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Language in Greenland

Irreconcilable dialects

Outright bias against eastern Greenlanders is a thing of the past. That may not be enough to prevent their language from heading the same way
Tasiilaq, Tunumiit is spoken here (Photo: Antonio Bovino)

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Typically, when the people of Greenland talk about reconciliation, they are referring to relations with Denmark. But, for the people of eastern Greenland, the process should also include ways to patch up relations with residents on the western coast of the island, not least when it comes to recognition of Tunumiit, the eastern dialect of the Greenlandic language.

Last autumn, Greenland’s reconciliation commission, as part of its efforts to spread word about its work, and to gather information about past relations with Denmark, visited Tasiilaq, an east-coast town of 2,000. There, they heard that as Kalaallisut, the western Greenlandic dialect, spoken by about 50,000 people, was on the verge of replacing Tunumiit, the first language of between 3,000 and 5,000 people.

“We were told that children’s ability to use Tunumiit when the start school has declined,” says Ida Mathiassen, a member of the reconciliation commission, and native of eastern Greenland. “There are a lot of words they don’t know in Tunumiit, and people are worried that the language is threatened.”

VIDEO: Man singing in Tunumiit and a short introduction to Kalaallisut (at end of article)

Ms Mathiassen says the decline, which has led to some children not knowing the terms for certain parts of the body, and means that adults often go misunderstood, has partly to do with children being asked to learn three languages when they start school.

“All of us from eastern Greenland know what it is like to start in school and to have your books in Kalaallisut. So, on top of learning Danish and English, children need to learn Kalaallisut, which is completely different from Tunumiit.”

Children, according to Ms Mathiassen, are normally up to the challenge, and pick up Kalaallisut quickly. More problematic, she says, can be the negative attitudes of people from western Greenland, which she says are based on a past belief that eastern Greenland was a place inhabited by heathens who went about killing each other.

Outright bias is rare today, she says, even if change is only occurring slowly.

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“Fortunately, people often compliment me when I speak Tunumiit, and tell me they think it’s good that we keep our culture alive. It’s rare that people look down on me.”

Instead, she finds that some from eastern Greenland today are self-conscious about speaking Tunumiit in public in western Greenland.

“It happens that if I’m at the supermarket and I meet someone from eastern Greenland and we start talking to each other, a third easterner will come and tell us to be quiet so no-one will hear where we come from. I pay them no mind, though. Tunumiit is my language, it’s our language, and it’s a beautiful language that I am proud of.”

Ms Mathiassen also notes that Mala Høy Kuko, an easterner who is also a member of the cabinet, has chosen to speak Tunumiit when addressing Inatsisartut, the national assembly.

“I was touched and proud to hear him speak his own language in the assembly. His argument for doing so is that people are better at expressing themselves in their own language, and I agree with him. There is always something that gets lost or an expression you can’t find or a point you can’t formulate, so I understand where he’s coming from. He wants to speak his language in our national assembly. It’s only appropriate that he be allowed to do so.”