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Building an Inuktitut dictionary
Word for word

{Dr. Jean Briggs}
Dr. Jean Briggs

Dr. Jean Briggs, professor emeritus of Memorial's Department of Anthropology, is working on creating a dictionary of a particular dialect of Inuktitut called Utkuhiksalingmiutitut. Although there are dictionaries of other versions of Inuktitut, this project will produce the first one of this particular dialect.

Dr. Briggs said the roots of this project run back into the 1960s, when she lived as an adopted daughter with a small group of Inuit in their camps in Chantrey Inlet in the central part of what is now known as Nunavut. She went there originally to do research for her PhD, and she learned the language in order to communicate with the people. She made notes of words and meanings on scraps of paper as she heard them and retrieve them from various pockets when required.

By the early 1970s, Dr. Briggs had accumulated about 20,000 words with which she created a database and began analyzing their structure. (An Inuktitut verb is the equivalent of an English sentence).

Dr. Briggs' activities as a field researcher and teacher, however, occupied most of her time and energy and it was not until years later, when she retired in the early 1990s, that she was able to return to the dictionary project with a SSHRC grant and start a focussed effort to complete the work.

The first step Dr. Briggs took when she began full-time work on the dictionary was to have native speakers of Utkuhiksalingmiutitut check the words that she had recorded in the 1960s.

"As you know," she said, "there are sounds produced in other languages that English speakers cannot imitate. Now imagine how difficult it is, especially for a non-linguist, to write those words. How do you describe a sound that you cannot make?"

But hearing and understanding are only two of many challenges she encountered in doing this research.

Few people can speak both Utkuhiksalingmiutitut and English well enough to hear and understand the nuances of the Inuktitut dialect to the level that is necessary to translate the meanings of the words into English. Dr. Briggs now has about 500 one-hour audiotapes of discussions with Utkuhiksalingmiutitut collaborators about the meanings and correct forms of words that have to be transcribed and she has to transcribe them all herself.

Although, the research process is painstaking, Dr. Briggs expresses genuine enjoyment in talking about it. She said that her Inuit collaborators are interested in recording the dialect because the words evoke a way of life that no longer exists for them. In the towns where Utkuhiksalingmiut now live, the dialect they used to speak in Chantrey Inlet is being changed and lost as it is blended with other dialects and supplanted with English.

Officials in Nunavut also have a vested interest in documenting as many dialects of Inuktituk as possible. Because Inuktitut is an official language of Nunavut, they need to train interpreters and translators in all the versions of the language that are spoken in the territory. They also want to preserve traditional knowledge, and keep available a stock of Inuktitut words that can be used instead of English words to label new concepts and objects as new realities come into existence.

For Dr. Briggs this work provides a great deal of satisfaction because it enables her to keep learning interesting things about the language, and also because it necessitates annual trips up north where she can bring Chantrey Inlet back to life as she collaborates with life-long friends and family on her very valuable research project.

{Memorial University of Newfoundland}