Inuktitut is the language of the Inuit, Canada's Eskimos, and this is a run-of-the-mill introductory course. The class, however, is being held in the middle of Paris, 5,000 miles from Tuktoyaktuk, the Timbuktu of Arctic Canada.
Why would anyone in France want to learn a language spoken only by 80,000 Inuit, the name that has replaced Eskimo? "People think we're crazy," says Pierre Merat, a first-year student. And even Inuit are flabbergasted. "They're astonished to learn that people can be interested in their language and their culture at such a distance," says Michle Therrien, a Canadian anthropologist who has taught Inuktitut in France for more than a decade.
Inuktitut courses are offered at the Institut national des langues et civilisations orientales, perhaps the biggest language school in the world. It was founded 200 years ago, barely six years after the French Revolution, to teach the three languages "of renowned utility for politics and commerce": Arabic, Persian and Turkish. Over the years, the institute, which the French call "Langues O" (pronounced "long-zoh"), added dozens of other Oriental and non-Indo-European languages. Today, more than 10,000 students follow 1,500 courses in 80 languages - from Aramean (believed to have been spoken by Christ) to Yoruba (spoken by millions in West Africa). The library has 7,000 periodicals and 430,000 books, including its most recent publication, a Mongolian-French dictionary.
But why would any French student choose to learn Inuktitut and not, say, Hindi? Exoticism is certainly at play - the French are fascinated by Sir John Franklin's expedition in 1845. And the Inuit represent many things the French yearn for: space, self-sufficiency and adventure.
Ms Therrien has 17 students at beginner, intermediate and advanced levels, which means that there are more students of Inuktitut in Paris than in Toronto, Montreal or Vancouver, Canada's three largest cities. Ms Therrien is clearly an inspirational teacher, drawing on her own experience of Inuit culture and seal-hunting experience. Her classes, a student says, are addictive. "I didn't want to learn Inuktitut," says Michala Brunet, "but with Michle, you cannot not want to learn it."
To further her studies, Ms Brunet, now in her second year, even spent her summer holiday in Iqaluit (pronounced ee-Ha-loo-eet) in the eastern Arctic, part of Canada's North-West Territories.
The Langues-O has an exchange programme with the Iqaluit-based Arctic College. Each year, a native speaker of Inuktitut spends a month in Paris, and a French student goes to Iqaluit to give a French course. That is how one of Ms Therrien's students, a Parisienne, went to the Arctic and met her husband, an Inuk (the singular of Inuit). The young Frenchwoman now writes to her former teacher in Inuktitut.
Each of Ms Therrien's 17 students has a good reason for joining her class. Pierre Merat wants to become an "ethno-photographer". Laurent Lesec is planning to hike across northern Quebec - "It would be a shame to cross seven Inuit villages without being able to say hello to people in their own laguage." And Marine Soyer wanted to study a language more difficult than Mandarin Chinese: "Inuktitut is as much fun as child's play, but as logical and complex as a mystery novel," she says.
Fun and logical are adjectives that keep cropping up when the conversation moves to Inuktitut. The word pullaq, for example, literally means "air bubble". It quite accurately - and poetically - designates a lightbulb. The words "to breathe", "to make poetry" and "to sing" are all derived from anirnira or "soul". As reported by Lord Frederic Hamilton, private secretary to Lord Lansdowne, Canada's Governor-General in the 1880s, the Bible's "land flowing with milk and honey" is translated as "a sea flowing with whale's blubber". The New Testament's "Lamb of God" becomes "Little Seal of God".
In Paris, as in Puvirnituuq, writers of Inuktitut use a 45-grapheme syllabary, an alphabet in which each symbol represents a syllable. Originally developed by 19th-century Protestant missionaries for writing two other Canadian languages, Ojibway and Cree, the syllabary was adopted by the Eskimos, and most Christianised Inuit could read and write Inuktitut by the mid-Twenties.
A single Inuktitut word or syntagm can express a complex idea. A linguist once coined the word illuliuqatigigumanngitagit ("I don't want you as a companion to build a house"). A passing knowledge of English also helps, since l'anglais is often used to describe objects that were not traditionally used by the Inuit - things like paisikal (bicycle) and aisikirim (ice cream).
Ms Therrien stresses that the Inuit are neither the "noble savages" dear to Rousseau, nor fallen angels who traded their furs and dogs for alcohol and violence. "The French believe that the Inuit have been destroyed," says Ms Therrien. "On the contrary, they are doing very well. By their great patience, and the respect that they have inspired, they have obtained their own state, Nunavut. This is not a people on its knees."
By the time Ms Therrien is through with this lot, Nunavat ("our land"), a new province of Canada, will have 17 extra ambassadors to Paris. Taima.Reuse content