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Number of Speakers: 85,000 (Gordon 2005) – 150,000 (Fabbi 2003)

Key Dialects: Greenlandic (Kalaallisut), Eastern Canadian (Inuktitut), Western Canadian (Inuktitun), Alaskan (Inupiaq)

Geographical Center: Western Greenland

Upwards of 150,000 indigenous people of the circumpolar region of the northern hemisphere speak the Inuit language, or as it is often referred, Eskimo. The name Inuit means ‘the people’, whereas Eskimo is a derogatory word meaning ‘eater of raw flesh’ given to the Inuit by Algonquian Native Americans. Regarded as one of the most geographically distributed aboriginal ethnic groups, the language of the Inuit people is spoken in northwestern Alaska, across northern Canada, throughout Greenland, and in communities in Denmark. Although the highest concentration of Inuit speakers is found in Greenland, a substantial body of Inuit speakers inhabit Canada. Roughly 25,000 of Canada’s 30 million inhabitants claim Inuit as their first language. Inuit is Canada’s second most populous aboriginal group, following Cree.

Inuit is an Eskimo-Aleut language belonging to the Eskimo subfamily.

The Inuit language is spoken by Inuit descendents in geographically diffuse regions of the circumpolar north, including Greenland, Denmark, Canada, and Northern Alaska. The primary sub-dialects of each regional dialect are as follows: Greenlandic Inuit – West Greenlandic, East Greenlandic, and Thule/Polar Eskimo; Eastern Canadian Inuit – North Baffin-Aivilik, South Baffin, Labrador, and Tarramiut; Western Canadian Inuit – Caribou, Netsilik, Copper, Siglit, and Mackenzie; Alaskan Inuit – North Slope, Kobuk, and Seward Peninsula. Despite areal differences, the dialects of Inuit spoken in these regions are highly uniform grammatically speaking. Where variation is encountered, it is primarily phonological. Inuit as a whole has largely resisted influence from outside languages, which is part of the reason for the degree of linguistic homogeneity across dialects.

Until recently, Inuit was an oral language. Two distinct writing systems (Roman-based and syllabic) are currently employed, the exact orthography depending on the dialect. Although Alaska is the only region where the Inuit developed their own distinct (picture-based) writing system, the Roman alphabet is currently used to write Inupiaq Inuit. In Greenland and Denmark as well, a more standardized Roman orthography is used. As for Canadian Inuit, there is a dual orthography. Western Canadian Inuit uses the Roman alphabet, while a syllabic writing system is used to write Eastern Canadian Inuit. The issue over whether to have one or two writing systems in Canadian Inuit has been a topic of debate for decades and is currently unresolved.

Inuit is a polysynthetic or agglutinative language. That is, grammatical information is encoded in the numerous suffixes attached to roots and stems. Prefixation is not attested in the language. As such, Inuit words are highly structured objects and in comparison to European languages, their sentences consequently consist of a relatively small number of words. Lexical items (verbs and nouns – adjectives and adverbs do not constitute a distinct part of speech in the language according to Barnum (1970) and Fortescue (1984)) are highly inflected for case (of which there are seven in the language), number, and agreement (gender is not grammaticalized in the language).

Inuit is an Ergative-Absolutive language. Unlike the familiar Accusative languages of Europe, subjects of intransitive verbs and direct objects are both marked with a case (Absolutive) that is distinct from that of subjects of transitive verbs (Ergative). By contrast, the subjects of both intransitive and transitive verbs are marked with Nominative case and direct objects bear Accusative case in Accusative languages such as English. Inuit has three basic clause structures, each admitting SOV word-orders: Ergative, Anti-passive, and Intransitive. The Ergative structure is the most basic. As described above, subjects of transitive verbs bear Ergative case, while intransitive subjects and direct objects are marked with the Absolutive. Anti-passive sentences contain both subject and object, but the object is demoted to the status of an oblique/indirect object and is marked with the modalis case. As such, anti-passive verbs take on the formal characteristics of intransitive verbs in the language (i.e. they receive Absolutive case and do not bear object agreement morphology). Intransitive sentences contain only a subject and an inflected verb. Examples of these three basic sentence types are provided below.

(1) a. Ergative
Janni-up iqaluk-Ø niri-janga.
‘Johnny is eating/ate (the) fish.’

b. Anti-passive
Janni-Ø iqaluk-mik niri-Ø-juq.
‘Johnny is eating/ate (the) fish.’

c. Intransitive
Janni-Ø niri-juq.
‘Johnny is eating/ate.’

The pronominal system of Inuit consists of three basic types: personal pronouns, interrogative pronouns, and demonstrative pronouns. Possessive, indefinite, or relative pronouns are unattested in the language. Inuit makes use of the so-called fourth person or obviative form of the third person pronoun as well. In essence, Inuit divides the category of third person into two components: the proximate third person, which refers to a more pragmatically topical antecedent and corresponds to the typical use of third person in European languages, and the obviative third person (i.e. the fourth person), which refers to a less pragmatically topical antecedent. For example, in the sentence Basil met John and gave him his hat, the reference of the expression his hat is ambiguous in English. It can refer either to John’s hat (the most pragmatic or the so-called proximate meaning) or it can refer to Basil’s hat (the obviative reading). Comparable sentences are not ambiguous in this way in Inuit because the fourth person pronoun corresponding to the bold-faced item in the English sentence above serves to disambiguate these meanings.

The phonology of Inuit is characterized by a simple vowel inventory consisting of just three vowels, all of which may occur in either long or short form, and a consonant inventory comprised of seventeen phonemes. Although consonant clusters are permitted, they are limited to sequences of two adjacent consonant phonemes. Similarly, vowel sequences are permitted insofar as their length is limited to two adjacent vowels. Inuit is a stress language.

Inuit is the national language of Greenland (along with Danish) and has official language status in two Canadian provinces/territories, namely, Nunavut (alongside English and French) and the Northwest Territories (along with English, French, and five other indigenous languages). Efforts are underway to make Inuit the daily working language in Nunavut by the year 2009, thereby replacing English in that role. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation has been broadcasting in Inuit for decades and Inuit is used in Canadian television, film, and newspapers. Likewise, the language is used extensively in print and on the radio in Greenland. Language preservation is actively addressed by the Inuits. The Inuit Circumpolar Conference, an international association for Inuit, has a Language Commission dedicated to the preservation, education, and development of a common writing system for Inuit. Literacy rates are high in Greenland, where the language is taught in primary schools. However, literacy is low in Alaska and Canada (although higher in Western Canadian Inuit), where it is not taught throughout elementary and high school. Consequently, the language is being lost to the younger generation in these areas.

The history of the Inuit people is debated. One leading hypothesis is that the Inuit originated in Northeastern Siberia and from around 2000 BC began an eastward migration ultimately terminating in Greenland. Crossing the Bering Strait into Alaska, a number of migrants settled along its northern and western coasts. An additional wave of Inuits continued eastward through Canada, traversing the northern coastal regions and settling along the way, ultimately reaching Greenland by 1000 AD. Formerly a nomadic people, most Inuits now live in permanent settlements.

Barnum, Francis. 1970. Grammatical Fundamentals of the Innuit Language. Hildesheim: Georg Olms Verlag.

Dorais, Louis-Jacques. 1978. Iglulingmiut Uqausingit. The Inuit Language of Igloolik N.W.T. Université Laval, Québec: Association Inuksiutiit Katimajiit, Inc.

Fabbi, Nadine. 2003. Inuktitut – The Inuit Language. Unpublished Manuscript. School of International Studies, University of Washington. Available to download from the following site: programs/canada/edumodules/Inuktitut.pdf

Fortescue, Michael. 1983. Meddelelser om GrØnland. A Comparative Manual of Affixes for the Inuit Dialects of Greenland, Canada, and Alaska. Man and Society 4: 3-130.

Fortescue, Michael. 1984. West Greenlandic. London: Croom Helm.

Gordon, Raymond G., Jr. (Editor). 2005. Ethnologue: Languages of the World, Fifteenth Edition. Dallas: SIL International.

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