What we can learn from Inuttitut, a language shaped by humility, poetry, and the land.

Text — Juliana Léveillé-Trudel
Photos — Alexi Hobbs

“She’s away on vacation for two weeks,” said Bobby, manager of the village of Quaqtaq.

He was talking about the head of the recreation department, who had all of the keys, most importantly the one for the Isummasarvik School’s storage room. We needed it to get the sports equipment to keep the kids occupied at day camp: balls, badminton racquets, nets, and hockey sticks.

I sighed inwardly. Ever since I’d been working in Nunavik, finding a key had been a recurring nightmare. I had already given up hope.

“Maybe you could ask the caretaker,” Bobby suggested.

Anne, my colleague, nodded and waved me on. We got back into the truck. On the other side of the windows, the June sun was beating down on the frozen bay that it could not crack. We stopped in front of a house near the footbridge spanning the river. The caretaker was out, but her husband exchanged a few words with Anne in Inuttitut, then disappeared and returned with the miraculous key. I pinched myself. It had taken all of five minutes.

That was back in 2015, my fifth summer in Nunavik. If it had happened a few years earlier, I would have probably told the story on my blog, joking about how even a simple task can be so immensely complicated in the North.

But as the old man held out the keys, it hit me: it was my fault that it was complicated. I had begun setting up day camps in the North in 2011. Everything that I had found difficult then was difficult because I was trying to make things work my way: planning activities and appointments in advance, holding daily meetings, requiring long-term commitment from the camp’s employees. There was another problem too: I didn’t know the people or the language well enough. I didn’t know who the caretaker was or where she lived. I wouldn’t have been able to speak with her husband, who spoke only in Inuttitut.

I’d learned a few words, of course, especially words useful for working with children: come here, sit down, do you understand, hurry up, are you ready, stop, wait, again, a little, a lot, yesterday, today, tomorrow, yes, no, maybe, what’s your name, and how old are you. We’d played Twister once, so I also knew the names of body parts, colours, left and right. I knew the names of all the animals. It was a start, but not enough to converse with the caretaker’s husband.

Many of the Qallunaat (whites) I met among the Inuit described Inuttitut as “impossible to learn.” It did indeed seem complicated, with all those qs, ks, and js, but I loved its rough sonority. Moreover, I could never feel at ease with this linguistic one-sidedness. Some of my friends were taking online courses with Professor Marc-Antoine Mahieu at INALCO (Institut National des Langues et Civilisations Orientales), affiliated with the Sorbonne in Paris. They all spoke about the class with the same blissful smile. In 2016 I signed up too. I had just quit my job to devote myself to writing. It meant that I would no longer be travelling to Nunavik but that I had more time—and I very much wanted to learn Inuttitut and keep a foot in the North.

In our first class, Marc-Antoine made a point of destroying our hopes. Inuttitut is a highly unfamiliar language, not nearly as easily learned as English or Spanish. Acquiring competence would take years of study and practice, and despite all that effort, we would very likely never be able to really converse.

Strangely, this bleak prospect soon seemed irrelevant. Little by little, I discovered a spectacular language, immensely creative and full of humour. A language that had to invent all sorts of slightly eccentric ways of naming the elements of modern life, but that described the land and hunting techniques with staggering precision. A language that seemed made for poetry with its constructed words and love of repetition; a language that taught me so many things about people that I’d been among for years without ever really knowing.

Qanik, falling snow.

Aputi, snow on the ground.

Aniu, the clean snow you melt for water.

Pukak, crystallized snow that crumbles easily.

Masak, wet falling snow.

Matsaaq, wet snow on the ground.

Don’t believe everything you’ve heard, however: there are not hundreds of words for snow.

Over and over, I’d said what so many others have: that the Inuit have a very liberal concept of time. I learned that it could be as structured as my own; it was just structured around other things. For example, the months are defined by animal behaviours.

September, October, November: amiraijaut, arnalirnguutivik, natjuijarvik.

Time when antlers lose their velvet. Time when the males compete for females. Time when caribou shed their antlers.

Places that I had known by their French or English names regained their original appellations: I now dared to utter the word Kangiqsualujjuaq; I no longer needed to say George River. I was unlearning my geography, just as so many Indigenous people have had to unlearn theirs. Even the idea of “the Arctic” once hadn’t existed for the Inuit. They had to invent a word for it that suited a Western geographical perspective: Ukiurtatuq, which translates as “repeated winter.”

I found that the language had a harmonious relationship with the environment—despite the occasionally ruthless climate. In the very first Inuttitut dictionary, written by Taamusi Qumaq in 1991, Nunavik is defined as “a large country occupied by animals.” I admired this humility, this awareness that a place is shared with other species, that one is living, in a way, on their  land.

It’s perhaps precisely because of this humility that one should never speak ill of sila, the weather. This was a blessing for a snow lover like me, tired of the eternal whinging about winter.

All of these words for different kinds of snow and ice, for Northern hunting and fishing techniques, show the extent to which the Inuit were at one with their land. Some people have bandied about the idea that the ancestors of the Nunavimmiut  found themselves stuck in the North, blocked from going south by the Cree in the west and Innus in the east, but this is false. Research has concluded that the ancient peoples of the Arctic in fact moved even further north during a period of warming around the year 1000, because they did not know how to survive without the cold. Today, climate change has had particularly devastating consequences for the populations of Nunavik and Nunavut.

In the land that would become Canada, European explorers (tariup akiani, “from across the sea”) saw a vast reservoir of natural resources for exploitation. Our current climate crisis is the direct result of this unbridled exploitation, our stubborn insistence on doing things our way, our belief that we can draw a hermetic border between us and nuna, the great land, when in fact we live in each other.

Our language navigates modern urbanity with much more ease than Inuttitut, but it reflects a far more distant relationship with the environment, often stuck in the idea of fighting against the elements. Could the rich vocabulary of the Inuit inspire us to redefine our relationship with nature?

Born in Montréal in 1985, Juliana Léveillé-Trudel writes in various genres: fiction (Nirliit, La Peuplade, 2015, translated by Anita Anand, Véhicule Press, 2018), children’s literature (How to Catch a Bear Who Loves to Read, Chouette, 2018, coauthored with Andrew Katz), blogs, and plays. She has presented many of her theatrical and literary creations on stage. In 2018 she founded Productions de Brousse.

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