Nunatsiaq News
TAISSUMANI: Around the Arctic February 25, 2010 - 11:22 am

Taissumani, Feb. 26

Samuel Kleinschmidt, Greenlandic Language Pioneer

The only known photograph of Samuel Kleinschmidt.
The only known photograph of Samuel Kleinschmidt.


Samuel Kleinschmidt was a most remarkable man.
He lived at a time and place which ideally suited him to carry on the earlier Greenlandic language work of Poul Egede and Otto Fabricius. Moreover, he was a writer, printer, cartographer, scientist, sociologist and missionary, as well as being a linguistic genius.

Saamuali, as the Greenlanders called him, was born to a German father, the Moravian missionary Johan Conrad Kleinschmidt, and a Danish mother, in 1814 at the mission station of Lichtenau in southern Greenland. He spent his early childhood there and grew up speaking Greenlandic.

At the age of nine, Samuel was sent to school in Germany, and from there eventually to Holland to work as a chemist’s assistant. For four years, he taught at a Moravian mission centre in Denmark. Then in 1840, at the age of 26, he returned to Greenland to take up his life’s work.

He was posted to the Moravian’s New Herrnhut mission near Godthaab, now called Nuuk. Immediately he set to work to update his knowledge of Greenlandic.

He wanted to know the language and culture intimately, and so he spent most of his time with the Greenlanders. Soon he was able to teach in faultless Greenlandic. He preached without manuscript and his sermons have been described as “informal yet substantial.”

Kleinschmidt knew languages — Greenlandic, Danish, German, English, French, Latin, Greek and Hebrew. His study of Greenlandic quickly led him to believe that the orthography in use for Greenlandic was inadequate and inconsistent.

He set out to correct it. In 1851, his definitive grammar of Greenlandic was published in Berlin. It remained the cornerstone of Greenlandic language study for more than a century. The University of Berlin eventually offered him a doctorate for this work, but Kleinschmidt turned it down, saying, “One has no use for that sort of thing in Greenland.”

In 1856, the community of Zeist where he had lived in Holland sent Kleinschmidt a printing press. Heinrich Rink, the governor, acquired one the following year. Godthaab became an Arctic hot-bed of intellectual activity. Rink’s press issued its first publication in 1857, Kleinschmidt’s the following year.

Kleinschmidt’s first book was “nunalerutit,” meaning simply “A Geography.” It bore the sub-title, “A Primer on the Nature of the World and its Inhabitants.”

It was 60 pages in length and was designed to bring some knowledge of the rest of the world to the Greenlanders. So was his second volume, a world history published the following year. These accomplishments are all the more impressive when one realizes that Kleinschmidt had never seen a printing press before 1856. Yet his books show “refinement and elegance.” Not only was he printer, but also binder and distributor.

In 1859 Kleinschmidt had a falling-out with the Moravian Church over matters of church discipline and educational methods. He was summoned to Germany to explain himself, but refused to go. “In Greenland I am and in Greenland I stay,” he replied.

He left the Moravian community and moved to nearby Godthaab and entered the Danish educational establishment. He took his printing press with him and continued to write and publish prolifically.

Among his books was an 1863 publication about animals of the world, in which Kleinschmidt had to create names for foreign animals, names still used today. He called the elephant, in reference to its stiff-legged gait, the one which has no joints. One book, Tales About the Missionaries, contained a map of the world so large that it had to be folded several times to fit within the covers, like a modern road map.

The book went through two editions, totaling 1,600 copies. The map was too large to be printed on his press and so, amazingly, Kleinschmidt drew each of the 1,600 maps himself, and coloured each in watercolour.

Near the end of his life, Kleinschmidt wrote a curious 16-page pamphlet. Called “About those who are working for a revolution,” it was a diatribe against the socialist movement in Europe.

Kleinschmidt was an extremely conservative man living in a conservative community. The pamphlet expressed his horror and fear of socialism, which he saw as “The Beast” in St. John’s Revelations. The book is now extremely rare.

Kleinschmidt’s dream was to translate the entire Bible into Greenlandic. He succeeded in translating and printing the Old Testament and had nearly completed translating the New Testament by the time of his death.

In Godthaab, Kleinschmidt lived in a one-room Greenlandic-style house with peat walls. Here he wrote — often under a magnifying glass to save paper. An eccentric man, he seldom washed, always wore Greenlandic clothes and — for some reason biographers like to mention this — he never wore underwear.

The king awarded him a gold medal of merit but he never wore it. “One has no wish for a gold medal on an anorak,” he said. He refused a visit from a visiting prince with the words, “One has no time.” A bachelor, he nonetheless loved children and spoke to them only in Greenlandic.

A man ahead of his time, Samuel Kleinschmidt laid the foundation for modern Greenlandic studies. He died on Feb. 9, 1886. Interred in the Moravian cemetery, his remains were moved to Godthaab in 1907 where they lie behind the historic Lutheran church at the harbour.

Taissumani recounts a specific event of historic interest. Kenn Harper is a historian, writer and linguist who lives in Iqaluit. Feedback? Send your comments and questions to

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