How language links Alaska’s Arctic to Greenland

And what Iñupiatun speakers can learn from a flourishing Inuit language 2,000 miles away.

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People walk in the snow-covered streets near Hotel Hans Egede in Nuuk, Greenland on April 2, 2021. Greenland’s Inuit languages are thriving thanks to widespread public use. (Emil Helms / Ritzau Scanpix via Reuters)

I’ve been living in Nuuk, Greenland for the past three years where my wife and son are from, and despite being more than 2,000 miles away from Alaska as the crow flies, I hear Iñupiatun words spoken every day.

Greenland is a self-governing country within the Kingdom of Denmark and its only official language, Kalaallisut, evolved from the mixing of Iñupiatun and other Inuit language dialects from what is now Inuit Nunangat, the Inuit homelands in Arctic Canada.

Greenland was colonized by Denmark beginning in the early 1700s and was politically cut off from the rest of North America for much of the last few hundred years, so few people here are aware of the Iñupiatun roots of Greenlandic.

Greenland Inuit, as with Inuit in Canada, descend from Iñupiat who migrated out of Alaska as recently as the 1300s. Archeologists have encountered Alaska-style pottery in Northwest Greenland that was fired in Alaska, so we know at least some groups of people traveled here rapidly in order for fragile pottery to survive a journey of this distance.

Migration

The evidence of this fast migration or series of migrations can be heard in Kalaallisut (pronounced Kalaałisut in the Iñupiatun writing system). Kalaallisut is the first and primary language spoken by almost all Greenlanders. It is spoken in everyday life by almost everyone in most sectors of society, making it the only Indigenous language spoken in North America that is unthreatened and prospering.

Iñupiatun and Kalaallisut are closely related and much of the vocabulary and grammar are the same. Here are some examples:

Iñupiatun                                             Kalaallisut

Nagligigikpin Nalligivakkit I pity/feel sorry for you
Nakłiŋ Nallin’ Poor thing (expression)
Iglignaqtuq Erlinnarpoq She’s precious
Taamna aŋun uumiñaqtuq Taanna angut uuminarpoq That man is annoying
Aŋayuqaaka ukiami tuttuniaġaqtuk Angajoqaakka ukiami tuttuniartarput My parents hunt caribou in the fall
Uvlaami iġñiġa itiqami aliasukłuni qiaruq Ullaaq ernera iterami aliasulluni qiavoq My son was sad and cried this morning
Takanuŋa panini amaaqługu pisuktuaġiaqsimaruq Takanunga panini amaarlugu pisuttuariarsimavoq  She went on a walk toward down there, amaaq’ing her daughter
Uvlaakun sisamaŋuqpan tiŋmisuun/tiŋŋun aullaġniaqtuq Aqagu sisamanut timmisartoq aallarniarpoq The flight departs at four tomorrow

 

In the Greenlandic writing system, the r sound is similar to the ġ sound in Iñupiatun. The ll and rl sounds in Greenlandic are the same as the Iñupiatun ł sound.

Standardization

One difference between Iñupiatun and Kalaallisut is that written and spoken Greenlandic is standardized, meaning a single version of the language is taught in schools and is used in most official communication and publications. An advantage of this is that publications and other media can be produced and shared using a single dialect. In standardized Greenlandic, the dual case has been eliminated, so that nannut (three or more polar bears in Iñupiatun) can refer to two polar bears or three or more. And local as well as major regional dialects are still spoken and continue to thrive alongside standard Greenlandic.

Greenlandic retained words from Alaska for things that have never existed here, like eqqillit (itqiḷiich – Indians/First Nations), allaq (akłaq – brown bear), and kiggiaq (kigiaq/pałuqtaq – beaver). More often than not, Iñupiatun and Greenlandic words and the names of animals, weather events, or the environment are the same or similar.

Often the same words are used in both languages but have different (though still similar) meanings. Here are some examples: masappoq (general word for something being wet – from Iñupiatun masaktuq, meaning wet snow or slush); nakuuvoq (she or it is strong – similar to Iñupiatun nakuuruq, she/it is good, healthy or well); nakkarpoq (to fall – from Iñupiatun nakkaqtuq, to fall or dive into the water).

A more poetic example is the Iñupiatun word iñuguq-, meaning to grow up, to become a human, or come back to life (for example, Qikiqtaġruŋmi iñuguqtuaŋa: I grew up in Kotzebue). This word is pronounced inunngoq– in Greenlandic and it means to be born (Ernera Nuummi inunngorpoq, my son was born in Nuuk).

There are other interesting connections, too. Annuġaaq, meaning an article of clothing in Iñupiatun and most Canadian Inuit dialects, is the word used for a Greenlandic atikłuk (they spell it annoraaq, and it’s where the anglicized word anorak comes from). In Greenlandic, the word for clothing is atisaat.

Another word that many Iñupiat know is qivit-, to angrily quit or give up. Qivit– can be turned into a noun in Iñupiatun by changing it to qivittuaq, meaning the person who has quit or given up. The verb qivit– is no longer known or used in Greenlandic but the noun form – qivittoq – is known by all Greenlanders to mean a feared person who has left society to live alone in the wilderness, often having unique powers (similar to iñuqutit in Alaska).

North America’s most vibrant Indigenous language

Greenlandic is special because it is the only Inuit language — and one of the few remaining Indigenous languages left on the planet — that is not being threatened or eroded by another language. This is partly due to the fact that residential or other assimilation schools were never imposed on the entire society by the Danish Government, but it also has to do with differences in attitudes about language use.

Greenlandic remains vibrant because it is used as the language of instruction by default in all public daycares, elementary schools, high schools, post-secondary training schools, as well as to teach certain subjects in university. Greenlandic speakers have viable paths to employment as police officers, dentists, politicians or in most other professions without having to abandon their language. These policies, coupled with Greenlandic nationalism, thriving Greenlandic language music and other media, help sustain positive attitudes about the language.

The similarities between our languages are interesting but they may also one day have practical value for those working to revitalize Iñupiatun. Exchange may be valuable because despite grammatical differences, our languages tend to follow the same general rules and to have the same worldview embedded in them.

For example, certain concepts in English like saying you ‘love’ a place or object is not something you say in Greenlandic or Iñupiatun. This kind of insight is not recorded and is becoming harder to access in Alaska as fluent Iñupiatun speakers pass away.

Greenlandic may also be helpful for learning how to use the dozens of highly specific location words that we share (i.e. pikani — up there above eye level, kanani — visible down there, etc.). These location words are used in daily life here but may become harder to learn in Alaska as opportunities diminish to learn these words from fluent speakers in everyday settings.

Another way exchange could be valuable is for developing new Iñupiatun words. Greenland’s national language commission creates new words for things like organic food (akuutissartaqanngitsoq), email attachment (kakkiussaq), and astronaut (qaammammuliartartoq). Some of these could be adaptable to Iñupiatun. For example, the Greenlandic word for astronaut just means the person who regularly goes to the moon.

It’s empowering and unique that there’s a self-governing Inuit nation whose language is flourishing and has roots in ours. Greenland is among the only bright spots left for Indigenous languages in North America. The overlap and similarities between Iñupiatun and Greenlandic are fun to compare, but these connections may also be helpful for revitalizing the Iñupiatun language from which it evolved.

Tim Aqukkasuk Argetsinger is Iñupiaq from Anchorage, Alaska with roots in Kotzebue and Deering. He lives with his family in Nuuk, Greenland.

The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by ArcticToday, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary (at) arctictoday.com.

CORRECTION: This story has been updated to correct two small errors in the table comparing Kalaallisut and Iñupiatun phrases.