6 Times the Greenlandic Language was Easier Than Others

kalaallisut language map

<< This is a post that I started some time ago and it suits perfectly for today, 21 February, International Mother Language Day

Kalaallisut (Greenlandic) is not my mother tongue, but I am learning it because it is the mother tongue of the country I call home and because it is the primary language of many friends and ‘in-law’ family members. As part of the International Mother Language Day celebratory events, Oqaasileriffik – The Language Secretariat of Greenland interviewed foreigners learning Kalaallisut and created posters out of their replies. See mine here 🙂 >>

Truth: Kalaallisut, the Greenlandic language, is said to be one of the hardest, most complex languages in existence due to its polysynthetic nature. It adds derivative after derivative after derivative – up to 12! – to a root (like a verb or noun) to modify meaning, and the letters change based on the last letter of the derivative preceding it, if they are not dropped, or ‘eaten’, altogether. Words look very long and repetitive with several double letters, but they are, in fact, whole sentences. Transitive verbs (with both a subject and an object, such as “I saw him”) have a different derivative ending for each possible relationship (I-you / I-him,her,it / we-you all), and they also change based on tense (present, past, conditional). And yes, their letters, too, change based on the last letter of the derivative preceding it. All in all, there are upwards of 200 different possibilities just to express the transitive relationship between subject and object!

Basically, you rarely see the exact same combination twice. Linguists say that is one of the reasons it is difficult to learn Kalaallisut (Greenlandic) by ear, because you only hear the same combinations 4% of the time whereas in languages like English or the Romance languages, you hear the same combinations something like 20-25% of the time.

And the pronunciation, well, despite all the letters look like the standard English alphabet (which is more than can be said for Danish with its ø, æ and å), they combine in ways that make four sounds very different from other languages (the -q- sound, the -ll- or -rl- sound, the -gg- sound and the -rr- sound). The Q is nearly a glottal stop, similar to that found in Hawaiian, for example, while the others are made with a special placement of the tongue. Many people say you have to spit a little to make the sounds properly 🙂

BUT

Also truth: Kalaallisut (Greenlandic) can sometimes be very exact and to the point, without need for fluff and filler. And once you know the rules, you can do a lot! There are also a lot of abbreviations/shortening of words and exclamations, and it is these which get especially engrained in the brain.

For example, “Torrak!” is a way to express a high level of agreement, excitement, happiness, support or satisfaction with something – it’s basically the universal word of positivity. When I travel to other countries, I still have this word in front of all others in my brain, so if I don’t accidentally blurt out “Torrak”, I sort of stumble looking for the right word that expresses the same meaning. Should I just say, “Super!” or “Great!”? That just sounds funny to me now.

I present 6 times the Kalaallisut (Greenlandic) way of saying something (usually as slang) is easier than other languages (i.e. English or Danish, in this country’s case).

ALUUGOOQ“Say hello for me” or “Send my greetings”

SULI – “Same status” / “nothing has changed”

SALL’ – “You’re joking right” / “you’re lying” / “you’ve got to be kidding me”

TUSAS – “Talk to you later”

USORN – “I’m so jealous!”

QAAThree totally different meanings: “Great suggestion, let’s do that!” OR “Come on, quit playing” / “Give me a break” OR “Come!” like a command to a child

For more information regarding Kalaallisut (Greenlandic) language-learning resources, see the “Language” section on my Tips for Tourists page.

International Mother Language Day, 21 February

Oqaasileriffik – The Language Secretariat in Greenland did a number of things to celebrate International Mother Language Day, including a public event in Katuaq Culture House in Nuuk, where the Prime Minister spoke, and a series of portraits of foreigners who have learned, or are in the process of learning the mother language of Greenland – Kalaallisut (Greenlandic).

I was recommended to participate in this portrait series, and so I gave an interview, from which this poster was created. We were 6 in total, and our posters hung in Nuuk Center as well as in Katuaq. What an honour!

Read my full interview below (in English).

International Mother Language Day _ Poster _ Woodall

 

What were your first thoughts about Kalaallisut language?

It is amazing. In the start, of course I could not understand the words, but it was nice, like a song. Actually, that’s exactly how it was. Many times, a song’s lyrics can be felt in your soul, and that’s how it was for me with Greenlandic. As if it was somehow already in my heart. It was not until the learning phase that I realised how hard it is, but it did not matter. It must learn it no matter what.

 

What was your motivation to learn Kalaallisut?

I wanted to learn Greenlandic even before coming here. In all honesty, I did not know there were other options. My director at that time did say that a good deal of people could speak English, but my thought process was: I took it upon myself to come live in Greenland, so of course I should learn to speak the local language. I think I started going after it seriously the year after I arrived.  I have to say though, I will probably be in a learning phase forever. I hope at some point in the future I will be fluent.

 

What was the hardest in learning Kalaallisut?

It really requires a good memory, as there are so many suffixes and derivations. There must be at least 200 endings!

 

What was beneficial learning Kalaallisut?

Facebook really is one of the best resources. My friends are usually writing in both Greenlandic and Danish or English, so I can easily translate. In that way, I am able to learn new grammar and words. Thankfully my network supports me. They are patient, and they understand that I still talk slowly.

 

What is the most important thing in learning Kalaallisut language?

Remember that willpower is a gift. Learning any language is difficult, and from time to time the road may seem completely impassible. But it will come. Every single day there is something to be learned – by shopping, reading, listening to music and talking with people. Imagine that so few people in the world speak Greenlandic, and yet we do. We should be proud.

The pink text is that which Oqaasileriffik – The Language Secretariat of Greenland selected as a quote to my poster.

Learn more about International Mother Language Day.

Find resources for learning Greenlandic in the “Language” section of my Tips for Tourists page.