Writing the Inuit Language

Apart from their Siberian cousins, Inuit across the circumpolar world use two types of orthography to write their language. The roman or 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 syllabics is predominant although roman letters are often used as well.

Both the syllabic and roman writing systems for Inuktitut were originally developed by Christian missionaries who needed a way to write the bible, hymns and other printed texts in Inuktut. Syllabic orthography, in particular, was easy for Inuktut-speakers to learn. Inuit trained in syllabics were able to pass along their new skills to others so that writing reached some areas of Nunavut before missionaries managed to get there.

Missionaries working in different areas and for different churches, developed their own unique ways of writing with syllabic and roman characters. By the 1960s this was creating problems for Inuit living in different regions to communicate with each other.

In 1976, the Inuit Cultural Institute (ICI) approved a new standardized writing system that could be used to write Inuktut consitently. ICI orthography has two forms, one in roman orthography (using the Latin alphabet) and one in syllabics. In Inuktitut these are known respectively as qaliujaaqpait and qaniujaaqpait. The syllabic and roman forms of the ICI system mirror each other so that it is easy to convert text from one to the other.