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Some Ethnolinguistic Notes on Polar Eskimo

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Stephen Leonard

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.
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Chapter 9: Ways of Speaking

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CHAPTER 9

Ways of Speaking

Dell Hymes explored how people make sense of and negotiate social reality by analysing their ‘ways of speaking’. Under the rubric of ‘ways of speaking’, Hymes and Gumperz (1964: 1–34) offer a bipartite conception of speech that focuses on the ‘means of speech’ and the ‘speech economy’ these speakers participate in. Hymes wished to investigate what speakers can and do say, and the context in which they say it. For Hymes, speech cannot be separated from the cultural background that shapes its linguistic form, and it is in this spirit that this chapter has been written.

This chapter and the next address the question of what does the Inugguit use of verbal/non-verbal language and so-called ‘practices of belonging’ tell us about how the Inugguit organise language and experience. I focus on speaking because this is a pseudo-oral culture where the written norm is a separate, but related language, Standard West Greenlandic, i.e. the language they write is not the language they speak.

With just 700 speakers, their spoken language, Polar Eskimo, is a language of glottal stops and outsiders have described it as not sounding like a language at all, but as a series of sighs, heavy breathing and broken, jerky sounds. Impressionistically, this is a language that comes from the stomach or the middle of the body. Outsiders wishing to learn the language are told that as a first step they have to learn to...

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