Overview of the Greenlandic Language

Translated from “Norðurlandamálin með rótum og fótum” which you can download for free here in Scandinavian, Faroese, and Icelandic.

There are no italics or bolding because the site I originally translated this for doesn’t allow them. Some things were “fixed” by others not because I translated them wrong, but because the original article was wrong (just a few minor things, like them writing “third person” when it should have been first person). In the same vein, some minor things were added in (place names and their Danish translations). Also, I didn’t translate the whole chapter because I was intending this for people who are studying Greenlandic, so there are some things like historical notes that I didn’t translate.

The main language of Greenland is called kalaallit oqaasii or kalaallisut. There’s three dialects of Greenlandic: avanersuaq (Greenland’s most northern area), tunu (East Greenlandic), and kitaa (West Greenlandic). In this we will be talking about West Greenlandic. From Uppernavik in the North to Hvars (Kap Farvel) in the south is where the main body of West Greenlandic is spoken.

(Note: These are actually fairly different and might not be mutual dialects, as told to me by commentors)

Place names sometimes have both Danish and Greenlandic names:
Avanersuaq – (Nordic name, Thule) (English name, Qaanaaq)
Illoqqortoormiut – Scoresbysund (town closest to Akureyri in Iceland)
Tasiilaq (Eastern Greenlandic), Tasiusaq (Western) – Ammassalik (Danish)
Kangerlussuaq – Søndre Strømfjord
Nuuk – Godthåb
Paamiut – Frederikshab

Inuit (inuitattackatigiit’s note: “Inuit” is plural, “Inuk” is singular) is the name of the Greenlanders that they use for themselves. The word Inuk means “human being”. Eskimo is the name of the Canadian languages around Quebec spoken by the Indian people there. This word was first used by missionaries in the start of the seventeenth century. It was taken from a word that meant “those who eat raw meat”.

Kalaaleq (plural, kalaallit) – it’s unknown where this word comes from, but it’s used to mean the “inhabitants of Greenland”. One idea is that it came from to Greenland from the whalers who were travelling between Greenland and the Finnish area Karelia. Poul Edge, the son of Hans Edge, a Norse priest who was a missionary to Greenland, wrote in his dictionary saying that Greenlanders called themselves Inuit but around outsiders they called themselves Karelers.

Lesson start:

In English you usually have no more than two stem words in a word (ex. wine-glass) but in Greenlandic you often have many more stems in a single word. Thus Greenlandic is called an agglutinating language (similar to the word glue).

An example of a compound word, that translates to a whole sentence in English, is:

weather-good-becomes-go-over-slowly-gradually-again-comes-probably-3rd person singular

(Alternative from deardron: sila-gissi-artuaa-rusaar-nia-ler-unar-poq

It seems the weather will gradually become good again
Pay attention to that “weather” is third person singular (“he/it” form) in Greenlandic.

Unlike in English, in Greenlandic you can have both sentences with a subject and object, and sentences without an object. (“Peter eats” can be a sentence, and so can “Peter eats meat”.) In Western-Europe, Greenlandic and Basque are like this.

In nominative-accusative languages, like Latin, German and Swedish, the subject is in nominative for both transitive and intransitive sentences. In ergative languages this is different and the subject of a transitive sentence is in a different case than the subject of an intransitive one. Ergative languages classify the subject in an intransitive sentence as “the same” in syntactic aspect as the object of a transitive one. That means that the subject and object of these two sentence types have the same case (that is, absolutive), while the subject of a sentence with object (a transitive sentence) has a different case that in the past was called ergative, and now is called relative.

With object and objectless sentences:

In the sentence “Petur eats the meat” (“Piitap neqi nerivaa”) you have the word “Petur” (Piitaq, a loanword) shown as Pitap with the ending –p. This is because it is the subject of the sentence. The ending –vaa shows that it is the object of the sentence (the meat). Neqi is just a stem word and neri- is “to eat”. “to eat” was originally “to destroy meat”.

In the sentence “Peter eats” (objectless sentence) Petur is in the absolutive form and so the sentence changes: “Piitaq nerivoq”. The ending –voq shows that the sentence is objectless.

Word forms in Greenlandic are slowly exposed by concept: stem, suffix, and ending. In English a stem is only a noun, but a “stem” in Greenlandic can be either a noun or a verb. The word neri (eat) used earlier is an example of such a stem.

Endings are only known in some Western Europe languages, especially languages with person-endings. In German second-person singular is shown with –st. In Greenlandic, the first-person singular ending is –punga. Take care that in Greenlandic there is a distinction in verbs that need objects and verbs that don’t. The endings differ between person-words because this is an ergative language.

Included in the words that we’ll call “endings” are what are generally considered to be “helper words” in English (have, must, should, own, receive, get), and adjectives.

Now we’ll see that words form in Greenlandic with the following:
Stem- (x-number of suffixes) ending
Neri- (artor-nia-ler) punga
Eat- (move-oneself-to-start) first person ending without an object
“I’m going to go eat”

Greenlandic suffixes can be broken down into stages like nuance, time, confirmations or refutes, and so forth. The above example shows a word that makes a whole sentence in English. It has a stem, lots of suffixes, and a “personal ending”. But there are few stems that are nouns.


Like in the beginning of the chapter when talking about how this is an ergative language, now we will talk about how in Greenlandic there are two main cases: absolutive and ergative.

Piitaq nerivoq: “Peter eats”
(Piitaq is in absolutive in this example because there is no object in the sentence. You don’t know what he is eating, just that he is eating.)

Piitap neqi nerivaa: “Peter/he eats it”
(Here Piitaq is in relative and thus changed to Piitap because there is an object in the sentence, which is also shown by the ending of the verb nerivaa)

There are six other cases:

Locative case (indicates location)
-mi (corresponds with dative in German and locative in Russian)
Piitaq Nuumi (Nuuk + mi) inuuvoq:
“Peter was born in Nuuk”

Allative case (movement to something)
-mut (corresponds with accusative in German and Latin)
Umiarsuaq Qaanaamut (Qaanaaq + -mut) tikippoq:
“A/the ship is coming to Qaanaaq”

Ablative case (movement away from something)
Timmisartoq Købehavnimit (København + -mit) aallarpoq:
“The airplane took flight from Copenhagen (København)”

Instrumental case: (the item that is being used for something is put in this case)
-mik (corresponds to instrumental case in Russian)
Allunaasaq savimmik (savik “knife” + -mik) kipivaa:
“He/she cuts rope with a knife”

Equative case: (describes similarity and is used for language names)
Qulleq seqinertut (seqineq “sun” + -tut) qaamatiginngilaq:
The lamp doesn’t shine as bright as the sun”

Prosecutive case: (movement through something, medium of writing, location on a body, or the group of people belonging to “the modified noun”, says wikipedia)
Aqqusinikkut (aqqusineq “road” + -kkut) pisuppunga:
“I walk on the road”

There’s no genders or definite articles (the word “the”) in Greenlandic, this is why the translations could be either he/she or a ship/the ship.

Personal Endings:
In Greenlandic there are three personal endings in addition to reflexive personal pronouns in the third person.

Anaanani napparsimammat atuanngilaq:
(anaana + -ni (napparsima) –mmat + atua + -nngi + -laq)
(mother + -his own (sick) –causative + 3rd person singular + -not + -third person singular)
He isn’t going to school because his own mother (not himself) is sick

Napparsimagami atuanngilaq:
(naapparsima + -ga + -mi + atua + -nngi + -laq)
(sick + -causative + -third person reflexive (“himself”) + walks to school + -not + -third person singular)
He’s not going to school because he is sick

Piitaq napparsimagami ilaangilaq:
(Piitaq + napparsima + -ga + -mi + ilaa + -nng + -laq)
(Peter + sick + -causative + -third person reflexive (“himself”) + is here/with us + -not + –third person singular)
Peter is not here/with us because he (himself) is sick

Piitaq napparsimammat pulaarparput:
(Piitaq + napparsima + -mmat + pulaar + -parput)
(Peter + sick + -causitive third person singular (“because he”) + visit + third person reflexive subject, third person singular object)
We’re visiting Peter because he is sick

Suffix endings:

Common to all Inuit languages are a special string of suffixes that are added after you finish the “suffix” (not the actual sentence). These so-called “suffix endings” are: -mi (confirming/emphasising), -gooq (it has been said), -li (however/on the other hand), -lu (and), -luunniit (or), -lusooq (like), -taaq (also), -toq (wish).

Wordforms that use suffix endings:
(stem + x-number of suffixes + personal endings) + suffix endings
ajunngilaq – it is good
ajunngilarmi – ajuungilaq + -mi: that’s good enough
ajunngilarooq – ajuungilaq + -rooq: it’s said to be good/it has been said it’s good
ajuungilarli – ajuungilaq + -li: but it went well
ajuungilarlu – ajuungilaq + -lu: and it is good
uanga illulluunniit – uanga (I) illit (you) + luuniit: me or you?

Main verbs and helping verbs:

Some of the verbs in Greenlandic aren’t real verbs in English, instead they mean a subordinate clause (is dependant on a main clause – “when it rang” in “she answered the phone when it rang” because you can’t say “when it rang” on its own but the rest of the sentence is correct even without “when it rang”).

Main verb examples:

Indicative mood (factual statements and positive beliefs): pisuppunga – I go
Interrogative mood (questions): pisuppa? – Does he go?
Imperative (commands): pisugit! – go!
Optative (wishes or urging someone to do something): pisullanga – let me go

Helping verb examples:

Causative mood (“because/since/when”): pisumat – because he went
Contemporative (simultaneously): pisullunga – while/as I walk
Future mood: pisukkuma – when I go
Participial (when the subject is doing something): takugiga – that I see it

Standard Greenlandic:
The standard word for rye bread is iffiaq but dialectal versions are ikkiaq, ippiaq, tiggaliaq, and timiusiaq. Standardization also means you use common place and person names, but dialectal versions of those exist (and are allowed) as well.

Greenlandic has loanwords as well:
Niisa – long-finned pilot whale (compare to Faroese nísa)
Sava – sheep (Norwegian sau)
Kuanneq – Angelica plant (compare to Danish kvan)
Kona – woman (compare to Icelandic/Scandinavian kona/kone)
Musaq – carrot (Norwegian mura)

Nagguteeraq – technically “something that looks like an ice floe”, but means hardtack that’s shaped like an ellipse.
inussiarnersumik inuulluaqqusillunga – with warm regards
qarasaasiaq – computer (literally “a processed thing alike to a brain”)
januuari – january
sukulupooq – scurvy
kaffi – coffee
sioraasat – sugar
nagguaatsoq – elephant
pujorsiut/sammivissiut – compass