Language revitalization, one text at a time
Inupiaq texters and Tweeters and Snapchatters can put away their "ABCs" and pull out their Achagats.
Two brothers from Kotzebue recently debuted their new app for iPhones which features the first ever Inupiaq-specific keyboard.
It's appropriately titled "Achagat"— the name of the Inupiatun alphabet.
"People elsewhere can type in their native languages, whether it's English or Arabic or Swedish or German. It seems pointless that everyone wouldn't be able to type in their language," said Grant Magdanz.
At 21, Grant is the younger of the two brothers. He's currently a senior at the University of Washington where he's studying computer science. He was responsible for the technological side of the app.
"We talked to a few people and it was not only something that they thought was a good idea, but it was something they'd been looking for and had been asking about," he said. "People are trying to use Inupiaq more and they wanted to be able to type and spell correctly."
His older brother Reid, 25, works as a legislative aide for Representative Jonathan Kreiss-Tompkins, the legislator who made history in 2014 by sponsoring House Bill 216 which made 20 Alaska Native languages official state languages alongside English.
"I feel that it's really important to have the native language be well-integrated into the system—be that a computer system or a mobile phone," said Reid. "If you're taking a language that's not used very often and you make it work on par with languages that are used often, that's a huge boost to the ability of that language to continue to be used."
Last fall, Reid approached Grant with the idea for an Inupiaq language app.
"My brother, out of the blue, asked if I knew anything about making keyboards. He had the idea that it would be really cool to get these characters on a phone," said Grant.
He was in luck; Grant had already spent part of the summer teaching himself how to make them and he readily agreed to give this project a shot.
The initial idea was to create a keyboard with an additional row that would include all six special characters in a line above the traditional QWERTY setup. Over time, that developed into the more complex press and hold function that it is today. That means if you're looking for a special character based on the letter "n," you hold down the "n" key and all of the iterations appear on the screen. Then, you choose whichever one you want.
All in all, it took Grant about 30 hours to write the app.
To understand how Achagat works, think of the app and the keyboard as two separate things. The app has very limited functionality when it's downloaded on your phone. You click on it, it opens, you get instructions on how to install it and some background on the Inupiaq language.
Through the app, though, you get access to a virtual keyboard that you can use anywhere the traditional Apple keyboard currently works. Anytime you can type something, be it while texting or for email or in another app, you can use the Inupiaq Achagat keyboard in place of the English keyboard.
"A critical piece of why I was interested in this keyboard app is I think it's incredibly important that native languages be viewed as modern and as things that are part of the modern world and not something to leave behind. Making them easy to use with today's technology is hugely valuable," said Reid.
As part of the development process, Reid turned to books like Lorena Williams' "Inupiaq Phrases and Conversations" and consulted with speakers of the language like Tim Argetsinger.
Argetsinger is a conversational speaker who has been studying the language for about the past six years, learning primarily from fluent elders in Kotzebue.
"As with any language, it's important that people use the writing system as intended instead of improvising spellings, which devalues the language," he wrote in an email. "The Inupiatun alphabet contains characters that represent sounds that don't exist in English, so this app was sorely needed."
He hopes this app will encourage language learning, use, and proliferation.
"I envision Inupiatun being used as the language of instruction in K-12 schooling. I would like it to be the main language of communication at every sector of society, including in the workplace, government and media. This is already the reality in Kalaallit Nunaat (Greenland)," he said.
Reid sees a linguistically diverse future. As a child in Kotzebue, he said he heard Inupiaq spoken at the store and at camp, but didn't feel it was well integrated into everyday life. He'd like to see that change.
"There's so much knowledge stored in a language. In Inupiaq, a lot of that knowledge is related to the land and the natural conditions," said Reid. "I think that's something that's very important to preserve. I think native languages can be an important part of the fabric of rural Alaska and I would really like to see them be part of its identity going into the future."
Grant sees a lot of potential for technology to play a role in preserving and revitalizing language and culture to build that type of future, but it will take programmers and developers with an understanding of the state to make it happen.
"You write what you know," he said. "Technology is written by people who have a specific perspective and most of the time it isn't an Alaskan perspective. It's often designed without Alaska in mind whether that's with language or bandwidth. For an app like this, you just don't know the need if you aren't from here."
That was why this project needed to come to fruition, he said.
"As someone who's not Inupiat, it's about centering Inupiat voices, getting people who are Inupiat heard in places where they need to be heard and then just supporting where possible. I guess that's where this app falls in. There was a need and it just happened to be this skill that I had."
The Achagat app for iPhones is free and available for download on the app store.
Shady Grove Oliver can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.