The Greenlandic language – famous for its many words for snow – expresses the Arctic ecosystem better than the writings of any climate scientist. It is indispensable for our understanding of the environment, yet UNESCO declares it to be in danger of extinction. How to Say ‘I Love You’ in Greenlandic is an introduction to this evocative Arctic language, and presents a romantic narrative as well as a lesson in linguistics. The words representing the 12 letters of the alphabet are accompanied by a series of prints depicting icebergs. As in contemporary Arctic life, the denouement is caused by the disappearance of the ice.
Reading the Cards
The fifty cards depicted not hearts, clubs, spades and diamonds but whimsical landscapes. One showed the ruins of a magnificent medieval fortress. Another, boats on a lake bordered by palm trees. Others, sublime mountain ranges. Whatever the scenery, there was always a road in the foreground, along which a pair of horses drew a carriage.
These views were not self-contained vignettes. I could join each card to any of the others, because the road reached the edges at the same point on every one. However unpredictable the inclines and settlements at the centre of each image, the highway never deviated. Aligning these extravagant geographies, I made a cardboard continent. The passengers in the little carriage can scarcely have felt a jolt as they crossed from Alpine pass to desert dune; although they travelled far, they never had to fear tumbling over a precipice or reaching a closed border, for there was always a card in my hand, ready to lay down to prevent their vehicle rolling into annihilation. And, sure enough, there the carriage was, pictured on the next card.
Not all explorers are so fortunate.
Later I learnt to play with language: juxtaposing letters; shuffling words within sentences; diverting the reader’s passage. No sequence of chromolithographed cards could represent the world as vividly as these alphabetical arrangements.
And then I became a traveller myself. One winter, on the island of Upernavik on the north-west coast of Greenland, I found myself surrounded by scenery that had been absent from the myriorama cards, and which my language was barely equipped to describe.
The Arctic landscape is forged from water. Glaciers advance, churning a path through basalt cliffs, and thunder into the ocean. The fast ice creeps across the bay, extending the shoreline by a mile and more, only to vanish on a stormy night. In calmer weather icebergs drift with the tide, forming protean mountain ranges on the horizon; as their peaks crumble, they turn to restore their balance as slowly as dreaming sleepers do.
The inhabitants of this mutable landscape speak Kalaallisut, or Greenlandic. The daunting polysynthetic words express concepts that other languages tiptoe around with a phrase. It was once customary to name people after objects, but since a taboo forbade reference to the dead, the favoured objects were repeatedly renamed. The power of such words is not diminished by their absence from the vocabulary.
The islanders encouraged me, kindly and patiently, to learn Kalaallisut. Yet my confidence faltered, as no one would humour my need to see words written down, or spelt. Longing to make sense of the words I heard and the silences between them, I consulted an old Greenlandic–English dictionary I found in the museum. The bowdlerised English definitions puzzled me, and several corrections in a shaky italic hand suggested that the dictionary was fallible.
The early history of Greenland was passed on by word of mouth; written records begin with the arrival of Danish missionaries during the eighteenth century. The Danes set down Kalaallisut in the Latin alphabet while asserting sovereignty over the land and establishing Danish as the language of administration. In contrast with other Eskimo-Aleut languages, Kalaallisut does not use the Inuktitut syllabary. The orthography of the language was still being debated when the dictionary I held was printed in Copenhagen at the start of the twentieth century. Today the alphabet contains eighteen letters, although only twelve are used at the beginning of words. A few cards create a winning hand for those with the courage to play them.
Greenland achieved a degree of political autonomy with the establishment of Self Rule in 2009, and once again Kalaallisut became the official language of the nation known, in its own words, as Kalaallit Nunaat. But government recognition does not guarantee survival. In the same year, the United Nations culture agency designated Kalaallisut ‘vulnerable’ and predicted that Avanersuaq and Tunumiit oraasiat, the North and East Greenlandic dialects, would disappear within a century. (Qavak, a South Greenlandic dialect, is already extinct).
As a writer working in the English language who had been commissioned to create a response to my observations of climate change in the Arctic, I was aware that my own language and lifestyle was part of the problem I was addressing. While many Greenlanders adopt the languages of international culture and commerce, climate scientists have noticed that Kalaallisut catalogues the Arctic ecosystem with empirical precision. For me, learning Greenlandic was a radical but essential step towards loving and understanding my subject matter. Only then could I begin to see the questions I needed to ask. Can the environment survive without the language? Can the language survive without the environment?
In winter 2010 Nancy Campbell was invited to Upernavik in Greenland to work as writer-in-residence to the most northerly museum in the world. Her brief was to create a work in response to the museum collections and the life of the island’s small community. For the background story, do read her essay written for Dark Mountain: Issue 10 – Uncivilised Poetics https://dark-mountain.net/no-more-words-for-snow/
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