“That’s All One Word?!!?” Learning Introductory Greenlandic

 

Before I begin, let me clarify by saying that yes, Greenlandic is a real language. Known also as “Kalaallisut” or “West Greenlandic”, it is an Inuit Language with Danish influence (and some English influence as well), spoken primarily in Greenland (obviously) but also by some in Denmark and, most assuredly, other places as well.

Greenlandic is best known for being a “polysynthetic language”, and the only indigenous language of the Americas that has sole official status in a country. (Can you guess which one? I thought so!)

For those of you to whom the term “polysynthetic language” doesn’t really mean anything, imagine something like Magnetic Poetry—in which you can assemble your own poems from magnet pieces of words.

Now imagine that, instead of assembling sentences or verses with words, that you assemble words from word pieces. That’s a polysynthetic language for you.

Let me demonstrate with something right out of Kauderwelsch’s “Greenlandic Word for Word”, which is in German, but this part is translated by yours truly:

 

Qaqqaliarniarpunga

Qaqqa/liar/niar/punga

Qaqqa(q) = Mountain

Liar- = travel, go on the road

Niar- = Intend

-punga = “I” Verb, intransitive

“I would like to wander around in the mountains”

 

If you guessed that this could sometimes result in really, really long words, you couldn’t have been more right. The idea of “this is why Germans don’t play Scrabble” is comparatively tame in comparison with what you will encounter on your Greenlandic journey:

Nalunaarasuartaatilioqatigiiffissualiulersaaleraluallaraminngooq

“It seems that they were well into the process of talking about founding an association for the establishment of a Telegraph Station”

(Courtesy of the Greenlandic House in Copenhagen)

My first encounter with the Greenlandic Language resulted due to my addiction to travel literature that came to manifest when I was in Stockholm. While visiting Connecticut, I went to the local library and looked at a guide to Iceland, Greenland, and the Faroe Islands. The language section hereby treated me to this gem:

Image

I didn’t know it at the time, but eventually that line about typewriters would become a running joke in my family, with some people calling Greenlandic “typewriter” or “the typewriter language”.

Reading through the word list, I was entranced—it would be fair to say that it was love at first sight. Within seconds I was dreaming that a day would come in which I would have conversations in this most exquisite language, and hopefully be able to call myself fluent.

Then I got the book out of the library and read almost all of it (especially the part on Greenland). Thereupon did I copy the Greenlandic glossary in the back and created Memrise’s first-ever Greenlandic course for English speakers (even before the Greenlandic category was established on that site, which it now is).

Finding some Greenlandic media was easy enough because a lot of it is in one place: knr.gl. There is news, radio, sports, movie reviews, movie trailers (mostly in English with Greenlandic subtitles), video game reviews, and, of course, children’s programming. KNR, which itself stands for “Kalaallit Nunaata Radioa” (literally, “The Radio of the Land of the Greenlanders”), truly gives you a good glimpse of a culture that many spend their whole lives never thinking about.

Greenland also has an extraordinarily noteworthy musical tradition which has, predictably, reached Denmark with often a lot more than modest success. Don’t expect to find a lot of these songs even in Danish translation, if you can even find the Greenlandic lyrics at all. I find Greenlandic music exciting, tense, modern, and extremely good at a wide range of expression techniques.

The responses I get when I tell people that I can speak a bit of Greenlandic—they are indeed interesting. Usually they fall in line with something like this:

 

“Greenlandic? Is that even a real language?”

“How many people speak it?”

“Is it Indo-European?”

 

And my personal favorite:

 

“How many people live in Greenland…like…three?”

 

In response to hearing it, either from me or, even rarer, from KNR or a song, I hear things like this:

 

“That doesn’t sound like anything I’ve ever heard before!”

“I’m not even going to try to repeat that…”

“WHAT?!!?”

 

And of course, when seeing written Greenlandic, I almost invariably get this (or the equivalent):

 

“That’s all one word?”

 

I had been learning Greenlandic somewhat non-seriously on-and-off up until about a few months ago, when my M.A. Thesis was largely complete and I also was on semester break. Afterwards I began pursuing it with more seriousness, despite many people wondering why I could be devoted to something that was, for them, so strange.

Now for some of my hang-ups with Greenlandic so far:

 

(1)    Resources are scarce. This really goes without saying, and this is coming from someone who reads Danish fairly/very well, depending on his mood. If you don’t have Danish in your language arsenal, you are even more out of luck. But given as all numbers in Greenlandic that are higher than 12 are borrowed from Danish, not also to mention much Greenlandic technical jargon (some terms have both a Greenlandic neologism and a Danish equivalent), you’ll be tempted to dive into that world sooner rather than later, and you Greenlandic journey will be that much easier because of it.

 

(2)    The “q” sound is something I still struggle with regularly. Its sound, to me, sounds like “Ah-k-huh-r” when slowed down a lot. Almost everyone who learns this language struggles with it, although there are also problems with the “rl/ll” sound, which is probably like “d-l-German ‘ch’” which slowed down. The single “l” smacks of “dl” in English, but the d is very slight.

 

Hopefully these approximations can ensure that you don’t struggle with these sounds as much as I did. If it makes you feel any better, there are only three real vowel sounds in Greenlandic: a, u, and i. The letters “o” and “e” are shifted formed of “u” and “i” that come about in the fusion of polysynthetic word components.

 

(3)    Spoken comprehension comes hard. Inuit languages are very different from almost anything you may have encountered (unless you have studied another Inuit Language—as you may know, Greenlandic is the most commonly spoken member of the family, the most commonly studied, and the one in least danger of extinction). Consistency and constant media exposure will be your friends here…as they would be with learning any language at all…

 

(4)    A directory of common suffixes does not yet exist for free—and I think every student of the language would require it. There are dictionaries to be found, without question, but with over 20,000 words in the most comprehensive ones, and almost no resources devoted to the “most common words” (or pieces), you may be out of luck in finding a quick way to find a list of words that will prove most useful to you. The Kauderwelsch Guide, mentioned above, is definitely as good as it gets.

The plus side is that there are cultural institutions in Greenland and in Denmark that would be more than willing to help you on your journey and answer, with a few internet searches, most of your questions about Greenlandic and Greenland.

It will be interesting for me to reflect on this piece as I continue on the journey (or give it up, which doesn’t seem likely at this point), but as for now, I am looking forward to the day in which all of Greenland’s musical glory and intriguing culture is a lot less of a mystery.

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