Of Duct Tape and Hovercraft

Heavy-Handed Metaphor

rat fistfight with sound effects: Zap! Pow! Kabloona!

The Batman comics used to be famed for their sound effects. Why settle for a modest ZAP! or POW! when you have FLRBBBBB! or QUNCKKK! or ZZZZZWAP! at your disposal?

To cap off the list, you need a word that says: This is the final, decisive knockout punch.



What else do we fill? More nostrils!

* I learn from another source that this is the “nostril fly”, genus Cephenemyia, not to be confused with the warble fly, genus Oedemagena.

Intransitive, you will be relieved to hear. That is, non-specific. You may be sneezing out all kinds of stuff, but nobody is going to ask you for a detailed analysis. Unlike, oh, say, ᒥᕆᐊᖅ (miriaq-), “to vomit”, which requires only a simple affix to go either way. As it were. Do not ask me whether the corre­sponding noun, also ᒥᕆᐊᖅ (miriaq), ever occurs in the dual or plural. I really don’t want to know.


1. ᑕᒡᒋᐅᒃ taggiuk, noun, a worm infesting the nostrils of caribou*

2. ᑕᒡᒋᐅᒃ taggiuk-, verb, to sneeze


3. the kinds of people I communicate with

it could only be a matter of time before we arrived at

My caribou’s nostrils are full of worms.

How on earth did Omniglot come to overlook that one? And, more importantly, how the ᐃᑯᒫᓗᒃ (ikumaaluk) does one deal with a double possessive? That is, the nostrils (dual) belong to the caribou (singular), which in turn belongs to me (also singular).

Maybe if we ignore the caribou it will go away, taking its nostrils and their resident worms with it. Ikumaaluk is a good word, isn’t it? Start with ᐃᑯᒪ (ikuma), “fire”, and add -ᐊᓗᒃ (-aluk), “large”. Something tells me this is the Christian hell. When the temperature is 40 below, it is pretty hard to convince people that a great big fire is A Bad Thing. Look only at the traditional Norse afterlife. The bad guys spent eternity—or what must have felt like an eternity—out in the cold; the good guys stayed indoors at one equally eternal feast. I don’t know where bad Inuit went when they died, but I doubt it was very warm.

Come to think of it, that’s a pretty good selling point if you’re in the missionary business. In our religion, even the bad people go to a warm place when they die!

In any case, that -ᐊᓗᒃ (-aluk) is a useful suffix. Add it to the obvious loanword ᐳᓯ (pusi) and you’ve got lions and tigers. Not many of them in Inuktitut-speaking areas just yet, but when global warming hits its stride you will be all set linguis­tically. Add it to ᐊᓂᕐᓂᖅ (anirniq), your basic ghost or spirit, and you’ve got the imported Holy Ghost. Add it to ᐃᒥᖅ (imiq), drinking water, and you’ve got ᐃᒥᐊᓗᒃ (imialuk), whisky or hard liquor. Which will lead you straight to ᐃᑯᒫᓗᒃ (ikumaaluk).

Well, that didn’t do much good. The caribou and its nostrils are still here. After poring over assorted texts including the ever-fertile Hansard, I find the answer. It’s embarrassingly obvious: Simply stick a genitive ending onto your possessive. Just like in English.


Just in Case

Are you surprised to learn that Inuktitut has a genitive? It’s also got an accusative, a dative, an ablative, a locative, a vialis and a similis. Oh, and a nomina­tive. The far North never produced its own Pāṇini or even Varro, so we’re stuck with the Latinate terminology, no matter how badly it fits. Think of it as a holdover from the first generation of missionary linguistics, when it was taken as, well, gospel truth that All Languages Are Latin.

But it’s hard not to editorialize about the lack of homegrown grammarians. After all, the language found time to come up with at least five different words for I’m bored:

* Alex Spalding, Inuktitut: A Multi-dialectal Outline Dictionary (with an Aiviling­miutaq base).

Aivilik, alias Repulse Bay, is nicely positioned in the middle of the dialect continuum. South is Kivalliq and glottal stops; east is Baffin Island and geminate consonants, with Greenland (Kalaallisut) beyond that; southeast is Nunavik, with Labrador and its slapdash approach to vowels beyond that; west is Cambridge Bay, home of Inuinnaqtun, and several more dialects extending into northern Alaska.

ᐃᕐᖑᒪᔪᖓ irngumajunga I’m bored, frustrated, and have nothing interesting to do

ᑲᕗᖅᑐᖓ kavuqtunga I’m bored or frustrated

ᑭᐱᖑᔪᖓ kipingujunga I’m lonely, bored or frustrated

ᓄᒫᓱᒃᑐᖓ numaasuktunga I’m bored or frustrated

ᖃᐱᓪᓗᖅᑐᖓ qapilluqtunga I’m bored or frustrated

—and that’s just from one dictionary*. The dictionarist helpfully points out that the boredom and frustration are “due to bad weather, unsuitable conditions, etc.” In other words, it’s no use telling the speaker to stop moping and go clean his room.

All those are for generalized boredom. If you want to be pointed about it, the affix -ᙳᒃ- (-nnguk-) or possibly -ᙳᖅ- (-nnguq-) allows you to say that you are tired of or bored with some particular activity. I am tired of trying to squeeze my language into Latin rules, and bored with having to remember which one is called the Terminalis. But sooner or later you’ll have to learn them.

N The Nominative gives you ᑐᒃᑐ (tuktu)—one caribou—ᓱᕐᓘᒃ (surluuk)—two nostrils—and ᑕᒡᒋᐅᑦ (taggiut)—an unspeci­fied number of worms. If you want to count them, be my guest. The Nominative case is some­times called the Intransitive, because that’s the one thing we can be fairly sure of. If a verb has only one noun associated with it, that noun has little choice but to be Nominative. If you want to be really irritating, you can call it the Absolutive.

A The Accusative— ᑐᒃᑐᒥᒃ (tuktumik), ᓱᓘᖕᓂᒃ (surluungnik), ᑕᒡᒋᐅᓂᒃ (taggiunik)—is occasionally known as the Modalis, possibly to keep you from thinking about all the Accusative functions it doesn’t cover. Sure, it’s used for the direct object of intransitive verbs. But this only leads to awkward questions about what an intran­sitive verb is doing with a direct object in the first place. The answer, of course, is that they’re not really intransitive at all. They’re Non-Specific. I shot a caribou, but I wasn’t paying much atten­tion. I’m pretty sure it was a caribou and not a missionary, though.

G Transitive verbs, meanwhile, are formally called Specific Verbs. Shoot your caribou with the right verb, and it becomes so specific that it takes over the Nominative case. You, who did all the work, get bumped down to the Genitive: ᑐᑰᑉ (tuktuup), ᓱᕐᓘᒃ (surluuk), ᑕᒡᒋᐅ (taggiut). It’s called the Genitive because one of its jobs is to indicate possession, as in Indo-European languages. But it moon­lights as the agent of transitive—oops, specific—verbs. In fact it’s sometimes called the Transitive case to contrast it with the Nominative or Intransitive. And, if you insist on calling the Nominative the Absolutive, you’ll have to call the Genitive the Ergative. The names go together.

People who are up—as it were—on their cases will immediately point out that “agent of verb” is not a genitive function. Except in Greek, which has misplaced so many cases that there’s nothing else left to handle the passives.

Make that: it is not a genitive function in Indo-European languages. But Inuktitut can’t be expected to care about that. Coincidentally there’s the same number of cases, eight. But the resemblance ends there. Even some of the names had to go. Nomina­tive, accusa­tive, dative, ablative, genitive, locative: check. Instru­mental and vocative: nope, no room, we’re going with the vialis and similis instead.

D The Dative— ᑐᒃᑐᒧᑦ (tuktumut), ᓱᕐᓘᖕᓄᑦ (surluungnut), ᑕᒡᒋᐅᓄᑦ (taggiunut)—is also called the “Terminalis” or “motion toward” case. If you’re used to associating this function with the Accusative, you may have to retrain yourself. While you’re at it, unlearn everything involving “extent” or “duration”. The Accusative won’t touch those either; that’s what we pay the affixes for. If it’s any consolation, the Dative is still the place to go for indirect objects.

It is also, curiously enough, the agent of passive verbs. At least in the North American part of the dialect continuum. In Kalaallisut the job is done by the ablative; by the time you get to Labrador, it’s a mix. Look carefully through Bourquin and you’ll find passages where he wrestles with the conflict between Klein­schmidt—writing primarily about Greenland (Kalaallisut)—and the evidence of his senses—operating primarily in Labrador. Fortunately he was a Moravian, so the evidence of his senses won out. Although he wasn’t especially happy about it.

L Nothing unusual about the Locative: ᑐᒃᑐᒥ (tuktumi), ᓱᕐᓘᖕᓂ (surluungni), ᑕᒡᒋᐅᓂ (taggiuni). You may not have met it before, but that’s only because most Indo-European languages got rid of it ages ago, farming out its job to the Ablative or Genitive. This is why the Latin Ablative is so horror-filled. It ended up as a kind of grammatical garbage dump, taking over for all the cases that got lost—or at least temporarily mislaid—along the way.

Inuktitut is not, ahem, lost to this kind of distinction. A thing is either ᐊᓯᐅᔪᖅ (asiujuq), tempo­rarily mislaid, or it’s ᐃᔭᒐᑦᑐᖅ (ijagattuq), irretrievably lost. If you dropped your favorite knife in a snowdrift, you’ll find it again come spring; if you dropped it off the side of your kayak, don’t hold your breath.

While it is in the act of drifting, snow may be either ᐱᕐᓯᖅ (pirsiq) or ᐱᕐᑐᖅ (pirtuq), depending on your dialectal preference. When it settles down, it might be, among other things:

ᐊᓗᐃᖅᑲᓂᖅ aluiqqaniq, a concave snow drift formed on the side of a hill, or

ᕿᒧᒡᔪᒃ qimugjuk, a downwind snow drift tapering gradually to the ground, or

ᐅᖃᓗᕋᖅ uqaluraq, a tongue-shaped snow drift, where ᐅᖃᖅ (uqaq) means—you guessed it—“tongue”, or

ᐅᓗᐊᕐᓇᖅ uluarnaq, a rounded smooth snow drift.

Inuktitut is not a compounding language by nature, but it’s hard not to notice that this last word splits neatly into ᐅᓗ (ulu), the “woman’s knife”—the half-moon-shaped one—and ᐊᕐᓇᖅ (arnaq), a woman. Shades of the Grand Tetons, which is French for “I really, really miss my wife.”

It doesn’t really. It just looks that way. The real breakdown is ᐅᓗᐊᖅ (uluaq) “cheek” with the -ᓇᖅ -naq “resemblance” affix. But, just to show that no two cultures are utterly and uncontro­vertibly different, I offer you ᐃᕕᐊᖏᕐᓇᖅ (iviangirnaq), a hill or mountain with a sharp peak. That’s the same -naq affix tacked onto ᐃᕕᐊᖏᖅ (iviangiq)—meaning guess what body part.

If you do happen to find that knife again, it might be either ᓇᒡᕚᖅᑕᐃᑦ (nagvaaqtait)—you found it accidentally—or ᓇᓂᔭᐃᑦ (nanijait)—you found it after looking for it. One Inuktitut search engine is called Nanivara: I found what I was looking for! Most of my own Internet discoveries are ᓇᒡᕚᖅᑕᕋ (nagvaaqtara): I blundered across it while looking for some­thing else.

A In most Indo-European languages, one of the irretrievably lost cases is the Instrumental. Its job description included “agent of passive verbs”. Inuktitut has loads of those, without even the formality of a passive conju­gation. Stick intransitive (non-specific) endings onto a transitive (specific) verb root and you’re liable to shoot yourself in the foot. Or get shot in the foot by someone else.

At the extreme eastern end of the dialect continuum, the person who does the shooting is Ablative, just as in Latin. But the further west you go, the more likely you are to find a Dative marksman. Happily the one you left behind has no need to change endings. The Ablative— ᑐᒃᑐᒥᑦ (tuktumit), ᓱᕐᓘᖕᓂᑦ (surluungnit), ᑕᒡᒋᐅᓂᑦ (taggiunit)—is also the “motion away from” case, otherwise known as the True Ablative. And the comparison case, as in “my caribou is wormier than yours”. So the name must have seemed like a perfect fit . . . at least until the grammarians started heading westward.

V The Vialis—ᑐᒃᑐᒃᑯᑦ (tuktukkut), ᓱᕐᓘᒃᑯᑦ (surluukkut), ᑕᒡᒋᐅᑎᒍᑦ (taggiutigut)—is another straightforward one. Well, except for its inflection. That part’s an icky mess. So’s the Similis. It is, of course, pure coincidence that the two cases with the most horrendous inflections are also the two that most strenuously resisted getting shoe­horned into Indo-European equivalents. But at least you know where you are. Or rather, what route you’re taking. The Vialis has got that covered. Come to think of it, the people who named the cases may simply have over­looked the Instrumental. It isn’t a perfect fit for the Vialis, but it’s no worse than the “Genitive” and “Dative”.

Together, these four cases—Dative, Locative, Ablative, Vialis—give you the four forms of a basic adverb. ᖄᖓᓄᑦ (qaanganut) “towards the top”, ᖄᖓᓂ (qaangani) “on the top”, ᖄᖓᓂᑦ (qaanganit) “away from the top”, ᖄᖓᒍᑦ (qaangagut) “along the top”.

S The Similis—ᑐᒃᑐᑐᑦ (tuktutut), ᓱᕐᓘᒃᑐᑦ (surluuktut), ᑕᒡᒋᐅᑎᑐᑦ (taggiutitut)—is the one you keep hearing about. Inuktitut, similis plural of ᐃᓄᒃ (inuk), is anything like, resembling or characteristic of humans. Just don’t mess with Inuinnaqtun. They’ve got an affix, making the word mean something like “Our dia— whoops, no, we’ve been promoted— Our language is really, really human and all those others are just faking it”. The Similis is sometimes known as the Aequalis. Maybe it really is; maybe it’s just kinda like it. In fact, some missionary linguists thought the Similis itself wasn’t a case at all. It was just an affix, -tut, that enjoyed hanging out with the real cases. Call it a case wannabe.

This “Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t” aspect, incidentally, is what the oddball word ᓲᕐᓗ (suurlu) is good for. Apparently it was hiding behind the door when the inflectional endings were handed out. So it doesn’t look, walk, talk, act or quack like a verb, but it’s treated as one all the same. Unlike the Similis case, which is pretty open-minded, you’re only allowed to use ᓲᕐᓗ if you’re positive that the thing is not what it appears to be. “Darn! I coulda sworn that was my caribou! Looks just like it. But it definitely isn’t.” Think of it as a reward for your honesty.

It should not be surprising that nobody told Inuktitut that agglutinative languages are not supposed to have cases. After all, nobody raised a stink about the 699 verb endings either. Or maybe they tried, but the language was too busy seeing how much fun you can have when thirty-six basic possessives (four persons and three numbers to do the possessing, three numbers to be possessed) are multiplied by eight cases. More, if you throw in the necessary variations that you get from the assorted final letters of the original word. Luckily neither caribou nor their nostrils end in t, or the only thing I’d be throwing in at this point is your basic meta­phorical towel.

Anyway, when it comes to tallying possessions and slotting them into their proper cases, the language seems to have gotten tired. Most of the time it doesn’t matter if you have one thing or lots of things. It’s only worth noting if you have two. Divide the territory into tres partes and it would still be Nunavut; only if you bisected it would you have to fire up the Nunaakput.


Bring on the Genitives

One caribou, standing around not doing anything in particular: ᑐᒃᑐ (tuktu). One random caribou, getting in the way of a bullet: ᑐᒃᑐᒥᒃ (tuktumik), accusative. One particular, individual caribou, the unlucky target of a hunter who wants that specific animal and none other: back to ᑐᒃᑐ (tuktu). The hunter, being less important than his chosen target, picks up an -up or “genitive” ending.

* A usage preserved in writeups of male Inuk movie directors, who invariably describe them­selves as “hunter and film­maker”. I don’t know what the equivalent is for female directors. “Boot-chewer and film­maker” doesn’t quite have the same zip.

Incidentally, there doesn’t seem to be any particular noun meaning “hunter”. Traditionally, if you were a man you were by definition a hunter.* The same ᐊᖑᑦ (angut) element serves for both meanings.

But this is not just any caribou. It’s mine, all mine. Not a lot of people have personal caribous—unless you call them by their other name, reindeer, which changes the picture dramatically. Like Canis lupus, there’s a wild version and a domesticated version. Most of them happen to live on different continents, but they’re the same animal. My caribou: ᑐᒃᑐᒐ (tuktuga). Of a caribou: ᑐᒃᑑᑉ (tuktuup). Merge the two and you’ve got ᑐᒃᑐᒪ (tuktuma), “my caribou’s” or “of my caribou”. With two ᓱᕐᓘᒃ (surluuk).

Or rather, ᓱᕐᓗᖏᒃ (surluungik). Two nostrils, belonging to someone other than the subject of the sentence—in this case for the ironclad reason that the nostrils themselves are the subject. Possessives may be the only place in Inuktitut where you have to say something twice. No use arguing that you’ve already said that they belong to my caribou, so why do you have to stick on yet another ending? The language has been around longer than you and me. You cannot win.


. . . and the Worms

Now the good news: With all those possessive endings, it looks as if I can leave myself out of the sentence entirely. Anything that keeps a pair of worm-infested nostrils at a safe gramma­tical remove is fine by me. Caribou seem to be much plagued with parasites. Some kinds of maggots like burrowing into the skin, which must be a great inconvenience when you’re trying to make draft-free winter clothing. It can’t be very pleasant for the skin’s original occupant either. The taggiuk worm, meanwhile, has a special affinity for the nostrils.

* I learned this way back when I was first filling my hovercraft. Inuktitut doesn’t have adjectives. That is: it doesn’t have grammatical adjectives. The work is all done by intransitive verbs. Just try not to think of all the inflectional endings you’ve missed out on.

Physically it’s not so nice. But grammatically, it’s smooth sailing from here on. Or hovering, if you like, because I’m going to recycle one of my seven-plus ways of saying My hovercraft is full of eels. The most straight­forward construction is ᑕᑕᑦ (tatat-), adjectival verb* meaning “to be full”, with accom­panying abla- dative to say what it’s full of. That gives us ᑕᑕᑦᑐᖅ (tatattuq)—or, in this case, ᑕᑕᑦᑑᒃ (tatattuuk), because we’re talking about two nostrils—accompanied by the dative plural ᑕᒡᒋᐅᖕᓄᑦ (taggiungnut). I did not count the worms, but I am confident there are at least three per nostril.

ᑐᒃᑐᒪ ᓱᕐᓘᖏᒃ ᑕᒡᒋᐅᖕᓄᑦ ᑕᑕᑦᑑᒃ
Tuktuma surluungik taggiungnut tatattuuk.

Annoying Inspirational Poster

Rats holding protest signs showing many forms of No but only one Yes

OK, so it isn’t literally accurate. But it makes a cute picture.

Depending on dialect, you might say either ᐋ (aa) or ᐄ (ii). But then again—still depending on dialect—you can say ᐋᒃᑲ (aakka), ᐊᐅᒃᑲ (aukka), ᓈᒃᑲ (naakka), ᓇᒡᒐᐃ (naggai), ᓇᐅᒃ (nauk) . . . and probably lots of other forms I have not yet come across.