Alaska Native Linguists Create Inupiaq Digital Dictionary, Combining Technology, Accessibility and Language Preservation
UTQIAĠVIK — Edna Ahgeak Paniattaaq MacLean smiled as her granddaughter Sirroun carried a thick tome in both hands and placed it neatly on the table in front of her.
“Some young people or teenagers said to me: “We are trying to learn Iñupiaq, but it’s so heavy!
In June, MacLean and two Yup’ik web developers, Christopher Egalaaq Liu and Lonny Alaskuk Strunk, completed an online Iñupiaq dictionary and word-building app, 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’s gonna work,” MacLean said. “People are excited about it.”
His life’s work has been to study, translate and preserve Iñupiaq, a language with a long 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 — spear by the Arctic Slope Community Foundation – is the first of its kind for the North Slope Iñupiaq dialect and includes a dictionary, word builder and audio library to hear how words are pronounced.
“It was designed for everyone,” Liu said. “We have it so people can just look up words quickly. … We’ve made it so they can look up the underlying grammatical information if they want.
So far, about 1,200 unique viewers have visited the website, Liu said. Visitors can search how to translate a word, see the plural form of the word, change the tense of a verb or add an adjective to a noun.
“The computer learned to create new words for the user based on morphological rules,” MacLean said.
Here’s how the word builder works: a learner can mean “I want to eat” and type the word “eat” into the dictionary. The verb “to eat” has niġi as its stem, which is the part that helps give the meaning of the sentence. To build the full sentence, additional words are translated into different sentence components – postbases, endings and suffixes – which are then attached to the stem.
Using the website, a learner can choose a postbase – in this case, “I want” – then choose the correct case for “I” and see the result as “niġisuktuŋa” or “I want to eat”.
Similarly, when searching for the word ‘truck’, learners may end up with the phrase ‘It’s a big truck’ or ‘qamutiqpauruq’, adding other elements to the original name.
“It’s just the first step,” MacLean said. “There are over 400 suffixes or postbases, and we’ve only worked on 10.”
As early as September, linguists plan to start improving the website’s algorithms to include more complex elements – for example, connective verb phrases for complex sentences – as well as conversational sentences.
“We plan to update the website and include more sentence types,” Liu said, “and also, just like, maybe bring more dialogue or conversation-centric speech. .. Over the next year you can expect to see updates to the website.
For now, learners can use the current version of the website and enjoy the artworks created by the late Iñupiaq sculptor, goldsmith and woodcarver, Ronald Senungetuk.
Iñupiaq Online isn’t the first language project that linguists Liu and Strunk have worked on together. A few years ago they built a 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 create an online tool for Iñupiaq followed naturally: the Yugtun and Iñupiaq languages do not have many irregularities, and they follow a set structure, which makes the construction of words and sentences more predictable, said Strunk.
“Learning about the mathematical consistency of the language – all of these rules can be formed to create complete words – was very interesting for me,” he said. “I could see there would be applications for… more exciting language tools.”
The project was originally funded by 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 grant programs at the Arctic Slope Community Foundation.
To create Inupiaq Online, MacLean, Liu and Strunk met weekly via Zoom. MacLean would review the website design and provide feedback to the developers. Learning from MacLean’s ideas was a highlight of the project for Liu.
“She wrote the grammar books. She compiled the dictionary. She is Iñupiaq herself and the speaker of the language,” he said. “It’s amazing because a lot of indigenous resources, language resources, are often not written by their own people.”
At his home in Utqiaġvik, a short walk from the famous whale bone arch, MacLean was cutting 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 asked to speak English to their children, but his father Joseph Ahgeak refused to follow the rule. In third grade, a particularly strict teacher caught MacLean speaking Iñupiaq and punished her.
“I got grabbed once so she pulled my ear,” MacLean said, “and I screamed in pain.”
Young MacLean came home for lunch that day, wearing her hoodie. Her mother Maria Ahgeak made her take off her parka before eating and learned what had happened after seeing her daughter’s bright red ears.
“She just went absolutely crazy,” MacLean said. “She put on one of my brothers’ parkas…and sped across the lagoon. It was freezing so she stormed across the lagoon and ran into my teacher’s classroom and grabbed her arm. “I’m taking you to the headmaster and there, I’m going to pull your ear!” ”
MacLean’s relationship with his teacher improved afterward, and MacLean felt even more passionate about speaking his native language no matter what.
“I was one of the people who was punished for speaking Iñupiaq, and I got angry, and my mother got angry,” she said. “So we just kind of said, ‘OK, we’re going to do it anyway.’ So I maintained that interest.
A fluent speaker since childhood, MacLean didn’t learn to read Iñupiaq until he was 20 and worked with his mentor, Michael E. Krauss, a linguist and founder of the Alaska Native Language Center. Then MacLean taught Iñupiaq at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and immersed herself in the study of the language.
She has written two Iñupiaq grammar books and published her last dictionary in 2014, which took years of work. First, MacLean wrote down all the words she knew. When she came across a word she didn’t know, she called her parents and asked them to explain it to her. And if her parents didn’t know that word either, she asked elders, hunters, and other longtime Iñupiaq speakers.
While tools like dictionaries and apps can make learning easier, MacLean said one of the most effective ways to keep 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.
“That’s the next step we have to take,” she said. “In the schools, they have Iñupiaq language programs, but it doesn’t produce speakers. They teach it in segments, and they don’t have a real immersion environment for kids, especially preschoolers, to learn it quickly. … The immersion method seems to be the only method that works.
Linguists continue 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.”