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Alaska Native Linguists Combine Technology, Accessibility and Language Preservation to Create Digital Inupiaq Dictionary

Edna Ahgeak MacLean, Linguist, Inupiaq Language App

UTQIAĠVIK — Edna Ahgeak Paniattaaq MacLean smiles as her granddaughter Sirroun holds a thick book in both hands and carefully places it on the table.

“Several young people and teenagers have told me, ‘I’m trying to learn Inupiaq, but it’s so difficult!'” McLean, a linguist and educator, wrote. I laughed when I saw the Inupiaq dictionary.

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 The project is based on McLean’s Inupiaq dictionary and aims to make language faster, easier and more accessible in schools and homes, even in rural areas.

“It will work,” said McLean. “People are excited about it.”

Her life’s work has been researching, translating and preserving the Inupiaq language. Inupiaq is widely spoken, but written conventions are limited. The efforts of linguists come at a time when only about 5% of people are fluent in Inupiaq, increasing the need for language-learning tools and comprehensive educational programs.

Launched by the Arctic Slope Community Foundation, the Inupiaq Online website is the first of its kind for the North Slope dialect of Inupiaq and features a dictionary, word generator, and an audio library for hearing the pronunciation of words. increase.

“It was designed for everyone,” says Liu. “We are helping people look up words quickly.

About 1,200 unique viewers have visited the website so far, according to Liu. Visitors can find out how words are translated, see plurals of words, change verb tenses, add adjectives to nouns, and more.

“Computers are trained to create new words for users based on morphological rules,” McLean said.

Inupiaq dictionary and writing app

The word builder works like this: The learner says “I want to eat” and enters the word “eat” into the dictionary. The root of the verb “to eat” is niġi, which helps guide the meaning of the phrase. Additional words are converted into various phrase components (postbases, endings, suffixes) and added to stems to build complete phrases.

Using the website, the learner selects a postbase (in this case ‘I want to eat’) and selects the correct case for ‘I’ and the result is displayed as ‘niġisuktuŋa’ or ‘I want to eat’ .

Similarly, looking up the word “truck” allows learners to add other elements to the original noun to arrive at the sentence “It’s a big truck” or “qamutiqpauruq”.

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

Inupiaq dictionary and writing app

Starting as early as September, linguists plan to start improving the website’s algorithm to include more complex elements (such as connecting verb phrases in complex sentences) and conversational phrases.

“We are planning to update the website to include more sentence types,” says Liu. … over the next year, the website will be updated. ”

For now, learners can use the current version of the website to enjoy featured artwork 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 built a similar Yugtung website and presented it at the 2018 AFN convention. Liu said his website received overwhelmingly positive feedback, especially for the translation feature on his website.

The decision to build an online tool for Inupiaq was a natural one. Yugtun and Inupiak lack many irregularities and follow a defined structure, making word and sentence construction more predictable, Strunk said.

“Learning about the mathematical coherence of a language can form all these rules for creating perfect words. It was very interesting to me,” he said. “…It turns out that there are more exciting applications of language tools.”

The project was originally funded through a $82,609 grant from the Federal Office of Children and Families last year, and will soon receive additional funding through the India Department, according to the Arctic Slope Communities Foundation grant program. Director Ryan Cope said.

To create Inupiaq Online, MacLean, Liu, and Strunk met weekly via Zoom. MacLean looks at her website designs and provides feedback to developers. Learning from MacLean’s insights was the highlight of the project for Liu.

“She wrote a grammar book. She compiled a dictionary. This is surprising, as they are often not written by humans.”

Edna Ahgeak MacLean, Linguist, Inupiaq Language App

At her Utqiaġvik home, a few steps from the famous Whalebone Arch, McLean was cutting muktuks on a foggy late June afternoon. The 77-year-old linguist lives in Anchorage but regularly visits his home village. This time she came to Narkatuck to celebrate the whale that her brother landed.

Utqiaġvik is where McLean’s passion for language takes shape.

McLean grew up when his parents asked their children to speak English, but his father, Joseph Agek, refused to follow the rules. I caught him speaking and punished him.

“I got caught once and she pulled my ear,” McLean said.

Young McLean came home for lunch that day in his hood. Her mother, Maria Argek, took off her hoodie before eating and knew what had happened by looking at her daughter’s bright red ears.

“She was completely pissed off,” McLean said. “She put on one of my brother’s parkas… and hit the lagoon. It was freezing, so she ran across the lagoon into my teacher’s classroom and grabbed her arm. “I’m taking you to the headmaster, where I’m going to pull your ears!”

After that, McLean’s relationship with his teacher improved, and McLean became even more passionate about speaking his native language no matter what.

“I was one of those who was punished for speaking Inupiaq. I got angry and my mother got angry,” she said. “So we just said, ‘OK, we’ll do it anyway.’ So I kept that interest going.”

A fluent speaker from childhood, McLean was Inupiak and illiterate until his twenties, where he worked with mentor Michael E. Krause, a linguist and founder of the Alaska Native Language Center. McLean then immersed himself in the study of the language, teaching Inupiaq at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks.

She wrote two Inupiaq grammars and published an updated dictionary in 2014, which took years of work. First, McLean wrote down every word she knew. When I came across a word she didn’t know, I would call her parents and ask them to explain it to me. And if her parents didn’t know the language either, she asked elders, hunters, and other longtime Inupiaq speakers.

Edna Ahgeak MacLean, Linguist, Inupiaq Language App

Tools like dictionaries and apps can make learning easier, but McLean says one of the most effective ways to keep Iñupiak in the community is to help students master the language at a deeper level over time. He says his goal is to create an immersion program that allows him to learn.

“That’s the next step we have to do,” she said. “In schools, there are programs in Inupiaq, but no speakers are born. No. …Immersion seems to be the only effective method.”

Linguists continue to work to make Inupiaq Online as useful as possible, Liu said, but bears in mind that the website can never be a complete educational resource for the language.

“You can’t learn everything from an app or website,” says Liu. “You also need to practice and engage with people.”