starting point of understanding to make not only Inuit-government relations but also personal relations more humane, for it (might is right) was vigorously condemned by Plato as barbaric and uncivilized. Only in acknowledging the power inbalance can one see with clarity and act with wisdom.

Our society is a very complex and differentiated, stratified one. There are many things that are good and noble about our founding democratic ideals, but there also dark and tumultuous tendencies at work in this great human endeavour which we ignore or don't acknowledge directly at our peril (all of us). This discourse is an on-going one and to be treated with vigilance and with constant appeal to humanity for it is not just politics at stake here but our very sense of morality and will to enlightenment, fragile as they've been proven.

In order for this important discourse from degrading into mere congeries of opinion (as Athenians and rightwing ideologues would have it) we should fight against our natural tendencies to merely enumerate the relative value of this and that culture in relation to another but to consider each represented body at the table as having equal value and equal contribution to the discourse that is far more continuous and interconnected than expediency would suggest.

I've never been able to reconcile myself fully with either side of the Inuit-government relations/divide, and I think that's a good and necessary thing. But to fully understand that blaming and boo-hooing without providing insights and alternatives on the one hand, and dismissing any and all alternatives and robing oneself with attitudes of superiority without critical thought to how one would appear on the other, is a lonely place to be when rational discussion is a rare promise and seemingly not much wanted by either side.

But I still maintain that unscrupulous (and unconscious) will to power and unbridged lust for self-assertion is the greater evil of the two sides and in need of more rigorous vigilance because it can see no value in unique things and aspects of culture (even its own) that challenge or hinder (even if only imagined) the "hard-won" sense of entitlement and superiority.

We must remember that the dominion of Canada was devalued as a back-water of the realm for the longest time with nothing of value to offer but its humongous real estate - sugar and sugar production was of more value than all of Canada back then. Though a part of me wishes this valuation had held true, I know only of our history and would not change it for wishful thinking. The challenge to our humanity is harder and much more messy but promises to prove all our worth and calls upon us our best.

Given Thucydides' realism vs Plato's faith in human reason, I'd take Plato any day.


Thursday, 2 June 2011

Baron Samedi as the agent of God

Baron Samedi is the voodoo lord of death in top hat and coat-tails who guards the cemetery gates. He is often portrayed as an evil being or as a trickster. But I think a more realistic perspective is to see Baron Samedi as Meister Eckhart saw the hand of God: "Only the hand that erases can write the true thing".

True evil is not the hand that can erase but only pervert and deform the human spirit out of disdain. The human spirit can only be erased by God - its author; despots and tyrants cannot erase, cannot write the true thing which is the human spirit.

Hamza al-Khateeb is a true symbol of the human spirit as are the souls who've died for the noble cause of the human spirit. These selfless souls are the true martyrs, not the suicide bombers who've only been fooled and hood-winked by tyranny and worm-tongues of extreme right ideologies by cynical appeals to selfishness and libido, no less.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote a poem called, Retribution:

"though the mills of God grind slowly,
yet they grind exceeding small;
though with patience He stands waiting,
with exactness grinds He all"

Baron Samedi waits patiently for the tyrants and sinners to rub them out and write the true thing in their place.


Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Creating conceptual basis for discussions on non-indigenous terms and ideas

Somewhere in this blog I've mention something a bit about the need for keeping Inuktitut relevant and strong for future generations by extending it into fields not indigenous to Inuit culture proper (whatever and however "culture" is defined).

There is a definite need for making the first steps in creating conceptual basis for discussions on how to generate productive, idea-based terms for Inuktitut (I think this basic idea can be applied to any and all aboriginal languages - I see no compelling reason not to anyhow) in the fields of science, politics, philosophy, etc.

The program of generating these new terms and concepts should be broad and general enough to build upon but also consistent enough to preserve the basic ideas and forms of a given discourse. Let me try and explain by way of an example:

There is no indigenous term for "cat" in Inuktitut so most Inuit say "pussy-cat-ruluk", say, to denote the house pet. But, besides the now sexual connotations tied with the vulgate use of the term, there is no way of connecting the term to the larger taxonomic class of "felidae".

Now, I don't know the exact etymology of the term "feline" but I would imagine it is based on morphology or physiological feature common to all animals that warrant the derivative compounding it. Using this simple logic, I would suggest a neological term, "qittukti", in Inuktitut for "one-that-scratches" (for the retractable claws which I think is common to all felines except for the leopard - but still uses its claws to grasp hold of its prey as it brings it down).

We could say, for house cats "qittuktiralaaq" (tiny one that scratches) and for the larger cats use "qittuktirjuaq" (large one that scratches) and compound it with some salient feature of a given species. For eg, a lion might be classified as "qittuktirjuaq nuilalik" (or perhaps just "nuilalik" with the compound base implicit).

For the periodic table of elements, I started with another approach by appealing to Inuit mythology using the Nunavik name for the (grand) mother of the sun and the moon, Lumaajuq. To achieve some consistency and form, I utilized a grammatical feature of Inukt. for the third person indicative morpheme, -juq, to denote the dynamism of elementary particles and started out like this for the first and second periods:

lumaajuq = hydrogen -the name of the (grand)mother of the sun and the moon, who is also a creature of the watery realm;

issijuq = helium - the base is the Inukt term for "emission" (as in emission from the sun, the (grand)daughter of lumaajuq);

piturnijuq - lithium - to denote the Inukt term for "full moon" who is the (grand)son of lumaajuq;

skipping a couple of elements,

paujuq = carbon - from the Inukt term for "soot"... and so on and so forth.

Of course, we'd still use the international symbolism and conventions to denote these elements mathematically but the Inukt rendition of them forms the basis of productive discussion and pedagogy.

For eg, we could say for simple chemical compounds like so:

lumaajapaujut - hydrocarbons, where the -ja(q)- (morpheme for "pseudo" or "functions like") is inserted between the two basic terms;

paujanirnijuq1 = carbon monoxide; and

paujanirnijuq2 = carbon dioxide.

This idea is not just a naming game especially when used as starting off points for deeper discussion based on primitive, abstract elements and their logical consequences and derivations that form the corpus of a discourse, such as in science, where international conventions and symbolisms and first principles are opened up (not maliciously supplanted) for the first time to Inuit, especially Inuit students, using linguistic constructs that not only obey grammar but are inherently fruitful to contemplate.