Canada’s languages: More than English and French

Most people know that Canada is officially bilingual, with English and French as its two national languages, but how many people are familiar with Inuktitut? Odds are, probably not many, since this language has only around 65,000 speakers and under 5,000 monolingual speakers. Yet it still might be worth your while to take some time to get more acquainted with it, as it is one of Canada’s newest official languages — in Nunavut, at least.

If you’re asking where Nunavut is located, then you should know that the Canadian map changed in 1999 when the Territory of Nunavut was carved out of the Northeast section of the Northwest Territories. While I would like to think that in Canada this is common knowledge, as an American I shamefully admit that many of my fellow citizens cannot name more than one Canadian province at best and often confuse Ontario and Toronto, not knowing which one is the city or province. I went to college in the Midwestern state of Iowa, and many people would ask me if that was located somewhere in Canada. Or else they thought I meant to say Ohio. Nunavut, unlike the state of Iowa, is undoubtedly located in Canada, most of it in fact above the arctic circle (Figure 1).

While Inuktitut still may be a language that perhaps many have never heard of, in April of 2008 Inuktitut became an official language of the Territory of Nunavut with the passing of the newly created Official Languages Act. This new law replaced the former Northwest Territories (NWT) Official Languages Act. Under the NWT Official Languages Act, created in 1984, English and French were classified as the two official languages in the NWT, and there were nine First Nation and Inuit languages that this act recognized. At the time, it was a major improvement for the communities who spoke these languages, this being their first official recognition from any government entity. However, the NWT Official Language Act merely recognized the presence of these languages and made no major effort to encourage their availability or usage in official settings.

Currently, the official languages of Nunavut are documented as English, French and Inuit. The Inuit language in this instance actually refers to the two of the up to sixteen dialects of the Inuit language: Inuktitut and Inuinnaqtun. One of the most important differences between Inuktitut and Inuinnaqtun is their use of two different writing systems. In fact, while linguists such as Louis-Jacques Dorais, a leading expert on the Inuit language, distinguishes these as completely separate dialects of Inuit that also happen to have different writing systems, the Office of the Languages Commissioner of Nunavut’s website explains that they are the same language. Only the different writing systems distinguish them. What’s more, Inuktitut is seen as having a stronger base, being spoken by more people, whereas Inuinnaqtun has fewer speakers and is struggling to maintain its base of speakers. So it appears that how similar and distinct these two language communities are depends on just who you ask, but it is nonetheless an interesting issue to consider if undertaking a translation into Inuit.

The new Official Language Act became another step forward for the Inuit language with Inuktitut, along with Inuinnaqtun, being recognized as equal in status to both English and French. This is a major victory for Native North American languages. To put this in perspective, even the Navajo Language, which is considered by many to be the healthiest of the Native North American languages and is spoken by over 150,000 people in the Southwestern United States, has absolutely no recognized status in that region.

On April 1, 2013, the implementation of this law came into effect, along with another law that accompanied it, the Inuit Language Protection Act. These two laws simultaneously make it clear that all government and public services must now be available to all people in Nunavut in all three of the territories’ official languages. These two laws also lay the groundwork for the maintenance and expansion of the Inuit language.

Thus, the Official Languages Act of Nunavut mandated that English, French and Inuit should receive equal status, rights and privileges in the territory. The Inuit Language Protection Act was also passed at the same time and is the first law of its kind in Canada. Its purpose is to ensure and create a means to support the maintenance and revitalization of a First Nations or Inuit language. The enforcement of these two laws falls under the responsibility of the Nunavut Languages Commissioner, who has been given the task to work to create a Nunavut where all public information and services are available in the three languages. This access to information and services in the three languages is currently being enforced by the Office of the Languages Commissioner for the government and public sector but is currently not required of private businesses. However, on the Languages Commissioner website the long-term plan is the full implementation of the Inuit Languages Protection Act, with the goal that within five years Nunavut will be able to require all private industry to offer services and documentation in all three languages. This means that at a Tim Horton’s coffee in Iqaluit, you will be able to order in English, French or Inuit, along with having the pleasure of viewing the marketing material in all three languages. For businesses that are operating in Canada and are either currently in Nunavut or considering expanding to that region, there is even a questionnaire on the Office of the Languages Commissioner’s website where you can get an assessment of your company’s readiness and ability to be prepared to offer services in Inuktitut along with English and French. Guidance and advice can also be obtained in how to prepare your company for this upcoming requirement.

For those of you who currently have worked closely with translations and businesses in Quebec, these requirements should sound familiar. This is because they are. Through the Inuit Language Protection Act in 2009, the Inuit Language Authority, Inuit Uqausinginnik Taiguusiliuqtiit, was created after representatives from Nunavut traveled to Quebec. They spoke with the Quebec Board of the French Language about approaches to language standardization and approval for new term creation. Essentially, the Inuit Language Authority was modeled after one of the most successful language authorities in the world, which has been instrumental in protecting and supporting the French language in Quebec. Perhaps for some this might elicit flashbacks of the 1970s, when in Quebec a series of languages laws ensured the presence of French in all aspects of life in Canada — from education to the size of French signage. If all of this is any indication, then it is going to mean an insurgence for Inuktitut in Canada.

In support of the increasing prominence and status of this language, currently nine post-secondary institutions in Canada offer some language training for Inuktitut, of which only two are located in Nunavut. McGill University, University of Laval and the University of Toronto are among those institutions, and many of these programs were developed and have grown since the creation of Nunavut as its own territory. Meanwhile, Nunavut Arctic College, which is located in Iqaluit, the capital of Nunavut, offers programs in Inuit studies and Inuktitut, and has developed a program in Inuktitut for translation and interpreting.

In regard to the writing systems of the Inuit language, none of the Inuit dialects were written until the arrival of explorers or missionaries. When each group arrived they encountered a dialect of the Inuit language and attempted to find a way to capture it on paper. Since the Inuit language in its varying dialects is spoken from Alaska across Canada and into Greenland, and currently spans three different political nations, one can understand how these differences in approaches to documenting the Inuit language could have come about historically. Inuktitut uses a syllabic script called Qaniujaaqpait while Inuinnaqtun is written using Roman orthography and called Qaliujaaqpait. This is why even though there are three official languages in Nunavut, you encounter four options when you visit the Office of the Languages Commissioner of Nunavut website (Figure 2).

While for many of us in the language industry, it might seem likely that the Roman orthography would be prevalent and perhaps preferred due to the ease of transfer between English, French and Inuit, the syllabic script of Inuktitut is deeply rooted in the community and has become a part of the identity of the Inuit speakers, as Louis-Jacques Dorais describes in his book The Language of the Inuit: Syntax, Semantics, and Society in the Arctic. Even though creating keyboards for the syllabic script is more complicated, the community is reticent to give up their unique script simply because writing with the Roman script allows for a simpler translation and digital communication process. This being said, an article published in February 2011 on Nunatsiaq Online discussed the challenges facing standardization of the Inuit language because of the numerous dialects and scripts. Many point out that while the community strongly wants to keep the syllabic script, many will switch to using Roman orthography when texting or using the computer.

What this all means for the language industry is that when doing business in Canada, you might want to take a look at developing resources to offer translation into Inuktitut and Inuinnaqtun. However, while the government and private sector will see an increase in a call for translations into Inuit, Nunavut is one territory, which does not mean that all of Canada is now trilingual. If Nunavut had been incorporated as a province, then the Official Language Act in Nunavut definitely would have made the news. If someday Nunavut should become a province, then language service providers that have taken the time to develop connections in Nunavut for Inuit language resources will be ready to benefit from that increased need.

Many of the languages native to North America may not have as many speakers as those in Africa or India, but there should nonetheless be a strong commitment to not only maintain these languages but also to increase their presence in contemporary North American society. The new status of the Inuit language has increased the momentum and drive for other communities in North America to fight for their languages to have equal rights and status as well. While initial responses may be to scoff at the idea that Inuktitut will ever be an actual player since the amount of its speakers is so low, then consider taking a moment to look at parts of Europe where some incredibly small countries have ensured their language is protected and used within its nation and also is represented internationally in the European Union.

While not everyone in Ottawa is admitting that the Inuit language will ever have any major significance on a national level, major research by the Canadian government has funded the development of natural language processing tools such as a morphological parser, an e-dictionary and a search engine for Inuktitut. Government websites are already being localized to offer the three languages. One company, the Pirurvik Centre, has developed a working relationship with Microsoft to create language user interface packs for Windows products and has been involved with the website and software localization of sites into Inuktitut and Inuinnaqtun. So perhaps when thinking of the languages of Canada, it won’t be too far off to consider not only English and French but Inuktitut as well.