Inuit in Wales: Connecting Languages | Rolling Blog

Wales Arts Review proudly brings you Alys Conran‘s blog on her experiences accompanying the seventeen members of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami’s Language Committee in the Arctic as they embark on an educational visit to the UK to learn about language regeneration and revitalisation. The committee is currently engaged in a process to consolidate all of the current written forms of the Inuit language into one standard version.



Day 1

This week, I have the tremendous privilege of being writer in residence with a committee of Inuit people who are visiting Wales to explore ways of promoting and nurturing their precious language. Today I travelled from home in Bethesda to meet the group and to attend a special reception for them in Canada House in London.

I’m ashamed to admit that I knew next to nothing about the culture or many dialects of the Inuit, and that I have been, like everyone else, steeped in some kind of stereotypical view of these people, hunting whales with huge spears in kayaks of skin, on the cold, cold landscapes of the Arctic. So finding myself getting my first invitation to join SnapChat from my new friend Maatalii really smashes the stereotypes.

A quick web search tells me that around 150,000 Inuit people live today between Canada, Greenland, Siberia and Alaska, and that between them they speak hundreds of tiny dialects, although I will revise that word ‘tiny’ by the end of this post. It is this linguistic culture which has given rise to a visit to Wales to explore ways of promoting and sheltering a language.

itk-3The group comes from all parts of the northern territories of Canada, and speak all the dialects of Inuktitut there, so twelve. These languages are mutually intelligible in speaking, but since there are nine different forms of orthography, from ‘syllabic’ to Roman orthography (what we use) difficulty arises when trying to understand each other on paper.

I’m loving the percussive sound of their bubbling language, as we walk around London in this December drizzle.

This trip has been partly funded by the Princes Charities and the British Council, so there’s a distinctly Royal feeling to this first day, with a visit to the Chapel Royal, where the crew get a whistlestop tour of English history, king by king. This all feels very foreign to me, as a Welsh girl. But, thank goodness, the Inuit delegation seem to be absolutely enthralled. Ever since the Book of Common Prayer was available in Inuktitut, they’re used to being told by it to pray for the queen’s salvation, so it’s quite something to sit in her chapel they say, delighted.

It’s my turn to be delighted next, as I get to know some of the group, and hear stories of such rare and vital lives in the constant winter where it’s so cold at times you can’t touch anything outside with bare hands in case of ice burn. ‘It’s a problem’ says Harry ‘when you wanna repair your Snowmobile.’ He’s walking through London with no coat today.

The crew are wearing a mix and match combination of Western clothes (if Western’s the right word, I’m tempted to say Southern), and traditional tunics and jewellery, although scrap that last sentence as I have my ideas of ‘traditional’ shaken up when we visit the Inuit exhibition in Canada House and see a sealskin bikini and stilettoes. To which Maatalii says ‘Oh yes, I’ve got some of those.’ (the high heels I think, not the bikini?)

The evening in Canada House is a fairly glitzy reception full of important people, with canapés, wine and a speech by the High Commissioner of Canada, but it also includes a performance of throat singing by several of the group. Two of them sing hand in hand against each other in a kind of battle which is fierce and beautiful to watch and hear. And this is the impression that I have so far. Determined, gentle and tremendously dignified. I remember hearing ‘SJØN’, the Icelandic author, saying that we shouldn’t count the size of a language by how many people speak it, but by how much it can say, and I suspect that the Inuktitut language contains the world, no, the next dimension perhaps.

Today more than ever, they fear losing it, and the pressures on their lives are already tangible to me.

itk-2‘We knew about climate change before anyone else,’ says Harry, ‘When you’re knee deep in water in the middle of a snow lake, and that’s never happened before, you just know. Even seasoned hunters are dying.’ Over dinner there is some sharing of new political worries too, Trump, and his incredulity towards climate change is a growing spectre for them. I get to thinking that hearing the language and the voice of these people, is vital to us all.

The need to standardise the written language is partly a need ‘to unite, and have a voice together’. This struggle for language is about more than words then, it’s a struggle for the future.

‘It’s not easy,’ says Beverley, who is from a small island and speaks a very rare dialect ‘We struggle with each other sometimes over which way is going to be the correct way, and we have to stand up for our own dialects and people, sometimes it gets slightly out of hand, but we’re getting there.’

The impression I have is certainly one of unity. An impression of shared laughter, and shared love.

‘All the words that are to do with the land, with animals and hunting and food are the same’ I’m told, and perhaps that’s the most important thing. Land, climate, earth, survival.

At the end of the evening Albert Mangilaluk Elias sings a traditional song so full of tenderness and beauty that it fills up your heart. I thank him.

‘Yes,’ he says, ‘It’s a song of comfort. When it’s night all the time in the winter, we have to be therapists for each other; we have to lift each other’s hearts; there’s no way not to be positive.’


Day 2

It’s interesting isn’t it, seeing your home through the eyes of people from a different culture?

Today in Canolfan Bedwyr, in Bangor, the town of my birth, we’re considering the value of technology as a support for our minority cultures and languages.

‘In parts of Nunivut,’ says Robbie, one of the Inuit Language Committee, ‘over seventy per cent of people are under thirty, and they’re on social media and using technology all the time. We have to keep up with them!’

Maatalii, another of the committee, is president of National Inuit Youth Council, and I see from a quick browse that they have a very active twitter presence. These young people, even in areas where the syllabic system is usually used to write Inuit, are using the Roman or latin alphabet, because that’s the language of most keyboards, and if they can’t write easily in Inuktitut, then they turn to English. It’s this which perhaps underpins some of the urgency of this mission: to create a standardised form of Inuit orthography which is agreed by all the dialect groups of Inuktitut in Canada.

Although the group are evidently very comfortable using Smartphone technology and such, when the difficult question comes, in Canolfan Bedwyr ‘Are any of you specialists in IT at all?’ they unfortunately all shake their heads.

‘But we’re absolutely itching for technology that will make our work of translation and language conversion easier,’ says Robbie, reflecting everyone’s feelings.

And there is hope, here in Canolfan Bedwyr, where the team is either familiar with, or in fact have themselves created, so much software that can make the work of collecting terminology, standardising, and translating from one language to another more efficient. Hope certainly then, that there it will be possible to find programmes that can help the Inuit, for example, to convert from Syllabic to latin orthography at the touch of a button. Also, new, exciting ways of crowdsourcing to collect words are of huge potential.

‘Keep in touch,’ says Prof. Jerry Hunter. ‘We work with a number of cultures across the world, and we’re really so eager to support you and your language in any way we can.’

It’s obvious that there is huge potential in co-operation.

img_1775It’s strange, I haven’t thought very deeply about the process of standardising a language, and have never been that comfortable with all the standardisation that happens with Welsh, worrying that perhaps we are undervaluing our dialects in the process. But hearing the specialists in Canolfan Bedwyr speaking of all the work that goes into creating adequate terminology for our subjects in school and university, I see, perhaps for the first time, how much we are all in debt to people who work tirelessly to agree on linguistic standards, so that we can put the language to work professionally, academically and politically. At the moment, for the Inuit in Canada, it’s hard to hold sustain any system of assessment in schools, since there are so many forms of writing, so opportunities for formal assessment in Inuktitut are few. There is also no way of creating documentation in which the unified voice of the Inuit can be heard, protecting their rights, or communicating their concerns and hopes as a united nation.

‘We don’t say standardise,’ says Peter. ‘We say unify.’

And I see tremendous value in our written language, which has sometimes been a bit of a noose around my neck, but which is, in fact, a valuable gift, a way for us to have a united voice as Welsh speakers, a way for us to sustain an education system, workplaces, and all the other aspects of civil society.

The important thing, according to many of the Inuit committee, is that everyone understands that dialect is also correct, and that all the old ways of writing and speaking are still fine, and permissible, side by side with the new, standard form. So, a question comes, one that it might be also very pertinent for us in Wales to ask.

‘One of the things we’ve asked as a committee,’ says Jeannie, who comes from an area where syllabics are used, ‘is whether we can facilitate, as well as this standardisation process, a process whereby schools teach dialectology.’

And I find myself thinking of the family I’ve married into, from Caernarfon, and how people who speak their dialect of Cofi often feel that the standard written form of Welsh does not reflect their speech, and I think yes, side by side with this ‘standardisation’ there is a need for us in Wales to show children the value and richness of their own forms of Welsh, their important, vital dialects.

Of interest also to Caernarfon’s Cofi’s, by the way:

The Inuits can pronounce ‘Castell Caernarfon’ perfectly! Inuktitut also has the sound we write as a double L in Welsh.

‘Castell Caernarfon,’ says Monica, looking around the castle.

‘These stone walls must be very cold,’ says Harry, as we walk around the parapet ‘People from abroad are always asking whether we still live in igloo, and whether we have central heating. I tell them that if there’s central heating, there’s no igloo.’

Ah yes, good point.


Day 3

The group are getting a taste for learning Welsh now, and they can already say the first word newcomers to Wales usually master. And no, the world isn’t ‘welcome’ (‘croeso’) but ‘araf’ (slow), because it says that on all the roads. They can say ‘Fire Exit’ in Welsh pretty well too. More difficult to pronounce is a Welsh blessing to Prince Charles they have me translate and say about fifteen times to show how to pronounce it – now that’s something I never thought I’d do. But I also sang Hen Wlad fy Nhadau from beginning to end, with the help of Cyril from the National Library. Thanks, Cyril.

And the country is showing off its best today as we drive down from the north to Aberystwyth. The sun is shining, the twigs crisp against the clear sky, the fields and stone houses similar, says one of the group, to a Christmas card. Yes, Wales is beautiful. Wales is incredibly beautiful. It’s a delight to see through visitors’ eyes, with each new view getting a cheer of appreciation in the bus. For some of the group who live in the Arctic circle, it’s good of course to get some sunlight in the winter.

And what a spectacular location for the offices of the Books Council, looking over Aberystwyth like some kind of a king. Better than a castle, it is. Today we were visiting the Welsh Books Council, the Celtic Studies centre (for the University of Wales dictionary), and The National Library of Wales too. It’s quite something to see that Wales can show off its national institutions like this to visitors.

‘We don’t have anywhere like this,’ Rita says to me after the visit to the library. ‘There are places that store important artefacts and art, but we don’t own them. They’re not ours.’

‘What do you think the Inuit might learn from the Welsh experience?’ asks the reporter from the BBC (the media are out in force for us today, on this high profile visit).

‘The Welsh are very bold,’ says Rita. She pauses. ‘And we also need to be bold.’

That isn’t something that we hear very often is it? It’s perhaps not one of the stereotypical Welsh traits? But yes, the National Library looks proud, and very bold today.

img_1816As we hear the story of how each of these ventures was established, there’s such respect for the people who did the work, their long and tiresome battles that allowed our culture to have such tremendous resources as its backbone. People like this Inuit committee, who work so valiantly for their language against such obstacles. The people who established our cultural institutions are often household names in Wales, and I wonder if some of this group will be held in that kind of esteem by future generations. I doubt they would ever expect such a thing.

The obstacles to supporting minority languages are huge of course. As in Wales, you can never separate the economic and political battles from the cultural and linguistic ones.

‘Up to seventy per cent of people in Nunavut are food insecure,’ explains Maatalii tonight.

The area only has one parliamentary seat, despite representing 25% of Canada’s territory. They have difficulty finding a voice internationally too, about issues like climate change, which has a potentially devastating effect on their lives. As Maatalii says ‘If your roads are ice, it kind of matters if they’re not frozen anymore.’

Between many such difficulties it’s a struggle to work on support for the culture and language.

Also the scale of the Welsh institutions, the publishing industry etc, seem huge to the group, as the numbers who speak Inuktut are smaller, and the difficulties of working together as a nation greater since they have to fly between communities. There are obvious differences between the literary cultures too. While the Welsh have been putting pen (or quill) to paper or slate for many centuries, Inuktut has been primarily an oral culture until fairly recently, emphasising oral history and song with one generation passing down the culture to the next.

‘We didn’t need books,’ says Beverley. ‘We had it all in our hearts and minds. People now can’t learn anything without writing it down. I’ve tried teaching them without pen and paper, and it doesn’t work anymore.’

This conversation reminds me of recent concerns about the effect of technology on the minds of young people. Paper or screen, neither’s a substitute for memory and mouth.

As Sylvia from Canolfan Bedwyr put it, the institutions, paper resources, translation resources and dictionaries of a language are only its back wheels. The front wheels are the people who use it every day, at work, at home, who raise their children to speak it, who fall in love while speaking it, argue and joke in it, and who reinvent it daily to meet every challenge. They own it.


Day 4

The group are to meet our First Minister today, which shows what an ambitious, high-profile visit this is. This is a real high point. They will also meet Prince Charles tomorrow.

On the way from Aber to Cardiff on the bus, the important task I have is to give Jeela a Welsh lesson, as she’s decided to set to it seriously to learn. ‘If I learn Welsh,’ she says, ‘that will show our young people who think it’s impossible to learn a new language, that it’s possible to learn Inuktut too.’ There we are then, another one towards the assembly’s goal of one million Welsh speakers.

InuitI remember how exciting it was when Wales voted for its own assembly, and I realise as we go through security and into the Senedd, our Welsh parliament, that this is my first proper visit, and that this will be the first time I set eyes on a First Minister of Wales.

‘You’re twenty years late,’ says one of the staff when I tell him this. One of the group laughs, and says, ‘It took the Inuit to visit for you to be allowed in!’

After a guided tour of the Senedd chamber, where we discuss the advantages of having a round debating chamber and the differences between the Nunivut assembly and our own, we are taken to the big meeting room where there is tea and coffee, and where, in few minutes time, Carwyn Jones, will walk in to take his seat at the big table with the committee.

The committee, I think, are surprised at a number of things. One is how easy it seems to be for us in Wales to refer to ourselves as a nation.

‘What do you call Wales?’ Harry asks.

‘A nation,’ replies the First Minister. He expands on this and explains that the United Kingdom is one of the only states where there’s a difference between the state and the countries within it. ‘If you ask most people from Wales what their nationality is, they’ll say Welsh. But there’s not necessarily a contradiction between that and the fact that they’re part of the extended family of nations that is the United Kingdom.’

‘Does the nation of Wales own its own resources?’ asks Harry.

‘We’re exporters of power,’ says the First Minister. ‘Water is also a big resource that we have, and we get control of that in 2018.’


We have come a long way. I’m struck by how confident, how authoritative, our political system has become.

He also discusses our linguistic rights, and the fact that we have a right to public sector services in Welsh.

Despite several of his staff looking a bit nervous that the first minister’s going to be late for his next appointment, he’s ignoring that.

‘We have Welsh speakers who are also Muslim, we have Bangladeshi communities whose children go to Welsh medium school,’ he says; ‘A language is open to all. You can’t have more than one religion, but languages are not exclusive in that way.’

‘It’s wonderful that you have Welsh-speaking children from non-Welsh speaking homes,’ says Beverley, ‘That’s inspiring to us.’

Having spent almost double the allotted time with the group, he finally has to go.

‘That was an honour,’ says Harry after the meeting.

Yes, there is respect in Wales for the Inuit, their language and their culture.

In the language comissioner’s office, our next stop, we have an interesting discussion about all the research that is done on language use in Wales. Time to share some ideas on how to collect qualitative evidence, as well as quantative, and also of what the best ways are ensuring that services follow the language act.

Some of the delegation are uncomfortable with the kind of language policing they see in Quebec, where Inuktut struggles for recognition beside French and English.

‘I’m not interested in policing,’ says Meri Huws, the Welsh language commissioner. ‘What interests me is persuading people to create a bilingual company because they want to and are moved to.’

Sadly, my journey with the Inuit has to come to an end today, although I will speak to them by phone after their trip to Llwynywermod tomorrow.

I try to say some words of goodbye and thanks, as their journey and company this week has touched and inspired me more than I can say. But the words catch in my throat a bit, from tiredness and emotion. The Inuit, according to Jeela, didn’t use to say anything much for hello and goodbye. Only a smile. And in the end we say goodbye on very suitable terms therefore:

I give them some copies of my novel, with a small Welsh message of warm wishes in each, and they give me some Inuit tea and other presents, and the huge hugs. An Inuit kiss to top it all off, which doesn’t mean rubbing noses as we think it does, but that one person puts their nose against the cheek of the other and sniffs deeply. This is a ‘sws’ as we call it in Wales, and an Inuit sws can vary as much as a Welsh one, according to Jeela, from the equivalent of a peck on the check, to a kiss between a courting couple. A kiss then, that is yet another language, and one that is, this time, without words.

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