Inuit Sign Language is a language of the Inuit people. It is possible that IUR is used from Greenland to Alaska, as these are regions where the Inuit people live, but this hypothesis has yet to be confirmed. In the current descriptive project, the focus is on Nunavut, Canada’s Arctic territory (see Figure 4), where the sign language is used by an estimated 47 people (MacDougall 2000). Although Nunavut encompasses almost two million km2, it has less than 30,000 inhabitants (Canadian Census 2006). Most of the people (85%) are Inuit, and it is from their language, Inuktitut, where Nunavut ‘our land’ got its name in 1999. Nunavut is thinly populated and the population is geographically spread. There is contact between communities, but it does not occur regularly because of the distances involved. In the past, the Inuit lived a nomadic life, travelling across the Arctic. When nomadic life was abandoned, the extensive contact between people from different regions decreased considerably, as people from different backgrounds settled in the same community (Condon 1983; Wachowich 1999). Contact between deaf native IUR signers was also reduced as it became practically limited to those who happened to live in the same community. Due to decreased contact between IUR signers, the sign language is now endangered.
It is estimated that the prevalence of deafness in Nunavut is 5.7/1000, a percentage that is almost six times higher than in southern Canada (Stamos-Destounis 1993; MacDougall 2000). Deaf individuals have been identified in many of Nunavut’s communities, and many of them use a form of sign language. Those who use sign language are generally surrounded by a network of family and friends who use sign language, too. MacDougall (2000:13) found “little or no evidence of “social stigma” associated with deafness in the communities […] and there was no apparent social exclusion because of deafness”.
The sign language used varies from a mix of ASL and Manually Coded English (MCE) to pure IUR (MacDougall 2000). The use of ASL/MCE as opposed to IUR is mainly related to the degree of formal education. Those aged between 20 and 50 who went to school have been to residential schools for the deaf in southern Canada where ASL/MCE was used. Some of these people do know some IUR signs, but do not use the language regularly. Deaf Inuit children nowadays attend the regular school in their home community, with the aid of a qualified ASL interpreter, and do not know IUR. This is a major contributing factor to the endangerment of IUR. In fact, IUR is only used as a primary language by those deaf individuals who have not been to school, or only for a short period. Data collection is aggravated by the fact that these people are spread out across many different communities in Nunavut.