Dialects and politics

  • Helen DeWitt’s wonderful novel The Last Samurai has unfortunately gone out of print, so I was happy to learn from her yesterday that a new edition is planned.

    What follows is an epistolary post, consisting of her note to me, her letter to Kenn Harper, and his response to her.

    From Helen to me:

    I have been trying to comb through The Last Samurai for errors that didn’t get fixed in the paperback; I remembered that, when one character tried to learn an Inuit dialect, his only source was The Eskimo Book of Knowledge (yep, this was before the Internet took off). This had a bilingual text in English and what was referred to as the Labrador dialect, which the character (embarrassingly) referred to as Inuit. So I was trying to find out the correct term, and ended up contacting Kenn Harper, who had written a couple of articles for Taissumani. (My question was whether Inuktitut could be used as a general term for all dialects, or whether some other term would be correct.)

    I thought his reply was interesting, and in any case a refreshing change from that old standard, the wealth of Eskimo words for snow. So I thought I would pass it along in case readers of LL would also be interested (he has very kindly given permission).

    From Helen to Kenn Harper:

    Back in the 90s I wrote a novel in which a boy ends up teaching himself a lot of languages (or trying to). At one point he tries to teach himself the dialect used in the Eskimo Book of Knowledge, a copy of which I had found at the London Library. This was, of course, long before Wikipedia and all the other resources of the Internet; his only resource (and mine) was the book itself. My recollection is that the author spoke only of “the Labrador dialect” and I did not then know (nor, naturally, did he) that there were specific terms for the various dialects.

    The book is now about to be republished by a new publisher. While it may be a little anachronistic to have the boy use the correct term, which was then more challenging to determine, it seems worse somehow for the book to disseminate error. So I thought I should correct this.

    Before reading your articles in Taissumani I thought Inuktitut was the general term embracing the various dialects of the Inuit, but now I am wondering whether this too would be incorrect; would the correct term in fact be Inuttut?

    I would be very grateful for any help.

    From Kenn to Helen:

    Thanks for your inquiry. The situation should be static, but governments seem to insist on making it fluid.

    Traditionally, the term Inuktitut was used among laymen to include all Canadian Inuit dialects. But the term Inuttut was often used for the Labrador dialect.

    Recently, the Government of Nunavut has decided that they should use Inuktitut to refer to all Nunavut dialects except the Copper Inuit dialect which is called Inuinnaqtun. So the Government of Nunavut now refers to the “Inuit language” in Nunavut as containing two dialects: Inuktitut and Inuinnaqtun. This is not really correct as Inuktitut within Nunavut contains other dialects. Apparently they do not see the need for an over-all term that subsumes them both. This is more a political statement than a linguistic one, as the small population in the Inuinnaqtun-speaking region demands that their dialect be distinguished from the majority because the Inuinnaqtun speakers do not use the Syllabic writing system, using instead an alphabetic system. The majority in Nunavut use Syllabics. The Inuinnaqtun speakers fear that if they do not differentiate themselves linguistically from the majority, then Syllabics might be imposed upon them as a writing system. The irony is that very few Inuit in
    the Inuinnaqtun -speaking area actually speak Inuinnaqtun it’s almost dead, and most Inuit there are unilingual English speakers. You wouldn’t know this, though, from recent census data, which allows people to self-identify their linguistic abilities without any verification; since it’s “cool” to speak an Inuit dialect, people who only know a few words self-identify as being Inuinnaqtun speakers.

    The term Inuktitut continues to be used also in Nunavik (Northern Quebec). To the west of Nunavut, but still within Canada, are the dialects of the western Arctic (Mackenzie Delta etc) which are known as Inuvialuktun. It, in turn, has sub-dialects.

    Now, the situation in Labrador. As I mentioned, it used to be called Inuttut. But now the Nunatsiavut Government (set up when the land claim was settled) is calling it Inuttitut, so that is the official usage in Labrador now. But either should be accepted. Current modern usage is Inuttitut. Historic usage is Inuttut. Incidentally, they both really mean the same thing. One is singular, the other plural. The word is made up of Inuk (generic person or specifically an Inuk person Inuk being the singular of Inuit) + a suffix meaning “in the manner of” or “like”. So in the singular that suffix is “-tut”; in the plural it is “-titut”. And in this dialect that combination creates a vowel sequence “kt” which geminates into “tt”. [That gemination does not occur in Nunavut, thus the “kt” sequence remains.]

    So in Labrador, historic Inuttut means “in the manner of an Inuk” or “like an Inuk.” Current Inuttitut means “in the manner of the Inuit” or “like the Inuit.” So if you speak Inuttitut, you are speaking “like the Inuit.”

    In Labrador the language is extremely weak almost dead. And the Nunatsiavut Government is making great efforts to revitalize it. It will be tough, and might not work.

    Here is a link that might be of help.


    I hope this helps.

    I’d like to close with the opening paragraph of Jenny Davidson’s “Conversation with Novelist Helen DeWitt” (The Awl 0/3/2011):

    A friend of mine describes herself as a member of “the secret cult of the Samurai”: those who came across copies of Helen DeWitt’s novel The Last Samurai (2000) and fell in love with it and went on to buy countless copies to press into the hands of people they knew would feel the same way. I can’t even remember my first encounter with the book, it so immediately became a part of my interior landscape: The Last Samurai sits alongside Rebecca West’s The Fountain Overflows and James Baldwin’s Just Above My Head in my mental grouping of books that depict the simultaneous richness and dreadfulness of the lives of individuals in families (and in the world) in a rare fashion that speaks directly to my own subjective experience of such things.

    I’m not quite in Jenny’s “countless copies” category, because I can count the number of copies I’ve bought to give or send to friends: five. But “a part of my interior landscape”, definitely. So my advice is to buy a used copy now, and with luck the new edition will be out by the time you’re ready to start buying copies for others.

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