Writing the Inuit Language

Apart from their Siberian cousins, Inuit across the circumpolar world use two types of orthography to write their language. Roman orthography (or the Latin alphabet) is the only writing system used in Alaska, the Northwest Territories, Labrador and in Greenland. This is also the case in Nunavut’s Inuinnaqtun speaking communities. Everywhere else in Nunavut and in Nunavik, a unique and easily recognized writing system, known as syllabicsis predominant although roman letters are often used as well.

Both writing systems were first developed by missionaries working in the Arctic in order to write the bible and other religious texts in the Inuit language.  Before that time, Inuit had no written tradition.  When Lutheran missionaries arrived in Greenland in the 1700s, they began translating religious texts and teaching in Kalaallisut.  This writing system was later brought to Labrador by Moravian missionaries.The Moravians also established an education system where Inuttut was the language instruction. 

Elsewhere in Canada’s eastern Arctic, missionaries introduced a syllabic writing system beginning in the 1850s. Syllabics were originally developed for the Ojibwe and Cree languages and were adapted to fit the sounds of Inuktut. Anglican missionaries worked with Inuktut translations of the bible from Labrador to print Christian literature in syllabics. Literacy spread quickly as Inuit taught syllabics within and among families.

Missionaries working in Alaska, the Northwest Territories and the western part of Nunavut introduced their own versions of roman orthography to write the Inuit language. In the western Arctic, however, the Inuit language was not allowed in the school system and this impeded the development of literacy. Missionaries also wrote the Inuit language the way it sounded to their European ears and this created problems for clear communication among fluent speakers.

By the 20th century, many Inuit wanted to encourage communication in our language throughout Inuit Nunangat. Working independently, language leaders in Alaska, Canada and Kalaallit Nunaat (Greenland) collaborated with linguists to create standardized writing systems that represent more accurately the sounds of our language. 

One of the first standardized orthgraphies was developed for the North Slope variety of Inupiaq in 1946 by Roy Ahmaogak and Eugene Nida.  By the 1970s, this became the standard in the school system for teaching Inupiaq in schools.

In 1973, a language commission was established in Kalaallit Nunaat to revise and update the writing system that had first been developed in Greenland in the 1700s. The commission adapted a new writing system that continues to be the standard in government, education and the media.

In Canada, three different writing systems existed: syllabics, roman orthography and the Moravian roman orthography used in the Inuit communities of Labrador. In 1976, the national Inuit organization, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK), launched an effort to establish a common writing system that all Inuit could use. They settled on an orthography with two forms: one in roman orthography (known as qaliujaaqpait) and one in syllabics (known as qaniujaaqpait or ᖃᓂᐅᔮᖅᐸᐃᑦ). The syllabic and roman forms of this system mirror each other so that it is easy to convert text from one to the other.  The ICI orthography remains the standard for writing Inuktut in Nunavut and, with some modifications in Nunavik.  In Nunatsiavut, the decision was made to maintain the Moravian writing system with changes that make it compatible with standardized systems elsewhere. 

So while standardized writing systems are now used throughout Inuit Nunangat, there remain important differences between the orthographies used in Alaska, in Canada and in Kalaallit Nunaat. Discussions continue regarding the possibility of creating a unified writing system that all Inuit could use and thus improve communication across international borders and between communities.