Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Inuit Language Week in Nunavut

I was listening to an interview with the president of Pauttuutit Women's Association on their meeting in Nunatsiavut by CBC North on the need for standardized Inuktitut terms for medical conditions and sexually-transmitted diseases - such as chlamydia, HIV/AIDS, etc. - and I thought to myself, what a great opportunity and forum for generating standardized Inuktitut terms for such important issues as sexual health and subsequent medical conditions.

This specific approach, encompassing a natural class of concepts, is something that is actually quite rare in public terminology workshops. Though some terminology workshops focus on such things as fields as health, legal, climate change, etc. these workshops tend to be broad, sweeping treatments with not much thought given to etymologies, logic systems and processes of nomenclature. Then, there is the problem of specialist-/expert-training that is often unaware of where the basic concepts come from or how these specific terms came to be "naturalized" into the discourse.

Most laypeople who are aware have a vague understanding of what, for eg, "chlamydia" is and how it may affect the health of a host, but few would know that "chlamydia" is a family of parasitic bacteria with more than one sub-species. The etymological source of "chlamydia" is Greek for a "cloak" or "(military) mantle". Though this description may seem a bit extreme, using only symptoms or modes of transmission as the starting point for terminology development may not be desirable. For eg, certain strains of chlamydia infect the eyes, the "skin" of the urethra and cervix; the bird version of chlamydia causes pneumonia in humans...

There is that infamous Inuktitut term for "cancer" which is rendered loosely as "an illness that cannot be cured", probably taken from "a terminal illness" that may have been only one type of "cancer" (whatever it was). There are many types of cancer, but most, if not all, stem from the same phenomenon and are therefore classified as "neoplasia" (or "new growth") or "neoplastic diseases". Many an Inuk person has given up and become resigned to dying in hearing they have "cancer"; whole families have given up an affected family member for dead. Imperfect information, in this case, is really a death sentence.

This type of misunderstanding is not just in the medical field. There was a mass panic a few years ago in Eastern coast of Baffin Island when a huge pocket of methane burst up to the surface off the coast of Greenland. Having recently seen a tsunami decimate Indonesia and the Indian coast, a specific word "seismic" was enough to trigger a panic and religious hysteria. Not knowing anything about the logarithmic scale that is used to measure and classify "earthquakes", not to mention the constant subsonic and imperceptibly small tremors (seismic activity) that happen all the time, are all under the rubric of "seismology"...

Then, there is the term for "uranium" which is rendered as "ever-lasting" (source of energy) in Inuktitut. I'm obsessed with physics (or was for many years) and can intellectualize the deeper connections between alpha- and beta- decay and the electro-magnetic radiation from visible light to invisible x-rays, and the varying strength of covalent (electron or hydrogen) bonds in all matter. The emphasis on "ever-lasting source of energy" (as originally described by a non-specialist most probably) does not connect beautiful and elegant physical principles with physical phenomena, giving the wrong impression that radiant heat from fire, the visible light and x-rays, the different colours, electricity, the recent explosion of technological advances made possible by understanding these physical principles, are all unrelated.

The practical outcome that Qallunaat have god-like qualities because so much technology seems to be produced by them keeps Inuit from acquiring self-confidence to participate in the scientific discourse in any meaningful way. This mystification and aggrandizement has no basis on the reality of things. Since the English-speaking world uses and relies upon terms and nomenclature (ie, from latin and greek) that are not indigenous to English much of this knowledge and its organizing principles seem inexplicable and mysterious.

Most scientific and formalized knowledges stem from principles so elegant and logically- productive frameworks that a child capable of interpreting and comprehending them can start participating and contributing original insights almost immediately. Child prodigies are not magic, not freaks, just unusually sensitive to the structures of thought and postulates of fields they excel in. It has always been my experience that, aside the mystification of Qallunaat imperative, Inuit have this very human quality, this human intelligence, in generous measure. So much potential is lost for lack of explicating these scientific principles in any meaningful way at the initiation of our children's education.

The tools and knowledges are there already, it is a matter of how we use and explain them in Inuktitut.



  1. have you produced or published any scientific research articles or papers? i'd love to cite you.

    i'm doing some self-fomented undergraduate research on lingüistic revitalization in the yucatecan maya area, and i strongly agree with you on the point that "The practical outcome that Qallunaat have god-like qualities because so much technology seems to be produced by them keeps Inuit from acquiring self-confidence to participate in the scientific discourse in any meaningful way. This mystification and aggrandizement has no basis on the reality of things". i have considered the implementation of a web platform for the coining and discussion of neologisms, as well as the processes of how these neologisms should arise (through interactively editable flowcharts). i'm a long way away from developing something that even looks remotely like this, but i'm getting there.

    i'll be updating my field journal (in spanish and english) soon at http://vallabien.carlosduarte.info

    my skype name is "fromtijuana" and you can follow my tweets @tulakalbeyo ...my email is info at carlosduarte.info


  2. Hello tijuanabsd,

    you can email me: jarnakak@gmail.com

    I would love to participate in a type of web platform you're proposing so I very much encourage you to develop it. I think indigenous language specialists and indigenous education developers need a permanent (even virtual) symposium where they can discuss issues of practical and academic concern and seek/access technical resources/advice. One of the problems, as I see it, is that lack of resources (real and intellectual) prevent our communities from setting up research units/intellectual frameworks to go along with our aspirations for equality of opportunities (ie, by way of education).

    One of the educators I've had the privilege to work with at some capacity lent me some books by and on Lev Vygotsky, a developmental psychologist whose theory it was that language acquisition and education/knowledge retention is a social phenomenon. In one of the Nunavut curriculum development workshops I attended I had spoken up on my concerns that Piaget was too bureaucratic and "artificial" but, being a layperson, I had no other credible alternatives to offer but to speak from the heart. She offered me Vygotsky.

    It has been my experience that advocates for indigenous communities tend to work in isolation (through no fault of anyone, really) where the wheel is reinvented time and time again but without a common language and thought frameworks to help us all benefit from their hard-won sisyphean efforts.

    PS: I'm a translator/linguistic analyst with some formal training but no accreditation.