In Nunavut, the Inuit language is called Inuktitut. In its multiple dialects, Inuktitut has a huge geographical range. If the subject is not technical, Inuktitut can be understood by people from Alaska to Greenland.

Inuktitut, English, and French are the three official languages of Nunavut. Nunavut and the Northwest Territories are the only two jurisdictions in North America where aboriginal languages have official status. Officially, Inuktitut is intended to be the working language of Nunavut, and the government is working to make this happen.

Originally, Inuktitut was an oral language. Information was passed on by the telling and retelling of stories and memories. There are many dialects, and the language is constantly evolving. For example, the dialect spoken in Baker Lake and Arviat differs from that spoken a few hundred kilometers away in Rankin Inlet, and both of these differ markedly from Inuinnaqtun, spoken in the central Kitikmeot Region. However, during the past century, written forms of Inuktitut have been developed, and are being used today in many ways.

Written Inuktitut

The written forms of Inuktitut were developed by missionaries who wanted to convert prayers, hymns, and the Bible into written form. A system had been developed by the Danish for Greenlandic writing, and in the mid-1800s, a linguist named Samuel Kleinschmidt worked to standardize this system. His system is still used in Greenland today.

In Canada, several orthographies were developed at the same time. The Moravian missionaries brought a system similar to that used in Greenland to Labrador. In the western Canadian Arctic, the missionaries taught a writing system based on phonetic Roman orthography (in which the letters look like the alphabet in use elsewhere in North America). In Alaska, fascinating picture-writing systems were developed by Inupiat and Yupik, but these are no longer used.

In the eastern Arctic, Reverend James Evans, a Weslayan missionary, developed a way of writing Ojibway and Cree into a system that used symbols based on Pitman shorthand. By 1861 the entire Bible had been translated into Cree syllabics. Three missionaries were involved in the adaptation of syllabics to Inuktitut. The initial work was done by Horden and Watkins, and further developed by Edmund Peck into a system very like that used today. For more information, check Kenn Harper's historical perspective on Inuktitut at

Inuktitut sample:
The people of Qamaviniqtalik hunted caribou in spring and fall.

In syllabics, the larger symbols represent sounds, usually combinations of consonants and vowels, and the small letters printed as superscripts are called "finals" and represent consonant sounds. Here is a sample of syllabic Inuktitut. A person who knew Inuktitut well could learn this writing system in about 24 hours of study. Many Inuit including Luke Kidlapik, Joseph Pudloo, and Luke Nowdla were instrumental in teaching this writing system, as well as acting as missionaries themselves. Inuit across the eastern Arctic adopted this system with enthusiasm, using it to write letters, record stories, and order supplies. Syllabics are used throughout the eastern Arctic and as far west as Gjoa Haven today.

Cambridge Bay, Kugluktuk, the Bathurst Inlet area, and Holman continue to use the Roman orthography writing form taught to them by the western missionaries, but this dialectical writing system is now also being standardized and is called Inuinnaqtun. Here is a sample of Inuinnaqtun.

Inuinnaqtun sample:
The people of Qamaviniqtalik hunted caribou in spring and fall.

Innuin Qamaviniqtalikmi angunahuaqpaqtun tuktunik upingaami ukiakhamilu.

The use of syllabics took a huge leap forward when systems were developed to allow it to be handled as "fonts" on computers and especially when it was adapted for use on the Internet. Today, there are a number of syllabic fonts in use, enabling much better design of Inuktitut documents.

Children still learn the characters by memory systems, chants like those used to teach the "abc's" in English, and charts help people learn how the sounds and characters are related.

Here's a link to a syllabic chart: