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A Diachronic Study of Regressive Place Assimilation in Eastern Canadian Inuit Apical-Initial Consonant Clusters

The Inuit language, part of the Eskimo-Aleut language family, is a polysynthetic language spoken by indigenous Inuit people across Alaska, northern Canada, and into Greenland. More conservative, western dialects of Inuit allow heterogenous consonant clusters, but in dialects of Inuit spoken in eastern Canada, heterogenous consonant clusters have assimilated. Previous research has focussed on constructing a sociological explanation for assimilation of velar-initial and bilabial-initial consonant clusters, which happened within the last century. The assimilation of apical-initial consonant clusters, thought to be sometime within the nineteenth century, is generally understudied, with no clear timeline of, or explanation for, the change. This is possibly because the Inuit language has no historical written tradition, so examining language change before the twentieth century relies on rare wordlists and vocabularies preserved in online and physical archives.
This paper attempts to establish a more precise timeline of when apical-initial consonant clusters were lost in eastern dialects of Inuit, and to explain why they were lost much earlier than other consonant cluster types. To do this, ten contemporary vocabularies of the Inuit language dating from the late sixteenth to late nineteenth century are examined. These vocabularies were written by a variety of people, from whalers working on whaling ships in the Arctic, to famous explorers, to European naval officers. Some of these sources, accessed directly from historical archives, are new to the literature and have never been examined before for a study of the Inuit language. From these sources, it is possible to conclude that apical-initial consonant clusters started to assimilate in the Nunatsiavut dialect of Inuit spoken in Labrador by the year 1800. This early change was driven by both the low frequency of apical-initial consonant clusters compared to other cluster types, and by the inherent phonetic properties of apical-initial consonant clusters that make them more prone to regressive assimilation. This paper also finds that, when analysed critically with focus on their background and social context, historical vocabularies created by non-native speakers can be a useful tool for studying change in languages with no historical written tradition. Overall, the paper combines historical linguistics and phonology with an in-depth analysis of new historical sources to add to our growing knowledge of the Inuit language, and to address the wider question of what sources we can or should use in historical linguistics.