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 syllabics is predominant although roman letters are often used as well.

Both writing systems were first developed by missionaries working in the Canadian Arctic in order to write the bible and other religious texts in Inuktut.  Before that time, Inuktut was an oral language only.  Moravian missionaries who arrived in Labrador in the 18th century developed the first written form of Inuktut in Canada. The Moravians introduced a writing system based on the roman alphabet that was similar to what they had developed in Kalaallit Nunaat (Greenland). The Moravians also established an education system where Inuktut was the language instruction. By the middle of the 19th century, Inuktut literacy was flourishing, there was a growing body of Inuktut publications and Inuit instructors participated in the teaching of reading and writing skills.

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

Elsewhere in Nunavut and in Nunavik, 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.

As Inuit became more politically organized in the 1960s, many wanted to encourage communication in Inuktut throughout Inuit Nunangat. The different writing systems, however, created a barrier to communicating across dialects. In response, Canada's national Inuit organization, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK), launched an effort to establish a common writing system that all Inuit could use.

In 1976, a committee established by ITK met at the Inuit Cultural Institute (ICI) in Arviat, Nunavut to make recommendations on a new writing system. 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 the ICI system mirror each other so that it is easy to convert text from one to the other (see page 14).

ICI orthography was generally well accepted by Inuktut speakers who used syllabics. In communities that used roman orthography, qaliujaaqpait struggled as many people continued to write the way in which they were accustomed. The Labrador Inuit Association decided to maintain the Moravian orthography as the official way to write Nunatsiavummiutut but, in the 1990s, it approved changes to align it more closely with the ICI writing system.