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The Inuit agree on a common writing system (economist.com)
167 points by askl 61 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 61 comments

Wow... It's very rare that a HN post intersects so closely with my current work... I say, as I look out the window into downtown Iqaluit. Interestingly enough newer versions of Windows allows users to easily add support for both Inuktitut Syllabic and Latin languages, I have yet to see a physical keyboard.

What irks me the most, is the lack of server-side language support for cloud offerings, on-premise Enterprise products, etc. If Microsoft can support Klingon for translation purposes, then just maybe they could support Inuktitut a little better.

Holy fuck I had to look that one up on the map....you are OUT there. I realized when I saw the map that I was just reading about that place the other day! That's incredible. I honestly never thought in my whole life I would ever meet someone who had been there, even on the internet. I would be super interested to hear ANYTHING you have to share about that place. What it's like getting there, being there, what you're doing there, the people, the life, anything.

It's a very interesting place - the people are welcoming and friendly (well YMMV, but if you are willing to listen and understand the local challenges and culture - then you will have a good time).

Food security is a challenge for people who do live here, due to the general high-costs. Interesting fact - at one point in time, Amazon Prime shipping to Iqaluit was 2-3 times the national average for Canada (and that probably increased with their purchase of Whole Foods - items, which may be most expensive through Amazon for the rest of Canada can often be cheaper than purchased 'locally') - https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/north/iqaluit-amazon-prime-1....

The landscape is beautiful (personally, I am a sucker for mountainous/rocky terrain and ocean) - it is above the Arctic circle, so - no trees! The weather is currently really nice - a little rainy today, but no snow - the big freeze hasn't happened yet. Myself, I find that even during winter months, the cold is not unworkable - as technically the local climate is considered a polar desert zone, so the reduced humidity helps.

Myself, I don't live here - but I do come up every 2-3 months, primarily working on Microsoft-stack products and technologies.

Most often, one gets here from a flight from Ottawa - almost 3-hours in duration. (And hey... you still get a hot meal in-flight!) However, it is possible that you might fly in from another territory or community - during the summer there are some flights to/from Greenland.

All data/communications connectivity currently occurs over satellite connections (your flight lands, your phone connects to a local "LTE" network, but that is then bridged back over satellite automatically - no extra charges ;-)) - this can be challenging during weather events, heavy rain, snow or fog can often interfere.

There are plans for undersea fiber, but that will take a few years - the upcoming newer LEO satellite networks will bridge the gap until that arrives.

Lucky you!

Just fyi wikipedia says "the city is well south of the Arctic Circle" and ".. has a tundra climate, featuring long, cold winters, and brief summers that are too cool to permit the growth of large trees." [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iqaluit]

Do you have any recommendations for people who want to visit it?

One of the reasons I have a curiosity about learning Inuktitut was its different writing system, so the Inuit officially moving away from it saddens me.

Not OP but: Stay at the Airbnb, there’s one run by the only parole officer in Nunavut. Check out each of the restaurants and the Nunavut brewing company ^_^ check out Sylvia Grinnel Park, walk down to Apex and the old HBC outpost. I hear prices went up at the museum, but there’s a fantastic local art scene, and Janet Armstrong is a great local artist. You can always hang out at the restaurant at the Frobisher and get better deals directly from the artists.

Watch out for airfares, they’re crazy high, $1200-1600 usually round trip on Canadian North out of Ottawa, but they partner with Aeroplan and with enough advance planning Aeroplan only charges 7500mi + $30 each way, and you can transfer from AMEX Membership Rewards. [1]

[1] https://travelupdate.boardingarea.com/first-air-and-canadian...

Thanks for replying (OP here - I have been "heads down"), yes - have had a friend stay at the Airbnb, he loved it. (Better internet than at the 2 hotels)

Oh - and the art is amazing - and yes, when at the Frobisher, local artists will always be showing their work for you to buy directly, but there are stores as well.

Also - make sure you tour the Legislative Assembly (when open) - https://www.assembly.nu.ca/faq

Come in the Winter if you like snow - come in July/August if you want to get out on the water or like rocky hiking.

Get some coffee at the Black Heart Cafe - https://www.facebook.com/BlackHeartCafe/

There are about 4-5 good restaurants, 2 attached to the current hotels, but I also recommend "Yummy Shawarma" and "Big Racks BBQ".

Something interesting for the HN crowd - a new hotel is going up, built from modular shipping-container sized units - https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/north/iqaluit-hotel-rooms-bui...

Why does your work require you to be up there? Consulting?

I thought Air Greenland scrapped the Iqaluit to Nuuk flights [1] Definitely one of the ones I really wanted to take.

[1] https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/north/air-greenland-cuts-nuuk...

Yeah, apologies - I was "told" about it from a co-worker, but haven't checked it out - would have been interesting to make a bigger trip at least one time.

> What irks me the most, is the lack of server-side language support for cloud offerings, on-premise Enterprise products, etc. If Microsoft can support Klingon for translation purposes, then just maybe they could support Inuktitut a little better.

I've noticed that in terms of language support in general. Of course, languages with Western and/or wealthy populations seem to have better support. In Elasticsearch, I can set up a field for Irish or Latvian or Basque analysis out of the box (each with ~1 million speakers or fewer). But Zulu or Uzbek or Malay (each with 10 million+ speakers), and sorry, no support.

Part of this may come down to corpus availability. The EU requires that much of its official document production be translated in the official language of every member country (which would include Irish and Latvian). With essentially bilingual translation pairs, it's much easier to feed the data into machine translation; and the need to feed this translation machine for official translation also means it's relatively easy to contract out translation work if you need to.

> I have yet to see a physical keyboard

The custom keycap business is booming. It shouldn't be too hard to make a batch of physical keyboards and then a software map to support it. There was just a story last month about some guys standardizing the writing for an African language, including getting its own Unicode set finally, and the Microsoft guys helping to to support it.

> keycap business is booming

If you have any links related to this I would love to read more!

I haven't tried this personally, but these ppl appear to be able to print anything on the keys:


Some random examples:



Can confirm! I'm typing on a WASD keyboard right now that has a custom-printed layout that I designed myself (reflecting some assorted remappings that I'd been doing in software anyway—until I got this it had been almost two decades since my keycaps reflected the actual key layout I was using). You download either a template or a complete graphic, edit it, and reupload it with your order. Super easy, and after accounting for the fact that the keys are mechanical, not even that expensive. (Way more expensive than a commodity keyboard, though.)

Not the keycap thing, but I can give a +1 to the WASD company. Just bought a CODE model and very happy with their customer attention.

You might find out this world overlaps with gamers and novelty mechanical keyboard people. Check out a search like "mechanical keycaps custom artwork", eg here's one - http://www.maxkeyboard.com/custom-art-icon-or-text-cherry-mx...

Maybe give these guys a ring and see if they can recommend who they work with for non-Latin caps: https://mechanicalkeyboards.com

And also hang out on https://www.reddit.com/r/keyboards and /mechanicalkeyboards.

The mechanicalkeyboards subreddit is very active, and full of both artisans and information.

My dad has visited Iqaluit on the Coast Guard ship Earl Grey and Narwhal. Nice to see a comment from someone in northern Canada (I'm in PEI).

I love languages Canada is amazing there are so many languages here it should be a priority to support their use. That's a very good point you made about Klingon being supported but not actual languages. I was talking to a friend of mine who is Mi'kmaq about Linux. I said maybe it supported his language but I guess it's more of a

ADLaM is another language that has had a rough history but eventually recognition. https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=20702404

What do you do up there?

This whole thing fascinates me. I studied a small amount of linguistics in university and have long been in love with Inuit artwork so several years back I started work on a typeface that loosely emulated the syllabic glyphs for the Roman alphabet.


If it’s of any worth to anyone I might be able to dig up the source. Not sure.

Nice typeface. Myself, I am Microsoft-stack consultant. (SharePoint, Dynamics, Office 365, Azure, .NET, etc.)

I spent a few weeks there every year, my mom goes out there for audiology rotations and it’s a great excuse for me to see more of my home country and family at the same time (I’m in California). I’m thinking of trekking out to Pang next time. Congrats on the new restaurant opening, that’s a big deal ^_^ ill be sure to let you know next time I’m in town haha

Support for a toy conlang in a translator made with the support of enthusiasts developing it via a partner program is not really comparable to expecting paid services (i.e. needs real support) to support a language with less than 5,000 monolinguals on their own.

Hey - nice to see someone else from up there. Was born there in 1970s.

I had no idea that Inuktitut had more than one writing system. For a language with such a small population, that's a surprising and serious pain-point.

The Inuit are one of the few indigenous groups in Canada that managed to keep their culture relatively intact - most other groups have lost much of it through centuries of colonial rule and ultimately with residential schools, while the Inuit were comparatively neglected - both in positive and negative terms.

Good to hear steps being taken to protect the language.

>The Inuit are one of the few indigenous groups in Canada that managed to keep their culture relatively intact

Because they aren't wealthy enough to be worth a lot as taxable income and didn't control an area with dense/lucrative enough natural resources to be worth subjugating. Without money or something that could be converted to money there was no reason for the city slickers to go out of their way to impose/integrate (word choice depends on which side you're on) their culture. You can see this pattern more or less worldwide. On every continent there are people who live in the remote parts, nominally under some government but are mostly left to do their own thing because they have little to take and take little from the government. If you want to be left alone it's best to be someone not worth bothering.

I agree that it's nice to see them become more of a defined culture (language and all) since being obviously delineated from the rest will help them maintain their own autonomy and culture.

There is quite a lot of natural resources in the Far North--North Slope oil comes to mind. However, the environment is so inhospitable to getting resources out of the area, that it has for the most part been economically infeasible to exploit them, at least until the latter half of the 20th century.

> relatively intact

Yes, although a mix of incentives and force has moved nearly all of the people into towns and cities at this point, and in fairly recent memory. I remember when Atanarjuat came out twenty years ago the talk was that the timing was good—there still were many people who personally remembered living in the traditional way, well enough to recreate it vividly and accurately on camera, but they had to be brought out from the towns to do so.

Yes - was speaking to a co-worker about this in August - this happened only a generation ago (he knows people who remember this happening as children - his age), and the hurts, harm and overall levels mistrust that it caused as still rippling through communities and families.

I can't help but being sad for the official end of the Inuktitut syllabic: it was such a unique system or writing, and it seemed to fit Inuit languages well.

Unicode can handle a zillion characters, and I don't remember having problems with missing fonts in any of my devices for at least half a decade. If the problem is people talking in English on their cellphones because of lack of input support, couldn't the government of Nunavut work in making iOS/Android keyboards with a good syllabic input method?

I feel a bit sad too. I looked at it last week, it was a really nicely designed syllabic alphabet and well suited to the phonology of the language. I planned to learn it this week for the fun.

I don’t think developing a keyboard for it is too difficult. Actually I could try to do it myself. The problem is probably more about making users install it when it’s not preinstalled on the device and thus requires downloading an application. Heck, even languages such as Chinese or Japanese requires a (first party) download on Android. I found iOS handles better multilingual input and is less confusing to get started with new keyboards.

> The problem is probably more about making users install it when it’s not preinstalled

Is there a keyboard HID for USB/Bluetooth that allows for Unicode characters to be sent rather than key codes?

Android has a pretty good keyboard API (e.g. Chrome on Android can't get passed keycodes because of how IME are designed). However I'm guessing Windows apps need key codes, so maybe not possible.

> I don’t think developing a keyboard for it is too difficult.

I've made IBus input methods for conlangs before and it's literally as simple as making a plaintext table of physical keys and corresponding characters. I can't imagine it'd be any more difficult on IOS or Android. Despite this I can't find any Inuktitut keyboards on the Play Store.

Well it’s depends. On desktop OS plain text file method has limitations, for example on macOS it may not work if the name is too long and it ignores leading 0 for conversion which is super annoying. Then there are third party middleware like Open Vanilla which are more customizable and finally there is the solution of using native frameworks which is hellish.

On mobile OS, at least on iOS, developing a keyboard means also creating the layout keyboard and managing its state, so it’s a bit more work than a single mapping text file.

> I can’t find any Inuktitut keyboards on the play Store

I found my next side project haha. I need one for another app I planned to do.

> I found my next side project haha. I need one for another app I planned to do.

You might want to base it on https://anysoftkeyboard.github.io/

There is a keyboard for phones called FirstVoices, it's pretty nice. I've never had an issue displaying Syllabics on my phone, either

There are a lot of converters (I'm making another one, granted it's for Ojibwe / Cree), but no ways to natively type them on an actual computer easily, as far as I know

We're looking at this from the perspective of people who understand computers. From the point of view of the bureaucrats who make thesse decisions computers are some arcane device that can. only display English. See for example the braindead orthographic reforms being pushed by the Turkmenistan government. Overhauling your entire written orthography just to be ASCII compatible! When these types of people see code they assume that they're looking at plain English and end up thinking that the language is somehow a fundamental part of how computers work.

Well, it's hard to deny that life is easier for people using English-compatible writing systems. No trouble with physical keyboards, anglophones can take a stab at pronouncing things, and a lot of older computer technology predates modern unicode and nobody seems to be in a rush to replace it.

> anglophones can take a stab at pronouncing things

How is this supposed to help anyone? That anglophone guess isn't going to be close to correct -- in the general case, it's unlikely to even be recognizable.

Well, it makes things easier for (many) tourists. Trying to hold the characters for a novel script in my head is tremendously more difficult than holding the letters for a new language that use Latin characters.

You can still transliterate into English without overhauling your entire orthography.

Portuguese uses Latin letters, but good luck pronouncing even half the words correctly without a lot of practice.

True, though foreigners who can read the Latin script can at least recognize names on Portuguese signs, which helps with getting around (as long as you don't have to speak the name out loud). That's half the reason Greece provides Latin names on signs everywhere. With a sign that says "Χανιά | Chania", your average foreigner isn't going to pronounce it correctly either way (the "ch" is supposed to be like "loch", not like "chess"), but at least with a Latin version appended they're more likely to find where they're going.

The Latin alphabet is actually a terrible way to write English, and guessing how to pronounce words is the hardest part of being an ESL. You can't use 5 symbols for 19 syllables and call it a day.

Ideally people would use Shavian[1] or some other system that kinda matches 1:1 with the language.

[1] https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shavian_alphabet

I'd have to disagree at least in the context of computers.

> No trouble with physical keyboards

I've seen comments on HN before about how certain characters used for programming aren't on keyboards with European layouts, supposedly creating a barrier for beginner programmers. In contrast, somebody using a keyboard for one of the CJK languages only needs to press shift to type all the characters in Basic Latin because the physical layouts are the same.

> lot of older computer technology predates modern unicode and nobody seems to be in a rush to replace it.

There are probably way more computers that only support Shift JIS than computers that only use ASCII. I heard that apparently lack of support for Unicode is still a problem in certain Japanese offices.

I think the most dangerous position to be in is when your writing system is similar to but not exactly the same as English, in which case people begin to adopt a "close enough" attitude and accept the status quo, choosing instead to change their orthography in counterproductive ways to fit ephemeral technical requirements.

> somebody using a keyboard for one of the CJK languages only needs to press shift to type all the characters in Basic Latin because the physical layouts are the same

The keyboards you buy in China (the C in CJK) are the same ones you'd buy in the US. They don't have their own.

This makes sense, since character input is done in software; there is no way to map physical keys to the much much larger inventory of characters.

Yes Mainland China generally uses ANSI or ISO but Taiwanese keyboards usually have labels for bopomofo and Cangjie[0] while having the same physical layout as a US keyboard.

[0] https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Standard_Taiwanese_K...

It's not impossible to do this. In Norway, for the Sami minority, there is a project for precisely such tools: http://divvun.no/

Also sad - I had no idea this was happening - heck, it was only last week that someone showed me how my name is spelled in syllabic.

GBoard on Android has Inuktitut syllabics support.

Interesting, I thought they had already agreed on a standard a few years ago

In any case, Syllabics are a very interesting writing system. I'm planning on doing an in-depth video about them at some point, but Tom Scott's introduction is great [1].

There are some major advantages to using Syllabics.

Consider that the languages that use them are polysynthetic, meaning that the 'words' are quite large and encompass a lot of information, and that they mostly use a Consonant-Vowel syllable structure that is perfect for a syllabary, where one character represents both a consonant and its vowel [2], or an abugida, where the consonant is the important part of the character, and the vowel markings are secondary [3]. An alphabet creates large, unruly words. Qaliujaaqpait and Ojibwe also double their vowels to lengthen them, making romanized text very long.

Look at this Ojibwe word for coffee: "makade-mashkiikiiwaaboo", in syllabics, it's the much less unruly "ᒪᑲᑌᒪᔥᑮᑮᐙᐴ".

And Syllabics themselves are amazing, there are different shapes for the consonants, and their rotation determines the vowel sound [4]. Just awesome, and very easy to learn

However, sadly, there are many disadvantages to the awesome system. For one, roman letters are everywhere, there's good software support, there's always going to be a need to know them as the new generation learns English and French. Not to mention rotation-based characters are no good for, say, someone with dyslexia. I'm not shocked at this decision, it was the right call.

First Nations and Inuit languages need standardization, and more importantly, as much literature as possible, to compete. That's hard to do when everyone is writing in a different way.

I'm writing syllabic converter software that should hopefully be more accurate than the current ones online today, if you're interested in helping or learning about it, feel free to send me an email

1: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xW4hI_METac 2: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Syllabary 3: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abugida 4: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ojibwe_writing_systems#Ojibwe_...

Hangul is an interesting hybrid with aspects of syllabary and alphabet and seems to work pretty well. Also lends itself well to typesetting. It’s also nice and compact.

> Not to mention rotation-based characters are no good for, say, someone with dyslexia.

Latin has pairs of rotated characters (depending on the font): un, pd

Two observations without much substance:

1. I love the logo of the ITK. So joyful! (See https://www.itk.ca/itk-board-of-directors-adopts-inuktut-qal...)

2. The comments section of https://nunatsiaq.com/stories/article/national-inuit-org-app... and https://nunatsiaq.com/stories/article/inuit-qaliujaaqpait-th... contains considerable toxicity. I was expecting general upvoting among a people here but I guess I expected too much from a comments section of a newspaper.

Being an programmer, I wonder if a simpler writing system could be devised that doesn't rely on special symbols. For example, one could dedicate Q as an escape character, and what follows could specify sounds that don't exist in English. Then, one could write the language using conventional ASCII.

Inuit languages are relatively restricted in their phonology. It's a three vowel system (6 if you count long/short separately), fourteen consonants (2 of which are unfamiliar to Germanic/Romance speakers), allows gemination of consonants (i.e., consonants can be short or long), and mostly follows a C?VC? syllable scheme. The only unfamiliar consonant without a general transliteration to ASCII text is the /ɬ/ sound; q is already familiar to people who transliterate the Arabic /q/, and ng is common for /ŋ/.

I wonder how far apart Inuktitut and Greenlandic are, could Greenlandic use the syllabic script w/o changing much?

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