What’s In a Name? Meaning of Place Names in Greenland


Do you ever wonder how places get their names?

In Greenland, places usually get their names based on the natural features that characterize the area. It is a true testament to the intertwined relationship between Greenlanders and the powerful nature they live in and love. This is also why many places have the same name. For example, study a good map of Greenland and count how many Uummannaqs and Qeqertaqs you find 🙂

The nature-based Greenlandic names are like a code to decipher, and once you know the key it makes perfect sense! For example, Natural Feature + Size of Feature = Place Name. It is far more fascinating than reading European names all the time.

The four municipalities in Greenland undertook the goal to map all the place names in Greenland. Researchers or very inquisitive people might like to try navigating their interactive yet technical sites:

North Greenland, Mid Greenland, Southwest Greenland/East Greenland, South Greenland.

In an anthropocentric world, places are usually named after the people who ‘discovered’ them. This happened in Greenland’s relatively recent history as European whalers, Scandinavian Vikings, and Danish colonists came up. Claushavn… Jakobshavn… Julianehåb… the list goes on. These are the names that places received as Europeans began arriving to Greenland after Inuit had been thriving here on their own for nearly 3500 years.

Fortunately, in my opinion, the Greenlandic names prevail today!

So if you, too, are wondering how places in Greenland get their names, here’s a small glossary of place names in Greenland. (And if you are interested in knowing the meaning of personal names in Greenland, see Oqaasileriffik, the Language Secretariat).

Meaning of Place Names in Greenland:

Kallaallit Nunaat / Inuit Nunaat = the lands of Greenlanders / the lands of people (Greenland’s name)

Sermersuaq = large glacier (Greenland Ice Sheet)

Qaasuitsoq = place of polar darkness (Municipality of North Greenland)

Avannaa = north (area of North Greenland between Kangaatsiaq and Qaanaaq)

Avanersuaq = great north (area of North Greenland between Qaanaaq and North Pole)

Qeqqa = in the middle (Municipality of Arctic Circle Region)

Sermersooq = has many glaciers (Municipality of Capital Region and East Greenland)

Kujalleq = south (Municipality of South Greenland)

Pituffik = mooring place, place to tie something (village in North Greenland that originally stood where US Thule Air Base now stands)

Upernavik = springtime place (town in North Greenland)

Uummannaq = like a heart (town in North Greenland)

Illorsuit = place with large buildings (village in North Greenland)

Ikerasak = place with a channel (village in North Greenland)

Niaqornat = place shaped like a head (village in North Greenland)

Nuussuaq = large peninsula (distinctive land formation in North Greenland)

Qeqertarsuaq = large island (town in North Greenland; distinctive island off west coast of Greenland)

Kangerluk = fjord (village in North Greenland)

Itinneq Kangilleq = eastern area between fjords (land formation near Qeqertarsuaq in North Greenland)

Oqaatsut = cormorants (village in North Greenland)

Saqqaq = shiny side, sunny side (village in North Greenland)

Ilulissat = icebergs (town in North Greenland)

Sermermiut = people that live near the glacier (ancient village in North Greenland outside of Ilulissat)

Sermeq Kujalleq = southern glacier (Ilulissat Glacier at UNESCO World Heritage Site)

Aasiaat = place with spiders (town in North Greenland)

Qasigiannguit = playful seals (town in North Greenland)

Sisimiut = the people that live near the place with fox dens (town in Arctic Circle Region)

Kangerlussuaq = large fjord (village in Arctic Circle Region)

Maniitsoq = bumpy, uneven (town in Arctic Circle Region)

Nuuk = peninsula (capital city, located in Capital Region)

Akia = land on the other side (land formation near Nuuk)

Quassussuaq = large ridge (mountain in Nuuk, commonly called Lille Malene)

Ukkusissat = soapstones (mountain in Nuuk, commonly called Store Malene)

Sermitsiaq = has had glaciers before (mountain in Nuuk)

Kingittorsuaq = stands very tall; has very high elevation (mountain in Nuuk, commonly called Hjortetakken)

Qooroq / Qooqqut = valley / valleys (good fishing spot and a place with huts & restaurant inside Nuuk Fjord)

Kapisilik = place with salmon (place with huts inside Nuuk Fjord)

Qeqertarsuatsiaat = quite big island (village in Capital Region)

Paamiut = the people that live at the mouth, a reference to the nearby fjord (town in Capital Region)

Narsaq = plain, low area (town in South Greenland)

Narsarsuaq = large plain, low area (village in South Greenland)

Qaqortoq = white (town in South Greenland)

Nanortalik = place with polar bears (town in South Greenland)

Ammassalik = place with capelin (old name of town in East Greenland now called Tasiilaq)

Tasiilaq = place with a lake (new name of town in East Greenland formerly called Ammassalik)

Sermilik = place with glaciers (distinctive fjord in East Greenland)