For Nilaulaaq Miriam Aglukkaq, the creation of new Nattilingmiut syllabics meant she could write her language properly for the first time. Now, those syllabics are part of a universal font that can be read anywhere in the world.
“I am very happy and thrilled to see it happening now, as I worked very hard to get our dialect of Nattilingmiut in there,” Aglukkaq, an elder who lives in Gjoa Haven, Nunavut, said in Inuktitut.
“I’m sure it will be very useful for the people of Natsilingmiut to use it as a working language.”
Aglukkaq has spent years working to revitalise Nattilingmiutut, which she grew up speaking in Taloyoak. In an effort to standardise the Inuktut dialect, she created syllabics to help fill in the gaps in the written version. That work has now been cemented in Unicode — a digital text standard that allows text to show up properly on computers, phones and other devices.
When letters aren’t in Unicode, that means they don’t show up the same on all devices. They might show up as empty boxes on Facebook, for example, unless you’ve personally downloaded the font onto your computer.
The first step: missing letters
Elisabeth Jansen-Hadlari and Attima Hadlari, who run Hadlari Consulting in Cambridge Bay, have been working with Aglukkaq to standardise Nattilingmiutut since 2007, along with language expert Janet Tamalik McGrath.
Since the Nattilingmiut were not involved in the creation of the standardized writing system for syllabics and roman orthography, Hadlari said it has been a struggle since the start to get proper pronunciations written down.
As they worked to gather all the words Aglukkaq had collected over the years, they soon discovered that there was no way to write some of the sounds. That meant people trying to read the syllabics would have to guess at how the words were pronounced.
Together, the group created new characters to represent different sounds.
Kugaaruk, for example, used to be written down as Kugaajuk, Aglukkaq explained.
“Now, it can be written like it’s pronounced by the people of Kugaaruk,” she said.
Jansen-Hadlari said that’s important especially for the younger generations, who can now understand how to say certain words because they’re finally spelled the way they sound.
“It’s the younger people who are very appreciative of even the small things, like a youth saying to me, ‘Oh, now I know how my name should be spelled,'” she said.
“Once he wrote his name down the way it was pronounced, he felt so much better. It was like, ‘That’s my name.'”
Next, facing an international committee
Though the road to a complete written dialect has taken years, it took a considerably shorter amount of time to get those letters formally recognized.
Kevin King, a typeface designer in Toronto, said international standards for letters are governed by the Unicode Technical Committee in California.
King got involved with Aglukkaq, Hadlari Consulting and Tamalik McGrath as part of a project he was working on for Typotheque, a Dutch type foundry that hired him to research syllabics.
He said the process of working with the group to develop a proposal for the Unicode committee was “wonderful.”
“It was a really joyful process, and we ended up coming up with a great solution,” he said.
Aside from the impacts this has on language revitalization, King said it is also important for record-keeping.
“The great thing about something like Unicode is that in 100 years … a document that was composed in Unicode characters could be opened and it will be represented accurately,” he said.
“Future Nattilik generations will now have a stable digital environment to be able to use their language in the writing system that they identify with.”
Since the Unicode committee officially accepted the characters, all that’s left is for technology companies like Apple, Microsoft and Google to update their fonts and keyboards.
King hopes that will happen within the next year.