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100,000 Speak 'Polysynthetic' Tongue : Eskimo Language With 50 Words for Snow Faces Blizzard of English

October 11, 1987|CHARLES J. HANLEY | Associated Press

IQALUIT, Northwest Territories--The tongue-twisting language that gave the world igloo, kayak and 50 words for snow is under assault from the qangattaqtitausimajug , the qarasaasiaq and other wonders of the modern age.

Hardy old Eskimo, mother tongue of 100,000 natives in Greenland, Alaska and Canada, is in a struggle for survival.

"They're losing it holus-bolus ," said Canadian linguist Kenn Harper, lifting a little lingo from another lost language--Latin.

The Eskimo language, called Inuktitut in Canada, Inupit in Alaska and Kalaallisut in Greenland, is far from dead. It's the speech heard on hunting expeditions, in churches, town halls, kitchens and shops across the Arctic.

In Canada, one survey found that 67% of Eskimos, who call themselves Inuit, speak primarily Inuktitut at home.

But the drumbeat of English from "southern" television, music tapes, magazines, bureaucrats, employers and tourists is eroding the Inuit's linguistic soul. Television satellites, called qangattaqtitausimajug , and computers, qarasaasiaq , are speeding the change.

"The language is disappearing," Levi Nungaq, 62, a hunter, told a visitor to his Canadian settlement, Resolute Bay. "The children teach their younger brothers and sisters English, never Inuktitut."

With a laugh, his son, Matthew, 26, admitted, "Sometimes I can't pronounce the words I have to pronounce in Inuktitut."

Little wonder. The words are a rush of half-swallowed gutturals, semi-hisses, clucks and pops, called uvular fricatives by specialists, that sound to untutored ears like ice cracking underfoot.

Eskimo fascinates linguists, who classify it as a unique "polysynthetic" language, meaning that it names things and expresses concepts by patching together long strings of ideas into single words.

For example, qangattaqtitausim a jug --satellite--is literally, "It has been made to fly."

The language is known too for a vocabulary rich with words rooted in the Inuit's environment. When an Eskimo announces, "I'm going hunting," the verb he uses depends on whether he's hunting seal, bear or another animal.

Specialists count at least 50 words for the many forms of snow. But Per Langgaard, a Danish professor of language at Greenland's Inuit Institute, says the variations are infinite.

"Let's say it came to the point where the snow was more wet than usual," he said. "Well, then, you'd create a new word."

Those who love the language say that polysynthesis could save it.

"The Eskimo language is very resilient," said Harper, a businessman and ex-teacher in this Inuit town who is recognized as a leading Inuktitut scholar. "It has borrowed a lot of words from English. But that isn't necessary. It can form its own words."

In Danish Greenland, they have organized to do just that.

Under the Inuit-dominated local government, a special five-member Greenland Language Commission protects the language against the onslaught of Danish and English by collecting, registering and, when necessary, manufacturing Eskimo words.

It recently promulgated the proper Eskimo words for scores of sea mammals and fish. It also endowed the language with some new concoctions, including pingasunik sinarsulik, literally "something with three sides," for triangle.

The Inuit Circumpolar Conference, the Eskimos' international political voice, is lobbying for a three-nation Eskimo broadcasting network and for greater use of Eskimo in schools. Canadian Inuit children are taught in Inuktitut only to the third grade.

The conference also wants to eliminate a linguistic barrier: The Inuit of Alaska and Greenland write their language in a Roman alphabet, as in English and Danish, while the Canadian Inuit use an exotic, specially designed alphabet called Syllabics.

As a result, any writings produced in Greenland, where up to 50 Eskimo-language books are published each year, are largely inaccessible to Canadian Eskimos.

Language protection can arouse nationalist passions in Greenland.

Inuit poet-politician Aqqaluk Lynge said the Danes came "near to cultural genocide" in their dealings with the Inuit before granting self-rule to Greenland in 1979. "But we have changed that," he said. "We have proved we can develop our language as a modern language."

Harper sees another sign of hope for Eskimo. "The technology that threatened the culture before is now helping," he said.

For one thing, computer-maker Apple has devised a word processor keyboard in the Syllabics alphabet, facilitating publication of the weekly Nunatsiaq News here.

In other words, the qarasaasiaq --"little artificial brain"--is becoming friendly.

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