Learning Greenlandic - one æ at a time

Jason George & Christopher Booker for the Pulitzer Center

Greenlandic & Climate Change from Christopher Booker Christopher Booker on Vimeo.

This blog entry re-ran at WorldFocus.

NUUK, Greenland—When Denmark handed "self rule" to Greenland last month—ending 200+ years of significant oversight—one of the first changes Greenland made was to declare Greenlandic the country's lone national tongue.

For Greenlanders it was a point of pride to drop Danish off the list, but people here also wanted to symbolically declare that Greenlandic is central to the country's future. They see nothing nostalgic or quaint about Kalaallisut, the most widely-spoken dialect, even if only about 55,000 people speak it.

At a popular internet café in the capital, local teenagers spend summer evenings playing computer games, chatting online in English with other gamers around the world. All Greenlandic students learn English in school and many are as comfortable with the language (and its locker room humor) as any American teen.

However amongst themselves these teens talk almost exclusively in Greenlandic, and there's no evident pressure to 'look cool' by speaking English. In fact one 15-year-old gamer, Rasmus Nielsen, told us that when he moved here from Denmark 10 years ago the kids teased him about not being able to speak Greenlandic.

He learned quickly.

Of course learning a new language is easiest for kids. Professor Lenore Grenoble struggled to gain some grasp of Greenlandic before arriving here on Monday. Even with several tutoring sessions from her University of Chicago colleague Jerrold Sadock, Grenoble made little headway. "I've learned three phrases," said Grenoble, who's researching Greenland's success at maintaining its language, despite strong outside pressures.

"It's a very difficult language," added Grenoble, who speaks several other languages herself, including one spoken only in the Siberian arctic.

Why's Greenlandic so difficult?

Beyond its 10 cases, eight moods and four-person forms, Greenlandic is polysynthetic, meaning words are often made up of roots, affixes and suffixes. This quirk makes many words terribly long. In fact, some can be entire sentences, such as amaasiaarput ("They walk in a row") and taamaaqatigiipput ("They are considered as equals.")

Grenoble will travel today to Sisimiut, above the Arctic Circle, to begin the bulk of her work and meet with Carl Olsen, chairman of the Oqaasileriffik, the Greenland Language Secretariat. The Oqaasileriffik oversees how Greenlandic adopts new words, like qarasaasiaq for "computer" (literally "artificial brain"), and how it hopes to survive.

For the Secretariat and Greenlanders, maintaining their language is not just an issue of communication, but security and sovereignty.

See the video Greenlandic & Climate Change from Christopher Booker & Jason George on Vimeo.