Janet Tamalik McGrath
In the language of Inuit, Indigenous people of the polar Arctic regions, the word sila to refers to many interconnected concepts, depending on context: outdoors, outer, globe, Earth, atmosphere, weather, air, sky, intellect, intelligence, spirit, energy, cosmos, space, universe, and even life force. If adopted as a loanword into English, it would be used to indicate the interconnection of all phenomena, with an understanding that humans have a role in learning how to live in balance with their inner and outer environments. Currently the magnitude of negative human impacts on the Earth’s biosphere reflect a disconnection from nature and a false perception of superiority. Using the loanword sila, human responsibility might be expressed in the phrase “We are never more than sila.” This implies that with our abilities to impact nature in many ways, we also bear serious responsibilities that need to be acknowledged. What we do to our natural environment and to other beings, we do to ourselves; we have an obligation to endeavor to live in harmony with all forms of life.
The cosmic–human connection is built into the Inuktut language. For example, the root word for wisdom, silatujuq, literally translates as “has a lot of sila” and is used when natural and cosmological environments are manifested within a person. This term also refers to cleverness and cunning—that is, having the ability to see strategically based on inner attributes and thinking resourcefully with a sense of one’s responsibilities to act ethically. If one is foolish, ignorant, or lacking in common sense, if one is unaware of one’s negative impact on themselves and others, they might be called silaittuq, “without sila.”
Sila’s life force is inside of all humans through its sacred movement—our breath. At the same time it is the source of all breath and life. This connection to our breath implies our integral interconnectedness with all of creation; wherever energy flows, it also flows within us. This multifaceted sila is not directed by humans, but humans are subject to its gifts, forces, and powers. Consequently, the Inuit elders I work with have emphasized the need to relate to sila with humility, appreciation, and great sensitivity.
Inuktut is quite old. The language in recognizable form dates back 5,000 years, with some clear links to Uralic, which puts it up to 10,000 years old in origin. The word and its significance remained in the realm of oral tradition until Inuk author Rachel Qitsualik contended in 1998 that sila is a “super-concept, both immanent and transcendent in scope . . . arguably the most important concept in classic Inuit thought” because it is simultaneously “intellectual, biological, psychological, environmental, locational and geographical.” Sila’s immanence is also based on physical reality; no creature can breathe or exist without air, and space is required for material manifestation. Its transcendence is illustrated in its daily expression in Inuktut, as diverse phenomena found within and beyond human realms are related. Because of the importance of weather patterns to Inuit survival and these interconnecting realms of sila, Qitsualik argued that it reflects both human fragility and responsibility. Humans rely on sila, which supports food sources. Death gives rise to life. We can only live if plants and animals die; this truism is a point of sacred reverence in Inuit culture. Qitsualik used the term superconcept to convey how sila links together many interrelated concepts, referring to so many processes, beliefs, and aspects of life that it defies any concise or straightforward English translation. To appreciate the worldview accompanying the applications of the term sila, it is necessary to understand some basic features of Inuktut language.
Inuktut Language: An Interconnected Worldview
Inuktut language is structured to convey Inuit ways of knowing, which include the core Inuit values of cooperation, harmony, observation, respect, innovation, and resourcefulness. These values are based on a worldview that is fundamentally relational. One feature of the language that illustrates the importance of relationality is the complex system of pronoun suffixes—transitive verb agreement endings—that include both subject and object as one unit. Though all Inuktut dialects use this form, I draw on examples from Canadian Inuktut. These Inuktut verb endings keep an implicit focus on the importance of relationality, as this key and distinguishing feature of the language is extraordinarily precise about subject–object integrated reality. There are dozens of these fused verb endings, which variously cross-reference the participants in the action. Further, there is no gender or animate/inanimate distinction in Inuktut, and thus the attention of the listener is necessarily focused on context to determine what is actually meant (whether he, she, or it). By affirming connection and obscuring difference, Inuktut brings a speaker’s attention to relationality. Some examples include takujara, “I see him/her/it.” The verb is taku-, “to see,” with the ending -jara, “I to him/her/it” (I➔him/her/it). In the English versions of this sentence (I see him/I see her/I see it), “I” is the subject, the seer, and “him/her/it” is the object, the seen. However, the Inuktut version unifies the subject–object relation and even asserts a lack of division, while obscuring gender and the animate/inanimate distinction. These other common endings illustrate how complex Inuktut can seem in comparison to English or other modern languages:
- -jait, you/it (takujait = you see him/her/it)
- -jatit, you/they (takujatit = you see them)
- -janga, he/it (takujanga = he/she/it sees him/her/it)
- -jaanga, it/I (takujaanga = he/she/it sees me)
- -jaatigut, it/us (takujaatigut = he/she/it sees us)
Regardless of the length of a sentence, the morphemes (units of meaning) include verb action and interconnected relation. These verb agreement endings have many variations to convey other moods such as dubitative, conditional, causative, and interrogative. So, for example:
- takungmangaagu (whether he/she/it sees you him/her/it)
- takukpagu (when/if he/she/it sees him/her/it)
- takungmagu (because he/she/it sees him/her/it)
- takuvauk? (does he/she/it see him/her/it?)
Inuktut is economical in that a speaker changes the word’s ending instead of adding another word. As a result, one needs to know many versions of verb agreement endings in order to communicate at even a basic level.
A challenge that Inuktut presents for an English speaker is the mirror-image sequence, compared to English, of meaningful units (i.e., morphemes) in a single phrase. The subject is identified only at the end of a long phrase, so Inuktut can seem ambiguous to a foreign speaker: everything about the action is listed before who is taking the action becomes evident. With this kind of structure, the participants of the action (the subject and the object) are put in a place of relative insignificance, as the action, activity, time, and space are foregrounded through this basic sequencing (morphology and order indicated in parentheses):
- -tunga (I)
- Niuvirvingmunngauniaqtunga (the store-going to-will-I): I am going to go to the store.
- -tugut (we 3+)
- Niuvirvingmunngauniaqtugut (the store-going to-will-we 3+): We are going to go to the store.
- -tut (they 3+)
- Niuvirvingmunngauniaqtut (the store-going to-will-they 3+): They are going to go to the store.
In Inuktut, the emphasis is thus not on the subject but on the subject within a vast range of relevant elements, as in the examples above—place, space, time (store, motion toward, future tense). Inuktut acknowledges that humans are dependent on place, space, and time, and our doer-ness is tacked on the end. In the hierarchy of thought and the flow of communication, we literally come at the end, consistent with our lesser significance. A listener therefore needs to be patient until the ac-tor is revealed. Consider the following sentence: “Tuktuturumajualutuinnauniraqtauqattaqpallailijualuulauqsimagaluarama.” This sentence/word contains eighteen morphemes and translates loosely into English as “Because coincidentally I’d perhaps been referred to by others as only wanting to continuously eat caribou meat.” But in Inuktut, the communication begins with tuktu (caribou) and ends with -rama (because I), with all the other details in between. The “I” subject of this sentence in Inuktut (in its causative form, -rama) is only revealed after sixty-four letters, or seventeen other morphemes. In fact, longer examples than the one above are possible while remaining grammatically correct and intelligible. In this way, Inuktut narrative forms naturally cultivate deep listening, presence of mind, and a practice of patience.
With these kinds of complexities embedded in the very structure of the language, is it appropriate to propose that an Inuktut term be adopted into the English language? Absolutely. It is not necessary to understand Inuktut grammar or speech in order to connect to the rich heritage of a single term, and the Inuktut language, with its philosophical underpinnings, offers simple ways to express relationality and interconnection. And sila is only a four-letter word! Additionally, there are already a few commonly used loanwords from Inuktut, including such well-known words as igloo (iglu, “snow house”) or kayak (qajaq, a uniquely Inuit invention, a slim, covered one- or two-person boat). While these are material technologies that reflect Inuit practical innovation, sila as a concept offers a deeper philosophical connection that is critical at this time in world history. Igloo and kayak relate to survival in materially bare circumstances; sila is another kind of survival, and as a loanword in English, it relates to material, emotional, spiritual, social, and environmental survival in a globalized world.
Sila in English
How does one apply such a term that refers to an interconnectedness of all forms and forces, that, while including humans, is not human centered? Here I offer some suggestions, with the expectation that once incorporated into English, other usages will certainly be found. In practical terms, when the weather is contrary to human wishes or needs, one can say “it’s sila” to affirm that one needs to work with what is presented, that we are wiser for being with what is rather than complaining and wishing it was otherwise. The experience of awe for nature, as when sun, wind, water, sky, and Earth all meet the senses in a moment of joy and connection, can be expressed in the affirmation, “Sila!” We are at once connected with this beauty, an integral part of it, and indebted to it. And “It’s sila!” would be appropriate for the indescribable blessing of knowing we are part of the beauty and integrity of creation, an emotional connection to human life. The word sila encompasses experiences of awe or joy while also affirming a fundamental connection with the forces that inspire these feelings. What is outside (environmental) is inside too. We are interconnected.
Not all of sila’s expressions are positive from a human perspective. Natural disasters cause fear and destruction. Sila could offer an enriched view of these phenomena. “By sila . . .” would refer to a rebalancing of forces beyond human control. This would include any natural disasters—storms, cyclones, monsoons, or earthquakes. Though undeniably unfortunate, instead of taking a hostile view of these processes, we might express how these forces are rebalancing phenomena by acknowledging sila. With this acknowledgment, issues stemming from anthropogenic climate change and extreme weather patterns are not denied but become the basis for a renewed resolve to live in balance.
“For sila . . .” would refer to a human action that can benefit the integrity and balance of the inner and outer realms, honoring the interconnection between humans and the other-than-human world. By adopting a “for sila” approach, the cosmic–human balance could be seen as beneficial on many levels, beyond human existence. Additionally, proenvironmental high-impact practices such as living free of cars, avoiding airplane travel, eating a plant-based diet, and reducing family size, combined with planting trees, conserving electricity, using less heat and air-conditioning, and recycling are practical actions that have economical and environmental benefits. However, no term exists in English to express the emotion of being committed to living in harmony with nature. By saying it is “for sila,” we can affirm our interconnectedness with nature, express concern about our impacts, and convey our commitment to learning and adapting.
Responding to the challenges of the Anthropocene will involve developing a culture of sustainability. Transmitting better attitudes and practices to future generations is critical. Raising children to have a strong bond with nature now requires a disciplined effort, as most adults’ and children’s hours are spent within homes and buildings—offices, workplaces, schools—sheltered from natural forces. The term sila would be useful as a means of engaging children—for example, asking them, “What’s sila doing?” This would be similar to saying, “Let’s observe the weather,” but it involves direct sensation—going outside and sensing the air, slight gusts of wind, light breezes, cloud movement, humidity, sun and moon positions and states, animal presence, and changes in plant cycles, thereby affirming the interconnected nature of reality. Using the term sila offers a connotation of connection that the English words nature and environment lack. Sila offers children a new expression that links external physical reality and emotional being. “Let’s spend the day with sila” would be similar to a planned day in nature, except it explicitly acknowledges that the basis of life is a loving bond with all the natural forces of which we humans are a part. If it rains, for example, rather than an opportunity for complaint or a sprint for shelter, it’s simply sila feeding the plants. All forces of sila are explored in their support of diverse forms of life and seasonal and geological changes.
What might it mean for English speakers to consider the grammar of putting themselves at the end of a sequence of thoughts? What might it mean to describe everything else first—the weather, other beings, histories of place, and then finally attend to the subjects of an action? Sila is a word that has been lived by for centuries in the polar Arctic. As climate change impacts the Arctic at a rate more than twice the rest of the globe, and as the fast-melting ice impacts us all globally, I offer this word as a bridge between an Inuktut worldview and modern English. By adopting the Inuktut term sila into English, a timely and vital connection to ancient human values can be reestablished in our current setting. It can enhance an understanding of our position as humans within our Earth’s complex systems and beyond, as it reminds us of our responsibility to learn to live in balance.
Another Path: Gyebale
1. Emilie Cameron, Rebecca Mearns, and Janet Tamalik McGrath, “Translating Climate Change: Adaptation, Resilience, and Climate Politics in Nunavut, Canada,” in Annals of the Association of American Geographers (London: Taylor & Francis, 2015). See also Rachel Qitsualik, “Inummarik: Self-Soverignty in Classic Inuit Thought,” in Nilliajut: Inuit Perspectives on Security, Patriotism and Sovereignty (Ottawa: Inuit Qaujisarvingat, 2013), 29. Expression and usage may vary by dialect. In some dialects it is pronounced “hila.”
2. It is important in Inuit culture to name elders who teach you specific customs, values, and ideas, and not use a blanket statement of authority such as “the elders say . . .” In this case this teaching comes from Mariano Aupilarjuk and Nilaulaaq Aglukkaq, though their teachings are echoed in a wide variety of oral history literature. See John Bennett and Susan Rowley, eds., Uqalurait: An Oral History of Nunavut (Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press, 2004).
3. Louis-Jacques Dorais, The Language of Inuit: Syntax, Semantics, and Society in the Arctic (Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press, 2010), 101. There are single word resemblances in modern Asiatic languages that suggest Inuktut is even older than the Uralic connection. For example, the word sila bears similarities to the term for outside, space, and sky, sula in Manchu, and to the Japanese word for the same, sora. Dorais, Language of Inuit, 92.
4. Qitsualik, “Inummarik,” 29; see also Rachel Attituq Qitsualik, “Word and Will—Part Two: Words and the Substance of Life,” special to Nunatsiaq News, November 12, 1998.
5. See Qitsualik, “Inummarik.” Also note that even though this is a hunting cultural perspective, even a non–meat eater still relies on the death of plants to live, and the same reverence to one’s source of life would apply.
6. The pronouns used here reflect the normative, binary genders of English and not the nongendered, animate–inanimate inclusive form of Inuktut. In order to convey the temporality of Inuktut, the pronouns he and she are used here. This is in no way meant to frame gender as a fixed binary, which it is not. It is critical to convey that, though changing, English lacks what Inuktut abounds in, which only furthers the argument made here for sila as an ecotopian loanword.
7. For those interested in the morphological breakdown, each forward slash indicates a separate unit of meaning (dropped consonants and vowels in square brackets): tuktu/tu[q]/ruma/ju[q]/[a]alu/tuinna[q]/u/niraq/tau/qattaq/pallaili/ju[q]/[a]alu/u/lauq/sima/galua[q]/rama.
8. See Seth Wynes and Kimberly A. Nicholas, “The Climate Mitigation Gap: Education and Government Recommendations Miss the Most Effective Individual Actions,” Environmental Research Letters 12, no. 7 (2017): 1–9.
9. These recommendations are for the masses of first world countries based on scientific analyses. Because a loanword from Inuit language is being proposed, it needs to be clarified that in much of Inuit homelands globally, airplane is the only means of travel. Also, from the perspective of first world administrators, many third world economic and health markers are experienced by Inuit. It is also counterproductive to impose a plant-based diet where plants do not grow and where wild animals are still hunted as an essential source of food, not to mention the environmental costs of shipping food. Note also the scale of impact, where for example in Nunavut there is a population density of only 0.02 people per square kilometer. Census Canada denotes this as 0.0, compared to Ontario, which has is 14.1 people per square kilometer.
10. Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder (Chapel Hill, N.C.: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2008).
11. See Sheila Watt-Cloutier, The Right to Be Cold: One Woman’s Story of Protecting Her Culture, the Arctic and the Whole Planet (Toronto: Penguin Canada, 2015).