among contemporary inuit of pangnirtung, the word ‘yes’ in inuktitut and the word ‘no’ are facial gestures. yes: one raises the eyebrows, opens the eyes wide, perhaps with a smile. this does not need to be accompanied by the ‘ii’ (pronounced: ‘ee’) which may or may not supplement it. no: one furrows the brow, squints, wrinkles the nose, perhaps with a frown. ame papatsie told me to pretend i was looking into the sun. one may or may not accompany with the verbal ‘ahka’. in both instances, the facial gestures are seen more often without verbal supplement than the verbal is heard without facial gesture (the latter does not seem to happen with older inuit). this most basic of linguistic elements, the affirmation/denial binary, is here facially inscribed.
we are reminded of the fact, whenever a simple ii or ahka are called for, that inuit culture is what used to be called a ‘face to face’ culture. as the established order lurches towards ever more mediated forms of communication and abstract modalities of representation,ii and ahka recall the ethics of embodied interaction. the intricacies of communication in a face to face setting are lost in the vastly advanced, supposedly communicatively competent, dominant culture. saving face as a cultural practice remains critical in contemporary pangnirtung: one is not going to move on and teach in a different (better?) department leaving behind all those one has publicly ‘dissed’. in pangnirtung, one has the embodied sense that one’s great great great to the nth degree grandchildren will very likely be interacting with the great great great to the nth degree grandchildren of one’s neighbor. best to ensure, even when one has something ‘up’ on them, that they save face.
the ii and ahka also tell us a lot more about the performative dimension of language than several volumes of contemporary linguistic theory. in pangnirtung the performed utterance conveys extraordinary nuance. the ii for ‘do you want a chocolate milkshake’ likely resonates somewhat more than the ii for ‘can I hold that for you?’. the ahka for ‘do you want to wear these wet woolen socks’ likely more forceful than ‘can I add more cream to your coffee’. the frowns and smiles that may accompany ii and akha already begin to mark this. utterance here is performed utterance, expressiveness itself is prized: we are a long way from the formally rigorous professionally non-affective language of, for example, the american anthropology association.
the performative and face to face dimensions of ii and ahka may be seen in another aspect of this form: inuit culture can certainly involve the ii that means ahka, the yes that means no. ‘can i interview you?’. ‘ii, but not today, try me tomorrow’. tomorrow it turns out that you have gone ‘on to the land’ for three weeks. ii can be performed in a manner that broaches its exact opposite meaning. can outsiders be trained to read for this degree of nuance?