linguists on ice

November 6, 2010 § Leave a comment

linguistics takes you places!

Here is the story of a British linguistic anthropologist working with a language of Greenland.

A small community of 800 or so, apparently are subject to the forces of change. Despite remaining in their ancestral location and remaining with relatively high degrees of isolation from dominant languages and cultures, these Inuit are still threatened by a language killer.
As one member of the community comments in that piece

‘Twenty years ago, my children used to go skating on the ice at this time of the year. Last year, the ice was so thin that a young hunter and his dog team of 12 fell through to their deaths. If the sea ice goes completely, there will be no need for the dogs [huskies] and our culture will disappear.’

I noticed in the URL of that piece both Inuit and Eskimo appear. Ethnonyms … names for cultural groups are tricky things, and this is one of the trickier ones, with many suggesting that eskimo  is a pejorative or insulting term. For some it is, but for others, Inuit is not prefered as it links the people to a particular language group to which not all polar dweller belongs. Kaplan of the Alaska Native Language Centre explains the term eskimo  below ….

this name is considered derogatory in many other places because it was given by non-Inuit people and was said to mean “eater of raw meat.” Linguists now believe that “Eskimo” is derived from an Ojibwa word meaning “to net snowshoes.” However, the people of Canada and Greenland prefer other names. “Inuit,” meaning “people,” is used in most of Canada, and the language is called “Inuktitut” in eastern Canada although other local designations are used also. The Inuit people of Greenland refer to themselves as “Greenlanders” or “Kalaallit” in their language . […] Most Alaskans continue to accept the name “Eskimo,” particularly because “Inuit” refers only to the Inupiat of northern Alaska, the Inuit of Canada, and the Kalaallit of Greenland, and is not a word in the Yupik languages of Alaska and Siberia


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