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Some Ethnolinguistic Notes on Polar Eskimo


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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There are a number of observations to be made about the Glossary. Firstly, I see it as a glossary and not a dictionary. One of the reasons for this is I do not believe one person alone could or should write a dictionary even for such a small speech community. If this is to be done, it should be a broader, better funded collaborative project. The term glossary might be slightly misleading as it does not relate specifically to words used in the introductory chapters of this book or indeed any specific texts or recordings referred to here, but for want of a better expression, this remains the preferred term. ‘Word list’ is also rather inadequate as the glossary includes a number of phrases, idioms and quotes.

Second, the title of the book is Some Ethnolinguistic Notes on Polar Eskimo. The word ‘Notes’ is significant and was chosen because I see it as precisely that. This is not a definitive grammar, lexicon or introduction to Polar Eskimo. It is instead a compilation of notes made in the field (and not the office) which can aid the language learner and be of interest to the speaker of Polar Eskimo. Annotations have been left in the glossary because it is hoped that they are both hopeful and interesting. Most importantly, the Inugguit will tell you repeatedly that many of their words are meaningless without context.

Third, the words, phrases and idioms in the glossary reflect the...

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