A.P. Low and the Many Words of Love in Inuit Culture

On the left of the graphic, Tatânga Mânî [Chief Walking Buffalo] [George McLean] in traditional regalia on horse. In the middle, Iggi and girl engaging in a “kunik”, a traditional greeting in Inuit culture. On the right, Maxime Marion, a Métis guide stands holding a rifle. In the background, there is a map of Upper and Lower Canada, and text from the Red River Settlement collection.By Heather Campbell

Albert Peter Low was a geologist and explorer, whose expeditions to Quebec and Labrador from 1893 to 1895 assisted in the creation of their borders. Low mapped the interior of Labrador and discovered large iron deposits, which later lead to the development of the iron mine at what is now Labrador City. His mapping of Labrador influenced expeditions after him including that of Mina Hubbard in 1905.

Black-and-white portrait of a man standing in a photo studio.

Portrait of Albert Peter Low by William Topley, 1897. (a214276)

In 1903 and 1904, Low commanded two expeditions on the steamer Neptune up the west coast of Hudson Bay where he formally claimed possession of Southampton, Ellesmere, and adjacent islands for Canada. Low detailed his travels in Cruise of the Neptune (Report on the Dominion Government Expedition to Hudson Bay and the Arctic Islands on Board the D.G.S. Neptune 1903-1904). Much of his research was invaluable in the recording of Inuit culture in Quebec, Nunavut, and Newfoundland and Labrador.

The Albert Peter Low fonds includes photographs, proclamations, and journals, two from a prospecting trip along the east coast of Hudson Bay, now known as the Inuit region of Nunavik, Quebec and one notebook written between 1901 and 1907. The notebook records 40 pages of the many tenses and corresponding suffixes of the verb “to love” in Inuktitut. In the photo below, we see a notebook page starting with the basic form “him, her or it loves.” He moves on to record, in lesser detail, the variations of the verb “to teach.” At the end he lists other transitive verbs, passive verbs, and adverbs, many related to Christianity.

A handwritten page of a notebook, recording Inuktitut vocabulary for the word “love.”

A page from the notebook kept by Low during his expeditions along the coast of Hudson Bay. (e011304604)

In 1886, Low married Isabella Cunningham and they had three children. Sadly, their first son died as an infant in 1898, and their second son died at age 19 during the Spanish Flu epidemic. Only their daughter Estelle, born in 1901, survived to adulthood and looked after her ailing father until his death in 1942. In 1943, she donated his collection to the Public Archives of Canada, which included Inuit art, mainly hunting scenes rendered in ivory. The collection was transferred to the Museum of Man (Canadian Museum of History) in 1962. Most of the works are miniature ivories created by Harry Teseuke, leader of the Aivilingmiut and Captain Comer’s mate. Comer’s ship, Era, wintered in Fullerton Harbour (near Chesterfield Inlet, Nunavut) in 1903–1904. Low likely consulted with Teseuke who may have enlisted others to assist with Low’s research.

Although this journal is an extensive study of the sentence structure and grammar of Inuktitut, it also sheds light on Inuit culture. You’ll notice that verbs have no masculine or feminine forms or gender pronouns. This relates to the practice of naming children, as traditional Inuit names are unisex. And this is tied to the somewhat intricate practice of creating sauniq (namesake) relationships. For example, if a boy was named after a deceased woman with children, those children would address the boy as “my mother” or “my little mother” to acknowledge that special relationship. Bonds are often formed between people who are not related. It’s a lovely way of creating a strong sense of belonging and strengthening interconnectedness within a community. Inuit believe some of the unique characteristics of someone who has passed can live on in their namesake. Of course, love is the tie that binds these concepts.

Black-and-white photo of a ship surrounded by snow and ice, with people next to it building a snow shelter.

The expedition ship Neptune in its winter quarters at Cape Fullerton, Hudson Bay, Northwest Territories. (a053569)

I can’t help but wonder what Low’s fascination was with this particular word. With varied interests including geology, botany, photography, and hockey, he leaves the impression of an educated man with a curious mind. Was it curiosity alone that fed his hunger to know the nature of Inuit love? Despite the study of Inuktitut words related to Christianity, he was familiar with the Inuit traditional practice of polygamy. In Cruise of the Neptune, Low defends the custom, calling it a mistake for missionaries to attempt to abolish the practice. All of this paints a picture of a liberal-minded man and an early ally of Inuit. No personal writing or correspondence by Low has survived. Therefore, we will never truly know what inspired his fascination with Inuit culture and its many expressions of love.

Black-and-white photo of a woman sewing skin boots, while a child plays with her braids.

Rosie Iggi, also called Niakrok (left), and Kablu (right). Kablu is sewing kamiks (boots), and Niakrok is playing with Kablu’s braids. Photograph by Richard Harrington, 1950. (a147246)

This blog is part of a series related to the Indigenous Documentary Heritage Initiatives. Learn how Library and Archives Canada (LAC) increases access to First Nations, Inuit and Métis Nation content and supports communities in the preservation of Indigenous language recordings.


Heather Campbell is a researcher for the We Are Here: Sharing Stories project at Library and Archives Canada.

Aboriginal syllabic scripts

Before the development of syllabic writing systems, Aboriginal peoples transmitted cultural knowledge orally, through wampum belts and totem poles, through rock engravings and paintings, and through hieroglyphs (symbols etched on birch bark or hides to represent a word or concept). Syllabic scripts were the first form of Aboriginal writing whereby anything that could be spoken in an Aboriginal language could be transcribed.

Reverend James Evans, a Methodist missionary, has often been credited with developing the first Aboriginal syllabic script in 1839 or 1840 at Norway House in what is now Manitoba. Before the use of syllabics, missionaries and linguists translated religious texts into Aboriginal languages using the Roman alphabet. Evans wanted his Cree parishioners to learn how to read and write, but he found the Roman alphabet limiting. As a result, he set out to develop a writing system that more accurately represented the sounds and words of the Cree language.

A colour photograph showing a hand holding the lower left corner of a book. The book is opened to the frontispiece showing a drawn portrait of Methodist missionary James Evans, wearing typical 19th century clothing and looking directly at the viewer.

A portrait of James Evans, creator of Cree syllabic, taken from the 1890 book, James Evans: Inventor of the Syllabic System of the Cree Language (AMICUS 6941574)

Evans derived his syllabic script from Pitman’s shorthand (a shorthand phonetic system that used symbols to represent sounds) and Braille (an embossed writing system for the visually impaired). He used nine geometric shapes to denote consonants, and their orientation suggests the vowels that follow. In addition to being the first Aboriginal syllabic script, Evans’ syllabic is also the first Canadian script and the first typeface created in Canada. He recycled metal for typecasting from the linings of Hudson’s Bay tea chests and modified a fur press (for flattening pelts) to use as a printing press. Evans and his parishioners used the script to print religious texts on birch bark, deer hide and paper.

A colour photograph of two pages of a book on Cree syllabic providing examples of syllabic characters. The first page shows syllabic initials or primals, as well as examples of syllables. The second page shows finals or terminals and examples of word formation.

Images from the 1890 book, James Evans: Inventor of the Syllabic System of the Cree Language (AMICUS 6941574) showing the syllabic geometric shapes denoting consonants and their various orientations denoting vowels.

Although originally developed to write religious materials, syllabic scripts were used by the Cree people for their own purposes. Syllabics became an important part of Cree identity, despite having been developed by a non-Aboriginal missionary, and is still used in Canada today.

Evans’ syllabic script was adapted for other Aboriginal languages, notably Inuktitut. First introduced by the missionary Edmund Peck, syllabic is still used today by thousands of fluent Inuktitut speakers.

When Nunavut was established in 1999, the territorial government commissioned William Ross Mills of Tiro Typeworks to develop digital syllabic fonts. The results included the Pigiarniq and Euphemia fonts. Euphemia, which includes the entire range of Canadian syllabics in several different Aboriginal languages, was licensed by Microsoft and Apple and is now standard on computers. This effectively enables Inuktitut speakers to sit down at virtually any computer around the world and start typing in their own language.

A colour image of a book written in Inuktitut syllabic script open to the first and second pages. The left page features the Inuktitut syllabary; the right page is text written in Inuktitut syllabic.

The first book in Inuktitut to be printed using syllabic characters, Selections from the Gospels in the Dialect of the Inuit of Little Whale River, printed by John Horden between 1855 and 1856 at Moose Factory, Ontario (AMICUS 13853827)

For more information on Canadian Aboriginal syllabic scripts, please check out the following resources. Most are available in libraries or online.

  1. Banks, Joyce M. (2004). “‘And not hearers only’: Books in Native Languages,” History of the Book in Canada, Volume 1, edited by Patricia Lockhart Fleming et al. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. (AMICUS 29599541)
  2. Bringhurst, Robert. (2008). “The Invisible Book,” The Surface of Meaning: Books and Book Design in Canada. Vancouver: Canadian Centre for Studies in Publishing Press (AMICUS 33832941).
  3. Cree Syllabics,” The Canadian Encyclopedia (2015).
  4. Edwards, Brendan Frederick. (2005). “‘To put the talk upon paper’: Aboriginal Communities,” History of the Book in Canada, Volume 2, edited by Patricia Lockhart Fleming et al. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. (AMICUS 29599541)
  5. McLean, John. (1890). James Evans: Inventor of the Syllabic System of the Cree Language. Toronto: Methodist Mission Rooms. (AMICUS 6941574).
  6. Pirurvik Centre for Inuit Language, Culture, and Wellbeing.