In January 2021, Microsoft announced that, after working with territorial authorities in Nunavut, it would be adding Inuktitut to the list of what is now 107 languages its on-line translation service can comprehend. The announcement coincided with the start of Uqausirmut Quviasuutiqarniq, an annual celebration of Inuktut language in Nunavut. This year, the two have teamed up again, this time to add the endangered Inuinnaqtun dialect and the Romanised version of Inuktitut’s characteristic syllabic writing system to Microsoft Translator.
Inuktitut is the primary dialect of the Inuktut language; it is spoken by approximately 40,000 people across Inuit Nunangat, the Inuit homeland in Canada, and used by 70% of Nunavut’s residents. Inuinnaqtun, also a dialect of Inuktut, is spoken as the mother tongue of fewer than 600 people in the Kugluktuk and Cambridge Bay communities in the Kitikmeot region of Nunavut.
A Romanised version of Inuktitut — which uses the same letters that are used in English and other western European languages and the areas they colonised — has been introduced as an alternative for the syllabic system (see below) that 19th century missionaries adapted from Cree as part of their efforts to develop a written form of the language.
For the Government of Nunavut, working with Microsoft to make it possible to use Inuktut with Translator and other computer services helps to keep the language viable and while hopefully staving off the disappearance of dialects like Inuinnaqtun.
“The updates to the Inuktitut language model, in direct response to feedback from the community, and the addition of Inuinnaqtun to Microsoft Translator, will ensure Inuktut continues to thrive for generations to come,” Kevin Peesker, the president of Microsoft Canada, said in a statement.
The addition is more than just a matter of language preservation, according to the Government of Nunavut. It also makes it easier for native speakers of Inuktut languages to express themselves to non-speakers. One example where this will be a benefit, it says, will be the healthcare system. It also hopes the service will make it easier for elders to pass on traditional knowledge to younger generations who may not fully understand the version of Inuktut their elders speak. Likewise, preserving indigenous languages has been seen as fundamental to the success of the country’s reconciliation process with indigenous groups.
In order to make sure that the artificial-intelligence system Translator uses could properly process Inuinnaqtun, Microsoft turned to community groups, like the Kitikmeot Heritage Society, to provide it with an understanding of the basics of the language and then to test the results. Though they were good enough to roll out, Microsoft’s experience over the past with year with Inuktitut is that, as with the language itself, the more people use its tool, the stronger it gets.
Featured image: Anick Marie, Wiki Commons CC-BY SA 2.0
Kevin McGwin, PolarJournal
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