Saturday, 3 March 2012

Mistaking a symbol for the name

One of the issues in the Inuit Language discourse in Nunavut that kind of concerns me is that, every once in a while, there is a call to "reform" the syllabic and "roman" orthographies. For eg, during the last Inuit Language week in Nunavut, I heard someone talk about the "need" for adding a specific symbol for the circumflex 'j' - ie, a consonantal blending of r with j.

There are various technical issues with such demands that have to be seriously considered: if such reforms were initiated this would create expensive issues for all concerned - the need to rewrite the bible being the least of them but the greatest expense would be to add a new symbol in the Inuktitut keyboard which now often creates unicode compliance issues for Inuktitut fonts; and, then, it would also create a need to reflect the change in the education system. The implications are actually quite far-reaching.

Both of the Inuktitut writing systems were created to account for and balance phonetic and phonemic variations inherent in the Inuit Language (or, that which results in dialectal differences at the phonological level). What I mean is this:

The very first Inuktitut linguistics paper that I ever wrote was to describe the [l] to /r/ rule in North Baffin. This phonological phenomenon is similar to the Asian tendencies to convert 'l' to 'r'. But there is a beautiful pattern that is not immediately obvious why this happens in North Baffin dialects. And it has to do with the quality and placement of the preceding vowels:

for 'iqaluk', the 'l' is changed to 'iqaruk';
for 'ulu', the change is 'uru';
but, when it comes to 'illu', there is no change; or 'ullu', no change
'piluk' also remains 'piluk'.

As I said, the quality or place of articulation of the vowel in the mouth cavity is that, for the first two examples, the vowels 'a' and 'u' are produced towards the back of the mouth cavity; whereas, the vowel 'i' is produced towards the front. At the deep psychological level, North Baffin speakers do not consider, nor normally perceive, the phonetic change of [l] to /r/ as something "real", and the consonantal shift is systematic - where the single [l] occurs after vowels 'u' and 'a', shift the lateral consonant to /r/; elsewhere, do not change single [l] - all of which happens at the subconscious level.

The same sort of phenomenon is happening with not only the [j] to /r/ but also [s] to /h/, but these changes are, more or less, phonetic (surface level) and not phonemic (psychological level), and can be accounted for and predicted as to where they normally occur, all of it subconsciously by the speakers of the particular dialects.

This phenomena occurs to in all languages, including English. For eg, there is no /j/ consonant symbol in the word "fire" but the word is pronounced [faijr]... and, because the /j/ is non-phonemic it is never perceived to be produced in the actual pronunciation of 'fire'.

For non-native speakers of a language, these phonetic changes seem very obvious and are, at first, treated as real and significant. For eg, the insertion of /r/ to words that end in a vowel, in some English dialects, is very obvious to most who speak a different variation of English. To Boston speakers, the word [idea], for eg, comes out as /idea(r)/ but Boston-version of English speakers do not perceive that superfluous /r/ at the end of the word though it still comes out where it should occur in actual speech.

Just as English can live with wide dialectal variations in pronunciation but still have a standardized spelling system, the Inuktitut syllabics and roman script writing systems are intended to have the same flexibility for differences in pronunciation while retaining a basic system of writing that is common to all writers and readers. Since Inuit of North Baffin dialects do not have to consciously think about the pronunciation of /r/ for the phoneme [l], the writing system is not asked to change to accomodate for the phonetic change.

The same goes for the "nasalization" rule for final consonants in the end of words in most Inuit dialects: [inuk] tends to come out as /inung/ in normal speech but it is spelt "inuk" nonetheless... Just as it should be: unique pronunciations are allowed by the system while the basic phonemic rules of the language are obeyed. The Inuktitut writing systems, in other words, account for but do not confuse the symbol (writing conventions) for reality (dialectal variations).


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