Of Duct Tape and Hovercraft

These Kamiik were Made for Running

I spent a long time chewing over the possibilities of


A lie can run halfway around the world
before the truth can get its kamiks on.

I’m kidding about the kamiks, of course. Unless the truth has more feet than he, she or it is usually credited with, it would be kamiik, dual. Or, if a quadruped, kamiit. Call it kamik if your mental picture involves Truth hopping along on one foot while struggling to pull on the second boot.

Do not be lulled into complacency by those matching vowels. Any resemblance is purely coinci­dental, brought about by the form of the original word. Chop off the final consonant—if any—double the final vowel, add the statutory dual ending k and you’ve got ᑲᒦᒃ (kamiik). Chop as before, leave the final vowel alone, add the plural ending it and you’ve got ᑲᒦᑦ (kamiit). But only because the original noun didn’t end in t. Final t’s are wimps. They either disappear altogether, or put up barricades of extra letters for protec­tion. Final double vowels, on the other hand—either a diphthong or a single long vowel—are almost the only thing mighty enough to fight back against a suffix or inflectional ending. Nuh-uh, we’re not doubling anything, there’s enough of us already. And keep that i to yourself; can’t you see there’s no room?

Around the World in 360 Degrees

blue cheese

Deep philosophical query: How far around the world is halfway? Obviously there is no point to running all the way around the world, or you’d just be back where you started, out of breath and with holes in your ᑲᒦᓐᓂ (kamiinni).

* Do Not Try This At Home. The form may be legitimate, but anything you attempt to do with it is almost bound to be spurious. In Inuktitut you would no more say “There are holes in my boots” than you would say “My feet are cold”. There are affixes (ᐃᑎᒐᐃᔭᖅᑐᖓ, itigaijaqtunga, I have cold feet) and even full-blown verbs (ᐳᔾᔪᖅᑐᖓ, pujjuqtunga, I’ve got a hole in my boot) for that kind of thing.

That was a Locative Possessive, in case anyone wondered: in or on two things belonging to you* alone. Or, curiously, to me. So long as it’s one person owning two things, six of the eight cases don’t care if that one person is you or me. The lawyers can go home. In fact the language seems to have lost heart a bit when it came up against that 36 × 8 figure. Where you’d expect each of the eight duals to come in twelve forms for the twelve possible owners—four persons, three numbers—most cases have to make do with seven. Even the nominative and genitive can only scrape up nine apiece. Once you are in the fourth person, nobody cares if that pair of boots is separate property, community property, or shared by the whole family.

Anyway, it’s OK. I won’t ask for them back.

But how far did you run? Does “halfway around the world” mean 180°, leaving you somewhere in the vicinity of Antarctica? Not a lot of people to spread your lies to down there. Or is it 90°, taking you into all kinds of warm and populous regions?

* The site seems to have moved to its present server in early 2004, so that’s the datestamp on most files. In February 2009, someone swung by to install Google Analytics. What they plan to do with the acquired know­ledge is anyone’s guess. Maybe they’ll screw up the courage to ditch all that legacy-font clutter and get the Unicode to work properly instead—now that people have all but given up trying to use it.

I bring this up because I was fascinated to discover that the nominal webmaster of the Inuktitut Living Dictionary comes from pretty exactly halfway around the world, if you use the 90° measure. I say “nominal” because I see no evidence that anyone has so much as looked under the hood since early 2009—and have reason to suspect that the true cutoff is closer to 2004.* When did you last use Netscape? Incidentally, the dictionary’s official name is Asuilaak, said to mean “the long-awaited one”. Sounds messianic, doesn’t it? Look it up in a different dictionary and you may come out with a translation more along the lines of “It’s about bloody time”.

But more about that elsewhere.

Whose Affix Did You See It With?

cat at window

* People who are into Abstract Theoretical Specu­lation might like to ask themselves what Messrs. Sapir and Whorf would say about the English language’s lack of this particular idiom. So many possible expla­nations, so little time. Me, I think the reason English doesn’t have this expres­sion . . . is that English doesn’t have this expression.

I tend to assume that Inuktitut has a word for everything. Except possibly the Treppenwitz or Esprit de l’Escalier,* what with the scarcity of multi-story tents, snow houses or soddies. The same goes for metaphors like “when your back is against the wall”. You can express the underlying concept, but the exact wording will need some adjust­ment. Say, for instance, “the witty rejoinder you think of just when your dog team has reached cruising speed and it’s too late to turn back.”

So it was a bit of shock to find a yawning gap in the area of truth and lies. But don’t leap to conclusions. The deficit applies only to nouns; there is no shortage of appro­priate verbs. Whether you saw it with your very own eyes, heard it at second hand or are just making it up, there’s a word for it.

* I have not yet come across a No Tres­passing sign. So tech­nically I don’t know that it isn’t allowed. But I think I’d better not try it without express permission.

Now, this is not a language where you can brazenly noun verbs and verb nouns.* Maybe you were allowed to in the old days; there are a surprising lot of noun-verb pairs, most of them a bit more appetizing than the previously mentioned ᒥᕆᐊᖅ (miriaq). The noun ᐱᕐᓯᖅ (pirsiq, snowdrift) has its counterpart in the verb stem ᐱᕐᓯᖅ (pirsiq-, to blizzard or drift snow). Other forms of precipitation like ᒪᖁᒃ (maquk, rain) behave the same way. Stick a verb ending onto the names of many traditional garments and you can put the said garment onto someone. Or at least on yourself. Feel free to kamik the truth if she needs help.

Option B is to ask nicely and see if you can get an affix to help you out. Maybe -niq, whose dictionary definition, “a noun abstrac­tion of the verb’s action,” is longer than the affix itself. Or, if you want some­thing with a little more substance to it, the package -jariaksaq (after vowels), -giaksaq (after k and q), and -tariaksaq (after t).

Most affixes and verb endings are perfectly happy with one or at most two forms: a j- or v- variant for use with vowels, a t- or p- variant for consonants. Since there are three vowels and three permitted final consonants, this seems eminently fair. But sometimes k and q get snarky and refuse to have anything to do with effete front-of-the-mouth sounds like t, so you have to come up with a third version.

* It’s really hard not to drag in the ethno­political analogies when they insist on jumping up and hitting you in the face like this. But I’m trying, I’m trying.

And once you’ve gone that far, the k and q will eventually start giving each other dirty looks and ask why they have to share when everyone else gets an ending all their own.*

Happily, it looks as if I will be able to work with -niq. This affix is not brave enough to eat k’s and q’s, though it will sometimes nibble on a t. But of course “uneaten” doesn’t mean “unchanged”. Final k and q nasalize to become ng and r respectively, and any surviving t becomes n. Which, from the t’s point of view, makes the whole eating question pretty academic.

The Whole Truth

a picture in search of a caption

Time to see what our little -niq will be dealing with. There’s a whole cluster of “talk” words, built on ᐅᖃᖅ (uqaq, tongue) and starting with your basic uqaq- (speak, talk, say). To tell someone: ᐅᖃᐅᑎ uqauti-. To speak to someone: ᐅᖃᕐᕕᒋ uqarvigi-. To chat or gossip: ᐅᖃᓪᓚᖅ uqallaq-. And so on.

* In both senses, as in English. You’re either enunciating perfectly and getting all your affixes in the right place, or telling the unvar­nished truth. Both at the same time may be too much to hope for.

Particularly if one is a maliga­liuqti or member of the legislature.

Food for thought: If Inuktitut were Latin, that intervocalic s would long since have morphed into r. And linguists would spend all their time explaining that they’re not really the same word, they just happen to walk, talk and quack alike.

As for truth and untruth:

ᐅᓐᓂᖅ unniq- to tell someone an indisputable fact, or something you’re absolutely sure of; to speak your mind;

ᓱᓕ suli- and ᐅᖃᑦᑎᐊᖅ uqattiaq- to speak truthfully, accurately or correctly*;

ᐅᓂᑉᑳᖅ unipkaaq- to tell a story (the verb doesn’t care if it’s true or not);

ᒥᑕᖅ mitaq- and ᒪᖓᑦ mangat- to mislead someone in the “Just kidding!” sense;

ᐊᙱᒃ anngik-, ᓴᒡᓗ saglu- and ᐅᐃᕕᕆ uiviri- to mislead someone or keep something secret from them—only now we’re getting serious about it;

winding up with

ᒥᓯᐊᖅ misiaq- to tell an outright lie.

Some further haphazard research leaves me with ᓱᓕᓂᖅ (suliniq), the truth, set against ᒥᓯᐊᕐᓂᖅ (misiarniq), a lie. They will be the subjects of their respective clauses, and neither of them belongs to anybody—the truth cannot be bought, and you wouldn’t expect a lie to give you a straight answer—so they’re home free. None of that icky business with interlocking case endings and possessive endings that made my caribou’s nostrils such an unappetizing mess.

Digression: There’s one more piece to the truth-and-untruth issue. The past-tense affixes distinguish rigorously between things that you personally witnessed (Past Perceived) and things that you only learned about after the fact (Past Unper­ceived). It may be beyond-the-shadow-of-a-doubt true that your brother came into town: you’ve just had lunch with him, and nobody could fake his table manners. But if you weren’t there to pick him up at the airport, it remains Past Unperceived. You can even use this with first-person endings. It would probably be tactless to ask why you didn’t know what you were doing at the time and had to find out about it the next morning.

To me, all of this suggests that Inuit would make terrific courtroom witnesses. No painstaking questions about how you know what you’ve just told us; it’s right there in the verb. I’m talking, of course, about people who want to be good witnesses. It is no harder to replace a Past Unper­ceived affix with a Past Perceived one than it is to replace “a darkish vehicle” with an exact description of your neighbor’s snow­mobile.

Puttin’ on the Boots


The “truth” half of the sentence turns out to be much more straightforward than the “lie” half. Isn’t that appropriate? The truth, ᓱᓕᓂᖅ (suliniq), simply has to ᑲᒥᒃᑐᖅ (kamiktuq), put on its boots. Or at least start putting them on. I won’t bother about the “can”; you could just as well say “before the truth has got its boots on”. The lie isn’t actively preventing the truth from putting its boots on. It’s just running faster. That leaves only “before” to sort out. Now, Inuktitut does have conjunctions—but only for your basic ands or buts.

* In theory, the affix -lauq- would work too. But -lauq- is a lot more concrete; its day job is as a Past Perceived affix, and you can’t get much more concrete than that. Use it here, and it would sound as if the whole sequence really did happen, not just hypothetically but right before your very eyes. With the aid of a good telescope, I personally witnessed a lie running halfway around the world—and then with a swift change in focal length I saw the truth finish putting its boots on.

No ifs, of course; that’s what the Condi­tional is for. Relative time (before, after) is done with an affix, in this case -qqaaq-* followed by the negative “participle”.

Those weren’t sarcastic quotation marks. Really. It’s just that the Inuktitut verb form known as the participle has only the most glancing resemblance to the English—or Indo-European language of your choice—participle. As in:

While I was running (currens, τρέχουσα, धावती) around the world, my roommate was running around with my significant other.

As I was putting on (induens, δύουσα, निवसन्ती) my boots, the telephone rang.

I saw a man running (currentem, τρέχοντα, धावन्तं) naked over the late-spring snow.

I caught my roommate putting on (induentem, δύουσαν, निवसन्तीं) my boots instead of her own.

The English participle is the word with -ing stuck to the end of it. But in Inuktitut, the “participle” translates the whole phrase while (as, when) I (you, she, they) was (were) . . . . If there’s no such phrase, just a lone word, you’re on your own. Go find an affix; the participle won’t get involved. Or rather the parti­ciples, plural, because there are three of them:

Past/Present: While I was putting on my boots, the cat stole my mittens.

Future: While I am running around the world, my neighbor will feed the cat.

Negative: While I was not doing anything in particular, the bathroom sink overflowed.

Think of those as the participles’ day job. But Inuktitut participles—or, if you prefer, Conjunc­tives—also get together with various affixes to show relative time:

Negative participle: Before I had time to take my boots off . . .

Positive: After the cat threw up on the rug . . .

Another affix gives you result or purpose:

Positive: . . . so that we can find a professional cleaning service.

Negative: . . . so that you won’t have to deal with it yourself.

I guess we should consider ourselves lucky the missionary linguists didn’t call this set of endings Subjunctive Form C. In any case, those extra jobs are reassuring. I was worried that a form meaning “while I was not putting on my boots” couldn’t possibly get enough work to make a living.

There’s one final quirk to participles. The other secondary moods—Becausative, Condi­tional, Frequen­tative, Dubitative, and probably several more that I haven’t met yet—have four gramma­tical persons. The third person is for talking about the same person who was, or will be, the subject of the main verb (Indica­tive, Interrogative or Imperative); the fourth person is used when it’s someone else. Did he leave early because he himself was tired, or because the guy giving him a ride was tired? Bring out the fourth person, and there can be no ambiguity. But if your main verb is in the third person and the other verb isn’t, we are obviously not talking about the same person anyway. Whenever I attempt to bathe the cat, she bites. I am manifestly not my cat.

Digression: The language passed up a priceless opportunity here. If there had been a fifth person, you would also be able to specify whether the patient (“object”) of the secondary verb was the same as the agent (“subject”) of the main verb. Did the bite come from the cat being washed, or from another cat moved by the spirit of loyalty? For that matter, did she bite me—the agent of the secondary verb—or some innocent bystander? With just a little more work, you could easily push the number of verb endings into the thousands.

And that’s not even talking about Inuktitut’s unaccountable failure to distinguish between nos (you and me) and nosotros (me and some other guy). Go through all the permutations and there’s no reason you can’t have five numbers in the first and second person.

Speaking of which . . . By weird coincidence, just a few days after I wrote this I stumbled across a slab of Cherokee. In both dual and plural, the language distinguishes between “me and you” and “me and some other guy(s)”. They also have a fourth person, even in the indicative. Their distinction, however, is based on whether the person you are talking about is right there and listening to every word. “John, here, put on his boots.” It’s an awful shame that so little Restoration comedy was written in Cherokee. Theatrical asides would have been a snap.

As I was saying . . . Participles work a little differently from other secondary verbs. Regardless of what person you’re in, if the agent (“subject”) of the participle is different from the agent (“subject”) of the main verb, you stick the prefix -ti- onto the front of the participial ending. In the case of the truth and its boots, that gets us -tinnagu on top of the previously hired -qqaaq-. It is not every day that a t gets the chance to eat a q. Usually it’s the other way around. But we’ll be gracious about it and stick with ᑲᒥᖅᑳᖅᑎᓐᓇᒍ (kami­qqaaq­tinnagu) instead of the equally legitimate ᑲᒥᖅᑳᑎᓐᓇᒍ (kami­qqaa­tinnagu). The final k in ᑲᒥᒃ (kamik), on the other hand, has no choice. It’s defenseless against the double onslaught of qq.

ᓱᓕ + ᓂᖅ = ᓱᓕᓂᖅ
suli + niq = suliniq

ᑲᒥᒃ + ᖅᑳᖅ + ᑎᓐᓇᒍ = ᑲᒥᖅᑳᖅᑎᓐᓇᒍ
kamik + qqaaq + tinnagu = kamiqqaaqtinnagu

The eagle-eyed reader will notice that qqaa is written ᖅᑳ (qkaa) rather than ᖅᖄ. It looks tidier, and the qk combination doesn’t occur. This is a good thing, since in some ortho­graphies, any syllable-final ᖅ (q) is written ᕐ (r)—and the two letters rkaa (ᕐᑳ) would be indistin­guishable to the naked eye from the single letter qaa (ᖄ). A similar meeting of esthetics and phonology resulted in writing ngng as nng, represented in print as ᓐᖏ or, by preference, ᙱ.

Run for It!


All right, lie, time to see what you’re made of.

Figuratively, that is. The literal lie has been waiting for me to remember that it’s made of the verb ᒥᓯᐊᖅ (misiaq-), with affix -niq to make it into a noun.

ᒥᓯᐊᖅ + ᓂᖅ = ᒥᓯᐊᕐᓂᖅ
misiaq + niq = misiarniq

Running is no problem either. Take the intransitive verb ᐅᓪᓚᖅ ullaq-. Insert the previously encountered “ability” affix -gunnaq- before your inflec­tional ending to make “can run”.

ᐅᓪᓚᖅ + ᒍᓐᓇᖅ + ᑐᖅ = ᐅᓪᓚᕈᓐᓇᖅᑐᖅ
ullaq + gunnaq + tuq = ullarunnaqtuq

When we last met it, the affix took the form -tunnaq- because it was attached to an element ending in t. But this time around it comes after a q. And it’s one of those fancy three-variant affixes, so we have to bring out the g form.

The q might have been less demanding if it had realized that this means it will be brutally reduced to r, obeying the same morpho­phonemic rules that gave us ᐅᒥᐊᕐᔪᐊᕋ (umiarjuara). The t of a two-variant affix would have left any preceding consonant alone.

And finally: If we lived in Ungava or points south, we might instead have used the verb ᐊᖅᐸᖅ (aqpaq-) or ᐊᖅᐸᒃ (aqpak-). Or ᐊᕐᐸᖅ (arpaq-) and ᐊᕐᐸᒃ (arpak-), depending on how you feel about q before unvoiced stops. Go with the -pak variants and the final k would be unceremoniously eaten. It takes a lot to get rid of a q.

Now then . . .

The world is a little trickier. If you want the entire universe—or at least the entire great outdoors, with emphasis on “great”—that’s ᓯᓚ (sila) “air, atmosphere, outdoors”. Tack on the affix -juaq “large” to make the fresh word ᓯᓚᕐᔪᐊᖅ (silarjuaq). The alternative is ᓄᓇ (nuna), which doesn’t seem compre­hensive enough. I want my lie to run really, really far; halfway across Canada won’t do. Besides, the tundra wasn’t made for running. When it isn’t covered with snow, it’s sodden with snowmelt.

To run around the whole world, use the Vialis case, here -kkut.

ᓯᓚ + ᔪᐊᖅ + ᒃᑯᑦ = ᓯᓚᕐᔪᐊᒃᑯᑦ
sila + juaq + kkut = silarjuakkut

And to run halfway around . . .

Whoops! Stop the world! We’re not done with it after all.

ᒥᓯᐊᕐᓂᖅ ᓯᓚᕐᔪᐊᒃᑯᑦ ᐅᓪᓚᕈᓐᓇᖅᑐᖅ
misiarniq silarjuakkut ullarunnaqtuq

Digression: If you are overdue for your Omniglot fix, you will be ecstatic to learn that they have a whole page devoted to translations of “Stop the world—I want to get off!”. You will be doubly ecstatic to learn that I had nothing to do with it.

The Inuktitut versions are:

ᓯᓚᕐᔪᐊᖅ ᓄᖅᑲ ᑲᑦᑕ ᐅᖑᒪᔪᖓ / ᐊᓯᕙᕈᒪᔪᖓ
Hilaryuaq nuqqaruk kattagumayunga! / ahivarumayunga!
Silarjuaq nuqqaruk kattagumajunga!

This tells us that, #1, one of the translators speaks a dialect where s is pronounced h—and, in fact, the dictionary says ᐊᓯᕙᖅ asivaq- (ahivaq-) is a “Padl.” or Kivalliq form. And, #2, the same translator’s cat walked across the keyboard while the syllabary was open. I don’t think they really meant to say nuqqa katta unguma­junga. Matter of fact, I’m not so sure the cat meant to say it either, because ᐅᖑᒪᔭᕋ (ungumajara)—transitive—means to stand guard over dog food to make sure none of the wrong dogs get at it. With intransitive endings, it would almost have to mean that you, the speaker, are the dog food.

Before the cat got involved, the syllabic version probably said

ᓄᖅᑲᕈᒃ ᑲᑦᑕᒪᔪᖓ

The word ᓯᓚᕐᔪᐊᖅ (silarjuaq) looks wonderfully familiar, doesn’t it? You may also recognize the ending -ruk. It’s what you get when you attach the transitive imperative ending -guk—the one that caused me so much grief in “If It Ain’t Broke...”—to a verb stem in q. In this case the verb is nuqqaq-, meaning to stop something.

I have to say I’m a little intrigued by that alternative final word asivaq- or ahivaq-. Its basic meaning is to remove some­thing, or take it out of the way. Use intransitive endings and it becomes reflexive or passive: you’re taking yourself out of the way. Or, as indicated by the affix -guma-, that you want to get out of the way. To me this sounds more like something that would happen if you looked up and discovered you were directly in the path of a world that had no intention of stopping.

The first-choice verb ᑲᑦᑕ (katta-) had me totally stumped until I remembered the trans­lators’ curious predilection for double t, as in the eel-filled hovercraft that started this all. Turns out the canonical form is ᑲᑕᒃ (katak-), transitive. And the canonical definition is to drop something or let it fall (transitive), or to fall down (reflexive). Again, it seems like you could achieve this just as easily without stopping the world.

If it were me, I’d have used ᓂᐅ (niu-), which means to get off a vehicle. Plane, train, sled, boat . . . or, in this case, the entire world.

The English original is two free-standing clauses, joined rather iffily by a dash. So you’re not obliged to do anything fancy with the verbs. But if you wanted to, you could make the second one (be)caus­ative: “Stop the world because I want to get off”. This gives us ᓂᐅᒍᒪᒐᒪ (niugumagama), which has a certain lilt to it. Pity the sentence doesn’t say “If I want to get off . . .” yielding the even tastier ᓂᐅᒍᒪᒍᒪ (niugumaguma).

Now, where were we? Right. Halfway around the world.

Half: ᓇᑉᐸᖅ (nappaq). Or possibly some other word entirely, because we are now entering Do Not Try This At Home territory.

If we’re not running around the whole world, but only half of it, we’ll need the Vialis for ᓇᑉᐸᖅ (nappaq). That’s why we had to stop the world. It’s hard to remove case endings from a moving target. To make up for its lost Vialis, the world becomes Genitive instead, ending up with -up. By now, the final q knows better than to argue. So we’re looking at ᓯᓚᕐᔪᐊᐅᑉ (silarjuaup) . . . but not for long, because we don’t allow Three-Vowel Sequences around here.

* This is not strictly true. There are several conso­nants, notably r, ng and double jj, which moonlight as Three-Vowel-Sequence Inhi­bitors. But r had to work overtime making sila + juaq into ᓯᓚᕐᔪᐊᖅ (silar­juaq)—the extra letter is in juaq’s contract—and the others seem to have been off duty.

Since no affix wants to do battle with a double vowel, there’s only one alternative:* chop a letter off the beginning of the affix. And that’s not some­thing you see every day. Unless, that is, you arrived by hovercraft, where the very same -juaq- affix met up with the very same -up ending for the very same result.

ᓇᑉᐸᖅ + ᒃᑯᑦ = ᓇᑉᐸᒃᑯᑦ
nappaq + kkut = nappakkut

ᓯᓚᕐᔪᐊᖅ + ᐅᑉ = ᓯᓚᕐᔪᐊᑉ
silarjuaq + up = silarjuap

Add the rest of the clause to make it

ᒥᓯᐊᕐᓂᖅ ᓇᑉᐸᒃᑯᑦ ᓯᓚᕐᔪᐊᑉ ᐅᓪᓚᕈᓐᓇᖅᑐᖅ
misiarniq nappakkut silarjuap ullarunnaqtuq

Word order to taste. Remember, I’m just making this up as I go along.

The Arctic Hare and the Tortoise


This is the part where the hare, otherwise known as the lie, gets so over-confident that it curls up for a nap, allowing the tortoise, otherwise known as the truth, to catch up and pass it.


Just one problem. There are no reptiles in the Arctic. Bad luck, truth. This is not your day.

ᒥᓯᐊᕐᓂᖅ ᓇᑉᐸᒃᑯᑦ ᓯᓚᕐᔪᐊᑉ ᐅᓪᓚᕈᓐᓇᖅᑐᖅ
ᓱᓕᓂᖅ ᑲᒥᖅᑳᖅᑎᓐᓇᒍ
misiarniq nappakkut silarjuap ullarunnaqtuq
suliniq kamiqqaaqtinnagu