Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Ullunik qaijunik = coming days?

My aippakuluk is an avid student of the Inuit language. But being a non-native speaker of Inuktitut she sometimes makes innocent linguistic errors that are quite informative for me as an analyst. That she has some grasp of general linguistic principles makes it easier for me to explain where and how a grammatical error occurred, which is sometimes quite subtle.

For instance, because her mother-tongue is French - which is has a SVO grammatical structure (subject verb object) - it is natural for her to try and transpose her grammatical structure to Inuktitut. For eg, a construct like:

kisiani isumanngittunga kaaktutit
but I did not think you are (were) hungry

may be generated at the -emic (or deeper psychological) level for her, whereas the proper Inuktitut grammar demands that we incorporate the indicated state of mind ("did not think") into the phrase structure, rendering it thus:

but I did not think you were hungry

In a grammatical structure that is SVO the subject and object will always occur separately (as in the first example of what I call French Inuktitut) where [-tunga] in isumanngittunga indicates the subject, and [-tutit] in kaaktutit indicates the object of the sentence (for SVO speakers, which also includes English).

However, in Inuktitut grammar, it is possible to have pronominal verb endings that indicate both the subject and object in a single morpheme (for eg, [-tagit] in kaakturinngitagilli incorporates "I-unto you").

In fact, there are complete conjugations denoting "first-unto-second" persons; "second-unto-first" persons; "first-unto-third" persons; and so on...

The implications of such calculus also allow the incorporation of adjectival and adverbial morphemes right into the phrase structure. In kaakturinngitagilli the [-turi-] means 'to think', 'to assume' or 'to suspect'.

For an analyst of Inuktitut like me, constructs such as the title of this entry (ullunik qaijunik) are examples of English Inuktitut (ie, anglicised Inuktitut). I am no purist by any stretch but I also love elegance and good form. The evolution of Inuktitut is really a fascinating process for someone like me but the transitions like the title above are haphazard, isolated instances, and, therefore not indicative of evolution but of degeneration.

To wit: in English, there was a historical change that affected the whole language in a systemic fashion called, "the great vowel shift" that marked the transition from middle to modern english where single unstressed high vowels between two consonants became diphthongs: the 'i' in night was once unstressed...; whereas the shift in modern Inuktitut to SVO structuring is not systematic nor systemic, and is more indicative of a breakdown and literalization.

The phrase 'in the coming days' in English is an adjectival phrase with the 'coming' part acting as an adjective; in a polysynthetic grammatical structure, such as Inuktitut, the adjectival function would and should be incorporated into the phrase, thus: ulluuniaqtunik = 'in the coming days' with no schism in the synthesis of the adjectival function with the root verb (ullu-) in Inuktitut. Besides, ullunik qaijunik is not adjectival but designates the phrase as the object of the sentence (with the endings [-nik].

As a critic of the "whole language approach" (which I blame harshly as one of the reasons for the degeneration of Inuktitut) this is one of the technical reasons why I would like to see reform from "whole language" to narrative-based Inuktitut language instruction. The whole language approach, far from treating language as having underlying grammar, assumes wrongly that words in isolation retain their meanings; whereas, narrative-based language arts treat language as a creative, engaging social process.

I hope to God that my pedantry didn't put people to sleep. For Inuktitut language specialists who have the mettle to come this far: I salute you.


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