Richard J. Compton

Transmission and Knowledge of the Inuit Language

Tier 2 - 2018-12-01
Université du Québec à Montréal
Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council

Understanding Grammatical Variation and Complex Word Formation in Inuktut

Inuktut, the Inuit language, is spoken across the North American Arctic, from Alaska through the Northwest Territories, Nunavut, Nunavik, and Nunatsiavut, to Greenland, with considerable dialectal variation between regions and communities. As is the case for many Indigenous languages in Canada, Inuktut faces a lack of resources. Many dialects are losing speakers and some are in danger of disappearing entirely.

A better understanding of the properties of Inuktut and differences between dialects is necessary to create resources and tools to promote its maintenance and transmission to future generations. The language is a vital part of Inuit culture and identity and its use contributes to healthy communities. In addition to its inestimable cultural value, its grammar gives us insight into the properties of human language more generally.

Dr. Richard Compton, Canada Research Chair in Transmission and Knowledge of the Inuit Language, will collaborate with Inuit communities and organizations to collect culturally appropriate documentary data to describe two dialect groups: Inuktitut and Inuinnaqtun. In particular, he will investigate grammatical variation between dialects, including the structural complexity of Inuit words.

Much of the grammatical machinery involving multiple, separate words in other languages instead occurs word-internally in Inuktut, leading to long, complex words that are the equivalent of full clauses in English or French. Such words pose a challenge for theories of language in which words and sentences are formed by separate modules of the grammar. This word-internal complexity is also a challenge for creating descriptions of the language (e.g., grammars) that are accessible to communities.

Compton’s work will enhance our understanding of the structure of the Inuit language, further shedding light on how human languages can vary, as well as the properties they share. Through community partnerships to further document and describe Inuktut, this research will also lead to new resources for use in language maintenance and revitalisation activities.