Inuit phonology

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This article discusses the phonology of the Inuit languages. Unless otherwise noted, statements refer to Inuktitut dialects of Canada.

Most Inuit varieties have fifteen consonants and three vowel qualities (with phonemic length distinctions for each). Although Inupiatun and Qawiaraq have retroflex consonants, retroflexes have otherwise disappeared in all the Canadian and Greenlandic dialects.


West Greenlandic vowel chart
Ranges of West Greenlandic monophthongs on a vowel chart. Adapted from Fortescue (1990:317).

Almost all dialects of Inuktitut have only three basic vowels and make a phonemic distinction between short and long vowels. In Inuujingajut (the standard alphabet of Nunavut) long vowels are written as a double vowel.

IPA Inuujingajut
/a/ a
/aː/ aa
/i/ i
/iː/ ii
/u/ u
/uː/ uu

In western Alaska, Qawiaraq and to some degree the Malimiutun variant of Inupiatun retains an additional vowel which was present in proto-Inuit and is still present in Yupik, but which has become /i/ or sometimes /a/ in all other dialects. Thus, the common Inuktitut word for water – imiq – is emeq (/əməq/) in Qawiaraq.[1]

Furthermore, many diphthongs in the Alaskan dialects have merged, suggesting the beginnings of a new more complex vowel scheme with more than three distinct vowels. This phenomenon is particularly noticeable in the Kobuk area, where the diphthongs /ua/ and /au/ are now both pronounced [ɔ]. Other diphthongs are also affected.

In contrast to the larger number of vowel contrasts in Alaskan dialects, in the dialect of northwest Greenland (particularly Upernavik), the phoneme /u/ has been replaced by /i/ in many contexts.

Otherwise, the three-vowel scheme described above holds for all of the Inuktitut dialects.

West Greenlandic vowels have a very wide range of allophones:

  • /a/ varies between [], [ɛ], [æ], [], [ä] and [ɑ̟]. The last allophone appears before and especially between uvulars.[2]
  • /i/ varies between [i], [ɪ̟], [], [] and [ə]. The last allophone appears before and especially between uvulars.[2]
  • /u/ varies between [], [u], [ʊ̠], [o] and []. The last allophone appears before and especially between uvulars.[2]


The Nunavut dialects of Inuktitut have fifteen distinct consonants, though some have more.

Labial Alveolar Retroflex Palatal Velar Uvular
cen. lat.
Nasal m n ŋ
Plosive voiceless p t k q
voiced (ɟ) ɡ
Continuant voiced v l (ʐ) j ʁ
voiceless s ɬ (ʂ)


  • /ʂ/ and /ʐ/ appear only in Inupiatun.
  • /ɟ/ appears only in Natsilingmiutut. Everywhere else it has merged with /j/; it is not written with a separate letter.
  • /ɡ/ is realized as voiced velar fricative [ɣ] in Siglitun. In other dialects, this realization may also be found between vowels or vowels and approximants.
  • /ʁ/ assimilates to preceding nasal consonants by being realized as a uvular nasal [ɴ]. It is written ⟨r⟩ in Inuujingajut orthography.


Primary stress is said to fall on the last syllable of each word.[3]


In Inuktitut, intonation is important in distinguishing some words – particularly interrogatives – but it is not generally marked in writing. There are some minimal pairs in Inuktitut where only pitch distinguishes between two different words, but they are rare enough that context usually disambiguates them in writing. One common case, however is suva. A high pitch on the first syllable followed by a falling pitch on the second syllable means "What did you say?" A middle pitch on the first syllable followed by a rising pitch on the second means "What did he do?"

In general, Inuktitut uses intonation to mark questions in much the way English does. When an interrogative pronoun is used, pitch falls at the end of a question. When there is no interrogative pronoun, pitch rises on the last syllable.

Inuktitut speakers tend to lengthen vowels with a rising intonation. So, a rising tone is sometimes indicated indirectly by writing a double vowel:

She can speak Inuktitut.       Inuktitut uqaqtuq.
Does she speak Inuktitut? Inuktitut uqaqtuuq?

Phonotactics and Sandhi

An Inuktitut syllable cannot contain more than one segment in the onset or coda. Thus consonant clusters like /st/ or /pl/ that might arise from morphemes being joined together are deleted. There are also some restrictions on final consonants, where only voiceless stops (/p t k q/) can occur unless consonant sandhi has occurred.

Although two-segment consonant clusters occur when morphemes are joined together, three-segment clusters are consistently simplified. Additional constraints on two-segment clusters divide consonants into three manner of articulation groups:

           Voiceless: p t k q s ł
Voiced: v l j g ʁ
Nasal: m n ŋ

Clusters must be of the same manner of articulation so that, e.g. /tp/, /vl/, and /mŋ/ are permitted, but */nt/, */qɡ/, and */lŋ/ are not. Where the morphology of Inuktitut places such incompatible consonants together, they are either replaced by a geminated consonant – in effect, total assimilation – or as a single consonant that takes its manner of articulation from one segment, and its place of articulation from the other. The process of eliminating three-segment clusters is similar with one of them disappearing. As a general rule, assimilation in Inuktitut is regressive – the first consonant takes its manner of articulation from the second consonant. But this varies amongst different dialects; the West Greenland dialect in particular tends to use progressive assimilation – the second consonant takes the manner of articulation from the first.

This limitation on consonant clusters is not quite universal across Inuit areas. One of the distinguishing features of western Alaskan dialects like Qawiaraq and Malimiut Inupiaqtun is that nasal consonants can appear after consonants with other manners of articulation (this was a feature of Proto-Inuit as well as modern Yupik languages). Some examples include the Malimiut word qipmiq ('dog'; qimmiq in Inupiatun) and the Qawiaraq word iqniq ('fire'; inniq in other Inuktitut dialects).

Otherwise, different dialects have more phonotactic restrictions. In all forms of Inuktitut, /qk/ is impossible. In Inupiatun, Siglitun, and Inuinnaqtun (the far western dialects), all other consonant pairs are possible. Moving further east, the general rule is that more and more double consonants become geminated consonants. Determining which double consonants are assimilated depends on the point of articulation of the first consonant in the pair:

           Labial: p v m
Alveolar: t l n
Velar: k g ŋ
Uvular: q ʁ

In Aivilingmiutut, North and South Baffin, and all dialects spoken further south and east, all double consonants starting with an alveolar consonant are geminated:

'you (singular)'
Dialect word
Sew Inupiatunivlin ivlin
Inupiatun ilvich
Siglitun ilvit
Inuinnaqtun ilvit
Natsilingmiutut ilvit
Kivallirmiutut igvit
Aivilingmiutut igvit
North Baffin ivvit
South Baffin/Nunavik ivvit
Labrador iffit
Kalaallihut Inuktun iglit
Kalaallisut illit
East Kalaattisit ittit

In the North and South Baffin dialects, as well as the dialects to the south and east of Baffin Island, double consonants starting with a labial consonant are also geminated. E.g. North Baffin takagakku ('because I see her') vs. Aivilingmiutut takugapku

In South Baffin, Nunavik, Greenland and Labrador, double consonants starting with a velar consonant are also geminated:

English Inupiatun Inuinnaqtun Aivilingmiutut North Baffin South Baffin Nunatsiavummiutut Kalaallisut East Kalaattisit
house iglu iglu iglu iglu illu illuK1 [illuq] illu [iɬːu] ittiq

In addition, some dialects of Inuktitut pronounce [bl] ([vl] in Inupiatun) in place of the geminated lateral approximant /ll/. The phonological status of this distinction is uncertain – some dialects have both [bl] and [ll]. This feature is generally characteristic of western and central dialects as opposed to eastern ones.

English Inupiatun Inuinnaqtun Aivilingmiutut North Baffin South Baffin Nunatsiavummiutut Kalaallisut East Kalaattisit
thumb kuvlu kublu kublu kullu kullu kulluK1 [kulluq] kulloq1 [kuɬːʊq] tikkit

Note 1 qitilliK, kulluK, kulloq: In the Nunatsiavummiutut alphabet, a capital K indicates the same uvular stop as q in the Inupiatun, Inuinnaqtun, Kalaallisut and Nunavut alphabets. Furthermore, o in the Kalaallisut alphabet represents the same phoneme as u in the alphabets used for other varieties of Inuktitut. Contrasts between alphabets are described below.

Double consonants where the second consonant is /s/ undergo more complex changes across dialects. In some cases assimilation is progressive (from the first consonant to the second), in others regressive, and in still others double consonants are neutralised into a single form.

Seward Inupiaq North Inupiaq Siglitun Western dialects Inuinnaqtun Ahiarmiut Natsilik/Kivalliq North Baffin South Baffin & Nunavik Kalaallisut Kalaallihut Kalaattisit
ks/gz ks/ksr ks ks kh kk kh ks ts ss gh ts
vs/pz ps ps ps ff pp ph ss ts ss hh ts
qs/qz qs/qsr qs qs qh qq qh qs ts rs rh rs/rt
ss/zz tch tch ts tt tt ts tt ts ts ts ts

Other systematic dialectical variations

Consonant weakening in Qawiaraq

Many phonemes in the Qawiaraq dialect have undergone a process of consonant weakening, although to what degree varies somewhat between villages. This process is motivated in part by prosody and parallels the consonant weakening processes at work in Yupik. As a result, many stops have become fricatives and many fricatives have become glides or completely disappeared. For example, the word meatniqi in most dialects – is rendered as nigi in Qawiaraq – the stop /q/ has become the fricative /ɣ/.

Consonant weakening is most noticeable in the area adjacent to the Bering Strait in the westernmost part of Alaska.

Palatalization in Inupiatun

The historical fourth vowel of Inuktitut – the schwa /ə/ – affected the pronunciation of alveolar consonants following it. Where an /i/ was present in proto-Inuktitut, the following consonant is palatalized in modern Inupiatun (except where it has been assibilated – see assibilation below). Thus, for example, /t/ becomes /tʃ/, spelled ch alone and tch when geminated, after some i's but not others. For example, the second person singular pronoun ilvityou – in more easterly dialects of Inuktitut becomes ilvich in Inupiatun. In contrast, iqit (fist, iqitii in Canadian Inuktitut), which was pronounced [əqət] in proto-Inuktitut, retains its stop /t/.

Similar processes affect other alveolar consonants:

Alveolar consonant Palatal consonant Inupiatun spelling Example
/t/ /tʃ/ ch (tch when geminated) ilvit => ilvich (you sg.)
/n/ /ɲ/ ñ inuk => iñuk (person)
/l/ /ʎ/ silami => siḷami (outside)

In the Malimiut variant of Inupiatun, this process is extended to some velar consonants, like /k/ and /ɡ/.


In a number of dialects, /t/ preceded by an /i/ derived from an */i/ in Proto-Inuktitut rather than an */ə/ may become an /s/ (or an /h/ in dialects that use "h" in place of "s") when followed by another vowel:

English Inupiatun Siglitun Natsilingmiutut Kivallirmiutut North Baffin Kalaallisut
he/she comes in isiqtuq itiqtuaq ihiqtuq itiqtuq isiqtuq iserpoq

This feature varies from dialect to dialect and does not follow a consistent east/west pattern, as assibilation is present in some words in both Alaskan Inupiatun and Greenlandic Kalaallisut. The exact conditions in which Proto-Inuktitut consonants have been assibilated vary from dialect to dialect, often determined by the following vowel and other factors.

Fricative substitution in western Nunavut

Many of the western and central dialects of Nunavut – including Inuinnaqtun, Kivallirmiutut and Natsilingmiutut – realize the phoneme /s/ as [h]. Inuinnaqtun also pronounces /ɬ/ as [h]. This leads to an additional constraint on double consonants in Inuinnaqtun: a stop followed by the fricative [h] becomes a fricative at the same point of articulation. This feature does not extend west of Inuinnaqtun and is not present in Siglitun or Inupiatun.

English Inuinnaqtun Kivallirmiutut North Baffin
egg ikhi [ixhi] ikhi [ikhi] iksi
blubber uqhuq [uχhuq] uqhuq [uqhuq] uqsuq
walking (3p. sg) pihukhuni ([pihuxhuni]) pihukhuni [pihukhuni] pisukɬuni

Retroflex consonants in western dialects

Natsilingmiutut retains as a phoneme the stop, and often retroflex, palatal consonant /ɟ/. This consonant has merged with /j/ in all other Nunavut and eastern dialects of Inuktitut. In Inupiatun, the /ɟ/ of Natsilingmiutut and the /j/ in some central Inuktitut words has become [ʐ] (written ⟨r⟩).

English Inupiatun Natsilingmiutut North Baffin Itivimiutut Kalaallisut
eye iri [iʐi] iri [iji] iji iri isi
kayak qayaq [qajaq] qajaq [qajaq] qajaq qaraq qajaq
big angiruq [aŋiʐuq] angiruq [aŋiɟuq] angijuq [aŋijuq] angiruq angivoq

In addition to the voiced retroflex fricative /ʐ/ (represented orthographically as ⟨r⟩), Inupiatun also has a voiceless retroflex fricative /ʂ/ represented as ⟨sr⟩. This additional manner of articulation is largely distinctive to Inupiatun – it is absent from the more easterly dialects, except for the /ɟ/ of Natsilingmiutut.

English Qawiaraq Inupiatun Siglitun Natsilingmiutut North Baffin Kalaallisut
spider aachivak aasrivak aasivak aahivak aasivaq aasiak
penis uchuk usruk usuk uhuk usuk usuk

The Qawiaraq dialect of Inupiatun, furthermore, has a third retroflex consonant in addition to the two present in other varieties of Inupiatun: the retroflex approximant /ɻ/.

Double consonant clusters in Nunavimmiutut

Nunavik Inuktitut, in contrast to other dialects, does not allow two double consonants to appear with only one syllable between them. Wherever this occurs, the first consonant in the second consonant pair is deleted.

English North Baffin Nunavimmiutut
calendar ulluqsiut ullusiut
he is coughing quiqtuqtuq quiqtutuq

Glottal stops

In a number of dialects, uvular consonants and ordinary stops are replaced with glottal stops in some contexts. Which uvular consonants and which contexts varies to some degree across dialects. Most frequently, a /q/ or in some cases a /ʁ/ before another consonant is transformed into a glottal stop. Thus, the Inuktitut name of the hamlet of Baker Lake is pronounced Qamaniqtuaq or Qamanittuaq by most Inuktitut speakers, but is rendered Qamani'tuaq in Baker Lake itself. This phenomenon occurs in a number of dialects, but is particularly noticeable in Nunavimmiutut and in central Nunavut dialects like Kivallirmiutut.

In Natsilingmiutut, the velar nasal consonant /ŋ/ sometimes becomes a glottal stop when followed by another consonant, but not in all cases.

See also


  1. ^ Kaplan (1990), p. 145.
  2. ^ a b c Fortescue (2002), p. 317.
  3. ^ Gordon (2002), p. 544.


  • Fortescue, Michael (1990), "Basic Structures and Processes in West Greenlandic", in Collins, Dirmid R. F., Arctic Languages: An Awakening (PDF), Paris: UNESCO, pp. 309–332, ISBN 92-3-102661-5
  • Gordon, Matthew (2002), "A Factorial Typology of Quantity-insensitive stress", Natural Language & Linguistic Theory, 20 (3): 491–552
  • Kaplan, Lawrence D. (1990), "The Language of the Alaskan Inuit", in Collins, Dirmid R. F., Arctic Languages: An Awakening (PDF), Paris: UNESCO, pp. 131–158, ISBN 92-3-102661-5

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