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After the Snowbird, Comes the Whale Pt 6, Sec 2.

The 2018 Fortnightly Serial.

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Language Change, late-Nineteenth and early-Twentieth Centuries


Many Euro-American goods entered early twentieth century Tikigaq and acquired Inupiaq terminologies that described them in coexistence with a local language that remained healthy, albeit in a retreat that by 1970 became a rush.

Such imported goods became part of Inupiaq reality. The many kinds of animal oil on which the Tikigaq diet and economy depended were supplemented by new kinds of oil for heating and lubrication – kerosene, gasoline, motor oil, grease, gun oil. The Inupiaq language was accordingly bent to these innovations. Here is an account of this process that I wrote earlier:

‘INUPIAQ AND ENGLISH were the main languages of the peninsula, and these were criss-crossed, modified, sometimes enlarged, and at other times submerged by a trading jargon based on both languages, along with smatterings of Russian and Hawaiian. It is unclear who spoke the trading lingo, how it fitted into Inupiaq and English and how often it was used. Since the jargon developed as a tool of barter, it operated mostly in conversations between Inupiat and non-Natives. But a large number of new jargon-derived nouns to cater for imported items entered Inupiaq. If there was a grammatical system to the dialect, it was rudimentary, and took two forms: a simplified, pidgin-style English and a reduced Inupiaq. Because English is easier to break down than the polysynthetic Inupiaq language, some sort of English was usually the vehicle of any complex utterance spoken by Euro-Americans. To denote local things such as types of ice and Eskimo equipment for which there was no English equivalent, Inupiaq nouns and a few simple verb forms were used. Similarly, within a very short period, Inupiaq people coined terms for many imported goods, and some these neologisms are discussed below.

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‘Neither the Jabbertown trading station five miles down the south beach from Tikigaq and Tikigaq village itself were linguistically unique in this changing territory. In the early twentieth century, Vilhalmur Stefansson recorded a trading jargon on Herschel Island and along the Mackenzie River.1 Stefansson notes a three-way contact between Eskimos, white men and Kutchin Indians, the Indians sometimes adopting the lingo for trade or when they interpreted for Inupiat and white men. Stefansson does not mention Tikigaq refugees at these outposts, but he presumably knew of them, and the jargon spoken in the eastern Arctic no doubt resembled the Tikigaq-Jabbertown dialect.

‘Stefansson recorded both grammar and vocabulary. In the case of non-Natives, some individuals used simplified Eskimo structures to express subject-object needs (‘He wants to go aboard ship’, ‘I am hungry’, ‘Give me whale meat’). But the dialect seems mostly to have consisted of nouns, pronouns, demonstratives and a few verbs such as ‘want’, ‘eat’, ‘break’ and ‘die’. These dialect words were mainly deformations of Eskimo terms. But there was also a growing vocabulary of Inupiaq neologisms generated through a correct use of Eskimo modifiers. For example, through the addition of –hluk or –qluk (strange, bad):

Jargon term Literal meaning English meaning
kam’mik-hluk strange trousers cloth trousers
oktcuk-hluk strange or spoilt oil kerosene
tuk-tu-qluk strange deer meat pork, bacon
tan-a-qluk strange alcoholic drink molasses2

‘Some categories might be represented, according to who was speaking, by different but mutually intelligible words. The Inupiaq word nuliaq (wife), as adopted in trade jargon by a Kutchin Indian for use in conversation with both whites and Eskimos, corresponded to the Euro-American trading jargon kuna, probably from the Danish kone – a word whose consonants are found in the Inupiaq language which lacks the ‘w’ and the ‘f’ of wife. Stefansson also recorded the way Euro-Americans learned some Eskimo suffixes then misapplied them, but then generated new words from the confusion: nunamun, ‘towards land’ being translated as ‘on shore’. Nunamun (grammatically the dative ‘towards land’, but in jargon, the locative ‘on land’), transforming to ‘tent’.

‘Jargon’ is not quite the word to describe the lexicon for the new artefacts that entered early twentieth century Tikigaq.

Local Jargon.

‘JARGON’ IS NOT quite the word to describe the lexicon for the new artefacts that entered early twentieth century Tikigaq. Jabbertown came and went. But manufactured goods arrived to stay and new words entered the language and were absorbed into Inupiaq. Some of the new vocabulary came from English, when the English word fitted Inupiaq phonology. Words such as gasoline (gasaulik), molasses (milaasiq), and tea (tii) easily slipped into verbal compounds such as tii-tu[g]-niaq-tunga: ‘I’m going to drink tea’. Dr. Irving Rosse of the Revenue Cutter Corwin gives a good example of how Inupiaq linguistic compounds evolved to describe Euro-American phenomena: ‘Canoe is umiaq; ship is umiaq+pak [big ship]; steamer, umiaq+pak+ignirlik [big ship with fire].3

‘In the absence of precise phonological equivalents, a word such as ‘flour’ could be spread into palau. There were also imitative words such as qaqqaulaq whose guttural q sounds convey the crackle of pilot bread being eaten. Some manufactured goods corresponded to Inupiaq words and things. Different kinds of imported oil and fuel – kerosene, gasoline, motor oil, grease, gun oil – lubricated or burned in some of the same ways as did animal and fish oils. Inupiaq coinages for each of these used a common noun stem (ugruq, ‘oil’) plus a suffix to create a new lexical idea. Thus kerosene was ‘like oil’, motor oil was ‘old oil’, grease was ‘thick oil’. New terms for stoves and stove parts such as chimneys and ventilators could likewise be improvised from words for traditional lamp, fire and iglu features.

‘Food provided an even richer field for invention. Some rare items such as oranges (asiaq, ‘berry’) might be somewhat vaguely assimilated into the language. But the colours, shapes and functions of foods were often conveyed vividly and with a sense of fun. Rainey compiled a list of terms, some which would have been coined in the lifetimes of informants born in the 1870s:

Imported Item Inupiaq term Literal rendering by Rainey/Ivrulik
Bananas usuungnaq like a penis
Beans kumaurat caribou droppings
Beans niliruaq something that makes you fart
Rice uraaq adaptation of ‘rice’
Oatmeal sirri ear dandruff [Rainey gives ear wax]
Sugar avu something you mix in
Mustard ililgaam ananga baby shit
Cheese tchi adaptation of ‘cheese’
Coffee kuukpiaq genuine river (allusion to diuretic property)

‘Whole new terminologies were also generated for culturally powerful and elaborately differentiated word groups such as pipe, pipe deposit, cigarette, chewing tobacco and snuff (chewing tobacco). New coinages for household goods and other imports flowed into the language almost as quickly as the materials they signified: fork, spoon, bread pan, muffin pan, dish, basin, sugar bowl, coffee pot, flour sifter, scissors, camera, telescope, clock [small sun], wrist watch, looking glass, tea strainer, flashlight. Some of these words were shared by other Inupiat, others were specific to Tikigaq. A number of deformed Polynesian words, such as kow-kow (‘food’) and pani-pani (‘sexual intercourse’) also entered the jargon. This transitional lexicon became for Asatchaq’s generation part of Tikigaq tradition.

‘The fact that Inupiaq took in these new phenomena reflects both the wit of the people and the lively, accumulative nature of the language. Like any unwritten language with an elaborately differentiated vocabulary for all the features of an environment within which it worked and whose dynamics it must describe, Inupiaq continued to express the relationship of hunters to Arctic conditions. Species, places and, not least, a minutely discriminated terminology for subsistence equipment and the scrupulously anatomised parts that went into composite tools, represented just a fraction of the linguistic assemblage.

Inupiaq was a language of both tradition and uncertainty, with a subtle and elastic syntax that generated new forms efficiently.

‘Inupiaq was a language of both tradition and uncertainty, with a subtle and elastic syntax that generated new forms efficiently. As changes within the tradition occurred, the language adapted. It grasped what came in and fashioned new terms from existing phonology so that new technologies were linguistically put to work. When the white man came, the language was already well-exercised in the unforeseen. Terms for new domestic and subsistence equipment were needed if these goods were to be integrated effectively. Many such terms would enter twentieth century Inupiaq and survive for the life of the things they described. And while some of the terminology assimilated by pre-contact Inupiaq had fallen away by the mid-twentieth century, the process of language change continues both among Inupiaq speakers and in the dialects of English that have since evolved.’


Language Loss

IMMERSED AS I was in the local language, I only later understood that language loss was both a small community problem and a global issue. Tikigaq belonged to the Native majority whose languages had been marginalized by English, or altogether lost — an outcome of either indifference, positive suppression or a combination of other historical circumstances.

As Michael Krauss4 shows below, this is also a worldwide phenomenon parallel to environmental degradation and the depletion of species. In America, the loss of tribal languages is part of the twentieth century process of homogenization in which minority cultures cling, at best, to an insecure status, and at worst have a minor place in the majority discourse — the institution, for example, of TAPS, ongoing oil pipeline construction.

Much, even with Alaskan state support, has been attempted to revive Inupiaq. And it is never too late. But having mournfully relished listening to just one Inupiaq ten-year-old talking fluently to his monolingual grandfather, it was later a pleasure to hear San Francisco children chattering in Chinese.

Michael Krauss has written extensively on this subject. And there are other linguists and educationalists whose work supports indigenous languages. None claim that they will restore fluency in the use of some of the world’s most complicated grammars. Such might be a dream harboured by speakers of Indo-European languages. One might perhaps revive French if it were to be wiped out. But Inupiaq is not French. And even French is a challenge to children brought up in an Anglophone world that tacitly reassures them that they only need English.

The following extracts from a paper by Krauss summarise the global language crisis and the relation of this to Native American language loss:

The Eyak language of Alaska now has two aged speakers; Mandan has 6, Osage 5, Abenaki-Penobscot 20, and Iowa has 5 fluent speakers. According to counts in 1977…Coeur d’Alene had fewer than 20, Tuscarora fewer than 30, Monomini fewer than 50, Yokuts fewer than 10…

Language endangerment is significantly comparable to – and related to – endangerment of biological species in the natural world. The term is presumably drawn from biological usage. …Languages no longer being learned a mother-tongue by children are beyond mere endangerment, for unless the course is somehow dramatically reversed, they are already doomed to extinction, like species lacking reproductive capacity. Such languages I shall define as ‘moribund’…

In Alaska now only 2 of the 20 Native languages – Central Yupi’k Eskimo and Siberian Yupi’k Eskimo on St. Lawrence Island – are still being learned by children. For the languages of the small Soviet northern minorities it is much the same: only 3 of about 30 are generally being learned by children. Thus in Alaska and the Soviet North together, about 45 of the 50 indigenous languages, 90% are moribund. For the whole USA and Canada together, a similiar count is only a little less alarming: of 187 languages, I calculate that 149 are no longer being learned by children: that is, of the Native North American languages still spoken, 80% are moribund…

Krauss proceeds to survey mortality among the world’s languages and concludes that ‘mortality is already [likely to be] 50%…He continues:

The cirumstances that have led to the present language mortality known to us range from outright genocide, social or economic or habitat destruction, displacement, demographic submersion, language suppression in forced assimilation or assimilatory education, to electronic media bombardment…

Concluding the first part of the article, Krauss adds:

Therefore, I consider it a plausible calculation that…the coming century will see either the death or the doom of 90% of mankind’s languages.

Finally, Krauss addresses some of the remedies available to communities seeking language preservation:

We should not only be documenting these languages, but also working educationally, culturally, and politically to increase their chances of survival. This means working with members of the relevant communities to help produce pedagogical materials and literature and to promote language development in the necessary domains…

And he quotes federal and state law whose purpose was

to preserve and enhance the ability of Alaska Natives to speak and understand their native languages…5

Here, extending the same theme, are extracts from Lawrence Kaplan’s Inupiaq and the Schools which provides an overview of how Inupiaq has co-existed with English in north Alaska.6

The new [Christian] religion profoundly disrupted traditional Eskimo culture as missionaries introduced foreign ideas and values, presenting them as universal truths when they were actually artifacts of European cultures. They encouraged people to adopt European-American life style, including dress, table manners, and other kinds of behavior which the newcomers admired in themselves and wished to see mirrored in the people they encountered…

The Native language was another target of those who thought they would ‘improve’ the Native people of Alaska. Education was to move Native people into the mainstream of American society; this was of course not the traditional sort of education by which Native people trained their children… The teachers were White people from the United States and the language of instruction was English. The first students came to school speaking only the language of their home…Many people who went to school in the early days report that, very understandably, they did not learn much…

No schools in Alaska under the Territorial administration [up to 1959] encouraged the use of any Native language. Most, in fact, discouraged it by punishing children for speaking their own languages…Not only did these attacks on their language strike at the foundations of the children’s identity, but the forms the punishment took were violently at odds with accepted behavior in their culture…

Another factor which has affected the viability of the Inupiaq language is boarding schools to which many children were sent, especially during their teen years. Since village high schools did not exist until recently, children were often sent out of state to Bureau of Indian Affairs high schools and later to BIA schools in Alaska, located at White Mountain, Eklutna and later Mount Edgecumbe in Sitka…Many young people barely spoke their native language while they were away from home, so that they got into the habit of conversing mostly in English…Boarding schools must be considered as an additional force of acculturation.

Leona Okakok of Barrow…spoke about the effect that boarding schools have had on the passing on of traditional skills and knowledge: ‘One of the young ladies I knew at the University said that she went home one summer, after having been away at school for what seemed like forever. She had all this education and brought it back home and was confronted with having to butcher her first seal, and she didn’t know one thing to do. She said, ‘What did I go to school for? I’ve come home and I don’t know how to do a very elementary thing that young ladies know, how to prepare an animal for consumption.’”

It was the intent of the educational system to convince Native people that English was superior to their own languages… The effect was indeed profound. As the school and other mainstream institutions have taken over the roles that traditionally belonged to the family and community, traditional activities and customs yielded to foreign ones. Thus children have come to know less and less about the culture of their ancestors…

There are in fact few children and teenagers anywhere in Alaska who can speak fluent Inupiaq. At Wainright, south of Barrow, there are small children who speak it, and in the villages of the upper Kobuk River some high-school-age children still converse in it… A language with few or no children who speak it is called moribund language, and if this situation is not changed, it will be a dead language, one with no native speakers…

Language death is a tragic situation. People whose language is being lost may feel this loss very strongly. The last speakers of a language experience great loneliness…Members of an ethnic group who have not learned the old language often feel deprived of their cultural tradition and feel alienated from their ancestral community. People outside the group who appreciate its culture regret the loss of a unique cultural treasure in the world, which thereby takes another step toward “monoculture,” the prevalence of one dominant language and culture where once there were many.

These excerpts are from an Alaska State publication, and Kaplan, director of the Alaska Native Language Center, is not just expressing a personal view. As Krauss wrote, language reclamation demands educational input, and since the early 1970s, Kaplan has supported the production of written and electronic learning materials, trained teachers in bilingual education and held workshops that promote the Native language. The North Slope Borough Education Department itself has joined the initiative and students increasingly are being encouraged to learn Inupiaq.7


Leona Uqaakuq’s Story

MS UQAAKUQ’S STORY is representative. And it constitutes a microcosm of a process of unlearning which is endemic in Native American societies.

We have seen how seal hunting constituted Tikigaq’s central subsistence activity. Meat, fat and skins provided nourishment and heat, while the logistics of preparation were also a focus of domestic cooperation. The division of labour between the sexes was clear. Hunting and delivery was men’s work. The role of women was to perform rituals that acknowledged the seal’s sacrifice and to offer it water in the belief that the spirit, satisfied by humane treatment, would return.

Also logistically important were skinning, butchering and division. These were tasks that women learned in childhood. While her husband plied the harpoon, the woman’s tool was the semi-lunar knife (ulu) whose slate blade she used both for meat preparation and clothes making.8

Seal hunting constituted Tikigaq’s central subsistence activity. The division of labour between the sexes was clear.

Ulus of different sizes remain the central component of women’s equipment. In the past it was logistically crucial and its semi-lunar form connected it to tatqim inua, the Moon Man who controlled the game animals. And although tatqim inua was acknowledged as a sexual criminal, it was women who supplicated him, shouting into the sky on winter nights to encourage his generosity. When tatqim inua responded, it was to drop figments of animals into water pots that the women raised to him ‘through the sky hole’ — sometimes in the hope of splashing him with the same source of water they offered seals.9

In February 1976, I witnessed a scene almost identical to the one in Ms Uqaakuq’s narrative. It was early evening in Piquk’s house and K, Piquk’s youngest son, had come home with a seal which lay now in the centre of the cabin. I had been on the sea ice several times with K. We’d leave in morning twilight, a strip of sun briefly visible on the sea ice horizon behind us and I sat on the sled as the dogs rattled across the shore-fast ice, jumping narrow channels till we reached open water.

This was a half–mile off the Point where southern and northern currents sweep together fish, krill and crustaceans that seals feed on. They jerk up, spotted seals, interrogatively, look round, question-mark-like with their slick heads turning as though in expectation of a cheerful natter, to get smacked in the face by way of answer by a hunter’s bullet and then, half-drowned and angled clumsily, hang until the hunter’s grapple reaches them. It’s a brutal encounter for which traditional Inupiat apologized by way of ritual propitiation. I too was brutalized and colluded with the hunting project.

As K dropped the dead seal in the family kitchen, I shared the limits of our empathy. The notion of a seal’s soul had become an irrelevance. Did seals indeed have spirits when past people believed this? And was the present animal perhaps an incarnation of some individual taken by an ancestor who’d sent his victim’s spirit home in the vague south for rebirth?

For now, given that we were modern and largely agnostic people, the dead seal had become an eating object.

For now, given that we were modern and largely agnostic people, the dead seal had become an eating object. All we needed now was someone competent to cut it up and cook or freeze it. Like K’s dog team in the snow beside the house, I’d snap up my share to assuage my hunger. The supposed spirit life of previous seals had become an irrelevance. My body wanted seal meat. Reverting to Leona Uqaakuq’s narrative, I wrote this short description in a letter:

K had spread some cardboard boxes to catch the seal’s blood. Elizabeth made an initial first incision in the seal’s belly with her ulu. As the seal came apart, instead of blood, there was a glistening white inch of fat between the guts and hide, which peeled off leaving the seal in four parts: guts, meat, blubber, hide — not to forget the head and blood-stained whiskers which the dogs ate. Surveying the pink-grey packed-together labyrinth of seal intestines, Elizabeth plunged one hand among them and asks, ‘Hey, K, where should I put these deals, ah?’

Elizabeth was of Leona Uqaakuq’s generation and like her friend, had also been away at boarding school. She was a clever, charismatic woman in her twenties, and like Tulugaq, could understand but hardly speak Inupiaq. She had twin two-year-old daughters. Like most young people, Elizabeth sprinkled her English with Inupiaq expressions. But her use of the word ‘deals’ suggested that either she or her audience were unfamiliar with anatomical vocabulary.

Arrii,’ she exclaimed,’ as she bent across the seal, ‘that eye katak in the blood already.’ And to one of her daughters, ‘Hey baby, don’t you go in there, you’ll katak.’ And ‘Baby, don’t you pakak in that natchiq. You kids, you’re always pakak-ing’.

Katak-, a verb stem meaning ‘fall’, is one of the Inupiaq words most commonly inserted into English. Pakak-, ‘rummage’, is also common in child-directed speech. Everyone says arrii, an expression of dismay, pain or discomfort. While natchiq, ‘seal’, is also in general usage. The same goes for Inupiaq terms for whale, walrus, seal and bearded seal, Old Squaw duck and Eider duck, fish (generic), beluga, red fox, wolf, gull, guillemot, polar bear and brown bear. But knowledge of anatomy in its fine complexity is limited. Hence Elizabeth’s distance from the term and use for a seal’s intestine (ingaluk) previously preserved by women and transformed into rainwear.

These changes came in the wake of a long historical process and language moribundity was not in local control. This is no-one’s fault. And the linguistic education mentioned earlier offered contact and familiarity with Inupiaq, but did not propose fluency. Language death remains a tragedy both for those who have lost it, and the world is thereby poorer.

Tom Lowenstein was born near London in 1941 and educated at Cambridge. He has worked since the mid-1960s as a teacher. Between 1973 and 1989 he recorded materials deriving from intermittent residence in an Inupiaq (north Alaskan Eskimo) village. Previous publications include three books of poetry: Filibustering in Samsara (The Many Press), Ancestors and Species: New and Selected Ethnographic Poetry (Shearsman Books), and Conversation with Murasaki (Shearsman Books). His three studies of Point Hope are The Things that Were Said of Them (University of California Press 1990), Ancient Land: Sacred Whale (Bloomsbury, Farrar Strauss and Harvill, 1993-2001) and Ultimate Americans: Point Hope, Alaska 1826-1909 (University of Alaska Press, 2009).


  1. Stefansson:1909
  2. The root here is tanaq which was already a mid-nineteenth century loan word from ‘tonic’= liquor, as in ‘here’s my tonic’. Dr. Irving Rosse of the Revenue Cutter Corwin wrote that the word ‘tanuk’ originated ‘with an old Eskimo employed by [Captain T.E.L.] Moore…in Plover Bay [1848]. Every day about noon that personage was in the habit of taking his appetiser, and usually said to ‘the Eskimo, “Come Joe, let’s take our tonic’. [Rosse: 1883:32]
  3. Rosse op. cit
  4. Krauss, The World’s Languages in Crisis, Language, Volume 68.1, 1992. Michael Krauss: leading US linguist, specializing in Native Alaskan languages. In 1972, by state legislation, he established the the University of Alaska’s Alaska Native Language Center whose mission remains ‘the documentation and cultivation of the state’s twenty Native languages’.  The Inupiaq specialist Lawrence Kaplan succeeded Krauss as director of the ANLC in 1994
  5. The Native American Languages Act, 1990, and the Alaska Native Languages Preservation and Enhancement Act of 1991
  6. Inupiaq and the Schools, Alaska Department of Education, Bilingual/Bicultural Education Programs, 1984.
  7. See, for example, the North Slope Borough’s schools website.
  8. For additional details related to the area, see Geology and Mineral Resources of Northwest Alaska, Smith and Mertie. USGS, 1930.
  9. This was usually water melted from ice taken each autumn by men from Umigraagvik pond about a mile east of the village. While the myth of tatqim inua represented him as a rapist and his sister as his victim, women were historically associated both with him as provider and his sun spirit sister to whom women also voiced supplication. Female puberty rites included the creation of three chin tattoos which were applied subcutaneously with sinew soaked in seal oil soot. The seal oil lamp representing the heart of domestic iglu, lamp flame itself additionally representing the sun spirit.

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