October 14, 2005

No Inuktitut words for no ice?

According to a BBC Radio 4 segment today on environmental crisis in the Arctic.

A report published last month made the shocking claim that the Arctic ice cap could disappear by the end of the century . How is the Inuit population is coping with the reality of a melting permafrost?

About five minutes into the segment, they get into the inevitable words-for-X issue. Up there in Nunavut, it's either feast or famine, lexicographically speaking. Last time around, it was the problem of robins: now it's extreme weather event and similar phrases.

BBC Announcer: This new information is posing something of a problem for the Inuit language, Inuktitut. There's simply no words to describe terms like greenhouse gas emissions or concepts like global warming. Members from across the territory have been meeting in Iqaluit to see if they can't agree on some new ones.

(Inuit elder) Nick Amautinuaq (sp?): We have resource people to try to explain the definition of the word, in English, and we try to create uh Inuktitut word. We try to create one word instead of explaining the meaning of the whole uh meaning of uh extreme weather event.

BBC Announcer: Did you come up with a word for- for extreme weather event?

Nick Amautinuaq: We select / silau tsamanuktularininga / so that's why uh we uh try to create some uh new Inuktitut words.

I've given an approximate transcription in roman orthography, and linked to a sound file -- I'll look forward to some Inuktitut scholar telling me how to spell it properly, and what its morphological analysis and interlinear gloss should be. This sort of thing is pretty hard to predict, but I'm feeling one of those scholarly hunches that we trained linguists get sometimes: do you think it might turn out to mean something like, um, "extreme weather event"?

[I understand, of course, that it's entirely reasonable to put some systematic effort into deciding on a standard translation of technical vocabulary into a language that lacks it. What's unreasonable in this case is the BBC's all-too-predictable assumption that this normal and commonplace process represents a "problem" for Inuktitut as a language, or for the Inuit as a culture

[BBC radio tip from Richard Cox]

Posted by Mark Liberman at October 14, 2005 06:21 PM