The written word
Inuvialuit elders consult on dictionary

Daniel MacIsaac
Northern News Services

Yellowknife (Apr 14/00) - Inuvialuit elders throughout the Beaufort Delta have been wracking their brains to come up with the just right words.

No, it's not in an effort to complete the latest crossword puzzle but rather to help document and preserve their language through a unique dictionary project funded by the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation and spearheaded by professor Ron Lowe and PhD student Andre Bourcier from Laval University in Quebec City.

"The idea is that to make a dictionary you need definitions, and so we've come to get those definitions from the people who speak the language," said Bourcier at a recent meeting in the corporation offices in Inuvik.

In truth, dictionaries already exist. As a graduate student himself in the early 1980s, Lowe got involved in documenting the dialects of the Western Arctic Inuvialuit through the Committee for Original People's Entitlement, the corporation's predecessor. Building on the work begun by Catholic missionaries and working with elders, Lowe helped create dictionaries covering the three Inuvialuktun dialects: Siglirmiutun, Uummarmiutun and Kangiryuarmiutun.

As Bourcier said languages change and now, two decades later, it's time to produce more extensive, second editions of the dictionaries.

"Many of the people who helped create the first dictionaries were born at the turn of the last century, when the language was different," he said. "It's like sitting down with your parents and trying to agree on definitions for words like buggy or punk."

Bourcier said it has been interesting, however, sitting down and talking to locals like Bev Amos, Agnes Nasogaluak and Joe and Mary Teddy. But he added that even taking notes prompted discussion over the question as to how to define words like "computer."

"We settled on qaritauyaq, meaning 'it looks like a brain,'" he said, "coming from the word qaritaq, or brain."

Corporation communications advisor Peggy Jay added that the whole point of the exercise is to allow for flexibility and for locals to have their say in the recording of their language.

"It's up to the elders in the community what goes in the book," she said. "We can't order that a certain word be used or know if it will catch on."

For her part, Mary Teddy gave the project full marks, adding that after being out of school for more than 60 years, it can be challenging to discuss the finer points of grammar.

"I love my language and always enjoy when they ask me questions about the land, but there's a lot of things in Inuvialuktun that you can't explain," she said. "Some things you say in the throat and that adds to the meaning of words, and I think we use our faces and eyes, too, you know."

Still, Teddy said she's sure the dictionaries will prove useful to both elders and to Inuvialuit youth, who she added are sometimes shy to use their language.

Bourcier said that following consultation sessions in the other Beaufort communities he and Lowe will have to sit down and compile their results. They hope to conclude their work next month - at least for the time being.

"You have to be very philosophical about dictionaries, because as soon as one hits the bookshelf people will say something's not right," he said. "That's why it's an ongoing project and why there'll be more editions to come."