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 carefully on the table in front of her.

“I’ve had some young people or teenagers tell me, ‘We’re trying to learn Inupiaq, but it’s so hard!'” laughed linguist and educator McLean, looking at the Inupiaq 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 generator 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 will work,” McLean said. “People are excited about it.”

Her life’s work has been to study, translate and preserve Inupiaq, a language with an extensive oral tradition but limited written practice. The linguist’s efforts come at a time when only about 5 percent of Inupiaq 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’s designed for everyone,” Liu said. “We have it so people can just look up words quickly. … We made it so that 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 look up how to translate a word, see the plural 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.

Iñupiaq dictionary and sentence builder app

Here’s how the word builder works: A learner might want to say “I want to eat” and write the word “eat” in the dictionary. The verb “to eat” has niġi as its stem, which is the part that helps govern the meaning of the phrase. To build the complete phrase, the additional words are translated into various components of the phrase – post-stems, endings and suffixes – which are then attached to the base.

Using the website, the learner can select a postcode – in this case “I want to” – then choose the correct case for “I” and see the result as “niġisuktuŋa” or “I want to eat”.

Similarly, by searching for the word “truck”, learners can arrive at the sentence “It is a big truck” or “qamutiqpauruq” by adding other elements to the original noun.

“This is just the first stage,” McLean said. “There are over 400 suffixes or postbases, and we’ve only worked on 10.”

Iñupiaq dictionary and sentence builder app

From September, linguists plan to start improving the algorithms for the website to include more complex elements – for example, connecting verb phrases for complex sentences – as well as colloquial phrases.

“We plan to make updates to the website and include more sentence types,” Liu said, “and also, maybe more dialogue or conversational 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 featured artwork created by the late Inupiaq 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 AFN Convention in 2018. The website received overwhelmingly positive feedback, especially regarding the website’s translation feature, Liu said.

The decision to create an online tool for Iñupiaq followed naturally: Both Yugtun and Iñupiaq languages ​​don’t have many irregularities and follow a defined structure, making word and sentence construction 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 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 for the Arctic Slope Community Foundation.

To create Inupiaq Online, MacLean, Liu and Strunk met weekly via Zoom. MacLean will review the website design and provide 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 herself is Inupiaq and a 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.”

Edna Ahgeak MacLean, Linguist, Inupiaq Language App

At his house in Utqiaġvik, a few steps from the famous whalebone arch, McLean was cutting a 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 to Nalukatak to celebrate the whale her brother landed.

Utqiaġvik is where MacLean’s passion for language took shape.

McLean grew up in a time when parents were asked to speak English to their children, but her father, Joseph Ageak, refused to follow the rule. In third grade, a particularly strict teacher caught McLean speaking Inupiaq and punished her.

“One time they grabbed me, so she pulled my ear,” McLean said, “and I screamed in pain.”

Young McLean came home for lunch that day with her hood up. 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 totally freaked out,” McLean said. “She put on one of my brother’s parkas … and jumped across the lagoon. It was freezing, so she rushed across the lagoon, ran into my teacher’s classroom and grabbed her hand. “I’m taking you to the principal and there I’ll pull your ear off!”

McLean’s relationship with her teacher improved after that, and McLean felt even more passionate about speaking her native language no matter what.

“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 were just like, ‘OK, we’re going to do it anyway.’ So I maintain that interest.”

Proficient since childhood, McLean did not become literate in Inupiaq until she was in her 20s and working 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 books on Iñupiaq grammar and published her latest dictionary in 2014, which took years of work. First McLean 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 it to her. And if her parents didn’t know the word either, she asked elders, hunters and other longtime Inupiaq speakers.

Edna Ahgeak MacLean, Linguist, Inupiaq Language App

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 learn the language at a deeper level and for longer periods of time.

“That’s the next step we have to take,” she said. “They have Inupiaq language programs in the schools, but they don’t produce speakers. They teach it piecemeal and don’t have a real immersion environment for kids, especially preschoolers, to learn it quickly. … The dip method seems to be the only way that works.”

Linguists continue to work on Iñupiaq Online to make it as useful as possible, Liu said, while noting that one 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.”

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