- The Language of the Inuit: Syntax, Semantics, and Society in the Arctic
The Inuit inhabit the Arctic, from easternmost Russia to Alaska, Canada, and Greenland. Nunavut, a Canadian territory where Inuktitut is an official language, was formed in 1999, with the Inuit much in the news. Yet what do most people know of the Inuit and their language? Some Inuit words are used in English – for instance, mukluk, kayak, igloo – and place names occur, including Igloolik, Inuvik, and Nunavut, but, for most people, there is likely little knowledge beyond this. Louis-Jacques Dorais’ impressive book, The Language of the Inuit: Syntax, Semantics, and Society in the Arctic, aims to address this situation.
Dorais was awarded the 2011 Canada Prize in the Humanities for this book. Dorais has worked with the Inuit for decades, and this award is a testament to him, his scholarship, and the people he has worked with.
Dorais reflects on the Inuit and their language from past, present, and future perspectives. As he says in the introduction, the book describes ‘the geographical, linguistic, historical, social and cultural universe within which an aboriginal minority form of speech generates meaningful discourses.’
Following a brief introduction, the book begins with what are likely its most challenging chapters. Chapter 1, ‘The Eskaleut Family of Languages,’ introduces Eskimo-Aleut, a name for the peoples across the entire territory and their languages. The language family, Eskaleut, has two branches, Aleut and Eskimo, each with sub-branches. Dorais defines seven Eskaleut languages; one, Inuit, is spoken in Canada. Chapter 2 is devoted to Inuit and its dialects (sixteen dialects, with nine in Canada). This chapter contains rich linguistic information, comparing sounds and word formation in different dialects. Dorais concludes that the dialects seem superficially different but are actually very similar, with many differences having arisen in recent generations. Chapter 3 is a linguistic study of the Nunavik dialects of northern Quebec. This chapter is an excellent introduction to the linguistic structure of Inuit.
These chapters might be hard going, but it is worthwhile to persevere. Chapter 4 addresses prehistory. Dorais reaches back as archaeological and linguistic evidence allow, concluding that Eskaleut emerged from a prehistoric northeast Asian network of languages, arriving in North America some 4,500 years ago. [End Page 712]
Chapter 5 concerns historical sources and linguistic change. Dorais introduces the earliest known documentation, a 1576 word list compiled by an assistant to Martin Frobisher. Such materials provide invaluable insight into the language of the time and reveal its stability. This chapter contains complex linguistic material, but much is easily accessible.
Chapter 6 addresses word meanings, the coining of words, and oral literature. Dorais addresses the popular topic of words for snow, giving at least 25 words in Nunavik Inuktitut, including qanik ‘falling snow,’ qiqsuqaaq ‘refrozen snow,’ aniu ‘snow for making water,’ and sirmiq ‘melting snow used as cement for the snow-house.’ He writes of the concept of human being, inuk, showing this form occurring in words with meanings like ‘be born,’ ‘be alive,’ and ‘be reincarnated.’ The chapter has sections on humanity, gender, and kinship; the human body; emotion and social harmony; numeration; time and space; and colours, plants, and animals, and it provides insight into Inuit culture. Dorais also discusses new concepts (e.g., aukuluk ‘chocolate,’ literally ‘nice little blood’; nijjauti ‘accordion,’ literally ‘which is used for uttering a sound’), changing meanings of words (e.g., umimmak ‘ox, beef,’ extended from ‘muskox’), and the rare borrowings from other languages (e.g., siisi ‘cheese,’ from English). The chapter concludes with discussion of oral literature, including myths, legends, songs, magic formulas, and present-day oral literature (e.g., country music, the award-winning film Atanarjuat the Fast Runner).
Chapter 7 addresses literacy and formal education, asking how these, and media, can both sustain and change a language and culture.
In chapter 8, ‘Language Contact and Bilingualism,’ Dorais remarks, ‘The most urgent issue for the present-day Inuit language is whether it has much chance of resisting for some more time the daily...