Profile of an Endangered Language: Inuit Sign Language

Lionbridge onDemand is proud to be bringing you this blog series designed to profile some of the world's thousands of endangered languages. Yes, that's right - some languages are, in fact, in danger of going extinct. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) sets forth the criteria for and categorizes languages that may be endangered or extinct.

This week, we will learn about a language that UNESCO currently characterizes as "endangered": Inuit Sign Language.

As you can probably tell from the name of the language, Inuit Sign Language is a signed language, much like American Sign Language (ASL). Let's dive into the world of ISL!


We've previously brought you a blog on the different global signed languages and how they are ultimately compare to one another in usage and origin. One signed language that you may not have been aware of until now is Inuit Sign Language (IUR), alternatively known as Inuit Uukturausingit. 

IUR is thought to have originated among the Inuit peoples in the 18th century as a means of communication for deaf community members. (Side note: The region happens to have a higher-than-average incidence of congenital deafness.)

Currently, there are only a little over 40 active IUR speakers in the world. Most of those speakers reside in the Nunavut territory, the northernmost and least-populated territory in Canada. Little is known about the true number of speakers, both deaf and hearing, because of the isolated location of the speakers. Unlike high-exposure Canadian languages such as French and English, IUR is relatively hidden.

Additionally, due to Canadian schooling, some deaf Nunavut residents use ASL as an alternative to IUR, putting the indigenous sign language at further risk of extinction.

                                    IUR in action

                                   IUR in action

fun facts about inuit sign language

Here are some interesting facts that you may not have known about Inuit Sign Language!

  • IUR is more heavily used in older populations, including the elderly. This could be due in part to the fact that younger generations are moving to the use of ASL, taught in southern Canadian schools.
  • There have been very few studies conducted on IUR. The language is pretty much a mystery outside of Nunavut.

inuit sign language resources

Here are a few websites that can provide more education about the history, lexicography, and preservation of Inuit Sign Language.

Signs of the Arctic: Typological aspects of Inuit Sign Language

Inuit sign language makes debut in Nunavut legislature

"Short Summary of ISL"

"Inuit Sign Language"

the bottom line

Okay, so IUR, unlike many of the other endangered languages we have covered, really is in dire need of saving. To put it in perspective, there's 7 billion people in the world, and only about 47 actively speak IUR. That's a tiny fraction of a percentage of the total population. However, just because the number of speakers is minuscule, doesn't mean the language doesn't warrant studying and preservation.

Despite the extremely small number of speakers left in the world, may encounter a situation where Inuit Sign Language interpretation is needed. If the need arises, call on your good friends at Lionbridge. Our vast network of over 25,000 linguists allows us to source interpreters for hundreds of languages, including IUR. To learn more about our services, visit our website.

See you again for our next endangered language profile!