Nov 9, 2009

The Vancouver Aquarium is having a naming contest for their new baby girl, a beluga whale! The catch is, the new name has to be in, or inspired by, the Inuktitut language.

Inuktitut is the generic name of the unique Eskimo-Aleut language group spoken by peoples from Alaska to Greenland and beyond. It's similar in general structure to the Indo-European languages of Finland and Iceland, but a direct linguistic relationship hasn't been proven. In Inuktitut, words are built up from verb or noun phrases, using various qualifier suffixes, and ended with a pronoun suffix. Because of this, individual words are rarely re-used which means that directly applying Zipf's Law to Inuktitut fails! For those of you who don't know what Zipf's Law is, it is a measure of whether or not a series of signals (or words) constitutes a real language based on word frequency. Most people consider the law pretty reliable, but the fact that it isn't perfect is intriguing.

Zipf's Law has also been applied to various animal vocalizations such as beluga and dolphin whistles, and have found only moderate complexity, far below human speech. However, what if these vocalizations follow a ruleset that Zipf's Law just doesn't account for, like Inuktitut? I think the idea is pretty fascinating myself :)

So when I heard about this contest, I studied up on the Inuktitut language, and also drew instruction from the names the people at the VA have already used for their current beluga family members. It turns out that short names are in vogue: Aurora, Imaq and Qila. I tried to stick with something short, but it just wasn't happening. All of the words I was researching were multi-syllabic, and I wasn't about to go making up short forms with only a few hours of Inuktitut education :)

ImageSo instead of keeping it short, I decided to go with what I thought would be best, no matter how long of a name it ended up making. If belugas are known popularly by any nickname it's "canary of the sea" for their large and much used vocal repertoire. But not only are they a beacon of sound, but also a beacon of pure white light in what can often be a cold dark ocean. For this reason I researched and submitted the name Kiblariktoktuq which translates as "she shines brightly".

The contest closes Nov. 22nd, so if you have your own suggestion, make sure to fill in an entry form! If you're planning on giving it a shot, I found an online English to Inuktitut dictionary which you may find useful. Also don't forget to brush up on your Inuktitut grammar!

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