UTQIAĠVIK – Edna Ahgeak Paniattaaq MacLean smiled as her granddaughter Sirroun held a thick top with two hands and placed it carefully on the table in front of her.
“I’ve had some young people or teenagers tell me, ‘We’re trying to learn Iñupiaq, but it’s so hard!’” laughed linguist and educator MacLean, looking at the Iñupiaq dictionary she wrote.
In June, MacLean and two Yup’ik web developers, Christopher Egalaaq Liu and Lonny Alaskuk Strunk, completed an online Iñupiaq dictionary and word builder application, available at inupiaqonline.com. The project is based on MacLean’s Iñupiaq dictionary and aims to make learning the language at school and at home faster, easier and more accessible, even in rural areas.
“It will work,” MacLean said. “People are excited about it.”
Her life’s work has been the study, translation, and preservation of Iñupiaq—a language with an extensive oral tradition but limited written practice. The linguist’s efforts come at a time when only about 5% of Iñupiaq speakers are fluent, and the need for language learning tools, as well as comprehensive educational programs, is growing.
The Iñupiaq Online website – launched by the Arctic Slope Community Foundation – is the first of its kind for the North Slope dialect of Iñupiaq and features a dictionary, a word builder and an audio library to hear how words are pronounced .
“It was designed for everyone,” Liu said. “We have it so people can look up words quickly. … We made it so they can look up basic grammar information if they want to.”
So far, about 1,200 unique viewers have visited the website, Liu said. Visitors can see how to translate a word, see the plural form of a word, change the tense of a verb, or add an adjective to a noun.
“The computer is taught to create new words for the user based on morphological rules,” MacLean said.
Here’s how the word builder works: A student might want to say, “I want to eat,” and write the word “eat” in the dictionary. The verb “to eat” has the stem niġi, which is the part that helps drive the meaning of the phrase. To build the complete phrase, additional words are translated into different components of the phrase – bases, endings and suffixes – which are then attached to the root.
Using the website, a learner can select a post base – in this case, “I want to” – then select the appropriate case for “I” and see the result as “niġisuktuŋa” or “I want to eat”.
In the same way, searching for the word “truck”, students can end up with the sentence “It’s a big truck” or “qamutiqpauruq”, adding other elements to the original name.
“This is just the first phase,” MacLean said. “There are over 400 suffixes or postcodes, and we’ve only worked on 10.”
Starting in September, linguists plan to begin improving the algorithms for the website to include more complex elements — for example, linking verb phrases for complex sentences — as well as colloquial phrases.
“We’re planning to make updates to the website and include more types of sentences,” Liu said, “and also like, maybe bringing more dialogue, or conversational speech. … Over the next year, you can expect to see updates to the website.”
For now, students can use the current version of the website and enjoy the artwork created by the late Iñupiaq sculptor, goldsmith and carver, Ronald Senungetuk.
Iñupiaq Online is not the first language project that linguists Liu and Strunk have worked on together. A few years ago, they built a similar website for the Yugtun language and presented it at the 2018 AFN Convention. The website received overwhelmingly positive feedback, especially on the website’s translation feature, Liu said.
The decision to build an online tool for Iñupiaq followed naturally: Both the Yugtun and Iñupiaq languages don’t have many irregularities, and they follow a set structure, making the construction of words and sentences more predictable, Strunk said.
“Learning about the mathematical consistency of language — all these rules can be formed to make whole words — was very interesting to me,” he said. “I could see that there would be applications for … more exciting language tools.”
The project was initially funded through an $82,609 grant from the federal Administration for Children and Families last year and will soon receive additional funding through the Bureau of Indian Affairs, said Ryan Cope, director of grant programs with the Arctic Slope Community Foundation.
To create Inupiaq Online, MacLean, Liu and Strunk met weekly via Zoom. MacLean would look at the website design and give feedback to the developers. Learning from MacLean’s insights was a highlight of the project for Liu.
“She wrote the grammar books. She compiled the dictionary. She is Iñupiaq herself and a speaker of the language,” he said. “It’s incredible because a lot of indigenous resources, language resources, are often not written by their own people.”
At her Utqiaġvik home, steps away from the famous whalebone arch, MacLean was waiting for muktuk on a foggy afternoon in late June. The 77-year-old linguist lives in Anchorage, but regularly visits her hometown. This time she came for Nalukataq, to celebrate the whale her brother landed.
Utqiaġvik is where MacLean’s passion for language took shape.
MacLean grew up in a time when parents were required to speak English to their children, but her father Joseph Ahgeak refused to follow the rule. In third grade, a particularly strict teacher caught MacLean speaking Inupiaq and punished him.
“They grabbed me once, so she pulled my ear,” MacLean said, “and I screamed in pain.”
Young MacLean came home for lunch that day wearing a hoodie. Her mother Maria Ahgeak made her take off her parka before eating and found out what happened after seeing her daughter’s bright red ears.
“She went completely crazy,” MacLean said. “She put the parks of one of my brothers … and attacked the lagoon. It was freezing so she rushed across the lagoon and ran into my teacher’s classroom and grabbed her arm. “I’m taking you to the director and there I’ll pull your ear!”
MacLean’s relationship with her teacher improved after that, and MacLean felt even more passionate about speaking her native language no matter what.
“I was one of the people who was punished for speaking the Inupiaq language, and I was angry and my mother was furious,” she said. “So we just said, ‘OK, we’re going to do it anyway.’ So I’ve kept that interest.”
Fluent since she was a child, MacLean wasn’t educated in Iñupiaq until her 20s and worked with her mentor, Michael E. Krauss, a linguist and founder of the Alaska Native Language Center. MacLean then taught Iñupiaq at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and immersed himself in the study of the language.
She wrote two Iñupiaq grammar books and published her last dictionary in 2014, which took years of work. First, MacLean wrote down every word he knew. When she came across a word she didn’t know, she would call her parents and ask them to explain. And if her parents didn’t know the word, she asked elders, hunters and other old Inupiaq speakers.
While tools like dictionaries and apps can make learning easier, MacLean said one of the most effective ways to preserve Iñupiaq in the community is to create immersion programs that allow students to study the language at a deeper level and for longer periods of time. long periods of time.
“That’s the next step we have to take,” she said. “In schools, they have Iñupiaq language programs, but it’s not producing speakers. They teach it in segments and don’t have a real immersive environment for kids, especially preschoolers, to learn it quickly. … The immersion method seems to be the only way that works.”
Linguists are continuing to work on Iñupiaq Online to make it as useful as possible, Liu said, keeping in mind that a website cannot be a complete educational resource for the language.
“You can’t really learn everything through an app or through a website,” Liu said. “You also have to practice and engage with people.”