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Documentation and description of Inuit Sign Language


Language Inuit Sign Language
Depositor Joke Schuit
Affiliation University of Amsterdam
Location Canada
Collection ID 0135
Grant ID IGS0078
Funding Body ELDP
Collection Status Collection online
Landing Page Handle


Summary of the collection

Inuit Sign Language (abbreviated to ISL) is the language used by deaf Inuit of Nunavut, Canada. It has probably evolved from hunting and gathering signs used in Inuit culture. Only 1/3 of the deaf Inuit community use the native sign language; the others use a form of Manually Coded English or American Sign Language. Three communities where deaf Inuit live are included in the documentation, namely Rankin Inlet, Baker Lake and Taloyoak. The video files in this collection contain stories of past and present life of deaf Inuit community members interviewed, as well as some elicitation tasks based on picture drawings and/or cartoon clips. The content of the collection is further described in attached documents and/or annotation files.


Group represented

The Deaf Inuit from Nunavut and their friends and families.

Inuit Sign Language (ISL), ISL is used in Nunavut, Canada’s most Northern territory by its native people, the Inuit. It is used by both deaf and hearing people – the deaf are well integrated in the hearing community, deafness bears no stigma, and many of the hearing people are also fluent in the local signed language. The signed language is indigenous to Canada, and has been in use in Inuit culture for at least a few generations. In many of the Inuit communities, deaf people have been identified. It is estimated that 5.7/1000 of the Inuit are deaf (Stamos-Destounis 1993; MacDougall 2000), which is a high rate in comparison to 1/1000 in Southern Canada. This high incidence of deafness is due to the high rate of otitis media (middle-ear infection) due to the cold climate (Stamos-Destounis 1993) and to congenital hearing impairment (MacDougall 2000).

Deaf Inuit communicate using a signed language that is not used in other parts of Canada(MacDougall 2000). In Canada, two larger signed languages are used – American Sign Language (ASL) in the English speaking parts and Québec Sign Language (LSQ) in the French speaking parts – both of which, in particular ASL, are well-studied. ISL does not seem to be related to either of these languages, and the three signed languages are not mutually intelligible. A small-scale study by MacDougall (2000) has shown that ISL is native to the Inuit.


Special characteristics

As Nunavut is part of the Arctic, the language users are faced with extreme weather conditions. Stretching from 60º N to the North Pole, the climate is arctic and the land is covered in snow most of the year. It is expected that these conditions have an influence on the sign language, in particular on how the hands are used. It might even be the case that there are two variants of the language, an indoor and an outdoor variant.

Aside from this point of interest, its endangered status makes the study of Inuit Sign Language important. Its primary users are deaf adult Inuit, who have not attended school. These adults and hearing parents start using ISL with deaf children from the moment a child’s deafness is identified. However, when sent to a (boarding) school for the deaf, Inuit children no longer use ISL regularly, as these schools are situated in English-speaking Canada, where American Sign Language (ASL) is used. When returning to Nunavut, these children often experience communication problems, as their family members do not know ASL, and the children’s knowledge of ISL is limited. Often relatives and friends start to learn ASL and stop using ISL. This situation leads to an increasing reduction of knowledge of ISL, and without intervention, the language will probably be extinct in two generations. This study will therefore play an important part in the documentation of the language. Furthermore, the Nunavut Department of Culture, Language, Elders and Youth has recently recognised Inuit Sign Language and its importance for Inuit heritage. If ISL is lost, an important aspect of Inuit culture and heritage
disappears with it.


Collection history

This project aims to document stories and narratives in ISL, as well as spontaneous speech. Also,
some typological aspects were selected to be studied in more detail. The selection of research topics is motivated by the fact that these have been described extensively for other signed languages; data for cross-linguistic comparison is thus available. The findings will be compared to those reported for other signed languages, and to Inuktitut as part of a PhD dissertation.

With regard to phonology, the hand shapes and non-manual markers of ISL will be studied. Sign language phonology refers to the building blocks of a sign, i.e. the handshape, the movement of the hand and arm, the location where the sign is executed (on the body or not), and what non-manual markers are used. Because of the extreme weather conditions in Nunavut, we may expect to find a comparably small set of handshapes, as people usually wear gloves to protect their hands from the cold. Therefore, an inventory will be compiled of all different handshapes. As the face usually remains uncovered in Nunavut, it is possible that ISL makes extensive use of non-manual markers. These will therefore be included in the study. It is expected that the elicited and spontaneous recorded material will yield enough data to conduct the phonological study.

Morphosyntactic aspects of ISL that will be studied are the classifier system and verb agreement. To collect data focusing on classifiers, movie clips and pictorial tasks will be used that have proved to be useful by other researchers (Nyst (2007) for Adamorobe Sign Language; Perniss (2007) for German Sign Language; Zwitserlood 2003 for Sign Language of the Netherlands). In order to elicit verb agreement data, material developed by the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics for studies of spatial relations, and used by Özyurek and Perniss (p.c.) for Turkish and German Sign Languages.

Inuktitut is expected to be of influence on the lexical semantics of ISL. Several fields will be
explored: colour terms, time terms, and kinship terms. Data will be collected using different methods. Colour terms will be gathered by showing colour cards; kinship and time terms will be gathered in interviews with informants.

All results from the grammatical investigation will also be interpreted against the sociolinguistic setting. Aspects that are of interest here are the high percentage of hearing
users of ISL and the cultural setting in Arctic Canada. For these hearing users, the signed
language is their second language.


Acknowledgement and citation

To refer to any data from the collection, please cite as follows:

Schuit, Joke. 2010. Documentation and description of Inuit Sign Language. Endangered Languages Archive. Handle: Accessed on [insert date here].

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