Wednesday, March 5, 2014

How to pronounce Qiviut

I admit that I let my emotions get the best of me when it comes to my language. For most young Natives their grandparents or great-grandparents had their language taken away from them by boarding schools. For me it was my own mother that grew up only knowing how to speak Inupiaq. She was called names and her hands were slapped with a ruler for speaking Inupiaq when she went to school. The teacher demanded that she speak English, as if the command itself would make learning a new language easier. The pain of losing my mother tongue is closer with only one generation between me and the reason for me and my children not knowing how to speak Inupiaq.

I was born in Nome, Alaska and lived there until I was 8. There were certain words that were only said in Inupiaq, partly out of habit but partly because there is no English equivalent. There is a word that simultaneously conveys empathy for pain inflicted on others and pain felt by the speaker. Phrases that convey feelings of love and pride. A word that describes causing someone to become shy and quiet. Words used by an exasperated mother of four young children like "that's gross/dirty/disgusting", "stop that/too much", "you bad/mischievous kid! (kind of a joking phrase)". Words to describe traditional food and the weather.

I used to think that I don't know enough of my culture's language but I surprise myself that I can figure out words that my family uses on social media. At the same time I'm not a fluent speaker, I can't form sentences, and I can't spell most words without guessing. The standardization of spelling Inupiaq didn't happen until the mid to late 70's and we moved away before the movement to save our language began.

Qiviut is the fine and extremely warm inner coat of musk ox. Qiviut means down and could mean down of a bird or down of musk ox. In the spring musk ox lose their warm down and it comes off in small sheets of fiber. The price of qiviut is high because the cost of living in the Arctic is high and the domestication of musk ox has only happened for the past 60-70 years. 

All this to say that I own my frustration when I see knitters and fiber enthusiasts attempt to form their own spelling of the word qiviut. Here is one of our words that survived scrutiny, something that describes something that doesn't exist in the English world, something that was chosen to be used instead of an English word (case in point: the animals are called Musk Ox by everyone, not Oomingmak). Something that belongs to my culture is being mangled and mutilated, mostly unintentionally, and I have the right to be bothered when I do see willful ignorance. Willful ignorance combined with bullying and people in power on influential forums like Ravelry all lead up to how bastardizations of language are made. I'm doing what I can to keep my language intact.

So, for the lesson about pronunciation. I also have to explain that I lived in Iqaluit, Nunavut in Canada for almost 4 years. Children K-6 are required to take Inuktitut and French classes. I was taught that the Inuktitut alphabet is broken up into vowels and consonant-vowel combinations. I'm not sure if Inupiaq is treated the same way but I tend to view the breakup of words the same for both dialects. With a word like qiviut the smaller parts of the word would be qi-vi-ut. The Oomingmak Coop's site says it is pronounced like: ki-vee-ute (oot like in boot). That letter i after the v means something, it's not just there to be pretty. I also think the i after a v is hard for English speakers and most misspellings tend to drop the second i.

A bonus lesson about the word qiviuk. Jacques Cartier decided to make our lives harder by calling their brand of qiviut and qiviut-blend yarn and products by the word qiviuk. Inupiat and Inuit both have singular, dual, and plural forms of nouns. The k at the end of qiviuk denotes a dual form and it means that the subject is exactly two hairs or feathers of down. It might be a play on words because the Qiviuk brand is a 2-ply but I always imagine two little 10-18 micron-wide fibers. I've seen people claim that the two words are interchangeable but they are not.


  1. So am I to understand that the correct pronunciation is "qu" as in key, "vi" as in "vee rhymes with key" and "ut" as in "cut"? Is the lyric quality of the word the same as it would be with words like questioning, likeable, simulate, etc. (i.e. most accent on the third syllable, second heaviest on the first and least on the second)?

    I really enjoyed reading your explanation!

    1. Yes, the lyric quality is how you describe but the last "ut" sound is a long U like in "boot". I should just make a youtube video of myself saying the word. Thanks for reading!

    2. Thanks for this. My daughter-in-law was in Alaska on business and brought back a qiviut hat kit (I was a new knitter then). I was so thrilled, and decided to wait until I was a more proficient knitter to start on the project, since the yarn is quite expensive. Now I'm going to tackle it, and now I also know how to pronounce the word. A Youtube video of you saying it is a great idea, too.

  2. Thank you for a very interesting piece. I've been wondering how to pronounce this for a while.