'Any sort of school should avoid linguistic apartheid.'

Inuit language thrives in Greenland


NUUK – You can find a copy of Harry Potter, translated in Greenlandic, at the local library of Greenland's capital.

Also available are the translated works of William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens and Ernest Hemingway.

Fifty Greenlandic publications are produced each year, says Carl Christian Olsen, head of Greenland's language secretariat and chair of the languages commission. About 17 of those are literature or poetry.

Such is the benefit of having a long history of written materials, dating back to Greenlandic bibles written by visiting missionaries in the 18th century.

While Inuit in Nunavut were punished for speaking Inuktitut in residential schools, Greenland has a long history of teaching Green­landic in schools, since the early 20th century.

It's also a consequence of having those missionaries decide that the language ought to be written with standard Roman orthography, rather than the more-difficult-to-reproduce syllabic system popularized by missionaries in Canada's eastern Arctic.

Having money to translate and print such books helps, too.

Olsen says he's disappointed that Canada, a country of "enlightened people," doesn't give Inuktitut the same sort of language funding that French receives as an official language.

Some in Nunavut fear that Inuktitut, and particularly Inuinaqtun, are dying. There are no such fears in Greenland.

On the streets of Nuuk, Greenlandic is often spoken by children, who all seem to carry cellphones. They send text messages to one another, in both abbreviated Danish and Greenlandic, shortening words like qujanaq, or thank you, to qujan.

Olsen recalls how, in the 1960s and 1970s, elders in Greenland feared their language would be lost. They noticed their children spoke words differently.

But they needn't have feared, Olsen said. Such changes are natural for languages. An unchanging language is a dead one.

Today, the vast majority of Greenlanders – 92 per cent – are fluent in their native tongue, while 62 per cent are also fluent in Danish, according to the Survey of Living Conditions in the Arctic, published this March.

"Thirty years ago, you wouldn't find any Green­lander speaking English, and very few speaking Danish," Olsen said.

Until around the 1990s, Danish and Greenlandic children were taught in separate kindergarten classes. Now, there is a push towards integration, to ensure that children can speak both languages, Olsen said.

"Any sort of school should avoid linguistic apartheid," he said.

Greenland also has a standard dialect – west Green­landic – which is used to produce all publications and teaching materials.

It sometimes produces bizarre results. On Green­land's east coast, children are taught the western dialect in the classroom, while continuing to speak the eastern dialect in their homes.

But at least there's a standard. In Nunavut, although the Igloolik dialect is the de facto standard, no leader has been willing to make such a decision, for fear of alienating communities.

As a result, translated materials in Nunavut vary in dialect from government department to department.

Beyond books, Green­landic is practiced in a lively music scene, ranging from soulful Greenlandic folk tunes to jazz to gangsta rap.

But Greenlanders also enjoy art produced by their Canadian neighbours. They listen to Nunavut's Susan Aglukkaq, and Nunavik's Taima. And their struggling film industry has yet to produce anything as successful as Igloolik Isuma Productions.

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