Edna Ahgek Paniyattak McLean smiled as her granddaughter Cirron put on a thick tome with two hands and carefully placed it on the table in front of her.
“I’ve had some young people or teens tell me, ‘We’re trying to learn Inupiaq but it’s too heavy! Linguist and teacher MacLean laughed, looking at the Inupiaq dictionary he wrote.
In June, McLean and two Yupiq web developers, Christopher Aglak Liu and Lonnie Alsuck Strunk, completed Inupiaqonline.com, an online Inupiaq dictionary and word-building app. The project is based on McLean’s Inupiaq dictionary and aims to make language learning faster, easier and more accessible at school and at home, even in rural areas.
“It will work,” McLean said. “People are excited about it.”
His 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 5% of Inupiaq speakers are fluent, and the need for language-learning tools, as well as comprehensive educational programs, is growing.
The Inupiaq Online website – started by the Arctic Slope Community Foundation – is the first of its kind for the North Slope dialect of Inupiaq and features a dictionary, a word-building function, and an audio library to listen to how words are pronounced .
“It was designed for everyone,” Liu said. “We have it so that people can just look up words quickly. … We made it so they can see the underlying grammatical information if they want.”
Liu said about 1,200 unique visitors have visited the website so far. 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.
“Computers have been taught to create new words for the user based on morphological rules,” McLean said.
The word-formation tool works like this: A learner might want to say, “I want to eat,” and type the word “eat” into the dictionary. The verb “to eat” has nishi as a stem, which is the part that helps drive the meaning of the phrase. To form a complete phrase, additional words are translated into various phrase components – postbase, ending and suffix – 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 “Nishisuktu” or “I want to eat”. I can
In the same way, by looking at the word “truck,” learners can add other elements to the base noun and end with the sentence, “It’s a big truck,” or “Kamutikapouruk.”
“This is just the first phase,” McLean said. “There are over 400 suffixes or postbases, and we only worked on 10.”
Starting in September, linguists plan to begin improving the website’s algorithms to include more complex elements – for example, connective verb phrases for complex sentences – as well as conversational phrases.
“We plan to update the website to include more sentence types,” Liu said, “and so on, perhaps bringing more dialogue, or conversational-focused speech.” …Next year, you can expect to see updates on the website.”
For now, learners can access the current version of the website and enjoy exclusive artwork created by the late Inupiaq sculptor, silversmith and woodcarver, Ronald Senungtuk.
Inupiaq 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 Yugan language and presented it at the 2018 AFN Convention. The website received overwhelmingly positive feedback, especially on the website’s translation function, Liu said.
The decision to create an online tool for Inupiaq came naturally: both the Yugatun and Inupiaq languages do not have many irregularities, and they follow a defined structure, making word- and sentence-building more predictable, Strunk said. Told.
“Learning about the mathematical consistency of language—all these rules that can be made to form complete words—was very interesting to me,” he said. “I could see that there would be applications for this exciting language tool.”
Ryan Cope, director of grant programs for the Arctic Slope Community Foundation, said the project was originally funded last year through an $82,609 grant from the Federal Administration for Children and Families and soon through the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Additional money will be received.
To create Inupiaq Online, McLean, Liu and Strunk met weekly via Zoom. McLean will oversee the website design and provide feedback to developers. Learning from McLean’s insight was the highlight of the project for Liu.
“She wrote grammar books. She compiled dictionaries. She is Inupiaq herself and a speaker of the language,” he said. “It is unbelievable because so many original resources, language resources, are often not written by their own people.