As cancer treatment evolves, so must aboriginal languages

‘An incurable ailment’ no more: Inuit are changing the way they describe cancer in Inuktitut, and other aboriginal groups in the North are considering the same, as understanding the disease evolves.

‘In the medical terminology, there are quite a few things that need to be changed,’ says Tlicho expert

Terry Audla, president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, tweeted a new Inuktitut work for 'cancer' this week. (Twitter)
Language officials in Nunavut released their new word for cancer this week.

The new term “kagguti” comes from the Inuktitut word kagguaq, which means “knocked down out of natural order."

It replaces “annia aaqqijuajunnangituq” or “an incurable ailment," which officials felt was giving people the wrong impression of the disease.

Terry Audla, president of the national Inuit organization, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, tweeted the new word on April 23.

But Inuit aren't the only aboriginal group whose terminology around cancer is evolving. 

For the Gwich’in First Nation in the Northwest Territories, the word used to describe cancer translates to “a difficult disease.”

  • Click the links on the left to hear William Firth on 'cancer' in Gwich'in and Andy Norwegian on 'cancer' in Slavey

“The first time we heard about it, it seemed like it was a disease that we did not have any cure for,” says William Firth, language programs director for the Gwich’in Social and Cultural Institute in Fort McPherson, N.W.T.

“But as you know, nowadays, there’s a lot of work that has gone into remedies and treatments for cancers, so we’re going to be having to change that term.”

The N.W.T.’s Chief Public Health Officer says many aboriginal languages rely on terms that lead to misunderstandings about cancer.

“Terms like ‘a worm that’s eating you’ or ‘bugs,’" says Dr. Andre Corriveau. “Or they would use the same term that they would use for HIV so there was a perception in some communities that cancer was contagious.”

Many aboriginal languages are constantly evolving to include new technical and medical terms, and sometimes new understandings of words.

'The first time we heard about it, [cancer] seemed like it was a disease that we did not have any cure for,' says William Firth, language programs director for the Gwich’in Social and Cultural Institute in Fort McPherson. (Gwich'in Tribal Council)
In Nunavut, workshops with elders are frequently held to gather ideas and come to consensus on how to refer to things not found or talked about in traditional Inuit culture.

Last year, the N.W.T.’s health department funded activities in the regions to help develop terminology around cancer.

This year, it’s received nearly $750,000 through the Canadian Partnership Against Cancer, and plans to spend that money on increasing awareness and improving communication about the disease among aboriginal groups.

Firth says the Gwich’in are also considering new ways to describe AIDS.

“When it first came out, the description that we gave to it was ‘a disease that we’re afraid of,’” Firth says. “We are finding out that not everyone dies of AIDS itself.”

‘It can get confusing’

Slavey-speaking Dene describe cancer as “an illness that spreads throughout the human body.”

Andy Norwegian, who works as a language specialist with the Deh Cho Divisional Board of Education in Fort Simpson, N.W.T., says that’s a term that sometimes isn’t specific enough.

“In some cases, people have just literally borrowed the word from English and just call it cancer,” Norwegian says.

Norwegian says there are some illnesses, like measles and chicken pox, that share a term.

“It can get confusing when you describe it this way,” he says. “You need to go into further detail as to what the illness is.”

In Tlicho, cancer is described as something like a worm, insect or snake disease.

I think it is causing some misunderstandings- Lucy Lafferty, Tlicho language expert

“I think it is causing some misunderstandings,” says Tlicho language expert Lucy Lafferty from her home in Behchoko, N.W.T.

Lafferty says many words in the Tlicho language are a relic of the time in which they were translated.

For example, the Tlicho word for nurse is ‘nun,’ because nuns were the first people to work as nurses in the area.

Lafferty says the Tlicho term for sexually transmitted infections, ‘evil disease,’ also reflects the bias of the people running the hospital at the time the term was coined.

“In the medical terminology, there are quite a few things that need to be changed,” Lafferty says.


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