Sanaaq, the first novel written in Inuktitut syllabics in Canada

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Long, richly illustrated, highly biographical article in CBC (10/8/23):

Writing the story of a changing North

In the 1950s, Mitiarjuk Nappaaluk began Sanaaq, which would end up becoming the first novel written in Inuktitut. Her words continue to inform our understanding of Inuit life.

Shortly after receiving notice that the Norwegian author, Jon Fosse, had won the Nobel Prize in Literature for his writings in Nynorsk, I read the above article and learned the following:

Mitiarjuk Nappaaluk was 22 years old in 1953 when Catholic missionaries in Nunavik, the Inuit homeland in what is now northern Quebec, came to her asking for help in learning her native language.

Nappaaluk started by writing down sentences in Inuktitut syllabics, using as many words as she could find. She eventually let her mind wander and started inventing characters, imagining the life of an independent young woman named Sanaaq.

Nappaaluk ended up working on the story for more than 20 years, while also raising seven children, working as a teacher and spending summers in the family’s hunting camp….".

Not only did Nappaaluk write a novel in a minority northern language, she created the script in which to do it. [This is wrong; see the comments.]

Selected readings

[Thanks to shaing tai]


  1. Jenny Chu said,

    October 28, 2023 @ 8:58 am

    I am particularly struck by one fascinating point: by writing down the words for different positions in a dog team, she preserved the vocabulary even though dog teams were no longer a common form of transportation. But now, if I understood correctly, the sporting world uses those terms since dogsledding gained in popularity.

  2. Frédéric Grosshans said,

    October 28, 2023 @ 9:30 am

    Since it’s the habit of this blog do include some content in their original script when it’s not the latin script, and the main subject is a novel written in Inuktitut, others might be interested by the original writing of title of the novel, which is ᓴᓈᖅ, (Sanaaq) and its author’s name ᒥᑎᐊᕐᔪᒃ (Mitiarjuk).

  3. Victor Mair said,

    October 28, 2023 @ 9:54 am

    @Frédéric Grosshans

    Thank you very much for that helpful contribution.

    (I fixed several typos for you.)

  4. David Marjanović said,

    October 28, 2023 @ 10:49 am

    Not only did Nappaaluk write a novel in a minority northern language, she created the script in which to do it.

    …what made you think that?

    Wikipedia on Inuktitut syllabics:

    The first book printed in Inuktitut using Cree script was an 8-page pamphlet known as Selections from the Gospels in the dialect of the Inuit of Little Whale River (ᒋᓴᓯᑊ ᐅᑲᐤᓯᐣᑭᐟ, "Jesus' words"),[3] printed by John Horden in 1855–56 at Moose Factory for Edwin Arthur Watkins to use among the Inuit at Fort George. In November 1865, Horden and Watkins met in London under Henry Venn's direction to adapt Cree syllabics to the Inuktitut language.[4] In the 1870s, Edmund Peck, another Anglican missionary, started printing according to that standard.

  5. Terry Hunt said,

    October 28, 2023 @ 10:56 am

    "Not only did Nappaaluk write a novel in a minority northern language, she created the script in which to do it."

    The Wikipedia articles on Inuktitut syllabics says they are a variation of Canadian Aboriginal syllabics, whose own article details their origin by 1840 as Cree syllabics, which spread and developed in Northern America during the 19th century. This (if accurate) does not jibe with the quoted claim, though I have zero prior knowledge of this topic. Also, I cannot see any claim in the original article linked that the writer Mitiarjuk Nappaaluk created any script, as opposed to using an existing one she had learned, though she did write the first novel in that script and shared in creating a school curriculum for it.

    Could it be that the OP has taken " She eventually let her mind wander and started inventing characters" to refer to syllabic characters, whereas I understand that sentence to refer to fictional persons in the story?

    I'm sure I'm misunderstanding something somewhere. Can anyone enlighten me?

  6. Y said,

    October 28, 2023 @ 11:38 am

    I think "characters" refers to literary invention. The misunderstanding is Victor Mair's.

  7. Victor Mair said,

    October 28, 2023 @ 12:06 pm

    Mea culpa, everyone. Thanks for catching it and pointing it out, and especially to Terry Hunt for explaining exactly how it happened.

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