Iñupiaq on the silver screen

I’m a bit slow posting about this, but apparently a new Drew Barrymore film, Everybody Loves Whales, is going to be filmed in Alaska (news story here). What a shocker –  movie set in Alaska that’s actually filmed in Alaska! For my fellow Alaskans, this is a familiar story: it’s about attempts to rescue some whales that got stuck in sea ice near Point Barrow in 1988. I don’t know if it was as widely broadcast in the Lower 48 or not, but for us it was a gripping news story. Will they rescue the whales? How will they even go about it?

Of course, the part I find particularly interesting is that the casting director is searching for Iñupiaq-speaking actors to be in the movie. They’re holding auditions in places like Anchorage, Kotzebue, Nome, Barrow, and Fairbank.

Schildt said they’re “keenly interested” in casting an Inupiaq man between 50 and 65 years old who speaks Inupiaq, and an Inupiaq boy between 10 and 13. “(The boy) doesn’t need to speak his language, but those are two key roles that we’re looking for,” she said.

I love that they’re not just planning to have someone who looks vaguely Native play the part and fake the language thing. (One typical Hollywood way to do this, of course, is just to have a thick accent when speaking English. Thick accent = I’m actually speaking “foreign” right now!) Wonder if the Iñupiat actors will be anyone I know?

Language loss and climate change in Shishmaref

**blowing dust off blog**

It’s been a while, but this article on CNN reminded me to post here. It’s on the effect of climate change on an Inupiat village named Shishmaref in northern Alaskan. Shishmaref, like several coastal villages in Alaska, is rapidly falling into the sea due to increased water levels, melting sea ice, and erosion. I think what makes the article good is that it’s not so one-sided as most similar articles. It explores many aspects of the village’s impending slide into the ocean, including the effects on the Inupiaq dialect spoken there. There are also some short audio clips of Shelton Kokeok speaking the Shishmaref dialect. The article’s take on language loss isn’t perfect, of course, because it assumes the language loss is entirely due to climate change, but it’s the first time I’ve seen an article on climate change address language issues. If anyone knows of others, please drop a line.

Quyaanna, Tatqaviñ

Iñupiaq revitalization lost one of its best teachers on Friday when one of the most dedicated Iñupiaq teachers and translators, Ruth Tatqaviñ Sampson, passed away unexpectedly. My sincerest condolences go out to her family.

I only met Tatqaviñ last year, when I took a distance ed conversational Iñupiaq course from her, but she was truly an amazing teacher. Always there for her students with kind, patient feedback and a gentle humor. She also had a gift for accommodating multiple dialects in her class.

Ruthie was not only a teacher but a tireless translator, author, and editor. Many of the existing Iñupiaq books for children were written or edited by her, and she was instrumental in getting Iñupiaq Rosetta Stone software produced. One of her edited texts available online is Maniiḷaq, a collection of elders’ recollections of Maniiḷaq, the Iñupiaq prophet. The list just goes on and on.

Piḷḷuataqtutin, Tatqaviñ, you did a good job. You certainly left big shoes to fill, but I know your students and colleagues will keep up the good work.

Since when is Aleut Eskimo?

A lot of people on various linguistics listserves are talking about an article on BBC, Why you should avoid ‘mingqutnguaq’, on the always popular “how many words do the Eskimos have for snow?” topic. The article brings nothing new to the table, really, but this is the part that really stood out to me:

Yup’ik has three dialects: Central, Siberian and Alutiiq there [Alaska].

There are also two other Eskimo languages apart from Yup’ik: Inupiat and Aleut, and that means plenty of ways of referring to snow and ice.

Really? Central Alaskan Yup’ik, Siberian Yupik, and Alutiiq are dialects of the same language? That’s news to me. The journalist apparently went to the trouble of consulting a Yup’ik dictionary by the Alaska Native Language Center, but didn’t think to check his other language information. See a list of Alaska Native languages here on the ANLC’s website. (Another minor quibble is that the language name is Iñupiaq, not Iñupiat. Iñupiat are the people who speak Iñupiaq.)

While it’s perhaps not too strange that the author confuses dialect and language – after all, the division is subjective at best and often political (yes, Scandinavia, I’m looking at you) – the strangest part is that the author refers to Aleut as an Eskimo language. Aleut is not Eskimo. The language family is called Eskimo-Aleut for a reason: Aleut (which is Unangam Tunuu in Aleut) doesn’t fall within the Eskimo group. Culturally the Aleut people are distinct from Eskimo peoples as well. Journalists are fond of writing about Eskimo words for snow, but it would be nice if they got their basic facts straight.

Voting in Alaska Native languages

Well, in five of the remaining nineteen (living) languages, anyway.

After a judge ordered in July that the state of Alaska must provide Yup’ik language assistance to voters, I was curious to see how the state would follow up. I’ve just found a nice website, Alaska Native Vote, with voting terms in (Central Alaskan) Yup’ik as well as four other Alaska Native languages: Iñupiaq, Gwich’in Athabascan, Koyukon Athabascan, and Siberian Yupik.

Of course, one can only wonder to what extent this will reach the primarily elderly monolingual speakers, but it’s a start. I don’t have time to track it down now, but I’ve heard they’re also broadcasting voting assistance on local radio stations. According to the ACLU and news sites, the judge ordered that the state must provide

trained poll workers who are bilingual in English and Yup’ik; sample ballots in written Yup’ik; a written Yup’ik glossary of election terms; consultation with local tribes to ensure the accuracy of Yup’ik translations; a Yup’ik language coordinator; and pre-election and post-election reports to the court tracking the state’s efforts

Alaska Native Vote provides a printed Yup’ik glossary as well as sound files in five languages, so it has a wider audience than just the Yup’ik assistance that the judge ordered. The same material is available on the Division of Elections website. Admittedly, it took a judge to get the state to provide it, but I have to say it looks like they’re now doing an admirable job getting voting information out there in various languages.

Ironically, one of the objections raised by the Division of Elections was that providing Yup’ik language voting assistance in the Bethel area would be too much work, yet they have had all sorts of voting material in Tagalog on their website for a lot longer time (due Alaska’s sizable Filipino community – why they don’t also have Samoan and Korean is a mystery). Oddly, many city and state services, like public health offices, have material in Samoan, Korean, Tagalog, and Russian, but rarely in any of the indigenous languages. From a demand point of view, it’s probably true they have very few clients coming in wanting help in Deg Xinag, but there are thousands of Yup’ik speakers across the state. The state’s other main argument, of course, was that providing Yup’ik ballots alone would do very little, since many, if not most, elders are literate in English but not Yup’ik (having never received schooling in Yup’ik). That’s a valid argument, I think, but only as a reason for not providing only written assistance. The judge’s decision that the state must provide reasonable audio assistance solved the problem by requiring oral assistance as well.

Finally, when you click on the website’s navigation links at the top, the image in the top left corner changes, each with a different ethnonym. I’m very impressed that the website’s creators got the diacritics correct! Not all of the Alaska Native groups are listed – Aleut, for example, isn’t represented – but quite a few are. Iñupiaq has its tilde (although in some dialects, the nasal isn’t palatal), and they have separate images for Yup’ik (geminate; specifically means Central Alaskan Yup’ik) and Yupik (non-geminate; here refers to Siberian Yupik), with Cup’ik to boot!

(images © Get Out The Native Vote, 2008)

Adventures in font mishaps: Iñupiaq “dictionary”

Now that I’m back from my Alaska Native Language Center archives trip (more on that in an upcoming post – the first archive where I’ve ever seen a shampoo bottle in the stacks), I’ve got some catching up to do. First off, I want to post about the by now infamous Webster’s Online dictionaries (not to be confused with Merriam-Webster, the reputable guys). After Jangari’s posts (#1, #2 and #3) about the ridiculous Webster’s Online Dictionary by Philip M. Parker, I couldn’t help but look up what copyrighted Iñupiaq materials might have been lifted. Sure enough, Parker has an online Inupiatun dictionary, an Inupiatun-English thesaurus for purchase, etc. [1]

What’s especially funny in this case is that Parker didn’t bother with fonts, so his Iñupiaq dictionary contains a lot of letters that don’t really exist in the current Iñupiaq orthography (and in many cases not in the phoneme inventory at all). It’s pretty obvious that the material was copied from legitimate sources such as Alaskool’s Iñupiaq dictionary because of the special font Alaskool produced. Their pre-Unicode font involved remapping keys on a standard US English keyboard. The Iñupiaq letter ġ (IPA /ʁ/) was mapped to the English b key, for example. Parker, however, either didn’t manage to get his hands on the Iñupiaq font or it didn’t occur to him another font might be necessary – my money’s on the latter – so his dictionary is chock-full of errors. The word aġnaq ‘woman’, for example, appears as abnaq in his dictionary. The only possible way he could have arrived at grossly and systematically misspelled words like this is if he took them from an online source using the Iñupiaq font.

What I can’t figure out, though, is why one lone Inuktitut word appears in Parker’s Iñupiaq dictionary. He’s got ᑭᖑᐃᖓᒃ (/kiŋuiŋak/, but I’m quite sure Parker’s got that wrong, too) listed as the Iñupiaq word for ‘peace’ and that’s just bizarre. Regardless of whether you think Iñupiaq is a separate language or just Inuktitut with a different name, Iñupiaq doesn’t use the Inuktitut abugida and never has. How on earth did he link ᑭᖑᐃᖓᒃ to Iñupiaq? The Iñupiaq cognate is qiñuiññaq (qiñuiñaq in Alaskool’s; probably dialectal gemination variation), and while I can see the similarity, it would never be written in anything but modified Latin script. Then again, when you’re busy pumping out books every ten minutes, you don’t have time to check whether or not you’ve even got the basics of your topic correct.

[1] Iñupiatun being an alternate name for Iñupiaq; it’s simply the similative case of ‘Iñupiaq’.


Now that our department’s symposium and poster session are over, I have a bit more time to post so I’ll be doing some catching up.

This post isn’t really going to be about linguistics, but I’ve noticed a trend with my blog visitors and want to discuss it a bit. You see, about 1 in 10 hits to my blog for the past three months have been people looking for the word tikaani ‘wolf’. Apparently it’s a very popular dog name and people want to know how to pronounce it. Also, most people think it’s an Eskimo word, but it isn’t. Sorry to burst your bubble.

One more time for emphasis: tikaani is not an Eskimo word. It’s from Ahtna, one of the Native American languages of Alaska. If it were (Central Alaskan) Yup’ik Eskimo, for example, it would be kegluneq. If it were Iñupiaq Eskimo, it would be amaġuq.

Putting tikaani aside, a lot of hits to this blog come from people searching for dog names. What is it that makes people want Alaskan and/or Eskimo names for their dogs? (Judging from this page at the Alaska Native Language Center, they get asked about dog names a lot, too.) Sure, they might be huskies, but so what? I don’t see people naming their German Shepherds Helmut or Fritz just because the breed is German.