Crossing the Arctic’s Northwest Passage is difficult enough, but an even greater challenge lies in the local language, Inuktitut. By Kendall Hill.

Speaking Inuktitut: just mind your Js and Qs

View of Pond Inlet, looking across to Bylot Island.
View of Pond Inlet, looking across to Bylot Island.

Pond Inlet, population 1600 or so, huddles on a barren shore of Baffin Island above the 72nd parallel, well within the Arctic Circle. It is 6 degrees Celsius when we arrive in midsummer. The waters of Eclipse Sound glint like blue mercury in the brittle sunshine.

The play of light on water against a wall of iced mountains makes a dazzling distraction but I’m swotting up on cultural customs before we reach the Inuit settlement, so the stunning scenery will have to wait.

Raised eyebrows mean yes. A scrunched nose is no. If shaking hands with locals, avoid a firm grip. 

“It’s a very small grab,” Inuit culturalist Lynda Brown explained earlier to passengers aboard the Sea Adventurer, before pointing out it was unlikely we’d shake hands with anyone. “Most people will be quite shy,” she cautioned, “but there will be lots of smiles.”

From the ship, Pond Inlet resembles a strikingly bleak film set. Boxy houses cluster on a bare slope facing Baffin Bay. Instead of trees, which can’t grow this far north, the hilltop is planted with sombre gravestones. Tents line the shore, the summer camps of fishermen angling for a haul of Arctic char before the sea freezes over once more. 

This is the remote Qikiqtaaluk Region of Nunavut, the Inuit homeland in Canada’s frozen north. At about two million square kilometres, Nunavut – “Our Land” – is bigger than four Californias, a fifth of Canada’s landmass. It is only accessible by air or sea. My guidebook, from expedition operators Adventure Canada, rightly describes it as “one of the world’s last great wild places”.

It has taken days to get here from Greenland. We are attempting to cross the Northwest Passage but the summer ice is the heaviest in a decade so the 118-passenger Sea Adventurer must keep changing tack. Daily satellite updates warn us where not to go. Hundreds of hardy explorers have perished attempting this same feat and the expedition team is being cautious. The Arctic does not need any more gravestones.

Along the hill from the cemetery stands the Nattinak Visitor Centre, pride of Pond Inlet. It houses a small but fascinating ethnographic museum of stuffed polar animals, sealskin bags of flint and steel for making fire, masks from Button Point and waterproof carriers made from hollowed fish bodies. 

Inside the main hall, community members of all ages, some wearing fur-lined boots, amauti parkas and headdresses, wait to perform. Just a smattering of passenger ships attempt the Northwest Passage crossing during the brief summer window – 17 made it through in 2014 – so our arrival is a special occasion in a place where tourism remains a welcome novelty. 

The mayor greets us in Inuit, his deputy translates, and then the games begin. Youths demonstrate alarming feats involving wild airborne leaps, a tug of war waged with heads and a loop of leather, and an excruciating game where men dig their fingers into the corner of an opponent’s mouth and then pull like mad. I don’t know whether to laugh or scream. 

An elder lights an oil lamp then chants while our other Inuit culturalist, Lamech Kadloo, cloaked in hooded quvvuq parka, drums and dances. Hopping on the spot like a raven, swaying like a caribou.

Kadloo tells me later that drumming is a spring tradition. Families and friends would gather in a big igloo and sing ayaya songs all night to celebrate reaching midwinter, an event signalled by the appearance of the Aagjuuk constellation in the north-eastern sky. Its twin stars, Altair and Tarazed, herald the return of twilight after the seemingly eternal winter’s night. Summer is coming. Time to celebrate.

“This is a happy time for us, a time for games and songs,” Kadloo smiles. “It means we will have food and we will live another day.”

Two young women begin a throat-singing duel, or iviq, clasping arms and singing directly into each other’s faces. Their voices saw back and forth in grunts, squeaks, exclamations and melodic mantras timed to the rhythm of their swaying bodies. 

Songs mimic the sounds of nature. This one is called “Snow Goose”. Others are inspired by the noise of the winds, even water lapping against a boat. 

The performance continues until one singer falters or bursts out laughing. Katajaat or qiaqpaarniq, as the Inuit call throat singing, always ends with laughter.

If you ever wondered why there are so few Js and Qs in English, the answer is Inuktitut. The Inuit language is littered with both, along with many Ks, Ts and some very long vowels.

In a climate this cold people don’t open their mouths more than they have to, hence the raised eyebrows and scrunched noses. But for a people of few words the Inuit have an exquisitely expressive language.

On Baffin Island, aqqaqataa is that melancholy time of year when the sun starts to disappear. Aqhautijuuk is when two love-struck men fight a tug of war over a woman, with her in the middle. Not to be confused with tukiqtuq, which is body-slamming.

You already know qajaq, anglicised as kayak. It’s one of several words English has adopted from the people of Canada, Greenland, Alaska and Russia. Anorak is another. Malamute. And igloo, obviously.

Inuktitut is a Lego language. Words are formed by sticking blocks of meaning together, a practice that yields constructions as unwieldy as Welsh but, importantly, creates a vocabulary that speaks volumes about the Inuit’s extreme existence.

Ullisaqtug is a word meaning “to wait all day at a seal-breathing hole”. You could write a short story about that one verb. Summaqusirsimajuq describes waiting for the discharge from a boil after applying a lemming-skin bandage. Ujjaq are the slightly aged skins from basking seals. Qangmaa is a word used in a song to indicate that the composer is a woman and has five or more sons. And, perhaps my favourite Inuktitut word, nipjiqtiqtuq means “sounds of excitement”. Pure onomatopoeia.

The language has its own persuasive logic. A clock is sigingujaq, sun-follower. Radios are naalaut, “to hear things from”; a fax machine is sukatunik titiraut or “fast letters”, while a computer is “like a brain”, qaritaujaq.

I researched many of these words in an onboard library book, Uqalurait: An Oral History of Nunavut, by John Bennett and Susan Rowley. Bennett and Rowley’s volume is an attempt, in part, to chronicle Inuit customs and traditions in the face of increasing urbanisation and the simultaneous loss of indigenous oral knowledge. Today’s Inuit elders are, in some communities, the last link to a way of life that is vanishing into the thin polar air.

But it hasn’t totally disappeared. I meet a young hunter, Lee Inuarak, beside the track we take back to the shore to board Zodiac shuttles to the ship. He mans a makeshift shop selling just one item, a 175-centimetre tusk from a narwhal he captured in July. The tusk, a fantastic thing of spiralled ivory, rests on his quad bike and glimmers in the sunlight. He wants $C1500 for it. We saw larger, ornately carved ones for sale in the Pond Inlet co-operative shop for $C2000 and more. Only Canadian citizens can buy them legally. 

Inuarak’s tusk is one of seven he and his family harvested two weeks ago. Narwhal are hunted in summer. In winter the quarry are seals, belugas and polar bears. The Inuit are North America’s last hunting culture. Up to 70 per cent of their diet still consists of “country food” – wild meats and fish. It’s essential nutrition for Arctic dwellers; the blubber of marine mammals provides them with the fat necessary to survive a polar climate.

They take only what they need to survive. At the community centre an elder explained that, of the five seal species hunted by the Inuit for centuries, none is endangered. The Inuit do not kill for sport. They believe each animal has a soul and it must not be abused or the hunt will be ruined.

Immitittijuq is one who offers fresh water to a sea mammal just after it is killed, but before it is butchered. The hunter dribbles water from his mouth into the muzzle of the slain creature. It’s an act of communion, a thanksgiving between species battling to survive in the Arctic wilderness.

The writer travelled with the assistance of

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 5, 2015 as "Mind your Js and Qs".

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Kendall Hill is a Melbourne-based journalist and travel writer.

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