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I'm at the Eureka weather station in Nunavut,
in the Canadian High Arctic, about 80 degrees north.
Here they provide weather reports not just for the Arctic,
but for the transatlantic flights high above it.
Because we're in Nunavut, there are three official languages here:
English, French, and the local language: Inuktitut.
Although it’s difficult to be exact about languages in the Arctic:
the line between dialects and languages gets blurred,
people in different areas can understand some of people say.
Like most languages here, Inuktitut is polysynthetic,
which means that something that needs a whole sentence in English
can just be one long word,
with each part affecting all the others.
Now, in Greenland, similar languages are written using the Latin alphabet,
but the words can seem unwieldy to English-speakers.
The Latin alphabet is a writing system that evolved for a completely different language,
one with lots of short words and spaces.
But there is an alternative,
it's used all round northern Canada,
and to my eyes, it’s really cool.
A bit of history: the reason this writing system exists is because
it was invented by Christian missionaries who were trying to spread the gospel.
The first books printed in Inuktitut were extracts from the Bible.
I’ve put some links in the description to provide some context there, but:
there’s no way I can cover that in a short video that’s mostly about linguistics.
First up: this is not an alphabet.
In an alphabet, vowels and consonants both have letters,
which makes sense when you’ve speaking a language
with a lot of complicated combinations of sounds in it.
But Inuktitut, like a lot of polysynthetic languages,
has a relatively simple syllable structure: with rare exceptions,
the maximum you can have in a syllable is
a consonant, some vowels, and then another consonant.
That is it, that is all your options.
A long, English one-syllable word like “scratched” wouldn’t work here:
you need to put vowels in those consonant clusters.
You need se-ce-ra-te-ched.
Long vowels being written with two letters,
that's also added to the long words,
so the Latin alphabet gets a bit overwhelmed.
But the Inuktitut script is not an alphabet.
It is an abugida.
Each symbol represents both a consonant and a vowel.
The shape of the symbol tells you the consonant, and here is the clever part:
the direction it's pointing tells you the vowel.
And if it’s got a dot above it,
it’s a long vowel, like aa instead of a.
I’m not going to get the vowels exactly right, I’m English.
And if there’s a little symbol, up afterwards,
you add another consonant at the end.
So my name, Tom, would be like this:
the curve shape means T,
it's pointing to the right, which means “u”,
the closest you can get to an o here,
and the right angle at the end means a closing M.
Tum.
If your accent's different,
you might transcribe it a little differently,
you might flip the curve the other way.
Tam.
And if you're American,
you'd add a little dot there for a long vowel.
Taam.
So here is a simple word in Inuktitut: anaana.
Mother.
Like almost every language in the world,
the word for mom is a sound that a baby will make accidentally.
Sorry parents, it was probably an accident.
A triangle means no consonant,
and pointed left always means a simple “a”.
Next, that shape means “n”, pointing left means “a”,
and the dot means long.
“naa”.
Then the same again, without the dot. “na”.
Annana.
The word for father is ataata.
Swap those spools out for the curve,
the T from Tom, and there you go.
Ataata.
And yes, of course it’s more complicated than this,
I’m literally speaking baby talk,
but compare this to the Latin alphabet
where there's just arbitrary symbols that you have to learn.
There’s design here.
There's intent.
There isn't complicated letters with unwritten rules that all influence each other.
This is an easy script to learn,
and for an endangered language with only about 30,000 fluent speakers?
That is a really good attribute to have.
I'm here thanks to Chris Hadfield's Generator Arctic, and so are these two!
-- I'm Norm from Tested. -- And I'm Joey from Tested.
-- And we're here shooting a bunch of educational videos as well.
You can find those at youtube.com/testedcom
Links are in the description or on screen now!