Some Ethnolinguistic Notes on Polar Eskimo

by Stephen Pax Leonard (Author)
©2015 Monographs XII, 275 Pages


This book serves as an insightful ethnographic introduction to the language and oral traditions of the Inugguit, a sub-group of the Inuit who live in north-west Greenland. A unique work, it encompasses an overview of the grammar of Polar Eskimo – a language spoken by about 770 people – as well as a description of their oral traditions (drum-dancing and story-telling) and the most extensive glossary of the language compiled to date. The book presents the Polar Eskimo language in the orthography established by the author in conjunction with the local community in Greenland, an extremely difficult task for a language made up of such an aberrant phonology and with no written tradition. By exploring their ways of speaking and ways of belonging, Leonard provides an original ethnographic interpretation of the nature of Inugguit social organization and their world-view. Some Ethnolinguistic Notes on Polar Eskimo will serve as an invaluable resource for linguists who specialise in the Eskimo-Aleut group and will be of much interest to anthropologists working in the Arctic region.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Abbreviations
  • Chapter 1: Background to Polar Eskimo Language and Society
  • Chapter 2: The Phonology of Polar Eskimo
  • Chapter 3: Polar Eskimo as a Written Language
  • Chapter 4: Towards a Polar Eskimo Orthography
  • Chapter 5: Inflectional Morphology of Polar Eskimo
  • Chapter 6: Derivational Morphology and Noun Inflection
  • Chapter 7: The Polar Eskimo Lexicon
  • Chapter 8: Stems and Affixes
  • Chapter 9: Ways of Speaking
  • Chapter 10: Ways of Belonging
  • Chapter 11: Oral Traditions of the Inugguit
  • Chapter 12: The Tradition of Drum-Dancing
  • Chapter 13: The Texts
  • Glossary
  • Bibliography
  • Series index


This fieldwork would not have been possible without the generous funding of the British Academy and the World Oral Literature Project in Cambridge. I would like to extend my thanks to both of these bodies, and in particular to Mark Turin of the World Oral Literature Project for his support throughout. All of the recordings that I collected in the field, which include a variety of stories and drum-songs, are housed at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Cambridge. A number of the key performers such as Aijakko Miteq and Qulutanguaq Jeremiassen have sadly since passed away, leaving these oral traditions looking rather vulnerable.

I should also like to thank the Master and Fellows of Trinity Hall, Cambridge for allowing me to intermit my Fellowship to carry out this research. Much of the data that I collected was analysed and compiled during my tenure at the College. The project has been completed during my Fellowship at my current home, Exeter College, Oxford. I am grateful for the support my Oxford college has given me during my time as a Fellow, and previously as a student.

This project would have of course been nothing without the Inugguit of north-west Greenland, with whom I lived for a year. Fieldwork is a strange thing. One goes into the field as a complete stranger. It is perhaps only when one is thinking about returning that one is finally accepted. But one returns home only to find one has become a stranger in one’s home country. That was at least my initial experience on returning to the UK and is perhaps indicative of to what degree I had become one of them, learning their language, eating their food and travelling by dog-sledge on the sea ice.

Throughout my stay, Davd Qujaukitsoq was supportive and helpful, and soon became a friend. The same is also true for my very closest informants: Tornge Qaerngaq, Ibbi Qaerngaq, Aijakko Miteq and the Hendriksen family in Siorapaluk. I owe a very special debt to Ane-Sofie Imiina, who helped me so much in getting to grips with what seemed ← ix | x → initially like an intolerably difficult language to learn. I should also like to thank Magssanguaq Qujaukitsoq for his support over the years and for allowing me to reproduce his two poems written in the Polar Eskimo language.

Back in the UK, Michael Fortescue read through the manuscript and provided much helpful advice and comment both before I went into the field and subsequently. I have benefited enormously from Michael’s remarkable intelligence and knowledge of the Eskimo-Aleut language family. The task of learning the language would have been even more challenging without his invaluable book, Inuktun: An Introduction to the Language of Qaanaaq, Thule (1991), which has inevitably informed to a large degree the content of this publication. The Holtved texts to be found in this volume have been edited, translated and prepared by Michael Fortescue, Arnaq Grove and Robert Peary. I am very grateful to them for allowing me to reproduce these stories in this book.

Finally, I would like to thank Laurel Plapp at Peter Lang for her generous and helpful support throughout the publication process. ← x | xi →


NBI:North Baffin Island dialect
PE:Polar Eskimo
ps.:grammatical person
SWG:Standard West Greenlandic
v:verb ← xi | xii →

← xii | 1 →


Background to Polar Eskimo Language and Society

The people of north-west Greenland call themselves the Inugguit and are a sub-group of the Inuit. The word Inugguit (inugguaq in the singular) is a self-imposed demonym and it means the ‘big or great people’. There is no reason to believe that this name is an historical one, and it appears to have come into use in the twentieth century perhaps in response to an increasingly strained relationship with the political elite in Nuuk. It is more probably an indication of the exceptional level of pride to be found amongst this group that live in this remote corner of Greenland, or just a wish to set them apart from other Inuit groups in the circumpolar region. For the reasons that the Inugguit are the last Inuit in the world to hunt (and largely travel) exclusively by dog sledge (when there is sea ice), some of them feel that in a sense they have a legitimate claim to think of themselves as the last, ‘real’ Inuit. Travelling by dog-sledge across the sea-ice has defined who they are for centuries, and for many a break with this tradition would be more or less unthinkable. But, their language is also a significant part of this pride and sense of identity. They are well aware of the demise of related Inuit dialects across the Arctic region and perceive the gradual switch to English amongst certain Inuit groups as a symptom of identity loss.

At the same time, the Inugguit are fully aware that the Canadian and Alaskan Inuit groups with whom they share very strong historical bonds have long switched to mechanised transport and live in some other respects a less traditional way of life. The Inugguit believe that traditional hunting techniques such as hunting narwhals from kayaks with harpoons and travelling by dog-sledge makes them unique in the twenty-first century. However, they do not maintain these traditions just so that they can be different and appeal to a certain Romantic stereotype. They do so because they believe this is what works best when it comes to hunting sea mammals ← 1 | 2 → in their region. As an outsider, one is reminded of this and it is largely this practice, the exclusivity of their tiny dialect and the wish to continue eating traditional food that underpins the notion that they represent in some sense the prototypical Inuit.

The Danish-Greenlandic ethnographer Knud Rasmussen lived in the region at the beginning of the twentieth century and referred to the group as ‘Polar Eskimos’. This was the term used by subsequent ethnographers such as Erik Holtved. This term is accepted amongst the Inugguit and often used when speaking to outsiders as in the phrase ‘uanga, Eskimo’. Living the furthest north of all the Inuit groups, there might be a sense that the word ‘polar’ establishes them in some way as the superlative Inuit group. During my stay, Rasmussen (but not Holtved or Malaurie) and his legacy was typically spoken about in positive terms. There was perhaps a feeling that he had put a previously rather unknown group of people on the map with his various Thule expeditions, extensive publications about their customs, myths and ways of life and through his trading station, bringing them into contact with other Greenlanders. But, of course, he was also exceptional. In a universe of white, European explorers, he was a Greenlander.

The language that is the subject of this book has various names, but is known internationally and amongst scholars as Polar Eskimo and that is the term that I will use in this book (it is important to note that the word ‘Eskimo’ is not pejorative in this part of Greenland despite the beliefs of many; it is also the accepted name amongst international scholars). Locally, the language is called Qaanaamitun, ‘the language of Qaanaaq’ or Maanaamitun ‘the language of here’, but it is not just the language of Qaanaaq that is represented in this book. Some scholars (notably Fortescue, 1991) have also used the word Inuktun (‘the language of the inuk, ‘the man, the person’), but that was not a label I heard frequently during my stay there. Qaanaamitun must be a recent appellation as up until the 1950s, there was nobody living in Qaanaaq permanently. There were one or two huts used by hunters passing through on the way to hunting grounds. It was only in 1953 when the Inugguit were (forcefully) relocated from Dundas (Ummannaq) to make way for the building of the then secret Thule Air Base, that more permanent homes were built in Qaanaaq and a modern infrastructure was built around them. I have not used the term Qaanaamitun for the title ← 2 | 3 → of this book because I thought it might in a way do a disservice to those living in the settlements, in particular to those few last remaining hunters who continue to live the traditional hunting life. However, it is the case that Polar Eskimo is slowly becoming synonymous with the language of Qaanaaq as the population of the settlements continues to decrease.


XII, 275
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2015 (August)
Polar Eskimo Inuit Inugguit Greenland Arctic region ethnography ethnolinguistics oral traditions linguistics
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2015. X, 275 pp., 2 b/w ill.

Biographical notes

Stephen Pax Leonard (Author)

Stephen Pax Leonard is a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at the Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology, University of Oxford and also a Fellow of Exeter College, Oxford. Previously, he was a Research Fellow at Trinity Hall, Cambridge and a British Academy grantee. He has published two other academic books, Language, Society and Identity in Early Iceland (2012) and The Polar North: Ways of Speaking, Ways of Belonging (2014), as well as a book of poetry, Arctic Journal (2014). He is the first linguist to have lived long-term with the Inugguit of north-west Greenland.


Title: Some Ethnolinguistic Notes on Polar Eskimo