Polar Husky A to Z


'Writing' in Arctic languages have only been around for the last few decades (a decade is 10 years).

Inuit story telling - oral traditon - has been for more than four millennia (that would be 4000 years!) passing on knowledge from one generation to the next. That makes 'Inuit oral tradition' one of the world's oldest art forms, and it is obviously a very important part of the Inuit culture.

Just imagine - in the long dark winter nights, (remember in the far North there are days when the sun never comes up!!) being inside a small igloo, yaranga or wagaahigan for a long time, people played games and sang traditional songs which were both educational and entertaining.

"Quyanapak" is the Inupiaq Eskimo word for "thank you."

Language is a very important part of all cultures. Inuit people living across many countries there is more than one Inuit language. The languages of Inuit are subfamilies of the Eskimo-Aleut language family. One way it is divided is whether the speakers call themselves Inuit (singular, Inuk) or Yuit (singular, Yuk and most often called Yupik).

The languages spoken by Inuit are generally called:

  • Yu'pik in Chukotka
  • Inupiaq in Alaska
  • Inuktitut in Canada and
  • Kalaallisut (Kalâdtlisut) in Greenland

It is really a chain of dialects... Which means that most often people who live close by can understand each other, whereas when they are far apart, they cannot.

Then there are the languages of Arctic peoples that are not considered 'Inuit.' Such as the Sami in Fennoscandia and the Chukchi people in Chukotka who speak Chukchi.

Beginning in the 1960's the Native Arctic peoples have been forced to learn and speak other than their native language; Canadian in Canada, Russian in Siberia and Chukotka, American in Alaska and Danish in Greenland. The Native children being sent to boarding schools far away from their communities and families, they often returned no longer knowing how to speak their own language. They could no longer understand the stories and traditional knowledge their grand parents, even their own parents had to tell them! This is one reason many of the Native Arctic languages have disappeared. They have become extinct - and still today many languages are 'threatened' or 'endangered.' One example is the Yupik language in Chukotka which is believed to be spoken by only about 1000 people today.

That said, some Native Arctic languages are indeed getting stronger once again. The Alaskan Yupik languages are spoken by about 17,000 people. The Inupiaq dialects have more than 40,000 speakers in Greenland and more than 20,000 in Alaska and Canada. Since 1999 when Nunavut became a territory in Canada, Inuktitut is now one of three official languages in this new Canadian territory (the other being English and French).

Maybe just as important as the language itself is the way we 'write' a language (orthography). Just like the Russian language has a alphabet different from say the Roman alphabet (or used in the United States, the Inuit languages have their own symbols and distinct 'letters.' In Alaska and across the Bering Strait in Chukotka the Yupik historically use a Cyrillic system. Inuktituk, the Canadian Inuit language, is written in syllabics. Syllabics was introduced as a 'system of writing Inuktituk' by the missionary Edmund Peck in the 1870s, but the present form of the syllabary for Canadian Inuktitut was not adopted by the Inuit Cultural Institute in Canada until the 1970s!