The total population of Inuit speaking their traditional language is difficult to assess with precision, since most counts rely on self-reported census data that may not accurately reflect usage or competence. Greenland census estimates place the number of speakers of Inuit dialects there at roughly 50,000, while Canadian estimates are at roughly 30,000. These two countries count the bulk of speakers of Inuit language variants, as usage in Alaska is increasingly moribund - roughly 3,000 Alaskans speak Inuit dialects out of a population of over 13,000 Inuit. The eskimo languages have a few hundred speakers in Russia. In addition, an estimated 7,000 Greenlandic Inuit live in European Denmark, but this is the largest group outside of Canada and Greenland. So, the global population of speakers of Inuit language variants is on the order of 90,000 people.
As a result, Inuit in different places use different words for their own variants and for the entire group of languages, and this ambiguity has been carried into other languages, creating a great deal of confusion over what labels should be applied to it.
In Greenland the official form of Inuit language, and one of the official languages of the state, is called Kalaallisut. In other languages, it is often called Greenlandic or some cognate term. The eskimo languages of Alaska are called Inupiatun, but the variants of the Seward Peninsula are distinguished from the other Alaskan variants by calling them Qawiaraq, or for some dialects, Bering Straits Inupiatun.
In Canada, the word Inuktitut is routinely used to refer to all Canadian variants of the Inuit traditional language, and it is under that name that it is recognised as one of the official languages of Nunavut and the Northwest Territories. However, one of the variants of western Nunavut is called Inuinnaqtun to distinguish itself from the dialects of eastern Canada, while the variants of the Northwest Territories are sometimes called Inuvialuktun and have in the past sometimes been called Inuktun. In those dialects, the name is sometimes rendered as Inuktitun to reflect dialectical differences in pronunciation. The Inuit language of Quebec is called Inuttitut by its speakers, and often by other people, but this is a minor variation in pronunciation. In Labrador, the language is called Inuttut or, often in official documents, by the more descriptive name Labradorimiutut. Furthermore, Canadians - both Inuit and non-Inuit - sometimes use the word Inuktitut to refer to all of the Inuit language variants, including those of Alaska and Greenland.
The Eskimo varieties of Russia were traditionally named after the settlements where they are spoken and are called Sirenikski, Naukanska and Chaplinski eskimo after the villages of Sireniki, Naukan and Novoe Chaplino.
The phrase "Inuit language" is largely limited to professional discourse, since in each area, there is one or more conventional terms that cover all the local variants; or it is used as a descriptive term in publications where readers can't necessarily be expected to know the locally used words. But, this means that while you can call the French language French, you cannot call the Inuit language Inuit. Saying "Peter speaks Inuit" is a very strange usage that most people who are familiar with the Inuit language would recognise as suspect, comparable to asserting that Hispanics must speak "Hispanic". The word Inuit is generally reserved for the ethnic group, both from its Inuit language meaning - it refers specifically to a group of people - and in the way the word has been adopted in English.
Although many people refer to the Inuit language as Eskimo language, this is an ambiguous term that can also include Yupik (see Eskimo-Aleut languages), and is in addition strongly discouraged in Canada and diminishing in usage elsewhere. See the article on Eskimo for more information on this word.
Early forms of the Inuit language were spoken by the Thule people, who overran the Dorset civilisation, which had previously occupied Arctic America, at the beginning of the second millennium. By 1300, the Inuit and their language had reached western Greenland, and finally east Greenland roughly at the same time the Viking colony in southern Greenland disappeared. It is generally believed that it was during this centuries-long eastwards migration that the Inuit language became distinct from the Yupik languages spoken in Western Alaska and Chukotka.
Until 1902, an enclave of Dorset people or Sadlermiut (in modern Inuktitut spelling Sallirmiut) existed on Southampton Island. Almost nothing is known about their language, but the few eyewitness accounts tell of them speaking a "strange dialect". This suggests that they also spoke an Eskimo-Aleut language, but one quite distinct from the forms spoken in Canada today.
The Yupik and Inuit languages are very similar syntactically and morphologically. Their common origin can be seen in a number of cognates:
|English||Central Yupik||Iñupiatun||North Baffin Inuktitut||Kalaallisut|
The western Alaskan variants retain a large number of features present in proto-Inuit language and in Yup'ik, enough so that they might be classed as Yup'ik languages if they were viewed in isolation from the larger Inuit world.
In addition to the territories listed below, some 7,000 Greenlandic speakers are reported to live in mainland Denmark , and according to the 2001 census roughly 200 self-reported Inuktitut native speakers regularly live in parts of Canada which are outside of traditional Inuit lands.
Of the roughly 13,000 Alaskan Inupiat, as few as 3,000 may still be able to speak Inuit language variants, with most of them over the age of 40. Alaskan Inuit speak at least two fairly distinct dialects:
The Inuit language is an official language in the Northwest Territories, the official and dominant language of Nunavut, enjoys a high level of official support in Nunavik, a semi-autonomous portion of Quebec, and is still spoken in some parts of Labrador. Generally, Canadians refer to all dialects spoken in Canada as Inuktitut, but the terms Inuvialuktun, Inuinnaqtun, Nunatsiavummiutut, (sometimes called Inuttut or Labradorimiutut) have some currency in referring to the variants of specific areas.
Greenland counts approximately 50,000 speakers of Inuit language variants, of whom over 90% speak west Greenlandic dialects at home.
Consonants are arranged with five places of articulation: bilabial, alveolar, palatal, velar and uvular; and three manners of articulation: voiceless stops, voiced continuants and nasals, as well as two additional sounds — voiceless fricatives. The Alaskan dialects have an additional manner of articulation, the retroflex, which was present in proto-Inuit language. Retroflexes have disappeared in all the Canadian and Greenlandic dialects. In Natsilingmiutut, the voiced palatal plosive /ɟ/ derives from a former retroflex.
Almost all Inuit language variants have only three basic vowels and make a phonological distinction between short and long forms of all vowels. The only exceptions are at the extreme edges of the Inuit world - parts of Greenland, and in western Alaska.
The Inuit language, like other Eskimo-Aleut languages, has a very rich morphological system, in which a succession of different morphemes are added to root words (like verb endings in European languages) to indicate things that, in languages like English, would require several words to express. (See also: Agglutinative language and Polysynthetic language) All Inuit language words begin with a root morpheme to which other morphemes are suffixed. The language has hundreds of distinct suffixes, in some dialects as many as 700. Fortunately for learners, the language has a highly regular morphology. Although the rules are sometimes very complicated, they do not have exceptions in the sense that English and other Indo-European languages do.
This long word is composed of a root word tusaa- - to hear - followed by five suffixes:
|-junnaq-||be able to|
|-junga||1st pers. singular present indicative non-specific|
This sort of word construction is pervasive in Inuit language and makes it very unlike English. In one large Canadian corpus - the Nunavut Hansard - 92% of all words appear only once, in contrast to a small percentage in most English corpora of similar size. This makes the application of Zipf's law quite difficult in the Inuit language. Furthermore, the notion of a part of speech can be somewhat complicated in the Inuit language. Fully inflected verbs can be interpreted as nouns. The word ilisaijuq can be interpreted as a fully inflected verb - "he studies" - but can also be interpreted as a noun: "student". That said, the meaning is probably obvious to a fluent speaker, when put in context.
The morphology and syntax of the Inuit language vary to some degree between dialects, and the article Inuit language morphology and syntax describes primarily central Nunavut dialects, but the basic principles will generally apply to all of them and to some degree to Yupik as well.
Although practically all Inuit have legal names based on southern naming traditions, at home and among themselves they still use native naming traditions. There too, names tend to consist of highly prosaic words. The Inuit traditionally believed that by adopting the name of a dead person or a class of things, they could take some of their characteristics or powers, and enjoy a part of their identity. (This is why they were always very willing to accept European names - they believed that this made them equal to the Europeans.)
Common native names in Canada include "Ujarak" (rock), "Nuvuk" (headland), "Nasak" (hat, or hood), "Tupiq" or "Tupeq" in Kalaallisut (tent), and "Qajaq" (kayak). Inuit also use animal names, traditionally believing that by using those names, they took on some of the characteristics of that animal: "Nanuq" or "Nanoq" in Kalaallisut (polar-bear), "Uqalik" or "Ukaleq" in Kalaallisut (Arctic hare), and "Tiriaq" or "Teriaq" in Kalaallisut (ermine) are favourites. In other cases, Inuit are named after dead people or people in traditional tales, by naming them after anatomical traits those people are believed to have had. Examples include "Itigaituk" (has no feet), "Usuiituk" (has no penis), and "Tulimak" (rib). Inuit may have any number of names, given by parents and other community members.
Thus, in the 1940s, the Inuit were given disc numbers, recorded on a special leather ID tag, like a dog tag. They were required to keep the tag with them always (Some tags are now so old and worn that the number is polished out). The numbers were assigned with a letter prefix that indicated location (E = east), community, and then the order in which the census taker saw the individual. In some ways this state re-naming was abetted by the churches and missionaries, who viewed the traditional names and their calls to power as related to shamanism and paganism.
They encouraged people to take Christian names. So a young woman who was known to her relatives as "Lutaaq, Pilitaq, Palluq, or Inusiq" and had been baptised as "Annie" was under this system to become Annie E7-121. People adopted the number-names, their family members' numbers, etc., and learned all the region codes (like knowing a telephone area code).
Until Inuit began studying in the south, many didn't know that numbers were not normal parts of Christian and English naming systems. Then in 1969, the Government started Project Surname, headed by Abe Okpik, to replace number-names with patrilineal "family surnames". But contemporary Inuit carvers and graphic artists still use their disk number as their signature on their works of art.
A popular belief exists that the Inuit have an unusually large number of words for snow. This is not accurate, and results from a misunderstanding of the nature of polysynthetic languages. In fact, The Inuit have only a few base roots for snow: 'qanniq-' ('qanik-' in some dialects), which is used most often like the verb to snow, and 'aput', which means snow as a substance. Parts of speech work very differently in the Inuit language than in English, so these definitions are somewhat misleading.
The Inuit language can form very long words by adding more and more descriptive affixes to words. Those affixes may modify the syntactic and semantic properties of the base word, or may add qualifiers to it in much the same way that English uses adjectives or prepositional phrases to qualify nouns (eg. "falling snow", "blowing snow", "snow on the ground", "snow drift", etc.)
The "fact" that there are many Inuit words for snow has been put forward so often it is somewhat of a journalistic cliché
Because the Inuit language is spread over such a large area, divided between different nations and political units and originally reached by Europeans of different origins at different times, there is no uniform way of writing the Inuit language. Most Inuktitut in Nunavut and Nunavik is written using a scheme called Inuktitut syllabics, based on Canadian Aboriginal syllabics. The western part of Nunavut and the Northwest Territories use a Roman alphabet scheme usually identified as Inuinnaqtun. In Alaska, another Roman scheme is used. Nunatsiavut uses another variant devised by German-speaking Moravian missionaries, which included the letter kra. Greenland's Roman scheme was originally much like the one used in Nunatsiavut, but has undergone a spelling reform in 1973 to bring the orthography in line with changes in pronunciation and better reflect the phonemic inventory of the language. The Siberian Yupik languages of Russia are written in the Cyrillic Alphabet.
The Inuktitut syllabary used in Canada is based on the Cree syllabary devised by the missionary James Evans. The present form of the syllabary for Canadian Inuktitut was adopted by the Inuit Cultural Institute in Canada in the 1970s. The Inuit in Alaska, the Inuvialuit, Inuinnaqtun speakers, and Inuit in Greenland and Labrador use the Roman alphabet, although it has been adapted for their use in different ways.
Though conventionally called a syllabary, the writing system has been classified by some observers as an abugida, since syllables starting with the same consonant have related glyphs rather than unrelated ones.
All of the characters needed for the Inuktitut syllabary are available in the Unicode character repertoire. (See Unified Canadian Aboriginal Syllabics character table.)