The Greenlandic Language in a Colonial Space

The Greenlandic Language in a Colonial Space

Greenlandic has been the official language in Greenland since the Home Rule Act in 1979 when Greenland became self-governed. Before that Greenland had been a Danish colony from 1721 until 1953. In 1953 it officially became a Danish county and lost its colonial status. Particularly the health system took advantage of the decolonisation as can be seen in the increase in life expectancy and the complete elimination of tuberculosis (Nowak 3). However, it also caused a Danification to take place since the education system was now Danish, and an increasing number of children were Danish native speakers who could only speak a little Greenlandic. During this period of Danification, the Greenlandic language and culture were perceived as threatened with extinction by more and more Greenlanders and they felt more like they were colonized than they had before (Langgård 4-5). Since there were many monolingual Danish and Greenlandic speakers, society was somewhat divided (Jacobsen 154). There was also the widespread perception that it was impossible for Danes to learn Greenlandic. Therefore, in order to develop as a unified society in which everyone understands each other, Greenlanders were required to learn Danish instead of the other way around.

However, during the colonial period the missionaries, like Hans Egede had decided to learn Greenlandic in order to communicate with the locals instead of forcing them to learn Danish (Nuttall 332), which shows us that learning Greenlandic is not impossible at all. Additionally, it was those missionaries who started to write down the Greenlandic language and wrote the first Greenlandic grammars (Nowak 7). Before that there was no tradition of written language in Greenland. During the colonial period, Greenlandic was the main language since it was the language of the church. Some sources state that from 1850 onwards all West Greenlanders were able to read and in 1861 the first Greenlandic newspaper was created. Both of these factors strengthened the Greenlandic language. The missionaries turned the Greenlandic language into a written language, which might be a reason why it is not a threatened language today (Langgård 3-4).

Nevertheless, learning the Greenlandic language is difficult for Danes or other native Indo-European people because it is structured completely differently from Indo-European languages like Danish or English. A whole new way of understanding a language is required, not only due to Greenlandic being a polysynthetic language, but also because of grammatical structures such as ergativity, which do not exist in most Indo-European languages.

To demonstrate the Greenlandic polysynthesis, here is an analysis of a Greenlandic word illustrated by a branching structure:

Sadock, Jerrold M. Grammar of Kalaallisut (West Greenlandic Inuttut). Lincom, 2003, 4.

This image shows the word Nuummiittutullu (“and like one who is in Nuuk”) and its unique structure (Sadock, 4).

The purpose of those grammars written by missionaries was mainly language learning and translation. The grammars did not have a linguistic approach to the language (Nowak 7). In conclusion, the main issue with those grammars was, that the Greenlandic language was squeezed into a Greek and Latin language structure, as that was what the missionaries knew best. As a result, these grammars did not do the Greenlandic language justice at all (Nowak 39-41).

In addition, research (up to the 20th century) often referred to the language as „Eskimo“, even though there is no language named “Eskimo”. There are Eskimo-Aleut languages, which are spoken in Siberia, Alaska, Canada and Greenland. However, these languages are so different that a speaker from Alaska would not understand a Greenlander (Holst 14). Researchers seem to have perceived them as the same or simply did not care about a correct terminology. On that note, it should be mentioned that the word „Eskimo“ should no longer be used to refer to the people, as it is considered discriminatory.

The German missionary Samuel Kleinschmidt wrote the Greenlandic grammar Grammatik der grönländischen Sprache mit theilweisem Einschluss des Labradordialects, which has been very important for later research. Even though the grammar was written in German, it is not as Eurocentric as previous grammars. In fact, Kleinschmidt did try to avoid forcing the language into a European structure, which enabled him to make significant progress in Greenlandic phonetics, morphology and syntax (Holst 20). The grammar was addressed to a European audience and was not written for the native Greenlanders, which means that Kleinschmidt still had to rely on Indo-European languages, mostly Latin and Greek, to demonstrate and explain the Greenlandic language (Nowak 45). Still, the first standardized Greenlandic orthography was based on Kleinschmidt. It was used until 1972 when it was reformed and became more oriented towards phonetics (Nowak 7).

Compared to the other former Danish colonies, Greenland is still in the process of defining its language setting, whereas the Faroe Islands have long developed into a bilingual society and Iceland has always remained monolingual, as Danish doesn’t play such a big role there. In other perspective, the Greenlandic language benefited from the missionaries and their researchers during the colonial period since Greenlandic is in a much better position compared to the other Eskimo-Aleut languages in Siberia, Alaska and Canada (Jacobsen 155-156).

Although Danish was forced upon the Greenlandic people during the period of Danification and Greenlandic was threatened, the Greenlandic language managed to recover after 1979 when Greenlandification replaced the Danification. To close this blog entry, it can be said that without the missionaries, Greenlandic would not have developed from an oral language to a written language the way it has. Without this development Greenlandic would be a threatened language today.


Holst, Jan Henrik. Einführung in die eskimo-aleutischen Sprachen. Helmut Buske Verlag, 2005.

Jacobsen, Birgitte. «Colonial Danish». International Journal of the Sociology of Language, Nr. 159, 2003, 153–164.

Kleinschmidt, Samuel. Grammatik der grönländischen Sprache mit theilweisem Einschluss des Labradordialects. G. Reimer, 1851.

Langgård, Karen. «Consideration about the Impact of Danish on the Morphology of Kalaallisut». More Morphologies. Contributions to the Festival of Languages, Bremen, 17 Sep to 7 Oct 2009, Universitätsverlag Dr. N. Brockenmeyer, 2012, 1–21.

Nowak, Elke. Samuel Kleinschmidts «Grammatik der Grönländischen Sprache». Georg Olms Verlag, 1987.

Nuttall, M. «Greenlandic: Political development of an Inuit language». Polar Record, Bd. 26, Nr. 159, 1990, 331–33.

Sadock, Jerrold M. Grammar of Kalaallisut (West Greenlandic Inuttut). Lincom, 2003.

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