Language and identity in Greenland

Posted by Lenore Grenoble on November 14, 2011

Français Español

By Lenore Grenoble, Professor of Slavic Linguistics, University of Chicago.

Greenland - (cc) destination arctic circle

Greenland - (cc) destination arctic circle

A survey conducted in 2009 found that Greenlanders overwhelmingly find language to be a critical part of their identity.[1] By “language” here they almost certainly mean Greenlandic, or Kalaallisut as it is called by its speakers, the indigenous language of Greenland. Greenlandic is an Inuit language with three main dialects in Greenland: North (Inuktun or Avanersuarmiutut), East (Tunumiisut) and West (Kalaallisut). West Greenlandic (Kalaallisut) forms the basis of the standard and official language. It is the language of the media (radio, newspapers, and television) and is used in the schools, government, and all official administration.

Language has been a focal point for issues of identity and self-autonomy in Greenland for many years. Although still officially part of the Kingdom of Denmark, Greenland has been making steady progress in legislation to gain control of her own laws in all matters, including language. In 1979 Act 65 granted Greenland the status of Home Rule, which gave it greater independence and, among other things, made both Danish and Greenlandic the official languages of the country. Language shift was one of the driving motivations behind Greenland’s move to Home Rule; political leaders and activists noticed language shift to Danish already in the 1960s and fought to change the tide.

These efforts continue to this day. In 2008 a referendum gave more autonomy to Greenland, instituting a series of governmental changes and reforms to begin the subsequent year. When the Self Government assumed power on 21 June 2009, Premier Kuupik Kleist highlighted the importance of language in his inaugural speech:

Today is a very special and important day, because as of today, our language, Greenlandic, has become our official language. Language cannot be separated from identity, and this is why we must work hard to ensure the use of our language in everyday life.

One of the results is steady and sustained efforts to foster the use of Greenlandic in all domains, efforts fostered by Greenland’s Language Committee (Oqaasiliortut) instituted in 1979 as an official part of the Home Rule Government.

Greenlanders themselves are deeply committed to their language and are its strongest advocates. Greenlandic is the only indigenous language spoken in the Arctic for which the number of speakers is actually increasing. Children are raised speaking Greenlandic and it thrives across all generations and in all domains. (One partial exception is in higher education, where Danish continues to be used. Developing the necessary pedagogical materials and teacher training are important goals to offsetting this linguistic imbalance.)

It is hard to find a Greenlander today without strong awareness of language. One of the challenges facing the country and the Greenlandic language is their position in a global world. The answer I have heard most often is multilingualism, with the idea that Greenlanders need to know Kalaallisut to live in Greenland, Danish since they are part of the Kingdom of Denmark and, increasingly, English to be part of a global economic, political and intellectual world. In thinking about the future, Greenlanders strive to maintain an Inuit identity as citizens of a modern world. Language is a central component of that identity.

[1] Poppel, Birger. 2009. Levevilkår i Grønland (6) – Det grønlandske sprog – en status ved

Selvstyrets indførelse. Sermitsiaq 14 July 2009.

Share this post:          Twitter        Facebook        Email        Wikio

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *