Story Publication logo August 23, 2009

Saving world's words


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In the arctic, warmer weather has already reshaped fauna and flora zones, and sea ice melted last...

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SISIMIUT, Greenland -- Professor Lenore Grenoble stared at the bowl of raw beluga meat and gulped.

"So this is mattak?" Grenoble asked, using the Greenlandic word for the Inuit delicacy.

An elder eyed Grenoble as she moved a gelatinous slice toward her mouth. The whale meat smelled like fishy butter.

"It's chewy," she said, swallowing her first bite. "It's not what I expected."

Experiencing the unexpected is just part of the job for Grenoble, 51, a University of Chicago linguist who studies endangered languages. Rickety airplanes, horrible hotels and unusual cuisine are facts of life in fieldwork that often occurs far from her Hyde Park office.

"Getting robbed in Russia or [eating] raw reindeer hearts have probably been the worst part," she said, laughing. "I'd actually prefer to be a vegetarian, but it's just not possible in the places I work. It would be too disrespectful."

Grenoble smiles through the hardships because she believes that language is much more than words -- it's our culture, our history. It's what connects people to one another, and if it's lost, a society is truly threatened.

"When the language is in trouble there are all kinds of other things in trouble, so that's the canary in the coal mine," she said.

Grenoble traveled to Greenland earlier this month because the country is one of the few places on the planet where the local language is strengthening despite having a limited number of speakers. Grenoble hopes that the secrets to the Greenlandic language's success will help other native tongues, especially those that face extinction.

The United Nations estimates that half of the 6,700 languages spoken today are in danger of disappearing before the century ends.

"If you're living in a northern environment and you're subsisting on some part on the environment, everything is changing," said professor Ross Virginia, director of the Institute of Arctic Studies at Dartmouth College.

"What's cutting edge about [Grenoble's] work is the recognition of that and her willingness to get into these northern environments and try to understand the nature of change."

Grenoble discovered her own love of languages as a teen growing up in upstate New York. By her high school senior year, she was studying French, German, Latin and Russian. At Cornell University, Grenoble found her calling in linguistics, the scientific study of languages. She also realized she was more interested in exploring remote corners of the world than studying abstract grammatical theory. Before she even graduated, she had traveled and studied in the Soviet Union and the Balkans.

"At one level I'm a linguist's linguist: I get excited about languages. I get excited about the structures, and I like the sounds, and I like to learn new languages," she said.

"I'm also very much a linguist who works with the people who use the language."

That's what brought her to Greenland and Sisimiut, which sits 45 miles north of the Arctic Circle and has a population of 6,000, making it Greenland's second largest city in Greenland.

Like all other Greenland settlements, Sisimiut can only be reached by boat, airplane or, in the winter, by dog sled. From New York, Grenoble's trip here meant three flights -- one on a U.S. Air National Guard transport and two hops on Air Greenland propeller planes. It was a considerable effort and expense, and Grenoble did it largely to meet with one man: Carl Christian Olsen, an Inuit leader -- and former University of Chicago student -- who is largely credited with bringing the Greenlandic language back from the brink.

"I think my background has been very determined about what we should do for our people," said Olsen, 66, who spent decades fighting for Denmark to return political power to Greenland.

That feat was accomplished in June, when Denmark, which colonized the island in 1721, peacefully returned most political control to Greenland. One of the first moves the Greenlanders made was to declare Greenlandic their sole official language. It was an accomplishment that Olsen had spent decades fighting for.

"A lot of people took for granted that there was no future for the Greenlandic language," Olsen said.

Olsen, who grew up in Sisimiut in the 1940s, spoke Greenlandic at home, even though Danish was the first language taught in schools.

He came to the University of Chicago in 1969 to do graduate work in linguistics. There, he studied much more than syntax: "I was watching the civil rights movement in the United States."

Olsen brought that activism back to Greenland and began to fight for his country and its language. He marched in Copenhagen. He advocated for home rule, Denmark's 1979 decision to let Greenland manage some of its own affairs. "Greenlandic identity is not intolerance but affirming the Greenlandic Inuit background added with the Danish and English cultural background," Olsen said.

He became a teacher, creating a class called "Arctic History Before 1492" and teaching Inuit poetry in Greenland and Alaska. Today, Olsen is the director of the Oqaasileriffik or Language Secretariat, a quasi-governmental organization that promotes Greenlandic within the country.

Greenlandic is not an easy language. Before Grenoble traveled to Greenland, she attempted to learn some, but struggled. Even after several tutoring sessions from U. of C. colleague Jerrold Sadock, Grenoble made little headway. "I've learned three phrases," said the frustrated professor before she left.

Olsen would be her guide in Greenland, a country four times the size of California -- and with only 55,000 residents.

In Sisimiut, the professor and the teacher often discussed language policy until midnight, when the summer sun still hung in the sky. Ever the teacher, Olsen also taught Grenoble some Greenlandic grammar using a Danish-Greenlandic dictionary. (The last Greenlandic-English dictionary hit stores in 1926.)

Over several lengthy conversations -- punctuated with long stretches of typical-Greenlandic silences -- Olsen explained to Grenoble that there's much work left to do here. "I'm happy we've been reaching so much even though we are just 50,000 people," he said. But "what we are waiting for is the political backing and then the implementation.

"If you look around at the towns in Greenland, you'll see that Danish is still very obvious."

Indeed, strolls through Sisimiut reveal that much signage remains in the colonial tongue. Grenoble noted these examples as she and Olsen toured the local university and language school, and met with officials to discuss Greenlandic policy. Often on these walks, the duo would be interrupted by shouts of "Puju!" from passersby. (Greenlanders love nicknames and Olsen acquired "Puju," which means "smoke," during a cigarette-smoking phase in high school.)

"Puju, you're like the unofficial mayor," Grenoble teased one day.

In addition to promoting the Greenlandic language, Olsen and the Language Secretariat oversee the naming of places and even new baby names. (Greenlanders frown on naming babies after living persons, except members of the Danish royal family. The practice stems from a belief that babies could drain the life force of the person they're named after.)

Grenoble said that having an organization like the Language Secretariat proves critical to small languages that hope to survive. "It's an advocate that'll fight for language rights and help shape the strategy and policy."

"This is what they need in places like Siberia," said Grenoble, who often works there.

Grenoble, who has co-written a book about saving endangered languages, plans to publish a paper about the Greenland success story. She also hopes to share her insights with scholars studying endangered languages across the globe. Next month she heads to Siberia for just such a conference.

One day Grenoble and Olsen hired a boat to ferry them about 90 minutes up a fjord to Sarfannguit, a fishing village, population 150 or so. When the twosome arrived, Olsen's friends and cousins greeted them and explained that most people had hiked away from town -- it was opening day of the caribou hunting season.

Left behind though were six schoolgirls -- the boys were hunting -- and Grenoble interviewed them about Greenlandic as they sipped juice poured into old Pringles cans. "What do you hope to be when you grow up?" Grenoble asked, as Olsen translated.

A nurse, a high school teacher, an Air Greenland flight attendant, the girls shyly replied in Greenlandic.

"Not one of those jobs are here in this village, which makes you wonder about the longevity of these places and this lifestyle," Grenoble said.

Grenoble also questioned the town's fishermen about climate change. Rising temperatures, melting ice and erratic weather are increasingly common here.

"It's more humid now than when I was a boy," a 41-year-old fisherman said in Greenlandic.

"We all seem to have colds and chest aches more because of it."

Grenoble said climate change, especially in the arctic, is affecting language, albeit indirectly. Globalization, population relocation and increasing English dominance are other factors.

"What we're seeing is a nexus of changes where you're getting climate change and warming that's disturbing native lifestyle," she said.

"And if you disturb native lifestyle, then language gets disrupted."

On the boat ride back to Sisimiut, Olsen helped Grenoble with her Greenlandic vocabulary. Immaqa -- "maybe" -- is an important word to master in a country where the slow pace and extreme elements can disrupt the most well-laid plans.

The afternoon ride back proved uneventful most of the trip, as the small fishing boat cut through the glassy, black water. Clouds hung low and the thermometer read 40 degrees.

All of a sudden two humpback whales appeared up ahead, flapping their tails. The boat driver cut the motor and slowed to a stop.

"This is amazing," Grenoble said, as a seal surfaced off the starboard side.

"What an amazing place. What a very special place."

Travel for this project's reporting was funded in part by a grant from The Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

See this story as it ran in the Chicago Tribune.

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