Professor Murasugi provides support to Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami’s Atausiq Inuktut Titirausiq Task Group

By Nick Ward


For the past several years, Kumiko Murasugi, Associate Professor of Linguistics in the School of Linguistics and Language Studies (SLaLS) and the Institute of Cognitive Science (ICS), has been providing linguistic support to the national Inuit group, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami‘s (ITK) Atausiq 1 Inuktut Titirausiq (AIT) Task Group.

The Task Group is composed of three Inuit members from each of the four Inuit regions in Canada who come recommended by their land claim organization, as well as ITK’s National Inuit Language Coordinator, Monica Ittusardjuat, and the president of the Inuit Youth Council.

The group’s mandate is to explore the feasibility of a single, unified, standardized Inuktut writing system as a means to strengthen Inuit unity, language, and culture in Canada (“Atausiq” translates to “one”). More specifically, this most recent effort to standardize the writing system was one of the recommendations of the National Committee on Inuit Education to improve educational outcomes by facilitating the sharing of resources among the different Inuit regions. “The main concern of the regions was loss of dialects, but no matter what standard the AIT Task Group comes up with, the regions will continue to use their own writing systems to each other,” explains Ittusardjuat. “It will be used for government documents or for educational material that’s to be shared amongst all Inuit in Canada. Even if the standard comes up with consonant clusters the dialects that have geminates will say the words with geminates, for example: tuktu, tuttu.”

Connecting with Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami‘s (ITK) Atausiq Inuktut Titirausiq (AIT) Task Group

Through her role at Carleton, Prof. Murasugi recruits and hires students and community members who are fluent in Inuktut to help with Inuit language research in the School of Linguistics and Language Studies. As fate would have it, one of her former research assistants, Kevin Kablutsiak, was hired as ITK’s first language coordinator to lead the standardization portfolio. Kablutsiak, familiar with Professor Murasugi’s areas of research, was sure she could help the AIT mission, and so set up a meeting. Given that Prof. Murasugi’s research interests encompass various perspectives on the Inuit language, including linguistic theory, heritage language, language change, and language documentation, ITK saw her as a great fit.

“ITK reached out to Carleton University and Kumiko to provide expertise and a number of perspectives for consideration as we move toward a recommended unified Inuit language writing system,” said Ittusardjuat. “Kumiko’s research and expertise in Inuit languages is extremely important to the discussions of ITK’s Task Group which have been mandated to research and identify the speech components of Inuktut and the current Inuktut orthographies in use and recommend an Inuktut orthography, considering today’s technology and trends that is most effective and has the best chance of advancing Inuktut far into the future.”

“I have known Kumiko for a number of years, including having the honour of teaching Inuktut to Kumiko while she was in Iqaluit, Nunavut. I consider her a friend and valuable member of our Task Group,” added Ittusardjuat.

Murasugi was thrilled to be asked to lend her skillset to this project. “Right now the Task Group has just about finished choosing the symbols for the new, unified writing system,” she explains. “In my role providing linguistic support, I can discuss with them the linguistic implications of their choices or suggest alternatives that they might not have considered.”

“I am there to aid the team as they make the crucial decisions. This is truly a project by Inuit for Inuit. I also help to inform the academic community about the important work that they’re doing.”

Through many consultations, meetings, and workshops the Group has left no leaf unturned in their pursuit to standardize Inuktut. “The AIT Task Group is diligent, thoughtful and very consensus based in their work. At times things move slowly, and challenges arise, but everyone involved is united in their goal to provide a writing system for future generations of Inuktut speakers,” said Murasugi.

Murasugi underlines not only the breadth of the project but also the cultural significance of the task at hand. “The mandate is immensely valuable. Standardizing the writing system will help Inuit protect and promote their language, which is a vital feature of their culture. We must act to maintain this integral part of Canada because the language is at risk with the passing of fluent elders, language loss due to residential schools, and decreasing proficiency and language use among Inuit youth.”

AIT Task Group in Inuvik, NWT. Photo: Kumiko Murasugi.

AIT Task Group in Inuvik, NWT. Photo: Kumiko Murasugi.

Researching in the United Kingdom

As part of this elaborate research effort, Murasugi recently travelled alongside the AIT Task Group to Wales in the United Kingdom. On this U.K research tour, organized in partnership with Prince’s Charities Canada, the group studied the revitalization of the once imperiled Welsh language with the intent of bringing some ‘best practices’ back home with them to Canada. The group engaged in meaningful conversations with the Welsh people on language rollout and investigated how a pipeline of fluent speakers was developed to teach, write and publish in the Welsh language. They also spent lots of time learning how Welsh has been reestablished in local education systems.

“It was interesting to see that the Welsh are considering developing standard local writing systems, which is the reverse of what the Inuit are doing,” said Murasugi. “The Inuit have many local writing systems, but see the need for a standardized system to share educational resources and facilitate communication across dialects in government, business and other public domains. The goal for both the Welsh and Inuit people is the same: a standardized national writing system alongside orthographies that reflect regional dialects.”

AIT Task Group and Natan Obed, President of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami. Photo: Mitchell White.

AIT Task Group and Natan Obed, President of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami. Photo: Mitchell White.

The Itinerary…which included tea with the Prince of Wales

The visit to Wales occurred over a five-day period starting with a meeting at Canolfan Bedwyr’s Language Technologies Unit at Bangor University, which specializes in language revitalization through the use of technologies such as electronic dictionaries, language proofing tools and language corpora. This provided the group with an opportunity to learn from the individuals responsible for projects such as standardizing terminology, creating dictionary apps, and developing speech and translation technologies.

Following their stop at Bangor, a session was held with the Welsh Books Council in Aberwystwyth, giving the team a chance to learn and discuss the various aspects of the publishing industry and how it was developed in Wales. Their next destination in Aberwystwyth was the Centre for Advanced Welsh and Celtic Studies at the University of Wales, where the group learned about the creation of the original Dictionary of the Welsh Language and the new technologies currently being used in developing later editions. They also studied the extensive collection of books, archives, maps and photographs at the Welsh National Library. The next morning a representative from the Welsh Government Translation Bureau gave a presentation on their terminology database and other resources for translators. The database was based on Termium Plus, the Government of Canada’s terminology and linguistic data bank!

Other functions included a tour of the National Assembly of Wales in Cardiff, meetings with the First Minister of Wales and the Welsh Language Commissioner, and a visit with WJEC, an organization providing assessment, training and educational resources to schools and colleges in Wales and elsewhere in the U.K. They also had visited a new Welsh medium primary school, where even the children who had only been introduced to the Welsh language a few months earlier, were already comfortable with Welsh as the primary language of instruction.

On the group’s final day, they participated in a roundtable session with His Royal Highness, Charles, the Prince of Wales, at his Welsh residence to discuss language revitalization. Although they were understandably nervous, the session went off without a hitch.

Reception and tea with HRH Charles, Prince of Wales. Photo: Gareth Everett/Huw Evans Agency.

Reception and tea with HRH Charles, Prince of Wales.
Photo: Gareth Everett/Huw Evans Agency.

Moving Forward

Since returning from these consultations and experiences, Murasugi and AIT have been applying what they learned from the Welsh people to Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami’s official educational plans and recommendations.

“The AIT Task Group would like to follow up with some of the Welsh organizations, in particular, Bangor University’s Language Technologies Unit and the Welsh National Library,” explained Murasugi. “The Task Group discussed their desire for a national centre for Inuit artifacts and printed material located in Arctic Canada.”

“They also want to remain connected with the examination board WJEC, for when they reach the stage of developing assessment tools for their unified writing system.”

When asked to reflect on the trip to U.K., Murasugi was quite enthusiastic about what she was able to take away from it. “One of the highlights for me was the realization that writing systems that represent local dialects are just as important as standardized writing systems. The Welsh system was developed over 500 years ago with the translation of the Bible, but now, with changes that have occurred in the language over the past centuries, it no longer reflects the current spoken language.”

With this greater perspective in hand, Murasugi continues to provide linguistic support to the AIT Task Group as they continue on their path toward a unified writing system. As described by Murasugi, they have just about finished deter- mining which symbols will belong to the new system.

“For example ‘j’ for the sound ‘y’ as in ‘yellow,’ and ‘tl’ for the voiceless ‘l’ that is also found in Welsh. Much like the first sound in ‘Llwynywermod,’ Prince Charles’ Welsh residence,” she said.

“Currently, I’m working with a smaller Technical Group where we examine the implications of the various alternatives, which are then brought to the AIT Task Group for discussion. The next stage will involve a standard way of combining symbols, which can differ widely across dialects. The word ‘house,’ for example, is spelled and pronounced as ‘iglu’ or ‘illu,’ depending on the dialect. Another example is ‘ukpik’ or ‘uppik’ for ‘owl.’”

Murasugi (far right) with colleagues.

Murasugi (far right) with colleagues.

Murasugi has also recently established a research partnership that developed through her involvement with ITK and the AIT Task Group. Carleton, in conjunction with the Geomatics and Cartographic Research Centre (based at Carleton) and Inuit organizations across the country, is developing a pilot cybercartographic atlas of the Inuit language in Canada. The central feature of this online multimedia atlas is a database of written and spoken words in different Inuktut dialects, accompanied by videos and photographs presenting the words in context. It is meant to serve as a locale where regional dialects can be documented alongside the new written standard. Murasugi stresses that this research project would not have been possible without the collaboration and support of the Inuit people and organizations she has connected with through her ongoing and inspirational work on the standardization project.

As Professor Murasugi’s research in the area of Inuit language, society, and culture continues to expand, she has learned that she is even more well-situated at Carleton than she thought. “I am discovering the range of expertise among my colleagues, both within SLaLS/ICS and in other units across campus.” She has also noticed an increasing interest from students. “This year I taught a course on Inuit language and society, where I had the opportunity to share my research with the class. Many of the students were inspired by the examples of how linguistic research can have real applications to current issues in language maintenance, planning, and use.”


1 Inuktut is the term adopted by ITK in 2015 to encompass all Inuit dialects spoken in Canada.