Greenlandic language

ISBN (identifier) Doi (identifier) JSTOR (identifier)
Sign in Greenlandic and Danish
Native toGreenland
RegionGreenland, Denmark
EthnicityGreenlandic Inuit
Native speakers
Scandinavian Braille
Official status
Official language in
Recognised minority
language in
Regulated byThe Greenland Language Secretariat Oqaasileriffik
Language codes
ISO 639-1kl
ISO 639-2kal
ISO 639-3kal
Idioma groenlandés.png
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Greenlandic (Greenlandic: kalaallisut; Danish: grønlandsk) is an Eskimo–Aleut language with about 57,000 speakers,[4] mostly Greenlandic Inuit people in Greenland. It is closely related to the Inuit languages in Canada such as Inuktitut.

The main variety, Kalaallisut, or West Greenlandic, has been the official language of the Greenlandic autonomous territory since June 2009, which is a move by the Naalakkersuisut , the government of Greenland, to strengthen the language in its competition with the colonial language, Danish. The second variety is Tunumiit oraasiat, or East Greenlandic. The language of the Thule Inuit of Greenland, Inuktun or Polar Eskimo, is a recent arrival and a dialect of Inuktitut.

Greenlandic is a polysynthetic language that allows the creation of long words by stringing together roots and suffixes. The language's morphosyntactic alignment being ergative, it treats (case-marks) the argument ("subject") of an intransitive verb like the object of a transitive verb but differently from the agent ("subject") of a transitive verb.[example needed]

Nouns are inflected by one of eight cases and for possession. Verbs are inflected for one of eight moods and for the number and person of its subject and object. Both nouns and verbs have complex derivational morphology. The basic word order in transitive clauses is subject–object–verb. The subordination of clauses uses special subordinate moods. A so-called fourth-person category enables switch-reference between main clauses and subordinate clauses with different subjects.

Greenlandic is notable for its lack of a system of grammatical tense, and temporal relations are expressed normally by context but also by the use of temporal particles such as "yesterday" or "now" or sometimes by the use of derivational suffixes or the combination of affixes with aspectual meanings with the semantic lexical aspect of different verbs. However, some linguists have suggested that Greenlandic always marks future tense.

Another question is whether the language has noun incorporation or whether the processes that create complex predicates that include nominal roots are derivational in nature.

When adopting new concepts or technologies, Greenlandic usually constructs new words made from Greenlandic roots, but modern Greenlandic has also taken many loans from Danish and English. The language has been written in the Latin script since Danish colonization began in the 1700s. Greenlandic's first orthography was developed by Samuel Kleinschmidt in 1851, but within 100 years, it had already differed substantially from the spoken language because of a number of sound changes. An extensive orthographic reform was undertaken in 1973 and made the script much easier to learn. That resulted in a boost in Greenlandic literacy, which is now among the highest in the world.


Illustration 1: Distribution of Inuit language variants across the Arctic.

Greenlandic was brought to Greenland by the arrival of the Thule people in the 1200s. The languages that were spoken by the earlier Saqqaq and Dorset cultures in Greenland are unknown.

The first descriptions of Greenlandic date from the 1600s. With the arrival of Danish missionaries in the early 1700s and the beginning of Danish colonization of Greenland, the compilation of dictionaries and description of grammar began. The missionary Paul Egede wrote the first Greenlandic dictionary in 1750 and the first grammar in 1760.[5]

From the Danish colonization in the 1700s to the beginning of Greenlandic home rule in 1979, Greenlandic experienced increasing pressure from the Danish language. In the 1950s, Denmark's linguistic policies were directed at strengthening Danish. Of primary significance was the fact that post-primary education and official functions were conducted in Danish.[6]

From 1851 to 1973, Greenlandic was written in a complicated orthography devised by the missionary linguist Samuel Kleinschmidt. In 1973, a new orthography was introduced, intended to bring the written language closer to the spoken standard, which had changed considerably since Kleinschmidt's time. The reform was effective, and in the years following it, Greenlandic literacy has received a boost.[6]

Another development that has strengthened Greenlandic language is the policy of "Greenlandization" of Greenlandic society that began with the home rule agreement of 1979. The policy has worked to reverse the former trend towards marginalization of the Greenlandic language by making it the official language of education. The fact that Greenlandic has become the only language used in primary schooling means that monolingual Danish-speaking parents in Greenland are now raising children bilingual in Danish and Greenlandic.[7] Greenlandic now has several dedicated news media: the Greenlandic National Radio, Kalaallit Nunaata Radioa, which provides television and radio programming in Greenlandic. The newspaper Sermitsiaq has been published since 1958 and merged in 2010 with the other newspaper Atuagagdliutit/Grønlandsposten, which had been established in 1861 to form a single large Greenlandic language publishing house.[8][9]

Before June 2009, Greenlandic shared its status as the official language in Greenland with Danish.[note 1] Since then, Greenlandic has become the sole official language.[2] That has made Greenlandic a unique example of an indigenous language of the Americas that is recognized by law as the only official language of a semi-independent country. Nevertheless, it is still considered to be in a "vulnerable" state by the UNESCO Red Book of Language Endangerment.[10] The country has a 100% literacy rate.[11] As the Western Greenlandic standard has become dominant, a UNESCO report has labelled the other dialects as endangered, and measures are now being considered to protect the Eastern Greenlandic dialect.[12]


Kalaallisut and the other Greenlandic dialects belong to the Eskimo–Aleut family and are closely related to the Inuit languages of Canada and Alaska. Illustration 1 shows the locations of the different Eskimoan languages, among them the three main dialects of Greenlandic.

Example of differences between the 3 main dialects
English Kalaallisut Inuktun Tunumiisut
humans inuit inughuit[13] iivit[14]

The most prominent Greenlandic dialect is Kalaallisut, which is the official language of Greenland. The name Kalaallisut is often used as a cover term for all of Greenlandic. The northern dialect, Inuktun (Avanersuarmiutut), is spoken in the vicinity of the city of Qaanaaq (Thule) and is particularly closely related to Canadian Inuktitut. The eastern dialect (Tunumiit oraasiat), spoken in the vicinity of Ammassalik Island and Ittoqqortoormiit, is the most innovative of the Greenlandic dialects since it has assimilated consonant clusters and vowel sequences more than West Greenlandic.[15]

Kalaallisut is further divided into four subdialects. One that is spoken around Upernavik has certain similarities to East Greenlandic, possibly because of a previous migration from eastern Greenland. A second dialect is spoken in the region of Uummannaq and the Disko Bay. The standard language is based on the central Kalaallisut dialect spoken in Sisimiut in the north, around Nuuk and as far south as Maniitsoq. Southern Kalaallisut is spoken around Narsaq and Qaqortoq in the south.[5] Table 1 shows the differences in the pronunciation of the word for "humans" in the three main dialects. It can be seen that Inuktun is the most conservative by maintaining gh, which has been elided in Kalaallisut, and Tunumiisut is the most innovative by further simplifying its structure by eliding /n/.


Letters between slashes / / indicate phonemic transcription, letters in square brackets [ ] indicate phonetic transcription and letters in triangular brackets ⟨ ⟩ indicate standard Greenlandic orthography.


Ranges of West Greenlandic monophthongs on a vowel chart.[16]

The Greenlandic three vowel system, composed of /i/, /u/, and /a/, is typical for an Eskimo–Aleut language. Double vowels are analyzed as two morae and so they are phonologically a vowel sequence and not a long vowel. They are also orthographically written as two vowels.[17][18] There is only in be diphthong, /ai/, which occurs only at the ends of words.[19] Before a uvular consonant ([q] or [ʁ]), /i/ is realized allophonically as [e], [ɛ] or [ɐ], and /u/ is realized allophonically as [o] or [ɔ], and the two vowels are written e, o respectively (as in some orthographies used for Quechua and Aymara).[20] /a/ becomes retracted to [ɑ] in the same environment. /i/ is rounded to [y] before labial consonants.[20] /u/ is fronted to [ʉ] between two coronal consonants.[20]

The allophonic lowering of /i/ and /u/ before uvular consonants is shown in the modern orthography by writing /i/ and /u/ as ⟨e⟩ and ⟨o⟩ respectively before uvulars ⟨q⟩ and ⟨r⟩. For example:

/ui/ "husband" pronounced [ui].
/uiqarpuq/ "(s)he has a husband" pronounced [ueqɑʁpɔq] and written ⟨ueqarpoq⟩.
/illu/ "house" pronounced [iɬːu].
/illuqarpuq/ "(s)he has a house" pronounced [iɬːoqɑʁpɔq] and written ⟨illoqarpoq⟩.


Greenlandic has consonants at five points of articulation: labial, alveolar, palatal, velar and uvular. It distinguishes stops, fricatives, and nasals at the labial, alveolar, velar, and uvular points of articulation. The earlier palatal sibilant [ʃ] has merged with [s] in all but a few dialects.[21] The labiodental fricative [f] is contrastive only in loanwords. The alveolar stop [t] is pronounced as an affricate [t͡s] before the high front vowel /i/. Often, Danish loanwords containing ⟨b d g⟩ preserve these in writing, but that does not imply a change in pronunciation, for example ⟨baaja⟩ [paːja] "beer" and ⟨Guuti⟩ [kuːtˢi] "God"; these are pronounced exactly as /p t k/.[5]

2. Consonants of Kalaallisut
Labial Alveolar Palatal Velar Uvular
Stops /p/ ⟨p⟩ /t/ ⟨t⟩ /k/ ⟨k⟩ /q/ ⟨q⟩
Fricatives /v/ ⟨v⟩[note 2] /s/ ⟨s⟩ (/ʃ/)[note 3] /ɣ/ ⟨g⟩ /ʁ/ ⟨r⟩
Nasals /m/ ⟨m⟩ /n/ ⟨n⟩ /ŋ/ ⟨ng⟩ /ɴ/ ⟨rn⟩ [note 4]
Liquids /l/ ⟨l⟩ ⁓ [ɬ] ⟨ll⟩
Semivowel /j/ ⟨j⟩


The Kalaallisut syllable is simple, allowing syllables of (C)(V)V(C), where C is a consonant and V is a vowel and VV is a double vowel or word-final /ai/.[22] Native words may begin with only a vowel or /p, t, k, q, s, m, n/ and may end only in a vowel or /p, t, k, q/ or rarely /n/. Consonant clusters occur only over syllable boundaries, and their pronunciation is subject to regressive assimilations that convert them into geminates. All non-nasal consonants in a cluster are voiceless.[23]


Greenlandic prosody does not include stress as an autonomous category; instead, prosody is determined by tonal and durational parameters.[18] Intonation is influenced by syllable weight: heavy syllables are pronounced in a way that may be perceived as stress. Heavy syllables include syllables with long vowels and syllables before consonant clusters. The last syllable is stressed in words with fewer than four syllables and without long vowels or consonant clusters. The antepenultimate syllable is stressed in words with more than four syllables that are all light. In words with many heavy syllables, syllables with long vowels are considered heavier than syllables before a consonant cluster.[24]

Geminate consonants are pronounced long, almost exactly with the double duration of a single consonant.[25]

Intonation in indicative clauses usually rises on the antepenultimate syllable, falls on the penult and rises on the last syllable. Interrogative intonation rises on the penultimate and falls on the last syllable.[24][26]


Greenlandic phonology distinguishes itself phonologically from the other Inuit languages by a series of assimilations.

Greenlandic phonology allows clusters, but it does not allow clusters of two different consonants unless the first one is /ʁ/. In all other cases the first consonant in a cluster is assimilated to the second one resulting in a geminate consonant. Geminate /tt/ is pronounced [ts] and written ⟨ts⟩. Geminate /ll/ is pronounced [ɬː]. Geminate /ɣɣ/ is pronounced [çː] but is written ⟨gg⟩. Geminate /ʁʁ/ is pronounced [χː]. Geminate /vv/ is pronounced [fː] and written ⟨ff⟩. /v/ is also pronounced and written [f] after /ʁ/.[27]

These assimilations mean that one of the most recognizable Inuktitut words, iglu ("house"), is illu in Greenlandic, where the /ɡl/ consonant cluster of Inuktitut is assimilated into a voiceless alveolar lateral fricative. And the word Inuktitut itself, when translated into Kalaallisut, becomes Inuttut. The Old Greenlandic diphthong /au/ has assimilated to /aa/.

The consonant /v/ has disappeared between /u/ and /i/ or /a/. Therefore, affixes beginning with -va or -vi have forms without [v] when they are suffixed to stems that end in /u/.

The vowel /i/ of modern Greenlandic is the result of a historic merger of the Proto-Eskimo–Aleut vowels *i and *ɪ. The fourth vowel was still present in Old Greenlandic, as attested by Hans Egede.[28] In modern West Greenlandic, the difference between the two original vowels can be discerned morphophonologically only in certain environments. The vowel that was originally *ɪ has the variant [a] when preceding another vowel and sometimes disappears before certain suffixes.[29]

The degree to which the assimilation of consonant clusters has taken place is an important dialectal feature separating Polar Eskimo, Inuktun, which still allows some ungeminated consonant clusters, from West and East Greenlandic. East Greenlandic (Tunumiit oraasiat) has shifted some geminate consonants, such as [ɬː] to [tː]. Thus, for example, the East Greenlandic name of a particular town is Ittoqqortoormiit, which would appear as Illoqqortoormiut in Kalaallisut.[14][15]



A bilingual sign in Nuuk showing the contrast between Danish and Kalaallisut. The sign translates to "parking forbidden for all vehicles".

The morphology of Greenlandic is highly synthetic and exclusively suffixing[30] except for a single highly-limited and fossilized demonstrative prefix. The language creates very long words by means of adding strings of suffixes to a stem.[note 5] In principle, there is no limit to the length of a Greenlandic word, but in practice, words with more than six derivational suffixes are not so frequent, and the average number of morphemes per word is three to five.[31][note 6] The language has around 318 inflectional suffixes and between 400 and 500 derivational suffixes.[32]

There are few compound words but many derivations.[33] The grammar uses a mixture of head and dependent marking. Both agent and patient are marked on the predicate, and the possessor is marked on nouns, with dependent noun phrases inflecting for case. The primary morphosyntactic alignment of full noun phrases in Kalaallisut is ergative-absolutive, but verbal morphology follows a nominative-accusative pattern and pronouns are syntactically neutral.

The language distinguishes four persons (1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th or 3rd reflexive (see Obviation and switch-reference); two numbers (singular and plural but no dual, unlike Inuktitut); eight moods (indicative, interrogative, imperative, optative, conditional, causative, contemporative and participial) and eight cases (absolutive, ergative, equative, instrumental, locative, allative, ablative and prolative). Verbs carry a bipersonal inflection for subject and object. Possessive noun phrases inflect for both possessor and case case.[34]

In this section, the examples are written in Greenlandic standard orthography except that morpheme boundaries are indicated by a hyphen.


Greenlandic distinguishes three open word classes: nouns, verbs and particles. Verbs inflect for person and number of subject and object as well as for mood. Nouns inflect for possession and for case. Particles do not inflect.[35]

  Verb Noun Particle
Word Oqar-poq "he says" Angut "A man" Naamik "No"
Gloss say-3p/IND[note 7] man.ABS No

The verb is the only word that is required in a sentence. Since verbs inflect for number and person of both subject and object, the verb is in fact a clause itself. Therefore, clauses in which all participants are expressed as free-standing noun phrases are rather rare.[35] The following examples show the possibilities of leaving out the verbal arguments:

Intransitive clause with no subject noun phrase:

Sini-ppoq "(S)he sleeps"
sleep-3p/IND[note 8]

Intransitive clause with subject noun phrase:

Angu-t sinippoq "the man sleeps"
man.ABS sleep-3p/IND

Transitive clause with no overt arguments:

Asa-vaa "(S)he loves him/her/it"

Transitive clause with agent noun phrase:

Angut-ip asa-vaa "the man loves him/her/it"
man-ERG love-3p/3p

Transitive clause with patient noun phrase:

Arnaq asa-vaa "(S)he loves the woman"
woman.ABS love-3p/3p

Morphosyntactic alignment

The Greenlandic language uses case to express grammatical relations between participants in a sentence. Nouns are inflected with one of the two core cases or one of the six oblique cases.[36]

Greenlandic is an ergative–language and so instead of treating the grammatical relations, as in English and most other Indo-European languages, whose grammatical subjects are marked with the nominative case and objects with the accusative case, Greenlandic grammatical roles are defined differently. Its ergative case is used for agents of transitive verbs and for possessors. The absolutive case is used for patients of transitive verbs and subjects of intransitive verbs.[37] Research into Greenlandic as used by the younger generation has shown that the use of ergative alignment in Kalaallisut may be becoming obsolete, which would convert the language into a nominative–accusative language.[38]


Anda sini-ppoq "Anda sleeps"
Anda.ABS sleep-3p/IND

Transitive with agent and object:

Anda-p nanoq taku-aa "Anda sees a bear"
Anda-ERG bear.ABS see-3p/3p

Word order

In transitive clauses whose object and subject are expressed as free noun phrases, the basic pragmatically-neutral word order is AOXV / SXV in which X is a noun phrase in one of the oblique cases. However, word order is fairly free. Topical noun phrases occur at the beginning of a clause. New or emphasized information generally come last, which is usually the verb but can also be a focal subject or object. As well, in the spoken language, "afterthought" material or clarifications may follow the verb, usually in a lowered pitch.[39]

On the other hand, the noun phrase is characterized by a rigid order in which the head of the phrase precedes any modifiers and the possessor precedes the possessed.[40]

In copula clauses, the word order is usually subject-copula-complement.

Andap tujuuluk pisiaraa "Anda bought the sweater"
Anda sweater bought

An attribute appears after its head noun.

Andap tujuuluk tungujortoq pisiaraa "Anda bought the blue sweater"
Anda sweater blue bought

An attribute of an incorporated noun appears after the verb:

Anda sanasuuvoq pikkorissoq "Anda is a skilled carpenter"
Anda carpenter.IS skilled

Coordination and subordination

Syntactic coordination and subordination is built by combining predicates in the superordinate moods (indicative, interrogative, imperative and optative) with predicates in the subordinate moods (conditional, causative, contemporative and participial). The contemporative has both coordinative and subordinative functions, depending on the context.[41] The relative order of the main clause and its coordinate or subordinate clauses is relatively free and is subject mostly to pragmatic concerns.[42]

Obviation and switch-reference

The Greenlandic pronominal system includes a distinction known as obviation[43] or switch-reference.[44] There is a special so-called fourth person[45] to denote a third person subject of a subordinate verb or the possessor of a noun that is coreferent with the third person subject of the matrix clause.[46] Hete are examples of the difference between third and the fourth persons:

illu-a taku-aa "he saw his (the other man's) house"
house-3POSS see-3p/3p
illu-ni taku-aa "he saw his own house"
house-4POSS see-3p/3p
Ole oqar-poq tillu-kkiga "Ole said I had hit him (the other man)"
Ole say-3p hit-I/3p
Ole oqar-poq tillu-kkini "Ole said I had hit him (Ole)"
Ole say-3p hit-I/4p[note 9]
Eva iser-uni sini-ssaa-q "When Eva comes in she'll sleep"
Eva sleep-expect-3p
Eva iser-pat sini-ssaa-q When Eva comes in (s)he'll sleep (someone else).
Eva sleep-expect-3p

Indefiniteness construction

There is no category of definiteness in Greenlandic and so information on whether participants are already known to the listener or they are new to the discourse is encoded by other means. According to some authors, morphology related to transitivity such as the use of the construction sometimes called antipassive[47][48] or intransitive object[49] conveys such meaning, along with strategies of noun incorporation of non-topical noun phrases.[50][51] That view, however, is controversial.[52]


Piitap arfeq takuaa "Peter saw the whale"
Peter-ERG whale see

Antipassive/intransitive object:

Piitaq arfermik takuvoq "Peter saw (a) whale"
Peter-ABS whale-INSTR see


The morphology of Greenlandic verbs is enormously complex. The main processes are inflection and derivation. Inflectional morphology includes the processes of obligatory inflection for mood, person and voice (tense and aspect are not inflectional categories in Kalaallisut).[53][54][55] Derivational morphology modifies the meaning of verbs similarly to English adverbs. There are hundreds of such derivational suffixes. Many of them are so semantically salient and so they are often referred to as postbases, rather than suffixes, particularly in the American tradition of Eskimo grammar.[56] Such semantically "heavy" suffixes may express concepts such as "to have", "to be", "to say" or "to think". The Greenlandic verb word consists of a root, followed by derivational suffixes/postbases and then inflectional suffixes. Tense and aspect are marked by optional suffixes between the derivational and the inflectional suffixes.


Greenlandic verbs inflect for agreement with agent and patient and for mood and for voice. There are eight moods, four of which are used in independent clauses the others in subordinate clauses. The four independent moods are indicative, interrogative, imperative and optative. The four dependent moods are causative, conditional, contemporative and participial. Verbal roots can take transitive, intransitive or negative inflections and so all eight mood suffixes have those three forms.[57] The inflectional system is even more complex since transitive suffixes encode both agent and patient in a single morpheme, with up to 48 different suffixes covering all possible combinations of agent and patient for each of the eight transitive paradigms. As some moods do not have forms for all persons (imperative has only 2nd person, optative has only 1st and 3rd person, participial mood has no 4th person and contemporative has no 3rd person), the total number of verbal inflectional suffixes is about 318.[58]

Indicative and interrogative moods

The indicative mood is used in all independent expository clauses. The interrogative mood is used for questions that do not have the question particle immaqa "maybe".[59]

napparsima-vit? "Are you sick?" (interrogative mood)
naamik, napparsima-nngila-nga. "No, I am not sick" (indicative mood)
no, be.sick-NEG-I/IND

Table 5 shows the intransitive indicative inflection for patient person and number of the verb neri- "to eat" in the indicative and interrogative moods (question marks mark interrogative intonation; questions have falling intonation on the last syllable, unlike English and most other Indo-European languages, whose questions are marked by rising intonation). Both the indicative and the interrogative mood have a transitive and an intransitive inflection, but only the intransitive inflection is given here. Consonant gradation like in Finnish appears to occur in the verb conjugation (with strengthening to pp in the 3rd person plural and weakening to v elsewhere).

5. Indicative and interrogative intransitive moods
indicative interrogative
nerivunga "I am eating" nerivunga? "Am I eating?"
nerivutit "You are eating" nerivit? "Are you eating?"
nerivoq "He/she/it eats" neriva? "Is he/she/it eating?"
nerivugut "We are eating" nerivugut? "Are we eating?"
nerivusi "You are eating (pl.)" nerivisi? "Are you eating? (pl.)"
neripput "They are eating" nerippat? "Are they eating?"

Table 6 shows the transitive indicative inflection for patient person and number of the verb asa- "to love" (an asterisk means that the form does not occur as such but uses a different reflexive inflection).

6. Transitive indicative mood
First person subject Second person subject Third person subject
* asavarma "You love me" asavaanga "He/she/it loves me"
asavakkit "I love you" * asavaatit "He/she/it loves you"
asavara "I love him/her/it" asavat "You love her/him/it" asavaa "He/she/it loves him/her/it"
* asavatsigut "You love us" asavaatigut "He/she/it loves us"
asavassi "I love you (pl.)" * asavaasi "He/she/it loves you (pl.)"
asavakka "I love them" asavatit "You love them" asavai "He/she/it loves them"
Imperative and optative moods

The imperative mood is used to issue orders and is always combined with the second person. The optative is used to express wishes or exhortations and is never used with the second person. There is a negative imperative form used to issue prohibitions. Both optative and imperative have transitive and intransitive paradigms. There are two transitive positive imperative paradigms: a standard one and another that is considered rude and is used usually to address children.[60]

sini-git! "Sleep!"
sini-llanga "Let me sleep!"
sini-nnak! "Don't sleep!"
Conditional mood

The conditional mood is used to construct subordinate clauses that mean "if" or "when".[61]

seqinner-pat Eva ani-ssaa-q "If the sun shines, Eva will go out"
Sunshine-COND Eva go.out-expect/3p
Causative mood

The causative mood (sometimes called the conjunctive) is used to construct subordinate clauses that mean "because", "since" or "when" and is also sometimes used to mean "that". The causative is used also in main clauses to imply some underlying cause.[62]

qasu-gami innar-poq "He went to bed because he was tired"
matta-ttor-ama "I've eaten blubber (that's why I'm not hungry)"
ani-guit eqqaama-ssa-vat teriannia-qar-mat "If you go out, remember that there are foxes"
go.out-COND/YOU remember-fut-IMP fox-are-CAUS
Contemporative mood

The contemporative mood is used to construct subordinate clauses with the meaning of simultaneity and is used only if the subject of the subordinate clause and of the main clause are identical. If they differ, the participial mood or the causative mood is used. The contemporative can also be used to form complement clauses for verbs of speaking or thinking.[63]

qasu-llunga angerlar-punga "Being tired, I went home"
be.tired-CONT.I go.home-I
98-inik ukio-qar-luni toqu-voq "Being 98 years old, he/she died", "he/she was 98 when he/she died"
98-INSTR.PL year-have-CONT.4p.SG die-3p
Eva oqar-poq kami-it akiler-lugit "Eva said she had paid for the boots"
Eva say-3p boot-PL pay-CONT.3p.PL
Participial mood

The participial mood is used to construct a subordinate clause describing its subject in the state of carrying out an activity. It is used when the matrix clause and the subordinate clause have different subjects. It is often used in appositional phrases such as relative clauses.[64]

atuar-toq taku-ara "I saw her read/I saw that she read"
read-PART/3p see-I/3p
neriu-ppunga tiki-ssa-soq "I hope he is coming/I hope he'll come"
hope-I come-expect-PART/3p


Verbal derivation is extremely productive, and Greenlandic has many hundreds of derivational suffixes. Often, a single verb uses more than one derivational suffix, resulting in very long words. Here are some examples of how derivational suffixes can change the meaning of verbs:

-katak- "be tired of"

taku-katap-para "I am tired of seeing it/him/her"

-ler- "begin to/be about to"

neri-ler-pugut "We are about to eat"

-llaqqik- "be proficient at"

erinar-su-llaqqip-poq "She is good at singing"

-niar- "plans to/wants to"

aallar-niar-poq "He plans to travel"
angerlar-niar-aluar-punga "I was planning to go home though"

-ngajak- "almost"

sini-ngajap-punga "I had almost fallen asleep"

-nikuu-nngila- "has never"

taku-nikuu-nngila-ra "I have never seen it"

-nngitsoor- "not anyway/afterall"

tiki-nngitsoor-poq "He hasn't arrived after all"

Time reference and aspect

Greenlandic grammar has morphological devices to mark a distinction between, such ss recent and distant past, but their use is optional[65] and so they should be understood as parts of Greenlandic's extensive derivational system, rather than as a system of tense-markers. Rather than by morphological marking, fixed temporal distance is expressed by temporal adverbials:[66]

toqo-riikatap-poq "He died long ago"[67]
nere-qqammer-punga "I ate recently"[67]
ippassaq Piitaq arpap-poq "Yesterday Peter was running."[68]
yesterday Peter-ABS run-3p/IND

All other things being equal and in the absence of any explicit adverbials, the indicative mood is interpreted as complete or incomplete, depending on the verbal lexical aspect.[68]

Piitaq arpap-poq "Peter runs"[68]
Peter-ABS run-3p/IND
Piitaq ani-voq "Peter was gone out"[68]
Peter-ABS go.out-3p/IND

However, if a sentence with an atelic verbal phrase is embedded within the context of a past-time narrative, it would be interpreted as past.[69]

Greenlandic has several purely-derivational devices of expressing meaning related to aspect and lexical aspect such as sar, expressing "habituality", and ssaar, expressing, "stop to".[70] Also, there are at least two major perfect markers: sima and nikuu. sima can occur in several positions with obviously-different functions.[71] The last position indicates evidential meaning, but that can be determined only if several suffixes are present.

tiki(k)-nikuu-sima-voq "Apparently, she had arrived"[72]

With atelic verbs, there is a regular contrast between indirective evidentiality, marked by sima, and witnessed evidentiality, marked by nikuu.[73] Its evidential meaning causes the combination of first person and sima to be sometimes marked.[74]

qia-sima-voq "He cried (his eyes are swollen)"
qia-nikuu-voq "He cried (I was there)"

In the written language[67] and more recently also in the spoken language, especially by younger speakers, sima and nikuu can be used together with adverbials to refer to a particular time in the past.[75] That is, they can arguably mark time reference but do not yet do so systematically.

Just as Greenlandic does not systematically mark past tense, the language also does not have a future tense. Rather, it employs three different strategies to express future meaning:

Ilimaga-ara aasaq manna Dudley qujanar-tor-si-ffigi-ssa-llugu "I expect to get some fun out of Dudley this summer."
expect-I/3p/IND summer this Dudley
e.g. Aggiuti-ler-para "I've started to bring him."
Qimmii-t nerisi(k)-tigit "Let us feed the dogs, ok?"[77]
dog-PL feed-please-we/them/IMP

The status of the perfect markers as aspect is not very controversial, but some scholars have claimed that Greenlandic has a basic temporal distinction between future and nonfuture. Especially, the suffix -ssa and handful of other suffixes have been claimed to be obligatory future markers.[78][79] However, at least for literary Greenlandic, the suffixes have been shown to have other semantics, which can be used to refer to the future by the strategies that have just been described.[80]

Noun incorporation

There is also a debate in the linguistic literature on whether Greenlandic has noun incorporation. The language does not allow the kind of incorporation that common in many other languages in which a noun root can be incorporated into almost any verb to form a verb with a new meaning. On the other hand, Greenlandic often forsm verbs that include noun roots. The question then becomes whether to analyse such verb formations as incorporation or as denominal derivation of verbs. Greenlandic has a number of morphemes that require a noun root as their host and form complex predicates, which correspond closely in meaning to what is often seen in languages that have canonical noun incorporation. Linguists who propose that Greenlandic had incorporation argue that such morphemes are in fact verbal roots, which must incorporate nouns to form grammatical clauses.[48][81][82][83][84][85] That argument is supported by the fact that many of the derivational morphemes that form denominal verbs work almost identically to canonical noun incorporation. They allow the formation of words with a semantic content that correspond to an entire English clause with verb, subject and object. Another argument is that the morphemes that derive denominal verbs come from historical noun incorporating constructions, which have become fossilized.[86]

Other linguists maintain that the morphemes in question are simply derivational morphemes that allow the formation of denominal verbs. That argument is supported by the fact that the morphemes are always latched on to a nominal element.[87][88][89] These examples illustrate how Greenlandic forms complex predicates including nominal roots:

qimmeq "dog" + -qar- "have" (+ -poq "3p")

qimme-qar-poq "She has a dog"

illu "house" + -'lior- "make"

illu-lior-poq "She builds a house"

kaffi "coffee" + -sor- "drink/eat"

kaffi-sor-poq "She drinks coffee"

puisi "seal" + -nniar- "hunt"

puisi-nniar-poq "She hunts seal"

allagaq "letter" + -si- "receive"

allagar-si-voq "She has received a letter"

anaana "mother" + -a- "to be"

anaana-a-voq "She is a mother"


Nouns are always inflected for case and number and sometimes for number and person of possessor. Singular and plural are distinguished, and eight cases are used: absolutive, ergative (relative), instrumental, allative, locative, ablative, prosecutive (also called vialis or prolative) and equative.[90] Case and number are marked by a single suffix. Nouns can be derived from verbs or from other nouns by a number of suffixes: atuar- "to read" + -fik "place" becomes atuarfik "school" and atuarfik + -tsialak "something good" becomes atuarfitsialak "good school".

Since the possessive agreement suffixes on nouns and the transitive agreement suffixes on verbs in a number of instances have similar or identical shapes, there is even a theory that Greenlandic has a distinction between transitive and intransitive nouns, which id parallel to the same distinction in the verbs.[91][note 10]


There are personal pronouns for first, second, and third person singular and plural. They are optional as subjects or objects but only when the verbal inflection refers to such arguments.[92]

Personal pronouns
Singular Plural
First person uanga uagut
Second person illit ilissi
Third person una uku

Personal pronouns are, however, required in the oblique case:

illit nere-qu-aatit
you. eat tell-to 3s-2s-indic.
'He told you to eat'


Both grammatical core cases, ergative and absolutive, are used to express grammatical and syntactical roles of participant noun phrases. The oblique cases express information related to movement and manner.

3. Kalaallisut
case endings
case singular plural
Absolutive -q/-t/-k/-Ø -(i)t
Ergative -(u)p -(i)t
Instrumental -mik -nik
Allative -mut -nut
Locative -mi -ni
Ablative -mit -nit
Prosecutive -kkut -tigut
Equative -tut -tut
angu-t neri-voq "The man eats"
man-ABS eat-3p
angu-tip puisi neri-vaa "The man eats the seal"
man-ERG seal-ABS eat-3p/3p

The instrumental case is versatile. It is used for the instrument with which an action is carried out, for oblique objects of intransitive verbs (also called antipassive verbs)[48][93][94] and for secondary objects of transitive verbs.[95]

nano-q savim-mi-nik kapi-vaa "He stabbed the bear with his knife"
polar bear-ABS knife-his.own-INSTR stab-3p/3p
kaffi-sor-tar-poq "She usually drinks coffee"
coffee-INSTR drink-usually-3p
Piitaq savim-mik tuni-vara "I gave Peter a knife"
Peter-ABS knife-INSTR give-I/3p

It is also used to express the meaning of "give me" and to form adverbs from nouns:

imer-mik! "(give me) water"
sivisuu-mik sinip-poq "He slept late"
late-INSTR sleep-3p

The allative case describes movement towards something.[96]

illu-mut "towards the house"

It is also used with numerals and the question word qassit to express the time of the clock and in the meaning "amount per unit":

qassi-nut? – pingasu-nut. "When?" – "At three o'clock"
when-ALL three-ALL
kiilu-mut tiiva krone-qar-poq "It costs 20 crowns per kilo"
kilo-ALL twenty crown-have-3p

The locative case describes spatial location:[96]

illu-mi "in the house"

The ablative case describes movement away from something or the source of something:[96]

Rasmussi-mit allagarsi-voq "He got a letter from Rasmus"
Rasmus-ABL receive.letter-3p

The prosecutive case describes movement through something and the medium of writing or a location on the body. It is also used to describe a group of people such as a family as belonging to the modified noun.[97]

matu-kkut iser-poq "He entered through the door"
door-PROS enter-3p
su-kkut tillup-paatit? "Where (on the body) did he hit you?"
where-PROS hit-3p/YOU
palasi-kkut "the priest and his family"

The equative case describes similarity of manner or quality. It is also used yo derive language names from nouns denoting nationalities: "like a person of x nationality [speaks]".[97]

nakorsatut suli-sar-poq "he works as a doctor"
doctor-EQU work-HAB-3p
Qallunaa-tut "Danish language (like a Dane)"


4. Absolutive possessive inflection for weak nouns
Possessor Singular Plural
1st person singular illora "my house" illukka "my houses"
2nd person singular illut "your house" illutit "your houses"
3rd person singular illua "his house" illui "his houses"
4th person singular illuni "his own house" illuni "his own houses"
1st person plural illorput "our house" illuvut "our houses"
2nd person plural illorsi "your (pl) house" illusi "your (pl) houses"
3rd Person plural illuat "their house" illui "their houses"
4th person plural illortik "their own house" illutik "their own houses"

In Greenlandic, possession is marked on the noun that agrees with the person and the number of its possessor. The possessor is in the ergative case. There are different possessive paradigms for each different case.[98] Table 4 gives the possessive paradigm for the absolutive case of illu "house". Here are examples of the use of the possessive inflection, the use of the ergative case for possessors and the use of fourth person possessors.

Anda-p illu-a "Anda's house"
Anda-ERG house-3p/POSS
Anda-p illu-ni taku-aa "Anda sees his own house"
Anda-ERG house-4p/POSS see-3p/3p
Anda-p illu-a taku-aa "Anda sees his (the other man's) house"
Anda-ERG house-3p/POSS see-3p/3p


The orthography and the vocabulary of the Greenlandic language is governed by Oqaasileriffik, the Greenlandic language secretariat, located in the Ilimmarfik university campus in Nuuk.

Most of Greenlandic's vocabulary is inherited from Proto-Eskimo–Aleut, but there are also a large number of loans from other languages, especially from Danish. Early loans from Danish have often become acculturated to the Greenlandic phonological system: the Greenlandic word palasi "priest" is a loan from the Danish "præst". However, since Greenlandic has an enormous potential for the derivation of new words from existing roots, many modern concepts have Greenlandic names that have been invented rather than borrowed: qarasaasiaq "computer" which literally means "artificial brain". The potential for complex derivations also means that Greenlandic vocabulary is built on very few roots, which, combined with affixes, form large word families.[5] For example, the root for "tongue" oqaq is used to derive the following words:

Lexical differences between dialects are often considerable because of the earlier cultural practice of imposing a taboo on words that had served as names for a deceased person. Since people were often named after everyday objects, many of them have changed their name several times because of taboo rules, another cause of the divergence of dialectal vocabulary.[5]


ĸ in a Greenlandic–Danish dictionary from 1926

Greenlandic is written with the Latin script. The alphabet:


To spell loanwords from other languages, especially from Danish and English, the additional letters B, C, D, H, W, X, Y, Z, Æ, Ø and Å are used.[99][100] Greenlandic uses the symbols "..." and »...« as quotation marks.

From 1851 until 1973, Greenlandic was written in the alphabet invented by Samuel Kleinschmidt. This alphabet employed the special character kra (Κʼ / ĸ) which was replaced by q in the 1973 reform.[101] In the Kleinschmidt alphabet, long vowels and geminate consonants were indicated by means of diacritics on the vowels (in the case of consonant gemination, the diacritics were placed on the vowel preceding the affected consonant). For example, the name Kalaallit Nunaat was spelled Kalâdlit Nunât. This scheme uses a circumflex accent ( ˆ ) to indicate a long vowel (e.g., ât/ît/ût, modern: aat, iit, uut), an acute accent ( ´ ) to indicate gemination of the following consonant: (i.e., á, í, ú modern: a(kk), i(kk), u(kk))] and, finally, a tilde ( ˜ ) or a grave accent ( ` ), depending on the author, indicates vowel length and gemination of the following consonant (e.g., ãt, ĩt, ũt or àt, ìt, ùt, modern: aatt, iitt, uutt). The letters ê and ô, used only before r and q, are now written ee and oo in Greenlandic. The spelling system of Nunatsiavummiutut, spoken in Nunatsiavut in northeastern Labrador, is derived from the old Greenlandic system.

Technically, the Kleinschmidt orthography focused upon morphology: the same derivational affix would be written in the same way in different contexts, despite its being pronounced differently in different contexts. The 1973 reform replaced this with a phonological system: Here, there was a clear link from written form to pronunciation, and the same suffix is now written differently in different contexts. The differences are due to phonological changes. It is therefore easy to go from the old orthography to the new (cf. the online converter)[102] whereas going the other direction would require a full lexical analysis.

Sample text

Inuit tamarmik inunngorput nammineersinnaassuseqarlutik assigiimmillu ataqqinassuseqarlutillu pisinnaatitaaffeqarlutik. Silaqassusermik tarnillu nalunngissusianik pilersugaapput, imminnullu iliorfigeqatigiittariaqaraluarput qatanngutigiittut peqatigiinnerup anersaavani.

"All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood." (Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights)

See also


  1. ^ According to the Namminersornerullutik Oqartussat / Grønlands Hjemmestyres (Greenlands Home, official website): " Language. The official languages are Greenlandic and Danish.... Greenlandic is the language [that is] used in schools and [that] dominates in most towns and settlements"."Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2009-02-27. Retrieved 2008-12-13.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  2. ^ ⟨ff⟩ is the way of writing the devoiced /vv/ geminate; otherwise, ⟨f⟩ occurs only in loanwords.
  3. ^ /ʃ/ is found in some dialects, but not in the standard language.
  4. ^ The uvular nasal [ɴ] is not found in all dialects and there is dialectal variability regarding its status as a phoneme (Rischel 1974:176–181)
  5. ^ For example the word Nalunaarasuartaatilioqateeraliorfinnialikkersaatiginialikkersaatilillaranatagoorunarsuarooq, which means something like "Once again they tried to build a giant radio station, but it was apparently only on the drawing board".
  6. ^ That can be compared to the English rate, of slightly more than one morpheme per word.
  7. ^ This article uses the following abbreviations for grammatical terminology in the example glosses: IND: indicative mood; INT: intransitive; TR: transitive; ABS: absolutive case; I: first person singular; WE: first person plural; YOU: second person; 3p: third person; 4p: reflexive/obviative person; ERG: ergative case; CONT: contemporative mood; POSS: possessor; INSTR: instrumental case; NEG: negative; INTERR: interrogative mood; IMP: imperative mood; OPT: optative mood; COND: conditional mood; CAU: causative mood; PL: plural. For affixes about which the precise meaning is the cause of discussion among specialists, the suffix itself is used as a gloss, and its meaning must be understood from context: -SSA (meaning either future or expectation), -NIKUU and -SIMA.
  8. ^ In glosses of examples in Greenlandic, the abbreviation "3p" means "third person singular" and has the same meaning as the English third person pronouns he, she and it except that it does not carry any information about gender.
  9. ^ The abbreviation "4p" refers to the fourth or reflexive person.
  10. ^ For example, the suffix with the shape -aa means "his/hers/its" when it is suffixed to a noun but "him/her/it" when it is suffixed to a verb. Likewise the suffix -ra means "my" or "me", depending on whether it is suffixed on a verb or a noun.


  1. ^ Greenlandic at Ethnologue (22nd ed., 2019)
  2. ^ a b Law of Greenlandic Selfrule (see chapter 7)[1] (in Danish)
  3. ^ Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2017). "Kalaallisut". Glottolog 3.0. Jena, Germany: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  4. ^ Greenlandic language at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
  5. ^ a b c d e Rischel, Jørgen. Grønlandsk sprog.[2] Den Store Danske Encyklopædi Vol. 8, Gyldendal
  6. ^ a b Goldbach & Winther-Jensen (1988)
  7. ^ Iutzi-Mitchell & Nelson H. H. Graburn (1993)
  8. ^ Michael Jones, Kenneth Olwig. 2008. Nordic Landscapes: Region and Belonging on the Northern Edge of Europe. U of Minnesota Press, 2008, p. 133
  9. ^ Louis-Jacques Dorais. 2010. The Language of the Inuit: Syntax, Semantics, and Society in the Arctic. McGill-Queen's Press – MQUP, p. 208-9
  10. ^ UNESCO Interactive Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger Archived 2009-02-22 at the Wayback Machine
  11. ^ "Greenland". CIA World Factbook. 2008-06-19. Retrieved 2008-07-11.
  12. ^ "Sermersooq will secure Eastern Greenlandic". Kalaallit Nunaata Radioa (in Danish). 2010-01-06. Retrieved 2010-05-19.
  13. ^ Fortescue (1991) passim
  14. ^ a b Mennecier(1995) p 102
  15. ^ a b Mahieu & Tersis (2009) p. 53
  16. ^ Fortescue, Michael (1990), "Basic Structures and Processes in West Greenlandic" (PDF), in Collins, Dirmid R. F. (ed.), Arctic Languages: An Awakening, Paris: UNESCO, p. 317, ISBN 978-92-3-102661-4
  17. ^ Rischel (1974) pp. 79 – 80
  18. ^ a b Jacobsen (2000)
  19. ^ Bjørnum (2003) p. 16
  20. ^ a b c Hagerup, Asger (2011). A Phonological Analysis of Vowel Allophony in West Greenlandic. NTNU.
  21. ^ Rischel (1974) pp.173–177
  22. ^ Fortescue(1984) p. 338
  23. ^ Sadock (2003) pp. 20–21
  24. ^ a b Bjørnum (2003) pp. 23–26
  25. ^ Sadock (2003) p. 2
  26. ^ Fortescue (1984) p. 5
  27. ^ Bjørnum,(2003) p. 27
  28. ^ Rischel (1985) pp. 553
  29. ^ Underhill (1976)
  30. ^ Sadock (2003) p. 12
  31. ^ Sadock (2003) pp. 3 & 8
  32. ^ Fortescue & Lennert Olsen (1992) p. 112
  33. ^ Sadock (2003) p. 11
  34. ^ Bjørnum (2003) pp. 33–34
  35. ^ a b Bjørnum (2003)
  36. ^ Bjørnum (2003) p. 71
  37. ^ Bjørnum (2003) pp. 71–72
  38. ^ Langgård, Karen (2009) "Grammatical structures in Greenlandic as found in texts written by young Greenlanders at the turn of the millennium" chapter 15 in Mahieu & Tersis (2009) pp. 231–247 [sic]
  39. ^ Fortescue (1993) p. 269
  40. ^ Fortescue (1993) p. 269-270
  41. ^ Fortescue(1984) p. 34
  42. ^ Fortescue (1993) p. 270
  43. ^ Bittner (1995) p. 80
  44. ^ Fortescue 1991. 53 ff.
  45. ^ Woodbury (1983)
  46. ^ Bjørnum (2003) pp. 152–154
  47. ^ Kappel Schmidt (2003)
  48. ^ a b c Sadock (2003)
  49. ^ Fortescue (1984) p. 92 & p. 249
  50. ^ Hallman, Peter (n.d.) "Definiteness in Inuktitut"[3] p. 2
  51. ^ van Geenhoven (1998)
  52. ^ Bittner (1987)
  53. ^ Shaer (2003)
  54. ^ Bittner (2005)
  55. ^ Hayashi& Spreng (2005)
  56. ^ Fortescue (1980) note 1
  57. ^ Bjørnum (2003) p. 35-50
  58. ^ Fortescue & Lennert Olsen (1992) pp. 112 and 119–122)
  59. ^ Bjørnum (2003) p. 39
  60. ^ Bjørnum (2003) p. 40-42
  61. ^ Bjørnum (2003) p. 45
  62. ^ Bjørnum(2003) pp. 43–44
  63. ^ Bjørnum(2003) pp.46–49
  64. ^ Bjørnum (2003) pp. 50–51
  65. ^ Fortescue (1984:) p. 273
  66. ^ Trondhjem (2009) pp. 173–175
  67. ^ a b c Fortescue (1984) p. 273
  68. ^ a b c d Trondhjem (2009) p. 174
  69. ^ Bittner (2005) p. 7
  70. ^ Fortescue (1984) pp. 276–287. The dividing line between lexical aspect, aspect and still other functions that do not fit into those categories has yet to be clarified.
  71. ^ Fortescue (1984) pp. 272–273
  72. ^ Trondhjem (2009) p. 177
  73. ^ a b Trondhjem (2009) p. 179
  74. ^ cp. Trondhjem (2009) p. 180
  75. ^ Trondhjem (2009) pp. 179–180
  76. ^ cp. Bittner (2005) p. 36
  77. ^ Bittner (2005) pp. 12–13; translation of 15 altered. Glosses standardised to the system used in this article.
  78. ^ Fortescue (1984)
  79. ^ Trondhjem (2009)
  80. ^ Bittner (2005) pp. 11, 38–43
  81. ^ Sadock (1980)
  82. ^ Sadock(1986)
  83. ^ Sadock (1999)
  84. ^ "Malouf (1999)" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2003-07-12. Retrieved 20 March 2018.
  85. ^ van Geenhoven (2002)
  86. ^ Marianne Mithun "Polysynthesis in the Arctic" in Mahieu and Tersis (2009).
  87. ^ Mithun (1986)
  88. ^ Mithun (1984)
  89. ^ Rosen (1989)
  90. ^ Fortescue (1984) p. 71
  91. ^ Sadock (2003) p. 5
  92. ^ Fortescue (1984) p. 252
  93. ^ Kappel Schmidt (2003) passim
  94. ^ Bittner (1987) passim
  95. ^ Bjørnum (2003) p. 73
  96. ^ a b c Bjørnum (2003) p.74
  97. ^ a b Bjørnum (2003) p. 75
  98. ^ Bjørnum (2003) p. 86
  99. ^ Grønlands sprognævn (1992)
  100. ^ Petersen (1990)
  101. ^
  102. ^ "Programs for analysing Greenlandic". Retrieved 20 March 2018.