Inuit grammar

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search

The Inuit language, like other Eskimo–Aleut languages, has a very rich morphological system, in which a succession of different suffixes are added to root words to indicate things that, in languages like English, would require several words to express. (See also: Agglutinative language and Polysynthetic language) All Inuit language words begin with a root to which other suffixes are added. The language has hundreds of distinct suffixes, in some dialects as many as 700. Fortunately for the learner, the language has a highly regular morphology. Although the rules are many, and sometimes very complicated, they do not have exceptions in the sense that English and other Indo-European languages do.

This system makes words very long, and potentially unique. For example, in Nunavut Inuktitut:

I can't hear very well.

This long word is composed of a root word tusaa-to hear – followed by seven suffixes (a vowel-beginning suffix ever erases the final consonant of the preceding consonant-ending suffix):

  • -tsiaq- "well"
  • -junnaq- (or -gunnaq-) "be able to"
  • -nngit- "negation"
  • -tu(q) "indicative third person singular" (in fact a nominal form)
  • -alu(k)- "augmentative" → "very"
  • -u- "be"
  • -junga "indicative first person singular" (itself composed of the indicative morpheme -ju- and the first person mark -nga)

Note the consonant sandhi (see Inuit phonology): The /q/ from -tsiaq- followed by the /j/ from -junnaq- becomes /r/, a single consonant taking its point of articulation from /q/ and its manner of articulation from /j/. The /q/ from -junnaq- is assimilated into the /ŋŋ/ of -nngit-, because Inuktitut forbids triple length consonants, and because the morphophonological rules attached to -nngit- require it to delete any consonant that comes before it.

This sort of word construction is pervasive in Inuit language and makes it very unlike English. In one large Inuktitut corpus – the Nunavut Hansard – 92% of all words appear only once, in contrast to a small percentage in most English corpora of similar size. This makes the application of Zipf's law quite difficult.

Furthermore, the notion of a part of speech can be somewhat complicated in Inuit language. Fully inflected verbs can be interpreted as nouns. The word ilisaijuq can be interpreted as a fully inflected verb – "he studies" – but can also be interpreted as a noun: "student".

Because of the language's rich and complicated morphology, this article can present only a limited and unsystematic sample of its features. It is based largely on the Inuktitut dialects of north Baffin Island and central Nunavut. The morphology and syntax of Inuit language varies to some degree between dialects, but the basic principles will generally apply to all of them and to some degree to Yupik as well.


Verbs in main clauses[edit]

Inuktitut verbs fall into two major categories with different morphological properties: non-specific verbs and specific verbs. Many verbs belong in both categories, and can take either set of endings depending on the type of information about the verb's arguments that speakers intend to communicate. Others are restricted to one category or require a morphological change in order to move between categories.

Every fully inflected Inuktitut verb can act alone as a proposition. No other words are required to form a syntactically correct sentence.

This section will only cover two of the most common sets of endings for these two verb classes and a small selection of verbal modifiers. Inuktitut has a large and diverse set of verbal inflexions, of which this article can only cover a small portion designed to give some sense of how the Inuktitut language works.

Non-specific verbs[edit]

Non-specific verbs are verbs that either are intransitive (they have no direct object), or have an indefinite noun as their object. In English, an indefinite noun is marked by the lack of the article the or, if the noun be singular (and countable) the article a(n). In Inuktitut, when it is the object of a verb, it is distinguished by the use of a non-specific verb and particular suffix described below. A definite noun, in contrast, requires the use of a specific verb when it is the object of a verb.

Non-specific indicative conjugation[edit]

As a general rule, a correctly formed Inuktitut verb must start with a root and end with a suffix that indicates the grammatical person of its subject:

quviasuktunga - I am happy
quviasuk- - to be happy
-tunga - 1st person singular ("I")
anijuq - she/he/it has just now gone out.
ani- - to go out
-juq - 3rd person singular

The indicative is the simplest form of the verb in Inuktitut, and for state verbs - verbs indicating a condition or a situation - this form indicates the present tense: The condition or situation is presently the case. For action verbs, it indicates that the action has recently been completed, mixing tense and aspect. Inuktitut verbs are divided into state verbs and action verbs. However, the distinction may not match how non-Inuktitut speakers would categorise verbs. For example, the verb root pisuk-, meaning "to be walking" - is a state verb in Inuktitut.

pisuktunga - I am walking. (right now)

When the verb root ends in a consonant, the suffixes that indicate the grammatical person all begin with t. For example, pisuk- - to be walking - is conjugated as follows:

Singular Dual Plural
First person pisuktunga
(I am walking)
(we [two] are walking)
(we [more than two] are walking)
Second person pisuktutit
(you [sing] are walking)
(you [two] are walking)
(you [more than two] are walking)
Third person pisuktuq
(he/she/it is walking)
(they [two] are walking)
(they [more than two] are walking)

Verb roots that end in a vowel have suffixes that start with a j. For example, ani- - to go out:

Singular Dual Plural
First person anijunga
(I have just gone out)
(we [two] have just gone out)
(we [more than two] have just gone out)
Second person anijutit
(you [sing] have just gone out)
(you [two] have just gone out)
(you [more than two] have just gone out)
Third person anijuq
(he/she/it has just gone out)
(they [two] have just gone out)
(they [more than two] have just gone out)

Note that Inuktitut has a fully productive dual number, present in all three persons.

Alternative form[edit]

There is an alternative form of the above conjugation which is used in different ways and to different degrees depending on dialect. Instead of starting with t after a consonant and j after a vowel, this form starts with p after a consonant and v after a vowel. The exact difference varies from dialect to dialect. In western dialects, including Inuinnaqtun and Inupiatun, only the t/j forms are ever used for statements and the p/v form is rarely if ever heard. In Greenland, only the p/v form is used. In the central and eastern Canadian dialects, both are forms are used.


There are additional p/v forms used in Nunavut to indicate interrogative statements - asking questions - although they may indicate other subtle distinctions of aspect. When they are used to ask questions, the last vowel may be doubled to indirectly indicate rising pitch. So, the question "Are we there yet?" can be written as Tikippita? (tikip- - to arrive, and for -pita see the table below) but may also be written as Tikippitaa?

This way, one can very compactly pose and answer simple yes/no questions:

(or: Quviasukpiit?)
Are you happy?
Ii, quviasuktunga. Yes, I'm happy.


The subject of a non-specific verb has no special morphological mark:

Piita anijuq Peter just went out.
Lui quviasuktuq Louis is happy


The object of a non-specific verb must end in a suffix that indicates its syntactic role:

Piitamik takuvit? Do you see Peter?

The object of a non-specific verb takes one of the suffixes below, depending on its number:

Indefinite suffixes
Singular -mik /m/ nasalises a preceding consonant
Dual -rnik deletes any preceding consonant and doubles the length of the preceding vowel
Plural -nik /n/ nasalises a preceding consonant

A film-inspired example using the verb taku- - to see - and inuviniq - dead person:

Singular: Inuvinirmik takujunga I see a dead person.
Dual: Inuviniirnik takujunga I see two dead people.
Plural: Inuvinirnik takujunga I see dead people.

To say "I see the dead person" or "I see the dead people" requires a specific verb, which is described in the section below.

Specific verbs[edit]

Specific verbs - verbs whose objects are definite as opposed to indefinite - take suffixes that indicate the grammatical person of both the subject and the object, but not their grammatical number.

Specific indicative conjugation[edit]

Specific verb suffixes used after vowels:

First person Second person Third person
Object First person -jarma -jaanga
Second person -jagit -jaatit
Third person -jara -jait -janga

Specific verb suffixes used after consonants:

First person Second person Third person
Object First person -tarma -taanga
Second person -tagit -taatit
Third person -tara -tait -tanga

Note that the suffixes in this table cannot be used for reflexive verbs. That will be discussed separately.

Alternative form[edit]

As with non-specific verbs, specific verbs have an alternate v/p form used to the exclusion of j/t forms in Greenland, to some extent interchangeably in Nunavut, and not at all in the west:

Specific verb suffixes used after vowels:

First person Second person Third person
Object First person -varma -vaanga
Second person -vagit -vaatit
Third person -vara -vait -vanga

Specific verb suffixes used after consonants:

First person Second person Third person
Object First person -parma -paanga
Second person -pagit -paatit
Third person -para -pait -panga


The specific interrogative is also sometimes used to indicate conditional forms or other aspects. It overlaps heavily with the v/p alternative form described above:

After vowels:

First person Second person Third person
Object First person -vinga -vaanga
Second person -vagit -vaatit
Third person -vigu/-vara -viuk -vauk

After consonants:

First person Second person Third person
Object First person -pinga -paanga
Second person -pagit -paatit
Third person -pigu/-para -piuk -pauk


The subject of a specific verb requires a specific suffix to indicate its syntactic role:

Piitaup takujaatit Peter sees you

The subject of a specific verb takes the following suffixes, depending on its grammatical number:

Singular -up /u/ disappears when it is preceded by a double vowel
Dual -k doubles the preceding vowel, if it is not already double
Plural -it /i/ disappears when it is preceded by a double vowel

All of the suffixes above delete any consonant that immediately precedes them. For example, qajaq becomes qajaup in the singular, qajaak in the dual, and qajait in the plural when it is the subject of a specific verb.

So, as an example:

Paliisiup takujaatit A policeman sees you.
Paliisiik takujaatit Two policemen see you.
Paliisiit takujaatit Some policemen (more than two) see you.


The object of a specific verb needs no particular suffix at all. Thus, we can contrast Inuviniq takujara - I see the dead person - with the table for non-specific verbs above. Continuing the example from above:

Piitaup paliisi takupauk? Does Peter see the policeman?
Aakka, paliisinik Piita takujuq. No, Peter sees some policemen.

Changing verb classes[edit]

Some verbs are automatically both specific and non-specific verbs, depending only on which suffixes they receive. The verb taku- - to see - is one example. However, other verbs require an additional suffix to shift classes.

Many action verbs that specifically involve an actor performing an action on another are specific verbs that take the suffix -si- in order to become non-specific verbs:

Specific: Qukiqtara qimmiq I just shot the dog.
Non-specific: Qukiqsijunga qimmirmik I just shot a dog.

Many verbs of emotion alternate between the suffixes -suk- and -gi- to change whether or not they are specific:

Non-specific: Ilirasuktunga ilisaijimik I'm intimidated by a teacher
Specific: Iliragijara ilisaiji I'm intimidated by the teacher

This is important when attributing an emotion to a person without designating the cause. To do so, Inuktitut always uses the non-specific form:

Kuppiasuktunga I'm afraid

Reflexive verbs[edit]

A reflexive verb is a verb which must have both an object and a subject, but where, in some context, both the object and the subject are identical. In Inuktitut, this situation is expressed by using a specific verb but by affixing a non-specific ending to it.

Specific: Nanuq qukiqtara I just shot the polar bear
Non-specific: Nanurmik qukiqsijunga I just shot a polar bear
Reflexive: Qukiqtunga I just shot myself

Verbs in secondary clauses[edit]

A verb that has been fully inflected as described above is a complete proposition able to stand on its own. However, when clauses are linked in Inuktitut, a number of other morphosyntactic phenomena come into play.

First, many secondary structures use other classes of verb suffixes that those used in main clauses. This article cannot cover the whole of Inuktitut morphology, especially since each class of inflexion has its own set of non-specific and specific endings and they vary significantly from dialect to dialect. The examples below are based on the North Baffin dialect.

Fourth person inflection[edit]

In secondary clauses, third person inflexions must make a distinction between instances where the two clauses have the same subject and those where the subject is different. In English, the sentence "He is leaving because he is tired" is ambiguous unless you know whether or not the two "he"'s refer to different people. In Inuktitut, in contrast, this situation is clearly marked:

Aullaqtuq taqagama.
aullaq- + -tuq   taqa- + -gama
to leave + 3rd pers. sg. non-specific   to be tired + 3rd pers. sg. non-specific causative
He1 is leaving because he1 is tired
Aullaqtuq taqangmat.
aullaq- + -tuq   taqa- + -ngmat
to leave + 3rd pers. sg. non-specific   to be tired + 4th pers. sg. non-specific causative
He1 is leaving because he2 is tired

The set of suffixes used to indicate the other third person is sometimes called the third person different, but is also often called the fourth person. This additional grammatical person is a pervasive feature of Inuktitut.


The causative is used to link propositions that follow logically. It is much more broadly used in Inuktitut than similar structures are in English. The causative is one of the most important ways of connecting two clauses in Inuktitut:

Qannirmat qainngittunga
qanniq- + -mat   qai- + -nngit- + -tunga
to snow + 4th pers. non-specific causative   to come + not + 1st pers. sg. non-specific
Because it is snowing, I am not coming.

Conditional & subjunctive[edit]

This structure has a meaning closer to an "if... then..."' sentence in English than the kind of structure usually referred to as "conditional". It generally involves using an additional marker of the future tense or the conditional mood in the main clause:

Qaiguvit niriniaqpit?
qai- + -guvit   niri- + -niaq- + -pit
to come + 2nd pers. sg. non-specific conditional   to eat + future tense + 2nd pers. sg. non-specific interrogative
If you come, will you eat?
Qanniqpat aninajanngittunga
qanniq- + -pat   ani- + -najaq- + -nngit- + -tunga
to snow + 4th pers. sg. non-specific conditional   to go out + conditional mood + not + 1st pers. sg. non-specific
If it were snowing, I wouldn't go out.


The frequentative endings indicate that two propositions routinely occur together. In English, this is expressed with words like usually, often, generally and whenever. It generally involves using an additional marker in the main clause to indicate frequency:

Kaakkaangami niriqattaqtuq
kaak- + -kaangami   niri- + -qattaq- + -tuq
to be hungry + 3rd pers. sg. non-specific frequentative   to eat + usually + 3rd pers. sg. non-specific
When he's hungry, he eats.


The dubitative suffixes express uncertainty or disbelief about a proposition:

Naalangmangaarmitit nalujunga
naalak- + -mangaarmitit   nalu- + -junga
to listen + 3rd pers. subject 2nd pers. object specific dubitative   to not know + 1st pers. non-specific
I don't know whether or not she listens to you.

Verb modifiers[edit]

In addition to root verb morphemes and inflexions to indicate the number and person of the arguments, Inuktitut has a large inventory of morphemes that modify the verb and may be placed between the root morpheme and inflexions, or at the end of the inflected verb. In pedagogic and linguistic literature on Inuktitut, these infix morphemes are often called verb chunks. These modifiers indicate tense, aspect, manner and a variety of functions that in English require auxiliary verbs, adverbs, or other structures.

This section can only list a small selection of the many verb chunks, in order to give a sense for how the system works:

Modifiers of manner[edit]

-nngit- - negates the verb
N.B.: This suffix deletes a preceding consonant.
quviasuk- + -nngit- + -tunga
to be happy not 1st pers. sg.
I am not happy.
sana- + -nngit- + -tuq
to work, to be employed not 3rd pers. sg.
He doesn't work. (= He is unemployed.)
-luaq- - excessively
N.B.: This suffix deletes a preceding consonant.
sana- + -luaq- + -tuq
to work, to be employed excessively 3rd pers. sg.
He works too much.
sinik- + -luaq- + -tutit
to sleep excessively 2nd pers. sg.
You sleep too much.
-galuaq- - although, but
N.B.: This suffix undergoes consonant sandhi:
Preceding letter context Form Example
vowel -galuaq-
ani- + -galuaq- + -tunga
to go out + although + 1st pers. sg.
Even though I just went out...
...k -kaluaq-
quviasuk- + -galuaq- + -tuq
to be happy although 3rd pers. sg.
Although she is happy...
...t -kaluaq-
changes the t into k
qanniq- + -nngit- + -galuaq- + -tuq
to snow not although 3rd pers. sg.
Although it isn't snowing...
...q -raluaq-
deletes the q
qanniq- + -galuaq- + -tuq
to snow although 3rd pers. sg.
Although it is snowing...
Consequently one can say:
Qanniqlaunngikkaluaqtuq aninngittunga.
qanniq- + -lauq- + -nngit- + -galuaq- + -tuq    ani- + -nngit- + -tunga
to snow excessively not although 3rd pers. sg.    to go out not 1st pers. sg.
Even though it's not snowing a great deal, I'm not going out.

Modifiers of tense[edit]

While Indo-European languages tend to make tense distinctions in terms of before or after some reference event, Inuktitut makes a number of somewhat fuzzy distinctions depending on how far into the past or the future the event took place. In English, this distinction requires additional words to place the event in time, but in Inuktitut the tense marker itself carries much of that information.

-laaq- - future, tomorrow or later
N.B.: This suffix deletes a preceding consonant.
uqaq- + -laaq- + -tara
to talk later, after today 1st pers. subject 3rd pers object specific
I'll talk to him some other time.
-niaq- - later today
N.B.: This suffix nasalises a preceding consonant.
tikip- + -niaq- + -tuq
to arrive later today 3rd pers. sg. non-specific
He is arriving later.
-liq- - in process, right now
N.B.: This suffix deletes a preceding consonant. When applied to a state verb, it emphasises that the state holds at the present moment. For action verbs, it means that the action is taking place right now, instead of having just finished.
qangatasuu miliqtuq
qangatasuu   mil- + -liq- + -tuq
airplane to land, to touch down right now 3rd pers. sg. non-specific
The airplane is landing.
-rataaq- - immediate past, a moment ago, no more than a few seconds
N.B.: This suffix deletes a preceding consonant.
isuma- + -rataaq- + -tunga
to think just a moment ago 1st pers. sg. non-specific
I was just thinking
-qqau- - just now, a few minutes ago
N.B.: This suffix deletes a preceding consonant.
tusaa- + -qqau- + -nngit- + -tagit
to hear just now not 1st pers. subject 2nd pers object specific
I didn't hear you just now
-lauq- - more remote past, yesterday or earlier, up to perhaps a year
N.B.: This suffix deletes a preceding consonant.
Iglumik niuvialauqtunga
iglu + -mik   niuviaq- + -lauq- + -tunga
house accusative sg. to purchase recently, in the last year 1st pers. sg. non-specific
I bought a house recently
-lauqsima- - remote past, several years or more ago
N.B.: This suffix deletes a preceding consonant.
Inuktitummik ilisailauqsimajunga
inukitut + -mik   ilisai- + -lauqsima- + -junga
inuktitut accusative sg. to study some years ago 1st pers. sg. non-specific
I studied Inuktitut some time ago.

Ergativity in Inuktitut[edit]

Inuktitut marks the subject of a non-specific verb and the object of a specific verb in the same way - the absence of a specific morphological marker - and marks the subject of a specific verb and the object of a non-specific verb with particular morphological elements. This kind of morphosyntactic structure is often called an ergative structure. However, ergativity in its most clearly defined instances is primarily about transitive and intransitive verbs. This dichotomy is not identical to the specific/non-specific verb distinction in Inuktitut, since Inuktitut usage is also concerned with the definiteness of the objects of verb,

Consequently, the application of the notion of ergativity to Inuktitut, and to many other languages, is somewhat controversial. Regardless, by analogy with more conventionally ergative languages, the -up, -k, -it endings described above are often called ergative suffixes which are taken to be indicative of the ergative case, while the -mik, -rnik, -nik endings (see Non-specific verbs - Objects) are called accusative. This usage is often seen in linguistics literature describing Inuktitut, and sometimes in pedagogic literature and dictionaries, but remains a quite foreign vocabulary to most Inuit.

See also[edit]

Greenlandic grammar


Although as many of the examples as possible are novel or extracted from Inuktitut texts, some of the examples in this article are drawn from Introductory Inuktitut and Inuktitut Linguistics for Technocrats.

External links[edit]

Dictionaries and lexica