Alaska’s Inupiaq language now available on Facebook

The language is available thanks to the efforts of two friends who grew up in the Northwest Arctic city of Kotzebue.

By Yereth Rosen - September 6, 2018
Alaska’s Iñupiaq speakers can now use Facebook in their own language. (Dado Ruvic / Illustration / Reuters file photo)

For residents of rural Alaska, where phone service can be spotty and travel difficult, the social media platform Facebook has emerged as a vital communications link.

Now Inupiat residents can communicate through Facebook in their own language.

The service comes through the work of Myles Creed, a graduate student in linguistics at the University of Victoria, his friend Grant Magdanz, a software engineer working in San Francisco, and Facebook’s translation application. Neither Creed nor Magdanz is Inupiat, but they grew up in the Inupiat community of Kotzebue in Northwest Alaska.

“I was inspired to work on this project because I saw how much people use Facebook on a day-to-day basis. I talked with friends of mine about how cool it would be if we could use Facebook in Iñupiatun,” said Creed, who is himself learning the language.

Getting Inupiaq onto Facebook has proved more complicated than with widely spoken languages like French, Spanish and German.

Most of the non-English languages now appearing on the platform were provided quickly — in some cases, in a day — by volunteers using the Facebook translation app. But when it came to Inupiaq, there were not enough volunteers available to put the translations together, Creed said. He applied for and received a $2,000 grant from the Alaska Humanities Forum to pay professional translators, and it took about six months for the first words in that indigenous language to appear on Facebook, he said.

The professional translators working on the project, Muriel Qutuk Hopson and Jana Pausauraq Harcharek, have had to be creative, according to the Alaska Humanities Forum. To describe a “selfie,” the translators use the term “qiñiġaaġa,” which means “my picture”; for the term “emoticons,” the translators came up with “kiiñaurat,” which means “little faces.”

Inupiaq Facebook remains a work in progress.

“There is a still a lot of work to do, and most of the interface is still in English, but friends and colleagues have told me that having their Facebook partially translated into Iñupiatun allows them to practice and learn words on a daily basis,” Creed said.

In rural Alaska, Facebook has become a popular platform for sharing observations about climate change, environmental conditions and outdoor safety and food-gathering tips. That popularity is now the subject of study. Richard Hum, an assistant professor and doctoral student at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, has found that Facebook is especially useful for communicating information about weather conditions and effects on local people.

Even though internet speeds are “not always the best” in rural Alaska, Facebook appears to be a good way for people to communicate quickly, Creed said. In some cases, there are few physical places where people can easily meet up to exchange information, he said. “A lot of times, virtual space can serve as community space,” he said.

Yereth Rosen is a 2018 Alicia Patterson Foundation fellow.

This story was updated to include the names of the translators.