Why Greenlandic is Easy

Today is a special day on multiple accounts! The Summer Solstice, Midsummer, American Father’s Day, last and certainly not least, the National Day of Greenland!

Thanks largely to having to prepare a project for publication in Autumn I left this blog unchanged (although not alone!) for about a month (it would be exactly a month tomorrow, if not for this post).

I was wondering what I could do to honor Greenland Day. More songs? I got plenty of them from the blog’s birthday back in May. Describe the language and my journey with it? I have a feeling that I’ve already done that.

Well…while thinking about it yesterday, I remember that one Norwegian linguist (Rolf Theil) actually described the Greenlandic Language as the “hardest to learn in the world”.

His rationale: lots and lots of suffixes. Part of me doesn’t blame him, I have a printout of the complete lists of Greenlandic suffixes in my living room, there are about 300 for verbs and 100 for adjectives.

But I was never one for discouragement anyhow, so this post is your antidote.

I told my friends for a long time that Greenlandic was the most difficult language I ever struggled with. I really have to say that…it is no longer true. I have found Irish far worse, although I have found both very beautiful experiences and languages and very worthwhile indeed, despite what others may want to tell you.

Anyhow, let’s get through it…

2015-03-05 13.54.21

Alphabet: The alphabet used for Greenlandic, unlike that of the Canadian aboriginal languages, is the one that you are currently reading this in. The special letters found in Danish (æøå) also surface but only in Danish loanwords, which appear more often than you might think at first glance.

A sausage is pølsi, beef is bøffi, and in Copenhagen is Københavnimi, sometimes written København-imi.

You don’t need to learn a new system of writing. Case closed.

Pronunciation: Minus the Danish and (very few) English words, pronunciation in Greenlandic is very predictable although there are a few things to consider (this isn’t as straightforward as Finnish or Esperanto).

There are a total of three vowels: a, i, and u. e and o also exist, but as mutations of I and u respectively. Furthermore, all of these vowels can be doubled. The primary trick to remember is that “a” (not “aa”) is pronounced as a short a sound. So “tassa” (this) is pronounced like English “dessa”, with the syllables having a hint of rhyme)

T is pronounced as in English, but when it comes before an I, it shifts to a “tz” sound.

The letters “i” and combinations with it like “it” that come at the end of words are not pronounced like “ee” but instead with a short I sound (like English “bit”) that is significantly weaker than in English (say “I’ll be back in a bit” quickly and note how you pronounce the last word. Like that).

And then some tricky combinations: “l” is pronounced a bit like “dl”, with the “d” very slightly. With all of these rules in mind, see if you can pronounce the word “silami” (“outside”, or, more literally, “in the weather”).

“See-lamb-meh”

Oh, did I owe you some more tricky combinations? “rr” is pronounced as a very rolled r (imagine a very stereotypical French rolling of the r”. “ll” is pronounced the same as in Welsh (I’ll demonstrate it shortly).

And then the “q” sound. The Inuktitut / Canadian Aboriginal Syllabary notes this sound as a simple “rk” sound, but you want to pronounce this at the back of the throat.

If doubled, as in “qq”, this means that it is stronger. Note that the combination of “qar” means that the “a” loses its short pronunciation, so that it rhymes with “car”.

“-qar” is very important. It means “to have” or, in some cases, “to be present” (inoqarpa? = is someone there? [Lit. Person.have.3d-sin-question?). But when you change it to “qanngilaq” (inoqanngilaq = there is no one there), the “a” is pronounced like a short a again, like “rang” in English).

I can’t explain the ll sound to those who haven’t heard it

Now, with all of those in mind, your turn:

The first words of this song (courtesy of “Sussat!”) are “Asaneruleraluttuinarsinnaarpasippakkimmi­ illit” (Note: the “mmi is pronounced as an “ee” because the following syllable is an “I”. But note: “ee-ll-it”. Note the “ll” sound.)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UzFt6knmZBY

With all of that in mind, your turn:

“Tikilluaritsi!” (Welcome, all of you!)

Good J

The Logic Component: There’s this thing in some Indo-European Languages in which “logic” isn’t particularly followed most of the time, and people are surprised when the navigate outside of the family, expecting to find awfully difficult words, and then they encounter simpler rules (take Greenlandic, Finnish or Turkish for example) and then they wonder why anyone is crazy enough to call Spanish an easy language to learn.

I’m currently learning a handful of computer languages right now as a part of my job (and yes, I will write a comparison between human language learning and computer language learning!) and the constructing of commands gave me flashbacks to when I was struggling with Greenlandic.

Let’s start with a simple suffix: “-gooq”, meaning “it has been said”, or “somebody else said”.

“Qanoq?” = How?

+gooq

=

“Qanorooq? = “What did he/she say?

Two things:

  • Q + G = R. There are other combinations that alter endings as such but I can’t introduce them all here.
  • “Qanorooq”, if you looked on google.gl already, is the name of a Greenlandic news show. Good name, don’t you think?

And just like mathematics, Greenlandic follows these rules upon getting more complicated:

Kiilumut 40 kroneqarpoq. Pissaviuk?

One Kilo costs 40 Danish Crowns. Do you want it?

Kiilu+mut = Kilo (Danish import) + mut (ablative, more lik “for” or “through”, and other uses I don’t want to get into).

40 = Let’s go on record here and say that in Greenlandic, all numbers higher than 12 are all Danish. Two-for-one!

Krone = Danish word for a crown. Pronounce like English word “groan” + “eh”

Qar + poq = qar (see above) + poq (3rd person singular verb ending).

Pi + ssa + vi + uk = Something / take something + future + you (question) (Full form is “vit”) + it.

Plurals: Yiddish has a lot of ways of forming the plurals, the Germanic languages in general do tend to have a plethora.

Greenlandic is not Esperanto (as regular as you can get), but it does have only 10 plural constructions, some of which only exists for a handful of words. All of them, however, have a t at the end. Examples: Ateq (name) = aqqit (names) erneq (son) = ernerit (sons) inuk (person) = inuit (people).

Yes, the word “Inuit” literally means “people”.

Acquiring vocabulary: You have to be smart about this! You should NOT be memorizing long formulates to begin with. You should be learning the small bits first, and from these bits you should be putting your own words together.

I think Theil and many others (including myself) tried at first by memorizing lots and lots of BIG words. But imagine if you tried to learn a language using only sentences rather than individual vocabulary? That wouldn’t go over too well.

You need a balance, on the side of smaller things.

 

Wrapping Up: Every time I look at a Greenlandic/Danish or Greenlandic/English vocabulary list, I am struck by how, in Greenlandic, everything makes extraordinary sense! Take English “food”. The Greenlandic equivalent? Inuussutissat. If you recognized “inuk” in there, good. It means, very roughly, “something people use to let themselves keep going into the future”. I could give more examples, but this I’ve given you too much already.

kalaallit nunaat

Pilluarit! Apuulluarna! (Congratulations! May you come to reach your destination/goal!)

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