Musa for Inuit

The Inuit languages are spoken across the Arctic coast of North America, from Alaska to Greenland. There are a dozen dialects, closely related; each can be understood by its neighbors, but less the further separated they are. They are related to the Yupik languages of Alaska and more distantly to the Aleut languages of the Aleutian islands.

The central dialects are usually written in Canadian Aboriginal Syllabics, but about half of the dialects are normally written in a Roman alphabet. Neither solution is particularly appropriate for them, which is why Musa is a good choice.

ᐃᓐᔪᐱᐊᑦ ᐃᓄᐃᑦ ᓄᓇᖓᑦ ᖃᓛᓪᓕᑦ ᓄᓈᑦ
Iñupiat Inuit Nunangat Kalaallit Nunaat
  


Syllabics were originally invented in about 1840 by an English missionary for the Cree, a First Nation who speak an Algonquian language completely unrelated to Inuit. He based them on the Devanagari abugida used for Sanskrit, and on Pitman shorthand. They were first used among the Inuit about 20 years later, so they have about 150 years of historical heritage.

Syllabics take advantage of the fact that Cree, Ojibwe and other Algonquian languages have only 4 short vowels, and the Inuit languages only 3. Instead of writing the vowel as a separate letter, as true alphabets do, or as an attachment to the preceding consonant letter, as in abugidas, Syllabics spells the vowel with the orientation of the consonant. To write a long vowel, they put a dot over the syllable, and in Athabascan languages they use other marks, since they have more than 4 vowels.

For example, the letter for p is a wedge. If it points leftward it spells pa; if it points rightward it spells po (pu in Inuit languages); and if it points upward it spells pi. The downward is used by First Nations to spell pe, but since the Inuit languages have no e, they sometimes use it to spell the diphthong pai. The long versions are written ᐹ ᐴ ᐲ (pai is always long). Finally, a small superscript version ᑉ is used to spell p when it's not followed by any vowel, although the Western dialects of Cree spell that with a different symbol .

pa pu pi pai paa puu pii -p

This basic system works pretty well, although the little superscripts are hard to read in small fonts. It's too bad the Inuit didn't use the fourth orientation to indicate a final consonant.

Unfortunately, syllables don't have standard readings across all the languages that use them: for example, spells ga in Inuit languages, but cha in Algonquian languages. Of course, the same criticism is also true of the Roman alphabet.

The biggest problem is that Syllabics simply doesn't have the letters we need to write all the Inuit languages. Some sounds are simply missing:

A final problem with Syllabics is that they are not widely used: nowadays, just the Inuit, Cree and Ojibwe. That means that any Inuit who travels outside of northern Canada is unlikely to find a Syllabics keyboard or a computer with a Syllabics font installed. There are Syllabics keyboards for cell phones, but most apps won't support Syllabics, even when a Syllabics font is installed.

It also means that most foreigners won't be able to read Syllabics, so many signs and names will have to be transcribed. Finally, fluency in Syllabics doesn't help an Inuit learn a foreign language, so they probably have to learn another script.

Of course, no effort is too much when it comes to maintaining Inuit identity, but perhaps an exotic script is not the best way to express that. After all, fewer than half of the Inuit use Syllabics, and they weren't invented for or by Inuit. In fact, given that they're not used by Inuit outside of Canada, and they are used by non-Inuit in Canada, they're really a symbol of Canadian aboriginal identity much more than Inuit identity.

Worst of all, if problems with the script contribute to a decline in the use of the language - a much more important aspect of identity - then using Syllabics will turn out to have been an unfortunate choice.


The other half of dialects - those outside of Nunavut - write in a different Roman orthography, with some variation among them. The most popular variant is called the Double Vowel System, since long vowels are written with two short vowels: aa ii uu. That works fine, as long as you never need to write a sequence of the two short vowels.

The problems all occur with the consonants, for the very simple reason that the Roman alphabet is also missing many letters! Even in English, we have to spell the sounds ch sh th ng with digraphs, and there are no consistent spellings for the sounds written ð ʒ ʤ ɔ ʊ in IPA.

The Inuit languages spell the uvular plosive with a q, as in transliterations from Arabic like Iraq and Qatar (some dialects used to use a capital K). They spell the uvular fricative with an r, as in French or Portuguese. They spell the palatal approximant with a j, as in German or Polish. They spell the glottal stop with an ', as in Hawai'ian or Arabic transliteration. And they spell the ŋ sound with ng, as in English.

But there's no good way to spell many of the other sounds: the uvular nasal ɴ, the palatal plosive ɟ, the retroflex sibilants ʂ ʐ, the palatals ʧ ɲ ʎ, the fricatives x χ ɣ, or the ə schwa.

The Extended Latin Alphabet has 1350 letters in Unicode: surely that's enough for any language! But those letters don't have standard values, and even the International Phonetic Alphabet (with 107 letters!) is missing letters, for example for ejectives and affricates. Many of those 1350 letters have diacritic hooks and squiggles - look at Vietnamese đồng hồ báo thức - and many languages still use digraphs - look at Polish chrząszcz.

Because of this, the main advantage of the Roman alphabet - that it's widely used - is much diminished. What good does it do a Czech to be able to read the name Jack if he thinks it spells yotsk?


As of October 2019, the Inuit of Nunavut have given up on Syllabics. They feel that a Roman orthography is more familiar, and that using letters instead of syllabic characters make it easier to see the patterns of phonological changes. I'm sure they also took into account the much wider availability of fonts, keyboards and other tools for the Roman alphabet. Yet there are also disadvantages of a Roman orthography, the most obvious being that it can be confused with other Roman orthographies.

The name of the orthography chosen by the Inuit Cultural Institute is Qaliujaaqpait, and it is intended to become the standard writing system for Inuktut, a new blanket term for all the Inuit languages of Nunavut. By using a single term for the collection of dialects, they hope to be able to profit from a single linguistic identity and economies of scale in educational material and publications, at some detriment to dialectical diversity.

Qaliujaaqpait shares most of its letters with Inuujingajut, even those that differ from English: j q r '. They have introduced a new letter ł for the palatal lateral, which seems to me like an odd choice: that letter usually represents a non-palatal sound, and it will be absent from most keyboards. The use of jj for an affricate also seems odd - perhaps the designers didn't want to use dj, since Inuktut doesn't need d. And they chose to keep the ng digraph, and to write the uvular nasal with the ordinary n.

It also seems a shame to make such an effort to unify the Inuit languages of Nunavut without trying to include the other Inuit languages - of Western Canada, Alaska and Greenland. That would require adding letters for some other sounds, but the big advantage would be that the other dialects might have joined the program and thus contributed their weight to support for Qaliujaaqpait, even if not for Inuktut. A missed opportunity!

Phonemic versus Phonetic

No matter which letters are used, we should be writing what we're saying, not what we're thinking. Let me give you an example of the distinction: in English, the 3rd person singular present form of verbs adds an -s to the base form: I sit → he sits or I laugh → he laughs. But when the verb ends in a voiced sound, we actually pronounce that s as a z: I see → he sees or I love → he loves. In those cases, we should be writing that s with the letter z. We should even be writing sez wuz duz instead of says was does! That's the difference between phonemic and phonetic orthography. In our heads, we're thinking "I'm going to add an -s to say", but we actually pronounce "sez". And that's what we should be writing.

Now let me give you an example from Inuktitut, an Inuit language of Nunavut. When the final consonant of one word combines with the initial consonant of the next word (affix) to form a cluster, it often assimilates the manner of the second consonant. So ᓂᐅᕕᖅ niuviq + ᕕᒃ vik becomes ᓂᐅᕕᕐᕕᒃ niuvirvik. But if the affix begins with a nasal, the needed letter is missing: ᐅᒥᐊᖅ umiaq + ᒧᑦ mut becomes ᐅᒥᐊᕐᒧᑦ umiarmut, where the r represents the uvular nasal ɴ. This confusion is the cause of many spelling errors.

The situation is even more pronounced with vowels, since they vary continuously: there is no fixed border between them. In both current scripts, we only spell the phonemic vowel, and the exact pronunciation varies quite a bit. If we could spell that pronunciation, we could write more phonetically. But where does it end? Do we have to write every little nuance of tongue position and lip rounding? No, we write the closest letter we have to the actual sound. The difference is that Musa has more vowel letters, so the spelling is more accurate.

Musa for Inuit Languages

As you can read elsewhere on this site, Musa letters are all composed of only 20 basic shapes. Here are the Inuit consonants:




























With a few exceptions, you can see that the consonants form a very regular system: the letters in the same row share the same top, and the letters in the same column share the same bottom. This regularity makes assimilation very clear.

The thirteen extra letters (in parentheses) that are missing from Syllabics enable us to write every dialect the way it's spoken. There's no good reason to make everybody write a standard dialect.

Now here are the Inuit vowels. The stressed vowel at the end of the word is written high. Unlike the Double Vowel system, Musa shows that long vowels (and the ai diphthong) are still one syllable. And Musa has a letter for the Alaskan "weak i" (schwa) that Syllabics is missing.




 
(e ə)
  
(ɛ æ ɑ)
 
(ɨ o)


The first line shows the phonemes; the second line shows some of the allophones - their pronunciations in various contexts, for example next to uvulars. The last shows a possible pronunciation of the ua or au diphthong.

Musa has a kana gait that combines vowels into the preceding consonant, just like Syllabics. But Inuit words are not all composed of open syllables, like Hawai'ian or native Japanese: they have long vowels and final consonants. So for the Inuit languages, an alphabetic gait is a better choice.

Maybe if we can offer the Inuit a new alphabet that has all the letters they need, and none of the disadvantages of the current options, all of them will agree to adopt it, and thus make it a true symbol of Inuit identity.


Now that you've learned the letters, why don't you try reading a sentence?
I never said I wanted to go to Paris

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