Learning ᐃᓄᒃᑎᑐᑦ (Inuktitut): Working through the syllabarium

Like Japanese’s hiragana and katakana writing systems, the written language of Inuktitut and its dialects consists, not of letters, but of syllables. Inuktitut is a little different from Japanese in that there are finals, which act like consonants in the Latin languages.

Thus far I’ve been using Flashcardlet (an iPhone flashcard app that can import decks from Quizlet) to work my way through the Inuktitut syllables. I’m not yet aware which dialect I’m using here; I assume it’s Nunavut (edit: See Claire’s comment below).

The syllabarium isn’t too hard to figure out. Apart from the single vowels and the finals, almost all other syllables are based on consonant-plus-vowel. There are only three vowels in the basic syllabarium, all represented by a triangle, but different orientations point to different vowel sounds.

Upwards orientation: ᐃ – i
Right orientation: ᐅ – u
Left orientation: ᐊ – a

Each consonant-vowel pair is represented by a single symbol (usually). The consonants determine the symbol, while the vowel determines the orientation. So pi points upwards: ᐱ. Pu points right: ᐳ and pa points left: ᐸ.

Currently I’ve learned ᐃᐱᑎᑭᒋᒥᓂᓯᓕᔨᕕ (i pi ti ki gi mi ni si li ji vi…), but there’s still more to go!

Of course, when you’ve got to learn the difference between ᓯ, ᓱ, and ᓴ, things can get a bit hairy as to how orientation exactly works. But you start to see patterns after a while. Here are my favorite tricks so far.

ᐃᐅᐊ – Pointers as to i, u, and a, like the turning of a clock.

ᐱᐳᐸ – Pointers, again.

ᑎᑐᑕ – Rounded pointers, but still pointers. But notice a certain development between the back-to-back lines of ᑐᑕ. In contrast, ᑎ stands as the odd syllable out.

ᑭᑯᑲ – At first, merely rote memory for me. ᑲ looks like an Latin lowercase b, which you could think of as a “b as in baa”. Thus you derive ka from ᑲ. I know that the upright version ᑭ is ki, which leaves, by process of elimination, ᑯ as “ku”. But you could also notice the back-to-back pattern between ᑯᑲ instead.

ᒋᒍᒐ – You may notice a pattern similar to that of ᑭᑯᑲ. In fact, this technique is useful; memorize what goes on for one syllable “family”, and you’ve got it made for similar ones.

ᒥᒧᒪ – Similar to ᑭᑯᑲ and ᒋᒍᒐ.

ᓂᓄᓇ – ᓂ really stands out, like an eye, so I associate it with the upwards point of an ᐃ syllable.

ᓯᓱᓴ – “I” raise a sickle to the sky. My hand pushes right (ᐅ), my other hand pushes left (ᐊ).

ᓕᓗᓚ – quite similar to the ᓂ family.

ᔨᔪᔭ – More difficult. But I like to think of the ᔨ as a nose, while ᔪ opens a mouth to the right ᐅ, and ᔭ opens a mouth to the left ᐊ.

ᕕᕗᕙ – Safety pins, with the bend being the pointer for ᐃᐅᐊ.

How to remember iua? I just think of one of the first Inuit words I learned: inua. Drop the n and you get iua.

I’m learning greetings now. For instance:

ᐊᕋᒃᓂᐅᔪᖓ. Arakniujunga. I (junga) am (u) Arachne. This is fun!