UTQIAĠVIK — Edna Ahgek Panittak McLean smiled as her granddaughter, Siron, carried the thick tome with both hands and placed it carefully on the table in front of her.
“I’ve had some young people or teenagers say to me, ‘We’re trying to learn Iñupiaq but it’s too overwhelming!'” laughed McLean, a linguist and educator, looking at an 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-building app available at inupiaqonline.com. The project is based on MacLean’s Iñupiaq dictionary and aims to make the language fast, easy and accessible in schools and homes, even in rural areas.
“It will work,” McLean said. “People are excited about it.”
His life’s work is to study, translate and preserve Iñupiaq – a language with an extensive oral tradition but limited written practice. The linguist’s efforts come at a time when only 5% of Iñupiaq speakers are fluent, and there is a growing need for language-learning tools, as well as comprehensive educational programs.
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-building exercise and an audio library to hear how words are pronounced.
“It was designed for everyone,” Liu said. “We have it so that people can look up words quickly. … We made it so that they can look up the underlying grammatical information if they want to.”
About 1,200 unique visitors have visited the website so far, 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,” McLean said.
The word-building tool works like this: A learner might say, “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 drive the meaning of the phrase. To build a complete phrase, additional words are translated into various phrase 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, looking at the word “truck,” learners can complete the sentence by adding other elements to the original noun, such as, “This is a big truck,” or “Kamutikpauruk.”
“This is just the first step,” McLean said. “There are over 400 suffixes or postbases, and we’ve only worked on 10.”
Starting as early as September, linguists plan to begin improving the algorithms for the website to include more complex elements — for example, compound verb phrases for complex sentences — as well as conversational phrases.
“We plan to update the website and include more sentence types,” Liu said, “and like this, maybe bring more dialogue, or conversation-focused speech. … In 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 special artwork created by the late Iñupiaq sculptor, silversmith and woodcarver, Ronald Senungetuk.
Iñupiaq Online is not the first language project that linguists Liu and Strunk have worked on together. A few years ago, they created a similar website for the Yugtun language and presented it at the 2018 AFN conference. The website has received overwhelmingly positive feedback, especially on the website’s translation functionality, Liu said.
The decision to build an online tool for Iñupiaq followed naturally: Both Yugtun and Iñupiaq languages don’t have many irregularities, and they follow a defined structure, making word- and sentence-building more predictable, Strunk said.
“Learning about the mathematical consistency of language—all these rules can be formed to create complete words—was very interesting to me,” he said. “I can see that there will be applications for … more exciting language tools.”
The project was originally funded through an $82,609 grant from the federal Administration for Children and Families 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 will review the website design and give feedback to the developer. Learning from McLean’s insights was a highlight of the project for Liu.
“She wrote grammar books. She compiled a dictionary. She’s Inupiaq herself and a speaker of the language,” he said. “It’s incredible because a lot of local sources, language sources, are mostly not written by their own people.”
In her quaint home, steps from the famous Whale Bone Arch, McLean was cutting crowns on a foggy afternoon in late June. The 77-year-old linguist lives in Anchorage but regularly visits her hometown. This time she came to Nalukatak, to celebrate the landing of her brother Whale.
Utqiaġvik is where McLean’s passion for language took shape.
McLean grew up in a time when parents asked their children to speak English, but his father, Joseph Ahgek, refused to follow the rule. In third grade, a particularly strict teacher caught McLean speaking Iñupiaq and punished him.
“I was grabbed once so she pulled my ear,” McLean said, “and I screamed in pain.”
Young McLean came home for lunch that day, wearing her hood. Her mother, Maria Ahgek, made her take off her parka before eating, and knew what was wrong when she saw her daughter’s bright red ears.
“She went completely crazy,” McLean said. “She put on one of my brothers’ parkas … and crossed the lagoon. It was freezing so she ran across the lagoon and into my teacher’s classroom and grabbed her hand. ‘I’m going to take you to the principal and there, I’m going to pull your ears!’
McLean’s relationship with his teacher then improved, and McLean felt even more passionate about speaking his mother tongue anyway.
“I was one of the people who was punished for speaking Inupiaq, and I got mad, and my mother got mad,” she said. “So we kind of said, ‘Well, we’re going to do it anyway.’ That’s why I’m interested in that.”
Fluent since she was a child, McLean did not become literate in Inupiaq until she was in her 20s, and she met Michael E., a linguist and founder of the Alaska Native Language Center. Worked with Krause. McLean then taught Iñupiaq at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and immersed herself in the study of the language.
She wrote two Iñupiaq grammar books and published her latest dictionary in 2014, which took years of work. First, McLean wrote down every word he knew. When she ran into a word she didn’t know, she called her parents and asked them to explain it. And if her parents didn’t know the word either, she asked elders, hunters and other longtime Iñupiaq speakers.
While tools like dictionaries and apps can make learning easier, McLean said the most effective way to preserve Iñupiaq in the community is to create immersion programs that allow students to study the language at a deeper level and longer.
“This is the next step we need to take,” she said. “In schools, they have Iñupiaq language programs, but it doesn’t produce speakers. They’re teaching it in segments, and they don’t have a true immersion environment for kids, especially preschoolers, to learn quickly. … The immersion method seems to be the only way to work.
Linguists are continuing to work on Iñupiaq Online to make it as useful as possible, Liu said, noting that the website cannot be a complete educational resource for the language.
“You can’t really learn everything through an app or a website,” Liu said. “You also have to practice and engage with people.”