Insights November 2009

How Do You Say "Health" in Inuktitut?

Neil Seeman

Inuktitut can help communicate important unifying concepts in healthcare that may elude us in English. I was reminded of the bonding power of Inuktitut by our new kisaut ("anchor" or "oneness") fellow, Jen McCabe Gorman. Inuktitut is a language of inclusiveness. English can be divisive. Inuktitut is an aggregating language - pronouns, verb tense, and emotional cadence get mixed together to form one block or phrase. And the language of health ought to be inclusionary.

Inuktitut is spoken north of the tree line, and is an official language in Nunavut and the Northwest Territories. It is a polysynthetic language, which means that discourse units (i.e., word phrases) are not pre-fabricated, made in advance, but can be constructed de novo depending on the situation, the emotional tone, or depending on the person with whom you speak. If we spoke Inuktitut in healthcare settings, we couldn't enter conversations with a preset speech.

Inuktitut and Inclusiveness

Inclusionary language matters in healthcare. Administrators and providers spend considerable time debating whether to use words like "patient" vs. "consumer"; "stakeholder" vs. "client"; or phrases such as "chronic disease management" vs. "chronic disease prevention." In part this is because we may want to shine a light on important themes (like prevention), or we may want to reduce stigma.

But maybe, instead of switching words, we should be asking a more fundamental question: should we switch languages to promote inclusiveness? Even where English is the dominant language in a community, are there words or sounds from a different language that could be used in the healthcare setting - for example, in documents such as Annual Reports, mission statements or on a hospital Web Site? Could these words or sounds make patients feel more connected?

Inuktitut offers insights. There are really no 'words' in Inuktitut. You put together morphemes, several sounds together, to express your meaning. The 2007-2008 Health Survey conducted among the Inuit, for instance, is called (in Romanized Inuktitut) "Qanuippitali?" - Inuktitut for "How about us, how are we?"

How do you say "health" in Inuktitut? You don't; you use phrases with nuance, such as "to regain health" (satuimajuq); "health habits or behaviour" (iluqusiq); or "come back to health (from illness) several times" (uumaumiqattatuq).

For "health" you could say, "kuviasuktok," or "is happy". In keeping with the Inuit holistic perspective, all significant aspects of life are intertwined. Kinship and communication and well-being and nature are all a part of health. One who walks with others, a caregiver, walks "alongside" (or "senniagut").

The Need for 'Oneness'

With the global migration of healthcare workers, increasingly Canada will see a surge in healthcare providers whose first language is other than English. We can reach out to them, and their patients, by embracing the idea of kisaut ("oneness").

Inuktitut, in its use of metaphor and its capacity to stitch together ideas to form word sentences, can bind people of different heritage and origin. Inuktitut is an ideal voice to use in healthcare settings. It is omayok ("alive"). It is a living language whose very essence is to link one person to another.

About the Author(s)

Neil Seeman is a writer and Director and Primary Investigator of the Health Strategy Innovation Cell at Massey College at the University of Toronto.


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