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Learning Iñupiaq, One Word — and One Laugh — at a Time

Caitlin Whyte in Studio C
Volunteer producer Caitlin Whyte in KNOM's Studio C. Photo: David Dodman, KNOM.

“Learning a new language is hard. Learning Iñupiaq is harder,” volunteer producer Caitlin Whyte (pictured above) says.

Caitlin’s talking about one of the Alaska Native languages (Iñupiaq, in-YOO-pee-ock) that’s most common to KNOM’s listening area. It’s a language in which our listeners have become slightly more fluent thanks to a new series of radio “spots,” or short, public service announcements (PSAs), on which Caitlin’s been working closely with local community deejay Marjorie Tahbone, an Alaska Native and native of the Nome area who’s donated many hours, both on and off the air, to our mission in recent months.

In a series of impromptu recording sessions, Marjorie — who often goes by “Marge” or Kunaq (KOO-knock), her Iñupiaq name — has been teaching Iñupiaq words to Caitlin, who then turns their private, in-studio talks into public radio pieces. She preserves their educational conversations as just that — conversations — with all of the humor and affable imperfections (“questions and noises and mistakes,” as Caitlin describes) that conversations between friends always have.

“I wanted to make the learning process a bit more accessible, less intimidating,” Caitlin says. “Learning a language can be such a vulnerable and frustrating experience. I wanted to tone it down a notch.”

Learning a language and “toning it down,” Caitlin says, is sometimes helped with a little humor. She says she embraces the accent of her upbringing — upstate New York. “Learning Iñupiaq with a New York accent is comical,” she writes. “So we decided to play off that.”

Marjorie Tahbone in an Iñupiaq class
Marjorie Tahbone teaches an Iñupiaq language class.

All joking aside, Marjorie is an amply qualified teacher. As we’ve written in the past, Marge has taught Iñupiaq at both the high school and college levels (she’s pictured above in the middle of one such class), and she’s also a familiar voice for our region, already, as the weekly host of Alianait Radio (the two-hour, Wednesday-morning program that Marge herself created in 2014).

You can hear the fun, informative spots that Marge and Caitlin have created right here. As always, thank you so much for enabling this sort of programming: these spots, we believe, exist at the intersection of informative, joyful, locally relevant, and inspirational in a way that only KNOM, with your support, can do.

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Land Acknowledgement

We acknowledge that KNOM Radio Mission is located on the customary lands of Indigenous peoples. 

Based in the Bering Strait region, KNOM broadcasts throughout the homelands of the Iñupiaq, Siberian Yup’ik, Cup’ik and Yup’ik peoples.