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Documenting linguistic practices for navigating space and place in Greenland

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Title: Documenting linguistic practices for navigating space and place in Greenland
Authors: McMahan, Hilary
Grenoble, Lenore A.
Issue Date: 12 Mar 2015
Description: Language provides a unique window into the ways that a community conceptualizes and relates to its spatial environment. Calling attention to both similarities and differences in the cross-linguistic structuring of space, investigations into the linguistic encoding of space and place yield much insight into the interactions between language, cognition, and the external environment (Levinson & Wilkins 2003). Insofar as language documentation is concerned with “provid[ing] a comprehensive record of the linguistic practices characteristic of a given speech community” (Himmelmann 1998:166), it is important to document how people use language to interact with and navigate their spatial environment and create a sense of place, especially in communities where such practices reflect a fundamental way of life.

This is clearly illustrated by our work with Kalaallisut (Greenlandic) speakers in Greenland. Our research works to elucidate the frameworks of knowledge embedded within Kalaallisut speech for referencing the Arctic environment, illustrating variation among speakers in the use of speech and kinds of knowledge embedded in place names and landscape terminology. Across the Inuit-Yupik languages of the Arctic, we find a rich framework of spatial understanding embedded with environmental and sociocultural knowledge within speech patterns, paralleling a deep connection between the Inuit and their physical environment. Studies of Inuit place names and landscape (e.g. Alia 2006; Collignon 2006 for Canadian Inuit; Holton 2011 for Alaskan Inuit; Nuttall 1991 for NW Greenland) emphasize the multidimensional nature of these place names as well as the culturally specific conceptual ontologies encoded in landscape terms. In Greenland, we find sociolinguistic variation across such spatial reference that correlates not only with age and gender but primarily with overall engagement with the land and hunting.

However, large-scale changes in the Arctic environment associated with climate change and economic development are rapidly altering the relationship between Inuit and their environment. The documentation of place and space in this context is of particular importance as Greenland undergoes massive political and economic change. Using an ethno-linguistic approach to documentation and analysis, we show that Kalaallisut toponyms and landscape terms exist within a complex domain of spatial language, coming together with an extensive demonstrative system, relational nouns signifying intrinsic topological relations, a coastal (and, more recently, cardinal) based orientation system (Fortescue 1988), slope terms, spatial locating verbs, and local case morphology. These numerous linguistic patterns together form an organized framework of knowledge through which Kalaallisut speakers have navigated their Arctic environment for hundreds of years.


Alia, Valerie. 2006. Names and Nunavut. Culture and identity in the Inuit homeland. Oxford/New York: Berghahn Books.

Collignon, Béatrice. 2006. Inuit place names and sense of place. In Pamela Stern & Lisa Stevenson, eds., Critical Inuit Studies. An Anthology of Contemporary Arctic Ethnography , 187-205. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Fortescue, Michael. 1988. Eskimo orientation systems. Meddelelser om Grønland 11.

Holton, Gary. 2011. Differing conceptualizations of the same landscape. The Athabaskan and Eskimo language boundary in Alaska. In D.M. Mark, A.G. Turk, N. Burenhult & D. Stea, eds., Landscape in language, 225-37. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Himmelmann, Nikolaus P. 1998. Documentary and descriptive linguistics. Linguistics 36:161-95.

Levinson, Stephen C., & Wilkins, David P. (Eds.). 2006. Grammars of space: Explorations in cognitive diversity (No. 6). Cambridge University Press.

Nuttall, Mark. 1991. Memoryscape: a sense of locality in northwest Greenland. North Atlantic Studies 1(2): 39-50.
Rights: Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 Unported
Appears in Collections:4th International Conference on Language Documentation and Conservation (ICLDC)

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