Sisimiut. Ilulissat. Kangerlussuaq. Qeqertarsuaq
Their names don’t exactly roll off the tongue; yet these coastal towns in western Greenland share a traditional Inuit culture that reaches back nearly 5,000 years, as well one of the main Eskaleut or Eskimo-Aleut languages.
According to the Alaska Native Language Center, somewhere between 4,000 and 5,000 years ago there was a common language among the Eskimo and the Aleut peoples. A few thousand years later, Eskimo speakers were further divided into two groups—the Yupik, found mostly in Alaska and the Russian Far East, and the Inuit, who also live in Alaska, as well as across Canada and Greenland.
There are nearly 60,000 Inuit speakers of the Greenlandic language, which is additionally divided into four dialects: West, East, South, and Thule. West Greenlandic or Kalaallisut has become the national and primary language, although children are also taught Danish and English.
As a polysynthetic language, Kalaallisut words use a root with a series of affixes (mostly suffixes), many of which have no meaning when appearing on their own. As such, a Greenlandic word can get quite long, creating what are known as “sentence-words.”
For example, ani-ttaa-ttu-ni-isi-tiq-pati-qqi-yaq-tiq translates as “After his quick exit, it sounded as if he were coming back in.”1 (The longest word has over 200 letters.) Sisimiut—a major metropolis by Greenland standards with around 6,000 inhabitants—means “the people who live by the fox burrows.” Kangerlussuaq is a bit more succinct; it simply translates as “big fjord.”
In actuality, there is no match in Greenlandic for the English letters b or c—rather, Kalaallisut consonants include g, j, k, l, m, n, p, q, r, s, t, v and ng. The letter a is among the three vowels used, the others being i and u; however, syllables don’t need to have both consonants and vowels.
Some words have been adapted from English—“aluu” or “hello,” “baaj” for “goodbye”—when the language was introduced by American troops based in the region during World War II. When visiting, the gesture of learning a few key terms is greatly appreciated.
1Variations on Polysynthesis: The Eskaleut Languages, edited by Marc-Antoine Mahieu and Nicole Tersis