It's just so prevalent. I have heard it in so many contexts, but most of them are derogatory.
Whenever anyone does anything silly, mean, or stupid, or makes a mistake, it appears that "ckqai-ckqai" is the appropriate answer.
I've begun to really get interested in the word: imitating it; researching it. A while ago, I was playing volleyball with the residence students (who come from small communities that do not offer upper-level secondary grades) at the school gym. I dove for a ball. It hit my arm, carommed off, and hit me in the face. "Ckqai-ckqai", I said, pre-empting everyone's laughter, and it made them laugh even more.
I swear I heard Noah say it a while ago. It was then that it dawned on me. Many of these kids have such limited language skills that they resort to speaking like an infant. Language is the basis of our thought structures. It is virtually impossible to abstract with out some advanced language skills. Just as it is hard for me to abstract in French or Spanish, it is difficult for my students. The difference is that these kids have very limited language skills in their mother tongue.
It has even become one of those sayings over which the cool kids claim ownership. I was speaking with one of the residence students from Kangirsuk. I asked him, "why do all of the kids say ckqai-ckqai?"
"Ckqai-ckqai?" he answered, "Oh, that comes from Kangirsuk. We started that when we were kids." Yes, of course. I remember my friends and I yearning to be the original geniuses that came up with colloquialisms too. I know people who probably still lay claim to coining "strobin" (something one does after taking substances that alter one's state; also known as, "doing very little).
Inuttitut, and to some extent Cree, are still very much alive. In North America, they are certainly the strongest native languages. However, they are traditional languages, not only in the sense that they are what the elders speak, but also in the vocabulary they contain.
The first day I arrived here, my colleague and friend Marion gave me the low down. "They need to come up with vocabulary adapted to the modern world." Indeed. A month or so ago, I was asked by my neighbour at school, Taqa, to come into her class. She asked me what she should do to teach the continents to her students. There is no word for "continent" in Inuttitut.
I said, "what about 'really big land?'"
She replied, "'Nunaqjuat'. But it's all the same."
"What about really big island?"
In the end, I suggested to just call them by their proper names and hope that the students didn't ask, or as an alternative, coin a phrase. At the time, their was a large conference happening in the school gym. The conference was attended by groups of elders from each of the Nunavik communities to discuss the present state, and future of life and culture in the North. Oddly enough, there were all kinds of qalunaat in town for it as well. It was a little weird to see a whole bunch of white folks run a conference for the Inuit discussing Inuit culture. Anyway, Taqa said to me, "I'm going down there to tell them that they need to make up words for these things."
"Continent" is not the only concept which has no equivalent in Inuttitut. As Marion explained to me on the first day I was here, there are many words in Inuttitut, but relatively few concepts which reflect modern and technological concepts. Indeed, no matter how many words you have for snow and clouds, it will hardly explain the workings of the economy, anti-virus systems, or nuclear fission.
On top of that, the kids speak poor Inuttitut. So says Père Dion, a Belgian Catholic priest who has been living in Nunavik for more than 50 years, and has become a guardian of the Inuttitut language. So, the kids speak a language that uses circumlocutions for many things in the modern world, and they speak it poorly. Often "ckqai-ckqai" is probably all they can come up with.
So, why is their Inuttitut so bad? The school system is partly to blame. In most of Nunavik, students attend school in Inuttitut for Kindergarten, and grades 1 and 2. In grade three, their parents decide whether they will go into French or English school (in Wakeham, the switch happens after grade 3). After this switch, the Inuttitut language is treated as a fringe language. The students get two hours of Inuttitut language classes, and one and a half hours of gym and Culture, which are both taught in Inuttitut. The result has been that students do not get introduced to their second language early enough, and their mother tongue education is basically abandoned when their capacities to abstract in their own language are only in their infancy. It seems, at least to me, to be the worst of both worlds.
The long-term goal of the school board is to eventually have every subject taught in Inuttitut other than the second language itself, like English in Franco-Quebec schools, or French in Alberta. I'm not sure how wise of an idea that would be either, but at least people realise that things are not working the way they are going now. Last year, when I was in Kuujjuaq for orientation, we were walking with some young kids who were speaking English to each other. For Inuttitut, this doesn't seem like a healthy development, and the Inuit know it. The problem is two fold. One, the language needs to be updated to include the vocabulary needed to teach Social Studies, Math, and Science at secondary levels. Second, the school board is hard-pressed to find people qualified to teach the limited number of subjects that it offers in Inuttitut now. I cannot imagine how it could come up with twice as many teachers qualified to teach more advanced subjects.
Things are not all bad. There are some kids that have used the opportunities of having a trilingual environment to their advantage. One secondary student, who is Fluent in French and English as well as Inuttitut, was sitting in the computer lab listening to Rammstein when I went to get something I had printed. I asked him, "Why Rammstein?" to which he replied, "I'm teaching myself to speak German."