Alaska Native linguists create a digital Inupiaq dictionary, combining know-how, accessibility and language preservation

Edna Ahgeak MacLean, linguist, Inupiaq language app

UTQIAĠVIK — Edna Ahgeak Paniattaaq MacLean smiled when her granddaughter Sirroun carried a thick tome with two palms and put it rigorously on the desk earlier than her.

“I had some younger folks or youngsters inform me, ‘We’re making an attempt to be taught Iñupiaq however it’s so heavy!’” linguist and educator MacLean laughed, wanting on the Iñupiaq dictionary she wrote.

In June, MacLean and two Yup’ik net builders, Christopher Egalaaq Liu and Lonny Alaskuk Strunk, accomplished a web-based Iñupiaq dictionary and word-building app, obtainable at The challenge relies on MacLean’s Iñupiaq dictionary and goals to make studying the language at school and at residence quicker, simpler and extra accessible, even in rural areas.

“It’ll work,” MacLean stated. “Individuals are enthusiastic about it.”

Her life’s work has been to check, translate and protect Iñupiaq — a language with an in depth oral custom however restricted written apply. The linguist’s efforts come at a time when solely about 5% of Iñupiaq audio system are fluent, and the necessity for language-learning instruments, in addition to complete instructional packages, is rising.

The Iñupiaq On-line web site — launched by the Arctic Slope Group Basis — is the primary of its sort for the North Slope dialect of Iñupiaq and includes a dictionary, a word-building perform and an audio library to listen to the best way phrases are pronounced.

“It was designed for everybody,” Liu stated. “Now we have it so that individuals can simply lookup phrases rapidly. … We made it in order that they’ll lookup the underlying grammatical info in the event that they need to.”

To this point, about 1,200 distinctive viewers have visited the web site, Liu stated. Guests can lookup methods to translate a phrase, see the plural type of the phrase, change the tense of a verb or add an adjective to a noun.

“The pc has been taught to create new phrases for the person based mostly on the morphological guidelines,” MacLean stated.

Iñupiaq dictionary and sentence-building app

That is how the word-building device works: A learner may need to say, “I need to eat,” and kind the phrase “eat” into the dictionary. The verb “to eat” has niġi because the stem, which is the half that helps drive the that means of the phrase. To construct out the complete phrase, further phrases are translated into totally different phrase parts — postbases, endings and suffixes — which are then connected to the stem.

Utilizing the web site, a learner can decide a postbase — on this case, “I need to” — then select the right case for “I” and see the consequence as “niġisuktuŋa,” or “I need to eat.”

In the identical method, by wanting up the phrase “truck,” learners can find yourself with the sentence, “It’s a huge truck,” or “qamutiqpauruq,” by including different components to the unique noun.

“That is simply the primary stage,” MacLean stated. “There are over 400 suffixes or postbases, and we’ve labored solely on 10.”

Iñupiaq dictionary and sentence-building app

Beginning as quickly as September, linguists plan to start out bettering the algorithms for the web site to incorporate extra advanced components — for instance, connective verb phrases for advanced sentences — in addition to conversational phrases.

“We’re planning to make updates to the web site and embody extra sentence sorts,” Liu stated, “and likewise similar to, bringing in possibly extra dialogue, or conversational-centered speech. … Over the subsequent 12 months, you possibly can anticipate to see updates to the web site.”

For now, learners can use the present model of the web site and revel in featured art work created by the late Iñupiaq sculptor, silversmith and woodcarver, Ronald Senungetuk.

Iñupiaq On-line is just not the primary language challenge that linguists Liu and Strunk have labored on collectively. A number of years in the past, they constructed an identical website for the Yugtun language and introduced it on the 2018 AFN Conference. The web site obtained overwhelmingly constructive suggestions, particularly on the interpretation perform of the web site, Liu stated.

The choice to construct a web-based device for Iñupiaq adopted naturally: Each the Yugtun and Iñupiaq languages do not need many irregularities, and so they observe an outlined construction, making word- and sentence-building extra predictable, Strunk stated.

“Studying concerning the mathematical consistency of the language — all these guidelines will be shaped to create full phrases — was very attention-grabbing to me,” he stated. “I might see the there could be purposes for … extra thrilling language instruments.”

The challenge was initially funded by an $82,609 grant from the federal Administration for Youngsters and Households final 12 months and can quickly obtain further funding by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, stated Ryan Cope, director of grant packages with the Arctic Slope Group Basis.

To create Inupiaq On-line, MacLean, Liu and Strunk met weekly through Zoom. MacLean would take a look at the web site design and provides builders suggestions. Studying from MacLean’s insights was a spotlight of the challenge for Liu.

“She wrote the grammar books. She compiled the dictionary. She’s Iñupiaq herself and the speaker of the language,” he stated. “It’s unimaginable as a result of quite a lot of Native assets, language assets, are sometimes not written by their very own folks.”

Edna Ahgeak MacLean, linguist, Inupiaq language app

In her Utqiaġvik home a number of steps from the well-known whale bone arch, MacLean was reducing muktuk on a foggy afternoon in late June. The 77-year-old linguist lives in Anchorage however commonly visits her residence village. This time she got here for Nalukataq, to rejoice the whale her brother landed.

Utqiaġvik is the place MacLean’s ardour for language took form.

MacLean grew up at a time when mother and father had been requested to talk English to their youngsters, however her father Joseph Ahgeak refused to observe the rule. In third grade, a very strict instructor caught MacLean talking Iñupiaq and punished her.

“I used to be caught as soon as so she pulled my ear,” MacLean stated, “and I screamed the heck out of ache.”

The younger MacLean got here residence for lunch that day, sporting her hood up. Her mom Maria Ahgeak made her take off her parka earlier than consuming, and realized what occurred after she noticed her daughter’s brilliant pink ears.

“She bought completely mad,” MacLean stated. “She placed on one in all my brothers’ parkas … and stormed throughout the lagoon. It was frozen so she stormed throughout the lagoon and bumped into my instructor’s classroom and grabbed her by the arm. ‘I’m taking you to the principal’s and there, I’m going to tug your ear!’ ”

MacLean’s relationship together with her instructor improved after that, and MacLean felt much more keen about talking her native language it doesn’t matter what.

“I used to be one of many people who was punished for talking Iñupiaq, and I bought mad, and my mom bought mad,” she stated. “So we simply type of stated, ‘OK, we’re going to do it anyway.’ So I’ve stored up that curiosity.”

Fluent from the time she was a baby, MacLean didn’t turn out to be literate in Iñupiaq till she was in her 20s and labored together with her mentor, Michael E. Krauss, a linguist and founding father of the Alaska Native Language Middle. Then MacLean taught Iñupiaq on the College of Alaska Fairbanks and immersed herself within the examine of the language.

She wrote two Iñupiaq grammar books and revealed her newest dictionary in 2014, which took years of labor. First, MacLean wrote down each phrase she knew. When she would run throughout a phrase she didn’t know, she would name her mother and father and ask them to elucidate it to her. And if her mother and father didn’t know that phrase both, she requested elders, hunters and different longtime Iñupiaq audio system.

Edna Ahgeak MacLean, linguist, Inupiaq language app

Whereas instruments like dictionaries and apps could make studying simpler, MacLean stated that one of the vital efficient methods to protect Iñupiaq in the neighborhood is to create immersion packages that permit college students to check the language on a deeper stage and for longer durations of time.

“That’s the subsequent step that we have to do,” she stated. “Within the faculties, they’ve Iñupiaq language packages, however it’s not producing audio system. They’re instructing it in segments, and so they don’t have a real immersion atmosphere for the kids, particularly the preschoolers, to be taught it rapidly. … The immersion technique appears to be the one method that works.”

Linguists are persevering with to work on Iñupiaq On-line to make it as helpful as potential, Liu stated, whereas retaining in thoughts {that a} web site can’t be a full instructional useful resource for the language.

“You may’t actually be taught every part by an app or by an internet site,” Liu stated. “It’s important to additionally apply and have interaction with folks.”

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