Inuktitut, Inuttut, Inuinnaqtun.

This Log post by Mark Liberman reproduces a letter sent by Helen DeWitt to Kenn Harper, an expert on Inuit dialects, and his response, which is extremely interesting from both a linguistic and political point of view. The reason for the letter was that she wanted to make sure she used the right term for the Labrador dialect in the forthcoming new edition of The Last Samurai (bold to represent the thrilling nature of the news — unbelievably, this great book has been out of print). Some excerpts from Harper’s response:

Traditionally, the term Inuktitut was used among laymen to include all Canadian Inuit dialects. But the term Inuttut was often used for the Labrador dialect.

Recently, the Government of Nunavut has decided that they should use Inuktitut to refer to all Nunavut dialects except the Copper Inuit dialect which is called Inuinnaqtun. So the Government of Nunavut now refers to the “Inuit language” in Nunavut as containing two dialects: Inuktitut and Inuinnaqtun. This is not really correct as Inuktitut within Nunavut contains other dialects. Apparently they do not see the need for an over-all term that subsumes them both. This is more a political statement than a linguistic one, as the small population in the Inuinnaqtun-speaking region demands that their dialect be distinguished from the majority because the Inuinnaqtun speakers do not use the Syllabic writing system, using instead an alphabetic system. The majority in Nunavut use Syllabics. The Inuinnaqtun speakers fear that if they do not differentiate themselves linguistically from the majority, then Syllabics might be imposed upon them as a writing system. The irony is that very few Inuit in the Inuinnaqtun-speaking area actually speak Inuinnaqtun – it’s almost dead, and most Inuit there are unilingual English speakers. […]

Now, the situation in Labrador. As I mentioned, it used to be called Inuttut. But now the Nunatsiavut Government (set up when the land claim was settled) is calling it Inuttitut, so that is the official usage in Labrador now. But either should be accepted. Current modern usage is Inuttitut. Historic usage is Inuttut. Incidentally, they both really mean the same thing. One is singular, the other plural. The word is made up of Inuk (generic person or specifically an Inuk person – Inuk being the singular of Inuit) + a suffix meaning “in the manner of” or “like”. So in the singular that suffix is “-tut”; in the plural it is “-titut”. And in this dialect that combination creates a vowel sequence “kt” which geminates into “tt”.

Talk about your Narzißmus der kleinen Differenzen! And as far as the book is concerned, I agree with leoboiko in the comment thread:

Wonderful that a new edition is coming. They could take up this opportunity to rename it to The Seventh Samurai, as the author originally intended. Not only it’s a better title, and not only it immediately evokes the importance of Akira Toriyama’s The Seven Samurai to the plot, it also avoids the single biggest hurdle I had in my cultist practice: convincing people that the book is entirely unrelated to Tom Cruise’s The Last Samurai, to stories like Tom Cruise’s The Last Samurai, or to anything remotely resembling Tom Cruise.


  1. I agree with leoboiko in the comment thread

    Well, so do I, with the exception of the part attributing The Seven Samurai to Akira Toriyama.

  2. I assume that’s some kind of joke, but I don’t actually know. But yeah, the movie is by Kurosawa.

  3. Greg Pandatshang says

    semi-OT: I really like the Tom Cruise Last Samurai movie and would recommend it to them what haven’t seen it. I describe it as a “guilty pleasure” sometimes, but I don’t actually feel guilty. It’s just a pleasure that contains some silly or unrealistic elements. The only part that makes me cringe is at the end when the Meiji Emperor switches to English to give his heartfelt praise to Tom Cruise. Overall, a beautiful-looking film; just don’t go getting the idea that it gives a realistic or balanced view of what Japan was like at any time in the past. I think of it as almost like an unreliable narrator who notices things that he finds meaningful and pays no attention to, for instance, peasants living in squalor.

    P.S. I also recommend Cruise’s Valkyrie.

  4. I made a Kurosawa/Toriyama joke in the Language Log comments, but so far nobody has noticed.

  5. Aw, I noticed.

    I am excited at the prospect of this book coming back into print, but I wish DeWitt wouldn’t update the text, even to fix a simple error like this. Write a new afterword, sure, but let the text itself stand, warts and all.

  6. I agree, but I am a notorious fogy, and besides I’m not going to tell Helen DeWitt what to do. I’ll just clutch my old copy tightly.

  7. As far as I know this is the only mistake that was not corrected in the UK paperback (the version I have suggested they use). It’s not just that leaving it uncorrected might look like willful carelessness to anyone who knew anything about it; what worried me a bit more was that readers who had no reason to know anything about it might accept the current usage in the text unquestioningly. I don’t suppose MANY are likely to end up where the Inuit can hear them, but if any did I thought this kind of inaccuracy might cause annoyance. Kenn Harper’s reply did rather suggest that it could be a touchy subject.

  8. It certainly did, and now I’m curious as to your final choice.

  9. Brett: I noticed too! That’s why I didn’t comment on it there. (I assumed Leo just confused his Akiras, myself.)

  10. Narzißmus der kleinen Differenzen

    Interesting. That’s the second time in a fortnight I’ve come across that expression.

  11. David Marjanović says

    Narzissmus in reformed spelling.

    semi-OT: I really like the Tom Cruise Last Samurai movie and would recommend it to them what haven’t seen it. I describe it as a “guilty pleasure” sometimes, but I don’t actually feel guilty. It’s just a pleasure that contains some silly or unrealistic elements. The only part that makes me cringe is

    the very premise that the Meiji government would look for military advisers in the US. They went straight to the source and invited Prussians.

    The film does contain a very good scene, though. It involves a crank.

  12. A part of my great lore of undigested and unconfirmed factoids is that the Japanese Navy were somehow “fairer”, more “sporting” and more “humane” than the Japanese Army is because the Navy learnt their stuff from the Brits. A bit of nice “Britain” vs “Prussia” stereotyping; I’m not sure how true it is.

  13. That’s great, and I am hereby adding it to my own stock of undigested and unconfirmed factoids.

  14. Ms. de Witt et al. – any information on when the new edition will be released (and perhaps who the publisher is)? I’ve wanted to give The Last Samurai as a gift on a number of occasions and the ability to provide a first-hand copy makes it all the easier!

  15. I am not sure when it will be released. At this point I am still waiting for a contract, so perhaps I shouldn’t make any announcements until we have all signed on the dotted line.

  16. @David Marjanović: What happened to the third syllable of Νάρκισσος there? Danish (which usually follows German closely in such matters) has narcissisme, presumably on the French model and matching English as well.

  17. The standard German form is Narziss, both in mythology and for the flower, but can also be used figuratively for ‘narcissist’, to which -mus can be added directly.

  18. What is this “-mus” of which you speak?

  19. Dutch for ‘sparrow’, Swedish for ‘mouse’.

  20. Ridiculus mus, as Horace said.

  21. marie-lucie says

    -mus not -ismus

    There is a word that I don’t remember for the dropping of one of two phonologically identical sequences, as in French morphonologie from *morphophonologie (Eng morphophonemics]. So in German Narzissmus instead of *Narzissismus (with the letter z = ts).

  22. ^Haplology?

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