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Photo Unidentified individuals outside the fox trade company

Working with Language

Abraham Okpik
They had an institution in Eskimo Point [Arviat] at that time called the Inuit Cultural Institute. We worked through that to produce a new writing system, which has forty-five letters. … So we worked on that writing system issue and we travelled to Greenland and Ottawa. People from every dialect had input and some of them worked well. But in the Central Arctic and the West, some refused to change their old writing system to the new! I think the environment has a lot to do with the language. If you are a long time resident in an area, you grow up with different expressions. I’ll give you an example. I remember when they first put out a skidoo, or auto-toboggan; some people called it kukilikallak, which means ‘the one with small nails’. Another dialect called it ‘the crawling vehicle’, paarnguqtuq. Other people called it qamutaujaq, which means ‘like a sleigh, but it moves on its own’. …Whenever people see something they give it a name resembling what it reminds them of, what they imagine it to be. These words are still in existence, and we understand when people use them. That’s the kind of thing that you have to listen for when you go from one place to another.
After Project Surname was completed in 1971, Abe and his family moved back East and he became the Ukiivik residence administrator. He also began teaching Inuktitut at the high-school level. He was a contributor through the Inuit Cultural Institute to the creation of a new writing system, one with forty-five letters. Resistance to this change came from both the Catholic and Anglican missions, as they had already printed out their Bibles on typewriters using the old system. Through his travels, he was able to compare different dialects and gain understanding about how the language held together. In 1975, the CBC hired Abe as one of five representatives of Northwest Territories native language groups, to report on the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline hearings.