Inuktitut language

From Academic Kids

Template:IPA notice Inuktitut (Inuktitut syllabics: ᐃᓄᒃᑎᑐᑦ, literally "like the Inuit") is the language of the Inuit people. It is spoken from western Alaska to eastern Greenland, in all areas north of the tree line up to Qaanaaq, almost on the 78th parallel. Inuktitut enjoys a great deal of legal status for an indigenous American language. It is recognised as an official language in Greenland, Nunavut territory and the Northwest Territories. It also has legal recognition in Nunavik - a part of Quebec - thanks in part to the James Bay Agreement, and is recognised in the Charter of the French Language as the official language of instruction for Inuit school districts there. It also has some recognition in Nunatsiavut - the Inuit area in Labrador - following the ratification of its agreement with the Canadian federal government and the province of Newfoundland and Labrador, and is taught in schools in Inuit areas in Alaska.

Inuit primarily live in three countries: The United States (the North Slope and Seward Peninsula area in Alaska); arctic Canada, and Greenland, a self-adminstering province of Denmark. A few may also live in Russia, but Russian Eskimos are primarily Yupik. The total population of Inuktitut speakers globally 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 Inuktitut speakers there at roughly 50,000, while Canadian estimates of Inuktitut speakers are at roughly 30,000. These two countries count the bulk of all Inuktitut speakers, as usage in Alaska is increasingly moribund - roughly 3,000 Alaskans speak Inuktitut dialects out of a population of over 13,000 Inuit - and the language is almost certainly extinct in Russia. In addition, an estimated 7,000 Greenlandic Inuktitut speakers live in European Denmark, but this is the largest group of Inuktitut speakers outside of Canada and Greenland. So, the global Inuktitut-speaking population is on the order of 90,000 people.


Classification and history

Inuktitut is a member of the Eskimo-Aleut group of languages. It is fairly closely related to the Yupik languages and more remotely to the Aleut languages. These cousin languages are all spoken in Alaska and Chukotka, Russia. Inuktitut is not discernibly related to other North American or northwest Asian indigenous languages, although some have proposed that it is related to Indo-European languages as part of the hypothetical Nostratic superphylum.

Early Inuktitut was 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 west 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 Inuktitut language became distinct from the Yupik languages spoken in 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 Inuktitut.

The Yupik and Inuktitut languages are very similar syntactically and morphologically. Their common origin can be seen in a number of cognates:

EnglishCentral YupikInupiatunNorth Baffin Inuktitut
personyukiuk [iɲuk]inuk
outsideellamisiḷami [siʎami]silami

The western Alaskan dialects of Inuktitut retain a large number of features present in proto-Inuktitut and in Yupik, enough so that they might be classed as dialects of Yupik if they were viewed in isolation from the larger Inuktitut-speaking world.

Geographic distribution and variants

Missing image
Distribution of Inuktitut variants across the Arctic.
Inuktitut is a fairly closely linked set of dialects which can be broken up using a number of different criteria. Traditionally, Inuit describe dialect differences by means of place names to describe local idiosyncracies in language: The dialect of Iglulik verses the dialect of Iqaluit, for example. However, political and sociological divisions are increasingly the principal criteria for describing different variants of Inuktitut because of their links to different writing systems, literary traditions, schools, media sources and borrowed vocabulary.

Furthermore, political barriers across the arctic have resulted in different variants of Inuktitut receiving different names. Alaskan Inuit are generally called Inupiaq and call their language Inupiatun, while Greenland Inuit refer to their language as Kalaallisut. In Canada, the language is generally called Inuktitut, but it can be further divided reflecting additional geographic, politcal and linguistic criteria.

Inuktitut is more of a dialect continuum like German, rather than a particular set of distinctive dialect groups like English or Chinese. This makes any partition of the Inuktitut language somewhat problematic. This article will use labels that try to synthesise linguistic, sociolinguistic and political considerations in splitting up the Inuktitut dialect spectrum. This scheme is not the only one used or necessarily one used by Inuit themselves, but its labels do try to reflect the usages most seen in popular and technical literature.

In addition to the territories listed below, some 7,000 Greenlandic Inuktitut speakers are reported to live in mainland Denmark [1] (, and according to the 2001 census roughly 200 self-reported 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 Inuktitut dialects, with most of them over the age of 40. [2] ( Alaskan Inuit speak two fairly distinct dialects:

  • Qawiaraq is spoken on the southern side of the Seward Peninsula and the Norton Sound area. It was also in the past spoken in Chukotka, particularly Big Diomede island, but appears to have vanished in Russian areas through assimilation into Yupik, Chukchi and Russian speaking communities. It is radically different in phonology from other variants of Inuktitut, and is not described in depth here. Some people consider the Bering Strait dialect to be separate from Qawariaq.
  • Inupiatun is spoken in North Slope and the Kotzebue Sound area. The variants of the Kotzebue Sound area and the northwest of Alaska are sometimes called Malimiutun or Malimiut Inupiatun. However, despite significant differences in phonology, Malimiutun is readily comprehensible to other Alaskan Inupiat. [3] (

Northwest Territories and Yukon

Inuit in Canada's Northwest Territories call themselves Inuvialuit and live primarily in the Inuvialuit Settlement Region, consisting of the northern part of the Mackenzie river delta, the arctic coast of the Northwest Territories and Yukon, Banks Island, a part of Victoria Island and some more remote and irregularly inhabited Arctic Ocean islands. The Inuktitut variants of the NWT are often treated together as Inuvialuktun, but this categorisation is misleading. The Inuvialuit population encompasses three distinct dialects:

  • Kangirjuarmiutun: spoken mainly in the community of Holman. This dialect is essentially identical to the Inuinnaqtun spoken in western Nunavut.
  • Siglitun: spoken mainly in the communities of Paulatuk, Sachs Harbour and Tuktoyaktuk. Siglitun was once the principal dialect of the arctic coast and adjacent islands near the mouth of the Mackenzie river, but the number of speakers fell dramaitically following outbreaks of new diseases in the mid-19th century and for many years Siglitun was believed to be completely extinct. It was only in the 1980s that outsiders realised that it was still spoken. (Dorais, Arctic languages: an awakening (, pg. 194)
  • Uummarmiutun: spoken mainly in the communities of Inuvik and Aklavik. This dialect is essentially the same as Alaskan Inupiatun, and is present in Canada because of migration from Alaska in the 1910s, reoccupying traditionally Siglitun lands abandonned during the devastating disease outbreaks of the previous century. [4] (

Inuktitut variants in this part of Canada are seriously endangered as English has become the common language of the community. Surveys of Inuktitut usage in the NWT vary, but all agree that usage is not vigorous. According to the Inuvialuit Cultural Resource Centre, only some 10% of the roughly 4,000 Inuvialuit speak any dialect of Inuktitut, and only some 4% use it at home. [5] ( Statistics Canada's 2001 Census report is only slightly better, reporting 765 self-identified Inuktitut speakers out of a self-reported Inuvialuit population of 3,905. Considering the large number of non-Inuit living in Inuvialuit areas and the lack of a single common dialect among the already reduced number of speakers, the condition of Inuktitut in the NWT appears bleak.


Nunavut encompasses the geographically largest part of the inhabited Inuktitut-speaking world, and includes large mainland areas and numerous islands divided by rivers, straits, Hudson Bay, and areas of ocean that freeze only for a part of the year. Consequently, it is unsurprising that it has a great deal of internal dialect diversity.

The demographic situation of Inuktitut is quite strong in Nunavut. Nunavut is the home of some 24,000 Inuit, most of whom - over 80% according to the 2001 census - speak Inuktitut, including some 3,500 people reported as monolinguals. 2001 census data shows that the use of Inuktitut, while lower among the young than the elderly, has stopped declining in Canada as a whole and may even be increasing in Nunavut.

  • Inuinnaqtun is a variant of Inuktitut spoken in the western part of the Kitikmeot Region of Nunavut, and at Holman in the Northwest Territories. The principle factor distinguishing it from other variants spoken in western Nunavut is the lack of a local tradition of Inuktitut syllabics use. The government of Nunavut considers Inuinnaqtun an official language of the territory, but many consider it simply a Roman alphabet writing scheme for standard Inuktitut. However, the Roman alphabet writing scheme used in Inuinnaqtun uses letters in a manner distinctive to western Nunavut dialects.
  • Natsilingmiutut designates variants spoken in the part of eastern Kitikmeot called Natsilik. In the Natsilik dialect, it is called Nattilingmiutut. Some people view the Utkuhiksalingmiutut dialect, spoken today primarily in Gjoa Haven but traditionally spoken in the Franklin Lake and Chantrey Inlet area, as a separate dialect.
  • Kivallirmiutut dialect is spoken in the Kivalliq Region down to the Manitoba border.
  • Aivilimmiutut is spoken in the area traditionally known as Aivilik: Southampton Island and Repulse Bay in Kivalliq, and part of the Melville Peninsula in the Qikiqtaaluk Region. This area was settled by Inuit after the disappearance of the Sadlermiut. Some linguists consider it too close to North Baffin to merit separate treatment. (Dorais, Arctic languages: an awakening (, pg. 194)
  • North Baffin (Qikiqtaaluk uannangani) is spoken on the northern part of Baffin Island, at Iglulik and the adjacent part of the Melville Peninsula, and in Inuit communities in the far north of Nunavut, like Resolute and Grise Fiord. This dialect is the one heard in the film Atanarjuat: the Fast Runner.
  • South Baffin (Qikiqtaaluk nigiani) is the dialect of the southern part of Baffin Island, including the territorial capital Iqaluit. This has in recent years made it a much more widely heard dialect, since a great deal of Inuktitut media originates in Iqaluit. Some people also distinguish an Eastern Baffin dialect as someting separate from South Baffin.


Quebec is home to roughly 10,000 Inuit, nearly all of whom live in Nunavik. According to the 2001 census, 90% of Quebec Inuit speak Inuktitut.

The Nunavik dialect (Nunavimmiutitut) is relatively close to the South Baffin dialect, but not identical. Because of the political and physical boundary between Nunavik and Nunavut, Nunavik has separate government and educational institutions from those in the rest of the Inuktitut-speaking world, resulting in a growing standardisation of the local dialect as something separate from other forms of Inuktitut. In the Nunavik dialect, Inuktitut is called Inuttitut.


The Nunatsiavut dialect (Nunatsiavummiutut, or often in government documents Labradorimiutut) is spoken across northern Labrador. It has a distinct writing system, created by German missionaries from the Moravian Church in Greenland in the 1760s. This separate writing tradition, and the remoteness of Nunatsiavut from other Inuit communities, has made it into a distinct dialect with a separate literary tradition. The Nunatsiavummiut call their language Inuttut - "like an Inuk".

Although Nunatsiavut claims over 4,000 inhabitants of Inuit descent, only 550 reported Inuktitut to be their mother tongue in the 2001 census, mostly in the town of Nain. Inuktitut is seriously endangered in Labrador.

Nunatsiavut also had a separate dialect reputedly much closer to western Inuktitut dialects, spoken in the area around Rigolet. According to news reports, in 1999 it had only three very elderly speakers. [6] (


Greenland counts approximately 50,000 speakers of Inuktitut dialects, of whom over 90% speak west Greenlandic dialects at home.

  • Kalaallisut, or in English Greenlandic, is the name given to the standard dialect and offical language of Greenland. This standard national language is now taught to all Greenlanders in school, regardless of their native dialect. It reflects almost exclusively the language of western Greenland and has borrowed a great deal of vocabulary from Danish, while Canadian and Alaskan variants of Inuktitut have tended to take vocabulary from English or sometimes French and Russian. It is written using the Roman alphabet. The dialect of the Upernavik area in southern Greenland is somewhat different in phonology from the standard dialect.
  • Tunumiit oraasiat, (or Tunumiisut in Kalaallisut), is the dialect of eastern Greenland. It differs sharply from other Inuktitut dialects and has roughly 3,000 speakers according to Ethnologue (
  • Avanersuaq is the dialect of the area around Qaanaaq in northern Greenland. This area is the northernmost settlement area of the Inuit and has a relatively small number of speakers. It is reputed to be fairly close to the North Baffin dialect, since a group of migratory Inuit from Baffin Island settled in the area during the 19th and early 20th centuries. It counts under 1,000 speakers according to Ethnologue (

Phonology and Phonetics

This section of the article makes reference primarily to the Inukitut dialects of Canada, although it provides some discussion of other dialects.

Following standard notation, phonemes are written between two slashes, e.g. /p/; and phonetic transcriptions are written between square brackets, e.g. [ɬ].

Most Nunavut dialects of Inuktitut have fifteen consonants and three vowels (which can be long or short). 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. Inupiatun and Natsalingmiutut have an additional manner of articulation - retroflex - which adds two consonants to Inupiatun and one to Natsalingmiutut.


Almost all dialects of Inuktitut have only three basic vowels and make a phonological distinction between short and long forms of all vowels. In Inuujingajut, (Nunavut standard Roman orthography) long vowels are written as a double vowel.

Short open front unroundeda
Long open front unroundedaa
Short closed front unroundediShort i is sometimes realised as or
Long closed front unroundedii
Short closed back roundeduShort u is sometimes realised as or
Long closed back roundeduu

In western Alaska, Qawariaq and to some degree the Malimiutun variant of Inupiaqtun retains an additional vowel which was present in proto-Inuktitut and is still present in Yupik, but which has become /i/ or sometimes /a/ in all other dialects. Thus, the common Inuktitut word for water - imiq - is emeq (/əməq/) in Qawiaraq. (L.D. Kaplan, Arctic languages: an awakening (, pg. 145)

Furthermore, many diphthongs in the Alaskan dialects have merged, suggesting the beginings of a new more complex vowel scheme with more than three distinct vowels. This phenomenon is particularly noticeable in the Kobuk area, where the diphthongs and are now both prronounced . Other diphthongs are also affected.

In contrast to the larger number of vowel contrasts in Alaskan dialects, in the dialect of southwest Greenland (particularly Upernavik), the phoneme /u/ has been replaced by /i/ in many contexts.

Otherwise, the three-vowel scheme described above holds for all of the Inuktitut dialects.


The central Nunavut dialects of Inuktitut have fifteen distinct consonants, except for Natsilingmiutut, which has the additional phoneme .

IPA notation:

Voiceless StopAll plosives are unaspirated
Voiceless fricative 
Voiced  only present in Natsilingmiutut
is replaced by in Siglitun, and may be realised as between vowels or vowels and approximants in other dialects
assimilated to before nasals

This same table with Inuujingajut spellings for comparison:

Voiceless Stopptkq
Voiceless fricatives ɫɫ is often written simply as l
Voicedvljgr, being absent from most dialects,
is not written with a separate letter
NasalmnngA geminated ng is written nng


In Inuktitut, intonation is important in distinguishing some words - particularly interrogatives - but it is not generally marked in writing. There are some minimal pairs in Inuktitut where only pitch distinguishes between two different words, but they are rare enough that context usually disambiguates them in writing. One common case, however is suva. A high pitch on the first syllable followed by a falling pitch on the second syllable means "What did you say?". A middle pitch on the first syllable followed by a rising pitch on the second means "What did he do?"

In general, Inuktitut uses Intonation to mark questions in much the way English does. When an interrogative pronoun is used, pitch falls at the end of a question. When there is no interrogative pronoun, pitch rises on the last syllable.

Inuktitut speakers tend to lengthen vowels with a rising intonation. So, a rising tone is sometimes indicated indirectly by writing a double vowel:

She can speak Inuktitut.     Inuktitut uqaqtuq.
Does she speak Inuktitut?     Inuktitut uqaqtuuq?


An Inuktitut syllable can begin with a single consonanant or a vowel. Consonant clusters at the beginning of a syllable, like [st] or [pl], are impossible in Inuktitut. Syllables must also end in either a vowel or a stop consonant - /p/, /t/, /k/, or /q/ - except where consonant sandhi rules or other constraints on syllables within words modify the ending.

The nucleus of an Inuktitut syllable can contain a single short vowel, a single long vowel or a diphthong. Triple length nuclei are not permitted in Inuktitut. For example, the Inuktitut word for a person is inuk in the singular, inuuk in the dual number and inuit in the plural. But words like *inuuit or *inuiat are phonetically impossible in Inuktitut.

Consonant Sandhi

Inuktitut syllables can start or end with a single consonant. This means that when morphemes are joined together, a double consonant can appear. Triple consonants are not possible in Inuktitut, and any morphological rule that could place three consonants together includes a rule about deleting one of the consonants.

Inuktitut generally allows double consonants only where the manner of articulation is the same. For that purpose, we can group Inuktitut consonants into three groups: voiceless, voiced and nasals:

          Voiceless:p t k q s ł
          Voiced:v l j g r
          Nasal:m n ng

This means that double consonants like [tp], [vl], and [mŋ] are permitted, but [nt], [qg] and [kr] are not. Where the morphology of Inuktitut places two incompatible consonants together, they are either replaced by a geminated consonant - in effect, one of the two consonants becomes an extra long consonant and the other is assmiliated - or as a single fully assimilated consonant that takes its manner of articulation from one of the two, and its place of articulation from the other. Clusters of three consonants is a row are forbidden in Inuktitut, and wherever three consonants are forced to appear together, one of them disappears of is assimilated into another one. As a general rule, assimilation in Inuktitut is regressive - the first consonant takes its manner of articulation from the second consonant. But, this is to some extent dialect dependent. The west Greenland dialect in particular tends to use progressive assimilation - the second consonant takes the manner of articulation from the first.

Different dialects of Inuktitut add additional restrictions on what consonants can appear together and whether the first or the second consonant is assimilated. In all forms of Inuktitut, the combination [qk] is impossible. In Inupiatun, Siglitun and Inuinnaqtun - the far western dialects - all other consonant pairs are possible. Moving further east, the general rule is that more and more double consonants are assimilated into geminated consonants. Determining which double consonants are assimilated depends on the point of articulation of the first consonant in the pair:

          Labial:p v m
          Alveolar:t l n
          Velar:k g ng
          Uvular:q r

This limitation on consonant clusters is not quite universal across Inuit areas. One of the distinguishing features of western Alaskan dialects like Qawariaq and Malimiut Inupiaqtun is that nasal consonants can appear after consonants with other manners of articulation, as they could in proto-Inuktitut and still can in modern Yupik. Some examples include the Malimiut word qipmiq - dog - pronounced qimmiq in Inupiatun and all other dialects; and iqniq in Qawariaq - fire - which is inniq in other Inuktitut dialects.


In Aivilimmiutut, North and South Baffin, and all dialects spoken further south and east, all double consonants starting with an alveolar consonant are geminated:

EnglishInupiatunSiglitunInuinnaqtunNatsilingmiutut KivallirmiututAivilimmiututNorth BaffinSouth BaffinKalaallisut
you (sg)ilvichilvitilvitilvitilvitivvitivvitivvitillit


In the North and South Baffin dialects, as well as the dialects to the south and east of Baffin Island, double consonants starting with a labial consonant are also geminated:

EnglishAivilikNorth Baffin
because I see hertakugapkutakugakku


In South Baffin, Nunavik, Greenland and Labrador, double consonants starting with a velar consonant are also geminated:



Only the Nunatsiavut dialect systematically geminates double consonants beginning with an uvular consonant.

EnglishInupiatunInuinnaqtunAivilikNorth BaffinSouth BaffinNunatsiavummiututKalaallisut
EnglishNorth BaffinNunatsiavummiutut
middle fingerqitiqliqqitilliK1

Non-phonemic voiced labials

In addition, some dialects of Inuktitut pronounce [bl] ([vl] in Inupiatun) in place of the geminated lateral approximant /ll/. The phonological status of this distinction is uncertain - some dialects have both [bl] and [ll]. This feature is generally characteristic of western and central dialects as opposed to eastern ones.

EnglishInupiatunInuinnaqtunAivilikNorth BaffinSouth BaffinNunatsiavummiututKalaallisut

Note 1 qitilliK, kulluK, kulloq: In Nunatsiavummiutut writing, a capital K indicates the same uvular plosive as q in Inupiatun, Inuinnaqtun, Kalaallisut and Nunavut Roman orthography. Furthermore, o in Kalaallisut writing represents the same phoneme as u in the writing systems used for other Inuktitut variants. Contrasts in writing schemes are described below.


Double consonants where the second consonant is /s/ undergo more complex changes across dialects. In some cases assimilation is progressive (from the first consonant to the second), in others regressive, and in still others double consonants are neutralised into a single form.

Western dialectsNorth BaffinSouth Baffin & Nunavik

Other systematic dialectical variations

Consonant weakening in Qawariaq

The variants of Qawariaq have undergone a process of consonant weakening, although to what degree varies somewhat between villages. This process is motivated in part by prosody and parallels the consonant weakening processes at work in Yupik. As a result, many stops have become fricatives and many fricatives have become glides or completely disappeared. The word niqi - meat in most dialects - is rendered as nigi in Qawariaq.

Consonant weakening is most noticeable in the area adjacent to Bering Strait in the very extremest western part of Alaska.

Palatization in Inupiatun

The historical fourth vowel of Inuktitut - the schwa - had an impact on the pronunciation of alveolar consonants following it. Where an was present in proto-Inuktitut, the following vowel is palatized in modern Inupiatun. Thus, for example, becomes , spelled ch alone and tch when geminated, after some i's but not others. For example, the second person singular pronoun ilvit - you - in more easterly dialects of Inuktitut becomes ilvich. In contrast, iqit (fist, iqitii in Canadian Inuktitut), which was pronounced [əqət] in proto-Inuktitut, retains its plosive .

Similar processes affect other alveolar consonants:

Alveolar consonantPalatal consonantInupiatun spellingExample
ch (tch when geminated)ilvit => ilvich (you sg.)
inuk => iuk (person)
silami => siḷami (outside)

In the Malimiut variant of Inupiatun, this process is extended to some velar consonants, like and .

Fricative substitution in western Nunavut

Many of the western and central dialects of Nunavut - including Inuinnaqtun, Kivallirmiutut and Natsilingmiutut - express the phoneme /s/ as . Inuinnaqtun also pronounces /ɬ/ as . This leads to an additional constraint on double consonants in Inuinnaqtun: A plosive followed by the fricative becomes a fricative at the same point of articulation. This feature does not extend west of Inuinnaqtun and is not present in Siglitun or Inupiatun.

EnglishInuinnaqtunKivallirmuitutNorth Baffin
eggikhi ([ixhi])ikhi ([ikhi])iksi
blubberuqhuq ([uχhuq])uqhuq ([uqhuq])uqsuq
walking (3p. sg)pihukhuni ([pihuxhuni])pihukhuni ([pihukhuni])pisukłuni

Nasalisation of word final consonants in western dialects

In western dialects, particularly Inuinnaqtun, Siglitun and Inupiatun, final consonants tend to be replaced by [n] at the ends of words. Thus, inuit becomes inuin in many western dialects. In central Nunavut, this tendency is more noticeable among older speakers at present, but in Inuinnaqtun and dialects further west, it is pervasive.

This is the reason why the names of eastern and central dialects generally end in the morpheme -tut , which means like a something, while western ones end in -tun. The two are equivalent, but the final /t/ in this morpheme becomes [n] in western dialects and remains [t] in eastern ones.

EnglishInuinnaqtunNorth Baffin

Retroflex consonants in western dialects

Natsilingmiutut retains as a phoneme a retroflex palatal consonant . This consonant has merged with /j/ in all other Nunavut and eastern dialects of Inuktitut. In Inupiatun, the /ɟ/ of Natsilingmiutut and the /j/ in some central Inuktitut words has become (written r).

EnglishInupiatun NatsilingmiututNorth Baffin
eyeiri [iʐi]iji [iji]iji
kayakqayaq [qajaq]qajaq [qajaq]qajaq
bigaŋiruq [aŋiʐuq]angijuq [aŋiɟuq]angijuq [aŋijuq]

In addition to the voiced retroflex fricative (written "r"), Inupiatun also has a voiceless retroflex fricative written as "sr". This additional manner of articulation is largely distinctive to Inupiatun - it is absent from the more easterly dialects, except for the of Natsilingmiutut.

EnglishInupiatunSiglitunNatsilingmiututNorth Baffin

Qawariaq, furthermore, has a third retroflex consonant in addition to the two present in Inupiatun: the retroflex approximant .

Double consonant clusters in Nunavimmiutut

Nunavik Inuktitut, in contrast to other dialects, does not allow two double consonants to appear with only one syllable between them. Wherever this occurs, the first consonant in the second consonant pair is deleted.

EnglishNorth BaffinNunavimmiutut
he is coughing quiqtuqtuqquiqtutuq

Glottal stops

In a number of dialects, uvular consonants and ordinary stops are replaced with glottal stops in some contexts. Which uvular consonants and which contexts varies to some degree across dialects. Most frequently, a /q/ or in some cases an /r/ before another consonant is transformed into a glottal stop. Thus, the Inuktitut name of the town of Baker Lake is pronounced Qamaniqtuaq or Qamanittuaq by most Inuktitut speakers, but is rendered Qamani'tuaq in Baker Lake itself. This phenomenon occurs in a number of dialects, but is particularly noticeable in Nunavimmiutut and in central Nunavut dialects like Kivallirmiutut.

In Natsilingmiutut, the velar nasal consonant /ŋ/ sometimes becomes a glottal stop when followed by another consonant, but not in all cases.

Morphology and Syntax

Inuktitut, like other Eskimo-Aleut languages, has a very rich morphological system, in which a succession of different morphemes are added to root words to indicate things that, in languages like English, would require serveral words to express. (See also: Agglutinative language and Polysynthetic language) All Inuktitut 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, 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 system makes Inuktitut words very long, and potentially unique. For example:

I can't hear very well.

This long word is composed of a root word tusaa- - to hear - followed by five suffixes:

-junnaq-be able to
-tualuu-very much
-junga1st pers. singular

Note the consonant sandhi (see above): The /q/ from -tsiaq- followed by the /j/ from -junnaq- becomes /r/, a single consonant taking its point of articulation from /q/ and its manner of articularion from /j/. The /q/ from -junnaq- is assimilated into the /ŋŋ/ of -nngit-, because Inuktitut forbids triple length consonants, and because the morphophonological rules attached to -nngit- require it to delete any consonant that comes before it.

This sort of word construction is pervasive in Inuktitut and makes it very unlike English, In one large Inuktitut 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 Inuktitut.

Furthermore, the notion of a part of speech can be somewhat complicated in Inuktitut. Fully inflected verbs can be interprested as nouns. The word ilisaijuq can be interpreted as a fully inflected verb - "he studies" - but can also be interpreted as a noun: "student".

Because of Inuktitut's rich and complicated morphology, this article can present only a very small sample of its features. It is based largely on the dialects of north Baffin Island and central Nunavut. The morphology and syntax of Inuktitut vary to some degree between dialects, but the basic principles will generally apply to all of them and to some degree to Yupik as well.


Inuktitut verbs fall into two major categories with different morphological properties: non-specific verbs and specific verbs. Many verbs belong in both categories, and can take either set of endings depending on the type of information about the verb's arguments that speakers intend to communcate. Others are restricted to one category or require a morphological change in order to move between categories.

Every fully inflected Inuktitut verb can act alone as a proposition. No other words are required to form a syntactically correct sentence.

This section will only cover two of the most common sets of endings for these two verb classes and a small selection of verbal modifiers. Inuktitut has a large and diverse set of verbal inflexions, of which this article can only cover a small portion designed to give some sense of how the Inuktitut language works.

Non-Specific verbs

Non-specific verbs are verbs that either are intransitive (they have no direct object), or have an indefinite noun as their object. In English, an indefinite noun is marked by the lack of the article the. In Inuktitut, when it is the object of a verb, it is distinguished by the use of a non-specific verb and particular suffix described below. A definite noun, in constrast, requires the use of a specific verb when it is the object of a verb.

Non-specific indicative conjugation

As a general rule, a correctly formed Inuktitut verb must start with a root morpheme and end with a suffix that indicates the grammatical person of its subject:

quviasuktunga - I am happy
quviasuk- - to be happy
-tunga - 1st person singular ("I")
anijuq - she/he/it has just now gone out.
ani- - to go out
-juq - 3rd person singular

The indicative is the simplest form of the verb in Inuktitut, and for state verbs - verbs indicating a condition or a situation - this form indicates the present tense: The condition or situation is presently the case. For action verbs, it indicates that the action has recently been completed, mixing tense and aspect. Inuktitut verbs are divided into state verbs and action verbs. However, the distinction may not match how non-Inuktitut speakers would categorise verbs. For example, the verb root pisuk-, meaning "to be walking" - is a state verb in Inuktitut.

pisuktunga - I am walking. (right now)

When the verb root ends in a consonant, the suffixes that indicate the grammatical person all begin with t. For example, pisuk- - to be walking - is conjugated as follows:

First personpisuktunga (I am walking)pisuktuguk (we [two] are walking)pisuktugut (we [more than two] are walking)
Second personpisuktutit (you [sing] are walking)pisuktusik (you [two] are walking)pisuktusi (you [more than two] are walking)
Third personpisuktuq (he/she/it is walking)pisuktuuk (they [two] are walking)pisuktut (they [more than two] are walking)

Verb roots that end in a vowel have suffixes that end in a j. For example, ani- - to go out:

First personanijunga (I have just gone out)anijuguk (we [two] have just gone out)anijugut (we [more than two] have just gone out)
Second personanijutit (you [sing] have just gone out)anijusik (you [two] have just gone out)anijusi (you [more than two] have just gone out)
Third personanijuq (he/she/it has just gone out)anijuuk (they [two] have just gone out)anijut (they [more than two] have just gone out)

Note that Inuktitut has a fully productive dual number, present in all three persons.

Verb roots ending in a consonant     Verb roots ending in a vowel
First person-tunga-tuguk-tugut
Second person-tutit-tusik-tusi
Third person-tuq-tuuk-tut
First person-junga-juguk-jugut
Second person-jutit-jusik-jusi
Third person-juq-juuk-jut

Alternative form

There is an alternative form of the above conjugation which is used in different ways and to different degrees depending on dialect. Instead of starting with t after a consonant and j after a vowel, this form starts with p after a consonant and v after a vowel. The exact difference varies from dialect to dialect. In western dialects, including Inuinnaqtun and Inupiatun, only the t/j forms are ever used for statements and the p/v form is rarely if ever heard. In Greenland, only the p/v form is used.

In most of Nunavut, the p/v forms are often used in interrogative statements - asking questions - although they may indicate other subtle distinctions of aspect. When they are used to ask questions, the last vowel may be doubled to indirectly indicate rising pitch. So, the question "Are we there yet?" can be written as Tikippita? (tikip- - to arrive, and for -pita see the table below) but may also be written as Tikipitaa?

Verb roots ending in a consonant     Verb roots ending in a vowel
First person-punga-pinuk-pita
Second person-pit-pisik-pisi
Third person-pa-pak-pat
First person-vunga-vinuk-vita
Second person-vit-visik-visi
Third person-va-vak-vat

This way, one can very compactly pose and answer simple yes/no questions:

(or: Quviasukpiit?)
    Are you happy?
Ii, quviasuktunga.    Yes, I'm happy.


The subject of a non-specific verb has no special morphological mark:

Piita anijuq     Peter just went out.
Lui quviasuktuq     Louis is happy


The object of a non-specific verbs must end in a suffix that indicates its syntactic role:

Piitamik takuvit?     Do you see Peter?

The object of a non-specific verb takes one of the suffixes below, depending on its number:

Indefinite suffixes
Singular-mik/m/ nasalises a preceding consonant
Dual-rnikSpecial morphophonological rule - see below
Plural-nik/n/ nasalises a preceding consonant

The dual suffix -rnik deletes any preceding consonant (because Inuktitut forbids triple consonants) and doubles the length of the preceding vowel.

A film-inspired example using the verb taku- - to see - and inuviniq - dead person:

Singular:Inuvinirmik takujunga    I see a dead person.
Dual:Inuviniirnik takujunga    I see two dead people
Plural:Inuvinirnik takujunga    I see dead people.

To say "I see the dead person" or "I see the dead people" requires a specific verb, which is described in the section below.

Specific verbs

Specific verbs - verbs whose objects are definite as opposed to indefinite - take suffixes that indicate the grammatical person of both the subject and the object, but not their gramatical number.

Specific indicative conjugation

Specific verb suffixes used after vowels:

First personSecond personThird person
ObjectFirst person-jarma-jaanga
Second person-jagit-jaatit
Third person-jara-jait-janga

Specific verb suffixes used after consonants:

First personSecond personThird person
ObjectFirst person-tarma-taanga
Second person-tagit-taatit
Third person-tara-tait-tanga

Note that the suffixes in this table cannot be used for reflexive verbs. That will be discussed separately.

Alternative form

As with non-specific verbs, specific verbs have an alternate v/p form used for interrogatives, but also sometimes used to indicate conditional forms or other aspects:

After vowels:

First personSecond personThird person
ObjectFirst person-vinga-vaanga
Second person-vagit-vaatit
Third person-vigu/-vara-viuk-vauk

After consonants:

First personSecond personThird person
ObjectFirst person-pinga-paanga
Second person-pagit-paatit
Third person-pigu/-para-piuk-pauk


The subject of a specific verb requires a specific suffix to indicate its syntactic role:

Piitaup takujaatit     Peter sees you

The subject of a specific verb takes the following suffixes, depending on its grammatical number:

Singular-up/u/ disappears when it is preceded by a double vowel
Dual-kdoubles the preceding vowel
Plural-it/i/ disappears when it is preceded by a double vowel

All of the suffixes above delete any consonant that immediately precedes them. For example, qajaq becomes qajaup in the singular, qajaak in the dual, and qajait in the plural when it is the subject of a specific verb.

So, as an example:

Paliisiup takujaatit     A policeman sees you.
Paliisiik takujaatit     Two policemen see you.
Paliisiit takujaatit     Some policemen (more than two) see you.


The object of a specific verb needs no particular suffix at all. Thus, we can contrast Inuviniq takujara - I see the dead person - with the table for non-specific verbs above. Continuing the example from above:

Piitaup paliisi takupauk?    Does Peter see the policeman?
Aakka, paliisinik Piita takujuq.    No, Peter sees some policemen.

Ergativity in Inuktitut

Inuktitut marks the subject of a non-specific verb and the object of a specific verb in the same way - the absence of a specific morphological marker - and marks the subject of a specific verb and the object of a non-specific verb with particular morphological elements. This kind of morphosyntactic structure is often called an ergative structure. However, ergativity in its most clearly defined instances is primarily about transitive and intransitive verbs, This dichotomy is not identical to the specific/non-specific verb distinction in Inuktitut, since Inuktitut usage is also concerned with the definiteness of the objects of verb,

Consequently, the application of the notion of ergativty to Inuktitut, and to many other languages, is somewhat controvertial. Regardless, by analogy with more conventionally ergative languages, the -up, -k, -it endings described above are often called ergative suffixes which are taken to be indicative of the ergative case, while the -mik, -rnik, -nik endings (see Non-specific verbs - Objects) are called accusative. This usage is often seen in linguistics literature describing Inuktitut, and sometimes in pedagogic literature and dictionaries, but remains a quite foreign vocabulary to most Inuit.

Changing verb classes

Some verbs are autmatically both specific and non-specific verbs, depending only on which suffixes they receive. The verb taku- - to see - is one example. However, other verbs require an additional suffix to shift classes.

Many action verbs that specifically involve an actor performing an action on another are specific verbs that take the suffix -si- in order to become non-specific verbs:

Specific form:     Qukiqtara qimmiq     I just shot the dog.
Non-specific form:     Qukiqsijunga qimmirmik     I just shot a dog.

Many verbs of emotion alternate between the suffixes -suk- and -gi- to change whether or not they are specific:

Non-specific:     Ilirasuktunga ilisaijimik     I'm intimidated by a teacher
Specific:     Iliragijara ilisaiji     I'm intimidated by the teacher

This is important when attributing an emotion to a person without designating the cause. To do so, Inuktitut always uses the non-specific form:

Kuppiasuktunga     I'm afraid

Reflexive verbs

A reflexive verb is a verb which must have both an object and a subject, but where, in some context, both the object and the subject are identical. In Inuktitut, this situation is expressed by using a specific verb but by affixing a non-specific ending to it.

Specific:Nanuq qukiqtara     I just shot the polar bear
Non-specific:Nanurmik qukiqsijunga     I just shot a polar bear
Reflexive:Qukiqtunga     I just shot myself


The causative (called the becausitive in one of the best known Inuktitut second language curricula) is used to link propositions that follow logically. It is much more broadly used in Inuktitut than similar structures are in English. The causative is one of the most important ways of connecting two clauses in Inuktitut:

Qannirmat qainngittunga
qanniq-+-mat qai-+-nngit-+-tunga
to snow+4th pers. non-specific causative to come+not+1st pers. sg. non-specific
Because it is snowing, I am not coming.

Because the causative is used primarily in sub-clauses, their suffixes in the third person must make a distinction between cases where the two clauses have the same subject. In English, the sentence "He is leaving because he is arriving" is ambiguous and difficult to understand unless you know that the two "he"'s refer to different people. In Inuktitut it poses no difficulty:

Aullaqtuq tikimmat.
aullaq-+-tuq tikit-+-mat
to leave+3rd pers. sg. non-specific to arrive+4th pers. sg. non-specific causative
He1 is leaving because he2 is arriving

The set of morphemes used to indicate the other third person is sometimes called the third person different, but is also often called the fourth person. This additional grammatical person is a pervasive feature of Inuktitut:

Non-specific causatives

This section in progress

1st pers.2nd pers.3rd pers.4th pers.
singular-gama-gavit-gami-mat (See note)
dual-gannuk-gassik-gamik-matik (See note)
plural-gatta-gassi-gamik-mata (See note)

Specific causatives

This section in progress

Other classes of verb suffixes

This article cannot cover the whole of Inuktitut verbal morphology, however, it should mention the other classes of verb suffixes. Each has its own set of non-specific and specific endings and they vary significantly in from dialect to dialect. The examples below are based on the North Baffin dialect.

Conditional & Subjunctive

This structure has a meaning closer to an "if... then..."' sentence in English than the kind of structure usually referred to as "conditional". It generally involves using an additional marker of the future tense or the conditional mood in the main clause:

Qaiguvit niriniaqpit?
qai-+-guvit niri-+-niaq-+-pit
to come+2nd pers. sg. non-specific conditional to eat+future tense+2nd pers. sg. non-specific interrogative
If you come, will you eat?
Qanniqpat aninajanngittunga
qanniq-+-pat ani-+-najaq-+-nngit-+-tunga
to snow+3rd pers. sg. diff. subject non-specific conditional to go out+conditional mood+not+1st pers. sg. non-specific
If it were snowing, I wouldn't go out.


The frequentative endings indicate that two propositions routinely occur together. In English, this is expressed with words like usually, often, generally and whenever. It generally involves using an additional marker in the main clause to indicate frequency:

Kaakkaangami niriqattaqtuq
kaak-+-kaanga- niri-+-qattaq-+-tuq
to be hungry+3rd pers. sg. frequentative to eat+usually+3rd pers. sg. non-specific
When he's hungry, he eats.


The dubitative suffixes express uncertainty or disbelief about a proposition:

Naalangmangaarmitit nalujunga
naalak-+-mangaarmitit nalu-+-junga
to listen+3rd pers. subject 2nd pers. object specific dubitative to not know+1st pers. non-specific
I don't know whether or not she listens to you.

Verb modifiers

This section is in progress

Between root verb morphemes and inflexions to indicate the number and person of the arguments, it is possible to insert a large number of different morphemes that modify the verb. In pedagogic and linguistic literature on Inuktitut, these infix morphemes are often called verb chunks. These modifiers indicate tense, aspect, manner and a variety of functions that in English require auxilliary verbs, adverbs, or other structures.

This section can only list a small selection of the many verb chunks, in order to give a sense for how the system works:

Modifiers of manner

-nngit- - negates the verb
N.B.: This morpheme deletes a preceding consonant.
to be happynot1st pers. sg.
I am not happy.
to work, to be employednot3rd pers. sg.
He doesn't work. (= He is unemployed.)
-luaq- - excessively
N.B.: This morpheme deletes a preceding consonant.
to work, to be employedexcessively3rd pers. sg.
He works too much.
to sleepexcessively2nd pers. sg.
You sleep too much.
-galuaq- - although, but
N.B.: This morpheme undergoes consonant sandhi:
Preceding letter contextFormExample
to go out+although+1st pers. sg.
Even though I just went out...
to be happyalthough3rd pers. sg.
Although she is happy...
changes the t into k
to snownotalthough3rd pers. sg.
Although it isn't snowing...
deletes the q
to snowalthough3rd pers. sg.
Although it is snowing...
Consequently one can say:
Qanniqlaunngikkaluaqtuq aninngittunga.
qanniq-+-lauq-+-nngit-+-galuaq-+-tuq  ani-+-nngit-+-tunga
to snowexcessivelynotalthough3rd pers. sg.  to go outnot1st pers. sg.
Even though it's not snowing a great deal, I'm not going out.

Modifiers of tense

While Indo-European languages tend to make tense distinctions in terms of before or after some reference event, Inuktitut makes a number of somewhat fuzzy distinctions depending on how far into the past or the future the event took place. In English, this distinction requires additional words to place the event in time, but in Inuktitut the tense marker itself carries much of that information.

-laaq- - future, tomorrow or later
N.B.: This morpheme deletes a preceding consonant.
to talklater, after today1st pers. subject 3rd pers object specifc
I'll talk to him some other time.
-niaq- - later today
N.B.: This morpheme nasalises a preceding consonant.
to arrivelater today3rd pers. sg. non-specific
He is arriving later.
-liq- - in process, right now
N.B.: This morpheme deletes a preceding consonant. When applied to a state verb, it emphasises that the state holds at the present moment. For action verbs, it means that the action is taking place right now, instead of having just finished.
qangatasuu miliqtuq
qangatasuu mit-+-liq-+-tuq
airplaneto land, to touch downright now3rd pers. sg. non-specific
The airplane is landing.
-rataaq- - immediate past, a moment ago, no more than a few seconds
N.B.: This morpheme deletes a preceding consonant.
to thinkjust a moment ago1st pers. sg. non-specific
I was just thinking
-qqau- - just now, a few minutes ago
N.B.: This morpheme deletes a preceding consonant.
to hearjust nownot1st pers. subject 2nd pers object specific
I didn't hear you just now
-lauq- - more remote past, yesterday or earlier, up to perhaps a year
N.B.: This morpheme deletes a preceding consonant.
Iglumik niuvialauqtunga
iglu+-mik niuviaq-+-lauq-+-tunga
houseaccusative purchaserecently, in the last year1st pers. sg. non-specific
I bought a house recently
-lauqsima- - remote past, several years or more ago
N.B.: This morpheme deletes a preceding consonant.
Inuktitummik ilisailauqsimajunga
inukitut+-mik ilisai-+-lauqsima-+-junga
inuktitutaccusative studysome years ago1st pers. sg. non-specific
I studied Inuktitut some time ago.


This section is in progress



An interesting thing is naming of individuals. Some names include 'Ujaraq' (rock), 'Nuvuk' (headland), 'Nasak' (hat, or hood), 'Tupiq' (tent), 'Qajaq' (kayak), etc. There are also names that share names in the animal world: 'Nanuq' (polar-bear), 'Uqalik' (Arctic hare), 'Tiriaq' (ermine), etc. A third class are individuals with anatomic reference but are not descriptive of the person named, obviously, in that the names are derived from a long succession of people bearing that same soul. Examples include 'Itigaituk' (has no feet), 'Usuiituk' (has no penis), 'Tulimak' (rib), etc.

Words for snow

A popular belief exists that Inuktitut has 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, Inuktitut has 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 Inuktitut than in English, so these definitions are somewhat misleading.

Inuktitut 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 Inuktitut words for snow has been put forward so often it is somewhat of a journalistic clich (as evidenced by a collection of quotes from linguist Mark Liberman (


Because Inuktitut 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 Inuktitut. This article has largely used Inuujingajut , the Roman alpahabet scheme used in Nunavut. Most Inuktitut in Nunavut and Nunavik is written using an alternative 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 been reformed and modified in recent years.

The Canadian Syllabary

Missing image
The syllabary used to write Inuktitut (titirausiq nutaaq). The extra characters with the dots represent long vowels; in the Latin transcription, the vowel would be doubled.
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 also


Some of the examples in this article are drawn from Introductory Inuktitut and Inuktitut Linguistics for Technocrats.

External links


Dictionaries and lexica


de:Inuktitut eo:Inuita lingvo es:Inuktitut fr:Inuktitut ko:이누이트어 iu:ᐃᓄᒃᑎᑐᑦ fi:Inuktitutin kieli sv:Inuktitut zh:因纽特语


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