The language in the United States’ northernmost city

Alaska, the last frontier. It is the largest state in the United States by land area, yet has among the smallest population sizes, and is the most sparsely populated state. Being the northernmost state, Alaska is, without a doubt, home to the northernmost city in the United States. This city is rather isolated — there are no roads connecting this city with the rest of Alaska, and there is a short time frame where this city could be connected to the rest of Alaska by sea. Otherwise, the only way in and out of this Alaskan city is by air, namely, through the Wiley Post-Will Rogers Memorial Airport. Despite this lack of connections, this city still functions as an important transport hub for the Arctic coastal villages in Alaska’s North Slope Borough. Home to around 5000 people as of 2020, it is surprisingly, Alaska’s 12th most populated city. This is Utqiagvik.

The name Utqiagvik is a rather new one. Many people remember it by is former name, Barrow, which was derived from Point Barrow, the northernmost point of the United States. But in 2016, following a referendum, the city voted for a change of name from Barrow to Utqiagvik, supporting the use of the indigenous language used in the city, and functioned as a form of decolonisation. What is this language, you may ask?

This is the Iñupiaq language, an Eskimo-Aleut language spoken by around 3000 people, out of approximately 20 000 ethnically Iñupiat people. Iñupiaq geographically spans across the north and northwestern regions of Alaska, as well as a small region in the Northwestern Territories of Canada. It is considered a threatened language, since most speakers are at least in their middle ages. Nevertheless, not only is it one of the official languages of Alaska, Iñupiaq is also undergoing revitalisation works.

For Utqiagvik, this city name derives from the Iñupiaq language. It refers to a place to gather wild roots, stemming from the word “utqiq”. This root refers to the tuber known as the Claytonia tuberosa, or a tuberous springbeauty. Interestingly, another Iñupiaq name for this city exists, though not used today. That is, UkpiaÄ¡vik. This means “a place to hunt snowy owls”, stemming from the word for snowy owl “ukpik”.

The Iñupiaq language has four main dialects, contained in two dialect collections. In the dialect collection called Seward Peninsula Iñupiaq, there exists the Bering Strait dialect, and the Qawiaraq dialect. These dialects are spoken in the western parts of Alaska, as far west as Little Diomede Island, or Yesterday Island, since it is separated from Big Diomede Island in Russia by the International Date Line. Across the northern stretches of Alaska and the Northwest Territories in Canada, the Northern Alaskan Iñupiaq dialect collection is found. This consists of the Malimiutun dialect, and the North Slope dialect, also known as Siḷaliñiġmiutun. Here, in Utqiagvik, the North Slope dialect is used.

The sounds of Iñupiaq vary between the dialects used, and so this here would place particular focus on the North Slope dialect, the one used in Utqiagvik. With this, also comes different numbers of letters in the Latin alphabet used to write Iñupiaq. The North Slope dialect has the following letters:

A Ch G Ġ H I K L Ḷ Ł Ł̣ M N Ñ Ŋ P Q R S Sr T U V Y

With a letter for the glottal stop ‘ in the Kobuk dialect.

Iñupiaq has a bunch of other phonological rules that can be reflected in writing (with the Latin alphabet). One example is called “assimilation”, where two consonants cannot appear together except cases where they share an allowed manner of articulation. Assimilation can occur by including the first consonant into a cluster, which typically involves some sort of sound change. Such examples include:

  • /tn/ becoming /nn/, as in aqpat + niaq + tuq = aqpanniaqtuq (he will run)
  • /kn/ becoming /ŋn/, as in kamik + niaq + te = kamiŋnaqte (he will put on the boots)

The other example is called palatalisation, where consonant sounds are altered to be articulated with the tongue against the mouth palate. This occurs when the alveolar consonants, namely /n/, /t/, /l/, and /ɬ/, are preceded by a strong “i” in a syllable. There is not really a set pattern in determining if a word has a strong “i” component, but there are some clues in the words that derive from it. Primarily, the strong “i” can be paired with a vowel, but the weak “i” adopts an /a/ sound with paired with another vowel. When palatalisation occurs, the effect of the strong “i” can affect the entire consonant cluster, potentially changing the sounds in the process.

Like many other Eskimo-Aleut languages, Iñupiaq is a polysynthetic language. Words include a stem, with prefixes, suffixes, and other affixes added to further give detail to the stem word. For example, for nouns, such affixes can include details about number, and how the said noun is related to another noun in a sentence (like Noun A doing something to Noun B). For verbs, there is tense, aspect, mood, person, and number.

Interestingly, unlike the other dialects, North Slope Iñupiaq lacks the vocative case (used for addressing a certain noun or person), bringing the total number of noun cases to eight. Iñupiaq is an ergative-absolutive language, meaning that the subject of a verb that cannot take a direct object (an intransitive verb) behaves like the object of a verb that can take a direct object (transitive verb).

Iñupiaq numerals follow a base-20 system, with a sub-base of five. The word for five is called “tallimat”, which is also the Iñupiaq word for “hand” or “arm”. The word for ten is “qulit”, literally translating to “top”, referring to the ten digits on both hands (the upper limbs). For fifteen, the word is “akimiaq”, meaning “it goes across”, probably referring to the crossing over to the digits of the lower limbs to count further from ten, while the word for twenty is “iñuiññaq”, meaning the “whole person”, referring to the full set of twenty digits on all four limbs.

So what happens at 20 x 20 (or 400)? A new word is thus used, iñuiññakipiaq. For herding purposes, another word is used, that is iḷagiññaq. This proceeds until 7999, where a new root word is found, although the entire word means 8000 take away 1. That is atausiqpautaiḷaq. The word for 8000 (or 20 x 20 x 20), is atausiqpak. From this, suffixes are compounded until it reaches 4.096 quadrillion (or 20 x 400 x 8000 x 8000 x 8000, or 20 raised to the power of 12). The word for this is iñuiññagliaqpakpiŋatchaq. An alternate decimal system also exists, with 100 translating to qavluun instead of tallimakpiaq, and 1000 translating to kavluutit instead of malġuagliaq qulikipiaq.

If one wants to learn Iñupiaq, where can they turn to? There are several sources available online to those who are interested, some with video courses, while others might be more interactive. Notably, Rosetta Stone has an Iñupiaq course which aims to revitalise the language. Other sources include Ilisazaqativut or Iḷisaqativut, which also links a wealth of other resources, both language and cultural. Another resource is on Master Any Language, which allows practice at your own pace. Lastly, there is a site that introduces the fundamentals of Iñupiaq on a Community@UAF site.


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