Inuit Sign Language

Inuit Sign Language
Inuit Uukturausingit
ᐃᓄᐃᑦ ᐆᒃᑐᕋᐅᓯᖏᑦ
Native to Canada, possibly Greenland and United States
Region Nunavut
Possibly Greenland, Quebec, Northwest Territories, Yukon, Alaska[1]
Ethnicity Inuit
Native speakers
At least 47 Deaf in Nunavut (2014)[2]
Unknown additional hearing speakers
Official status
Official language in
Recognised minority
language in
Interpreted alongside ASL in the Nunavut Legislative Assembly.[3]
Language codes
ISO 639-3 iks
Glottolog inui1247[4]

Inuit Sign Language (IUR, Inuktitut: Inuit Uukturausingit (ᐃᓄᐃᑦ ᐆᒃᑐᕋᐅᓯᖏᑦ) or Atgangmuurngniq) is an Indigenous sign language isolate native to Inuit communities of the Canadian Arctic. It is currently only attested within certain communities in Nunavut, particularly around Baker Lake and Rankin Inlet. Although there is a possibility that it may be used in other places where Inuit people live in the Arctic, this has not been confirmed.[5][6]

Of the estimated 155 deaf residents of Nunavut in 2000, around 47 were thought to use IUR, while the rest use ASL due to schooling.[7] It is unknown how many hearing people use the language nor how many people are monolingual. As it is a highly endangered and relatively hidden language, it has no protection under the federal or territorial governments of Canada. However, IUR exists alongside ASL interpretation within the Nunavut Legislative Assembly as of 2008.[3] Recently, there has been increased interest in the documentation of the language which would be done through the Nunavut Council for People with Disabilities and the Inuit Broadcasting Corporation (IBC).[8] As well, there is push to expand the interpretation/translation programme through Arctic College to include IUR.[9]


At least since the 18th century, hearing Inuit used some form of sign language for trade and communication between various Inuit languages, a similar role to that played by Plains Sign Language further south. This may have been IUR or at least its ancestor, as the region has a high incidence of congenital deafness. In the territory of Nunavut, for example, the incidence of hereditary deafness is six times that of southern Canada. The deaf are well integrated in the community, and there are perhaps two hearing people proficient in IUR for every deaf speaker, as in other communities with high rates of congenital deafness such as Martha's Vineyard. However, IUR is not (or no longer) used as a contact language among the hearing.[10] Its users are the deaf and those hearing people they regularly communicate with.[5]

The history of the language is not well known, with stories passed down from elders noting the use of IUR, or related languages/dialects therein, for generations where the language(s) would be used by both hearing and Deaf Inuk, especially out on the tundra. However, due to the sparseness of communities and the relative youth of the field of research, there is little understanding of who uses the language where. That being said, IUR has been shown to be passed down in some families through generations, regardless of deafness.[6] In fact, deafness within Inuit society holds less stigma than it does within its southern neighbour's which leads to a wider acceptance and adoption of IUR.[5]


Inuit Sign Language is a threatened language. A decline in use is in progress due to a variety of reasons, chief of which is the encroachment of ASL.[6] As there exists no formal educational opportunities using IUR, parents are increasingly opting to send their children south to schools where ASL is the primary language of instruction or English–ASL interpreted curriculum; LSQ and/or French education appears to not hold precedence.[6] This trend is seen in the fact that an estimated third of the population (47 in ca. 2000) use IUR as their native language.[7] It is unknown the status of the language, though, outside of select communities within Nunavut.

Efforts to protect and document the language are underway. Increasingly, there is support from within and outside the linguistic community to expand local programmes and to document IUR,[9] especially after R. v. Suwarak, 1999,[11][12] which saw an Inuk man put to trial where no interpreter was able to be provided as none existed. Through the Nunavut Department of Culture, Language, Elders and Youth (CLEY) and the Department of Justice, Dr Jamie MacDougall is spearheading a project with community members to document and revitalize the language.[8]

Officially, Inuit Sign Language is offered no rights or protections beyond what is found in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms,[11] meaning no province or territory has established it as an official language. However, alongside ASL, interpreters have used IUR at Nunavut's legislative assembly since 2008.[3]


  Confirmed range of Inuiuuk in Nunavut amongst various sign languages of the US and Canada.

As academic research into IUR is a new field, there is limited information related to its varieties. However, it is known that there is dialectal variation of the language across at least Nunavut, as to be expected from separated linguistic communities. It is reported that a sign language of Greenland is closely related to IUR with ASL and Danish Sign Language loans, but it is yet to be determined whether that is valid as Greenlandic Sign Language may be a variety or related to Danish Sign Language itself.[13]

Beyond dialectal variation, there is little known of the range of the language or whether not there are multiple languages that exist. It is said that Inuit have spoken IUR, or at least a variation therein, for generations across much of their territories, however no current research confirms those rumours. As such, IUR is unattested to the west of Nunavut.[14]


As of 2015, there have been few linguistic studies on Inuit Sign Language, notably done by Schuit (2012) wherein they looked primarily at verb agreement and classifier use. Schuit makes note that at this early stage of research, they cannot say the absolute word order of the language; they plan to pursue further studies in negation and morphological typology later. Moreover, preliminary findings dictate that Inuit Sign Language does not exhibit a large amount of non-manual simultaneity, but that manual simultaneity certainly exists. As well, there exists limited verb agreement within the language, but all types of verbs found in sign languages (plain, agreement and spatial) can be found in Inuit Sign Language. Finally, Inuit Sign Language appears to be not a subject-drop language but, rather, one that leaves the subject unspecified, which aligns similarly with Inuit culture.[14]

Verb agreement

IUR exhibits a three-way distinction between plain, agreement and spatial verbs. In plain verbs, one sees no reference to an object or subject, such as the following example:

'Long ago, I phoned Ottawa.' (referring to a shop in Ottawa)[14]

Although appearing to reference Ottawa, the verb, CALL–ON–PHONE, makes no movement nor orientation to suggest it agrees with the object. However, agreement can take the shape of varying executions in different spaces, such as with:

‘I use an ice auger, and so does he.’[14]

Here, the verb's location and movement shifts to agree with the subject of either clause. Additionally, agreement can be seen on transitive verbs such as the following where the verb SEE interacts only with its object. Verbs agreeing with both subject and object are rare.

‘I tell him to watch this (the fishing), to pay attention.’[14]

Finally, IUR also uses spatial verbs with certain locative agreements. Some verbs set up a specific signing space in front of the signer whereas others use the index finger to locate absolutely a geographical point (also seen in the first example with OTTAWA) as seen in the following two examples:

‘Over there they started a hole with a scoop, and then drilled it with an ice-auger. Someone walked from there towards me and took my chisel. The white man walked back (to the hole) and used the chisel. Then he dropped it, and it went all the way to the bottom (of the sea).’[14]
‘In two days, they take a plane that flies them to Winnipeg, followed by the plane from Winnipeg, that flies with some stops to here (Rankin Inlet).’[14]

Spatial localization, however, is not obligatory, as seen here:

‘A white man and me, an Inuk, go by snow mobile (to Landing Lake).’[14]

Here, the location remains unspecified even though it was known.

Absolute geolocation reference

One unique feature of IUR is its absolute referents when referencing geographic locations. As in most other sign languages, signers will make a signing location in front of their body to indicate notions like 'here' or referencing a person abstractly. However, for geographic points, IUR references those locations absolutely using the index finger in the case of INDEX–LOC or other handshapes as is the case for WinnipegPLANE–FLY–WITH–STOPS1. The actual locations vary from local, nearby villages or cities to cities such as Winnipeg that are thousands of kilometres away. However far the referent is, the signer will invariably point or indicate the direction in which it is.[14]


IUR has both handling and entity classifiers as in many other sign languages. Its handling classifiers appear on transitive verbs and mark the direct object, such as PICK–UP:CLegg ('pick up an egg') or MOVEup:CLbox ('move a box'). Entity classifiers have so far been identified in the semantic class of vehicles, animals, two-legged beings and flying birds, such as in: MOVE3a:CLbirds GOOSE SHOOT++3a ('geese flying in, I will shoot them out of the air'). Handling classifiers are used more frequently.[14]

See also


  1. Garrick Mallory (1882). The Gesture Speech of Man (Speech). Retrieved 20 June 2016.
  2. Inuit Sign Language at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
  3. 1 2 3 "Inuit sign language makes debut in Nunavut legislature". CBC. 17 September 2008. Retrieved 1 August 2015.
  4. Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin; Bank, Sebastian, eds. (2016). "Inuit Sign Language". Glottolog 2.7. Jena: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  5. 1 2 3 Schuit, Joke (2012). "Signing in the arctic: External influences on Inuit Sign Language". In Zeshan, Ulrike; de Vos, Connie. Sign languages in village communities: Anthropological and linguistic insights. Berlin & Nijmegen: De Gruyter Mouton & Ishara Press.
  6. 1 2 3 4 MacDougall, Jamie (February 2001). "Access to justice for deaf Inuit in Nunavut: The role of "Inuit sign language"". Canadian Psychology. 41 (1): 61.
  7. 1 2 MacDougall, Jamie (December 2000). "Access to justice for deaf persons in Nunavut: Focus on signed languages" (PDF). Department of Justice, Canada. Retrieved 29 September 2015.
  8. 1 2 Bird, John (26 September 2008). "Project documents unique Inuit sign language". Nunatsiaq Online. Retrieved 29 September 2015.
  9. 1 2 Dawson, Samantha (25 February 2013). "Inuit Sign Language should be recognized as a right, expert says". Nunatsiaq Online. Retrieved 29 September 2015.
  10. According to Schuit (2012). MacDougall (2000) reports that hearing people have been observed using it for inter-dialectical communication, noting that "this is not unusual for nomadic hunters and others living in isolated places". However, it is not clear if he is referring to historical or contemporary accounts.
  11. 1 2 "Access to Justice for Deaf Persons in Nunavut: Focus on Signed Languages". Department of Justice. 1 July 2015. Retrieved 29 September 2015.
  12. Minogue, Sara (22 February 2009). "Crown stays sex charge against deaf man". Globe and Mail. Retrieved 29 September 2015.
  13. Brentari (2010) ed. Sign Languages, p. 82
  14. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 Schuit, Joke; Baker, Anne; Pfau, Roland (2011). "Inuit Sign Language: a contribution to sign language typology". Linguistics in Amsterdam. 4 (1). Retrieved 2016-10-04.


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