As cancer treatments have evolved, so too have aboriginal languages. CBC News reports that language officials in Nunavut have released the new word, kagguti for cancer, which comes from the Inuktitut word kagguaq, meaning “knocked down out of natural order.”
The new word replaces annia aaqqijuajunnangituq or “an incurable ailment,” which CBC News said language officials felt was giving people the wrong impression of the disease.
The Inuit aren’t the only ones evolving their language around cancer. The word for cancer the Gwich’in First Nation in the Northwest Territories use describes “a difficult disease.”
“The first time we heard about it, it seemed like it was a disease that we did not have any cure for,” William Firth, language programs director for the Gwich’in Social and Cultural Institute in Fort McPherson in the Northwest Territories, told CBC News. “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 Northwest Territories Chief Public Health Officer explained to CBC News how many aboriginal languages used terms that led to misunderstandings about cancer.
“Terms like ‘a worm that’s eating you’ or ‘bugs,’” Dr. Andre Corriveau told CBC News. “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.”
The Northwest Territories Health Department received $750,000 this year through the Canadian Partnership Against Cancer to increase awareness and improve communication about the disease among aboriginals.
The Gwich’in are also considering new terms for AIDS.
“When it first came out, the description that we gave to it was ‘a disease that we’re afraid of,’” Firth told CBC News. “We are finding out that not everyone dies of AIDS itself.”
The language isn’t easy. Some terms aren’t specific enough, like Slavey-speaking Dene who describe cancer as “an illness that spreads throughout the human body.”
“In some cases, people have just literally borrowed the word from English and just call it cancer,” Andy Norwegian, who works as a language specialist with the Deh Cho Divisional Board of Education in Fort Simpson, told CBC News.
He also said that some diseases, like measles and chicken pox share a term, which is even more confusing.
The Tlicho language is another that CBC News reports needs some updating—cancer is described as something like a worm, insect or snake disease.
“I think it is causing some misunderstandings,” Tlicho language expert Lucy Lafferty told CBC News.
She also said that many Tlicho words are old, like the word for nurse is “nun” because they were the first to work as nurses in the area.
“In the medical terminology, there are quite a few things that need to be changed,” Lafferty told CBC News.
To hear Firth and Norwegian discuss cancer terminology, visit CBC.ca.