Once you have dealt with hovercraft, can glass be far behind? Here we have not merely a conversation-starter but a genuinely useful piece of information, unaccountably missing from most published phrase books.* Before you travel anywhere, memorize this statement in the appropriate language:
I can eat glass without hurting myself.
It is guaranteed to make locals stand back in awe and treat you with the utmost respect.
So let’s dig up some words. As you can imagine, glass did not play a huge role in traditional Inuit culture. If you’re living a largely nomadic existence in a part of the world where the temperature drops below zero—Fahrenheit—in November, and stays there until further notice, some things have to be classified as non-essentials. But it’s an accommodating language; look only at the multitude of words for “frog”. The dictionary comes through with ᐊᓕᒍᖅ, aliguq. The word started out meaning “quartz”, which is not as picky about temperature; “glass” is an obvious extension. More recently, the word has also come to mean “diamond”. But that’s taking us into Let’s Not Go There territory.
* Raw caribou: Sure, bring it on. Walrus heart: . . . Uhm, is this one of those things I gotta eat for the Vitamin C? Polar bear liver: Used to be an excellent way to get rid of unwanted missionaries, but most people are wise to it now. Live warble-fly larvae**: No, but thank you for offering.
** I don’t make this stuff up, y’know, although possibly the original author—or his teenaged informant—did.
† Nobody said he was the world’s leading authority on punctuation.
There are probably lots of words for “eat”. I’m going to use ᓂᕆ (niri-) on the rock-solid grounds that I already know it. As a bonus, this is an intransitive verb root. If you’re dining on something particularly noteworthy, the verb can become transitive or specific: you’re eating something. If you prefer not to inquire too closely,* it’s intransitive or non-specific, but nothing else has changed. No danger that it will come out meaning “I chewed off my arm” when all you meant to say was that you leaned your elbow on the table.
Verb Roots cannot exist on their own; they always need an ending. So I always write Verb Roots with a dash† after them . . . .
If you look up a verb in the dictionary, you will not find a bare niri. You cannot say “to eat”, because Inuktitut verbs don’t have infinitives. Our friend the Reverend Peck thought they did. In fact, most missionary linguists—including the Moravians, who generally had better sense—insisted on using the word. But the forms they call infinitives turn out on closer inspection to be “participles”. Blame it on Kleinschmidt. He’s got a convoluted argument about why the word “participle” is wrong—while failing utterly to notice that “infinitive” is even wronger. But at least calling it a participle stops you from expecting an uninflected form. Nothing in Inuktitut is uninflected. Well, maybe a few interjections. Even Inuktitut does not expect you to put a-aaq! (“Ouch!”) into the appropriate grammatical form based on the person and number of the thing you just stubbed your toe on.
Lacking a handy infinitive, the dictionary will instead give you
ᓂᕆᔪᖅ nirijuq (vb. intrans.) he eats
ᓂᕆᔭᖓ nirijanga (vb. trans.) he eats it
Or possibly nirivuq and nirivaa, depending on the dialectal preferences of the dictionarist. And if you are lucky enough to lay hands on Alex Spalding’s dictionary, the “he” and “him” forms will be varied by “she” and “her” according to an arcane, mysterious and sometimes quite glorious formula known only to the author. As, for example,
ᓇᒡᓕᒍᓱᒃᑐᖅ nagligusuktuq & ᓇᒡᓕᒋᕚ nagligivaa (trans.) he loves her
followed by derived forms such as
. . . they love each other
. . . he loves himself
. . . she shows sudden affection or feeling for him (grabs or kisses him suddenly or unexpectedly)
And I can’t leave Spalding’s dictionary without quoting one of my favorite entries:
ᐄᖅ! iiq! (excl. of distaste or annoyance after finding one has gotten wet paint on one’s trousers or that the dog has puked in the living room) yukk!
Now that dear Dr. Johnson is no longer with us, we are not often treated to autobiographical dictionary entries.
Well, that was fun. Back to business.
Hurting myself was unexpectedly troublesome. Possibly it’s another of those luxuries some people can’t afford. I had to go with ᓱᕋᖅ (suraq-) or—your choice—ᓱᕋᒃ (surak-). This may be linguistic overkill, since the dictionary tells me it means “destroy irreparably”. Sure, the glass didn’t do me any good, but after a few months in Intensive Care I’ll be managing my esophageal tube like a pro. Unlike niri-, but like the tatat- that played such a big part in your hovercraft’s recent existence, this is a transitive verb. And that’s just what we want. I’m not planning to hurt anyone else, but I am planning on getting hurt myself. Or rather, on not getting hurt. But that’s a grammatical trifle.
* In quotes because technically “subject” and “object” are grammatical terms, while “agent” and “patient” are real-life terms. The agent is the person who is actually, physically eating the glass, regardless of whether the sentence describing the event is active (“I eat glass”), passive (“Glass is eaten by me”), or some other construction entirely (“The eating of glass is characteristic of me”).
We’ll start with the glass. You can never go wrong putting the patient (“object”)* of a verb first. Thanks to the verb involved, we can go either way: glass-mik with intransitive ending, or glass alone with transitive ending. Let’s make it transitive, though the glass may not be specific enough to warrant it. In fact, the whole point of the utterance is that you can eat any glass, anywhere.
aliguq (patient of specific verb)
aliguq + mik = aligurmik (patient of non-specific verb)
Transitive or not, this is obviously not a simple matter of nirijara (“I eat glass”). We could go with a conditional (“if I eat glass...”) or a participle (“while eating glass...”), or a frequentative (“whenever I eat glass...”). Let’s stress the frequency of the activity.
Further digression: I was recently hit with a whole flurry of hitherto unsuspected verb modes. There was the Dubitative niringmangaakku (“whether I eat glass...”), the Negative Participle nirinagu (“while not eating glass...”), and most dramatically the Frequentative nirijaraangakku (“whenever I eat glass...”). Those are all conjugations in their own right, with nary an affix in sight.
* Leading to a further choice between Option A—an affix in r deleting the preceding q—or Option B—an affix in g fusing with q to become r. To identify the underlying form you have to be either much better at internal reconstruction than I am, or spend more time studying related languages than most people’s life expectancy will allow.
Unless, that is, you go with Interpretation B. In this version, there’s a Frequentative affix (-jaraanga-, -taraanga-, -kaanga- and -raanga-*) and a Dubitative affix (-mangaaq- with assorted forms of interpolation and assimilation resulting in initial -ngm-, -mm-, -ngm- and -rm-). Each is then followed by—hang on while I look this up—“personal pronoun suffixes in the Genitive”. This information might be more useful to me if I had some remote glimmering of an idea what the said “personal pronoun suffixes” are. But that’s another problem for another day.
Those Personal Pronoun Suffixes are for the intransitive or non-specific forms. The book is silent about what happens with the transitive or specific. But not, unfortunately, because the verbs themselves are silent. Sort them out and you’ll find a further 58 endings, just like the Becausative and Conditional. In fact, they generally rhyme.
* Assuming for the sake of discussion that you know the difference between “lay” and “lie”.
In some languages the Causative is a productive form. That is, you can take any verb, apply the appropriate rule, and it becomes causative. In English we’re limited to pre-existing words created long ago by Old English or possibly Proto-Germanic ablauts. And in Inuktitut the job is predictably done by an affix, most often listed as ᑎᑦ. Transliteration omitted, or the search engines will go haywire.
The word “Becausative” is, admittedly, not exactly English. Or rather, not exactly Latin. Put it in the same bin as television, sociology and all those other words that make linguistic purists foam at the mouth. It starts with the strictly English prefix be-, changes gears with cause—Latin by birth, but fully naturalized—and winds up with the strictly Latin suffix -tive (lightly modified from its original -tivus). But it conveys the necessary information and, as a bonus, it’s cute. I swiped it from Inuktitut Computing, which in turn swiped it from Mallon. You could do worse.
That “58 endings” sounds like a lot, especially when you add the intransitive forms to bring the total up to 70. But consider that each verb could have 120 endings in each mood: 12 intransitive plus 12 × 9 transitive. Or 90 in total, for the three moods that don’t have any truck with a fourth person. From that perspective, 70 or 52 doesn’t sound so bad.
* Returning to the technical theme: a participle is an adjective made from a verb—and Inuktitut does not, technically, have grammatical adjectives. They’re verbs, thank you very much, and prefer to stay that way. Sometimes participles are called Conjunctives instead.
The three kinds of “participle”* are best of all. Not only are their endings identical after the first syllable, with a supplementary syllable doing the job of the fourth person. They also do a neat toggle whereby each intransitive form for a given agent (“subject”) becomes the transitive forms—all of them—for everything with that patient (“object”). While I’m looking around in a general sort of way, everyone turns around and looks at me. Same word. Grand total for the three variants: well under twenty endings plus a couple of simple rules, instead of the expected 360 or at least 200-odd.
If I intended to hurt myself, a simple ᓱᕋᖅᑐᖓ (suraqtunga) would do. Attaching intransitive endings to a transitive verb can be dangerous. So let’s slip in a quick -nngit- to wipe out the harm.
In English, the whole thing starts with “I can”. But it doesn’t really apply to the immediately following word “eat”—anyone can eat glass if they don’t care what happens next—it refers to the whole sentence. It’s the ability not to get hurt that is noteworthy. So let’s grab an “ability” affix and shove it in. Happily I was able to lay my hands on one that starts with t, -tunnaq-, minimizing the damage done to the preceding -nngit-. It even creates the illusion of restoring the q from the root verb that got eaten by that same -nngit-. In Inuktitut you can’t lurk in wait for the next affix to come along; you’re only allowed to maul the one that was directly ahead of you in line.
ᓱᕋᖅ + ᙱᑦ + ᑐᓐᓇᖅ + ᑐᖓ = ᓱᕋᙱᑦᑐᓐᓇᖅᑐᖓ
suraq + nngit + tunnaq + tunga = suranngittunnaqtunga
ᐊᓕᒍᖅ ᓂᕆᔭᕌᖓᒃᑯ ᓱᕋᙱᑦᑐᓐᓇᖅᑐᖓ
aliguq nirijaraangakku suranngittunnaqtunga.
or, if you prefer not to get too specific:
ᐊᓕᒍᕐᒥᒃ ᓂᕆᔭᕌᖓᒪ ᓱᕋᙱᑦᑐᓐᓇᖅᑐᖓ
aligurmik nirijaraangama suranngittunnaqtunga.
Mm-mm, yum! Didn’t feel a thing.