Mark Brown has a story at The Guardian about Stephen Pax Leonard, a Cambridge University researcher who’s off to Greenland to document the language and traditions of an Inuit community:

Leonard, an anthropological linguist, is to spend a year living with the Inughuit people of north-west Greenland, a tiny community whose members manage to live a similar hunting and gathering life to their ancestors. They speak a language – the dialect is called Inuktun – that has never fully been written down, and they pass down their stories and traditions orally.
“Climate change means they have around 10 or 15 years left,” said Leonard. “Then they’ll have to move south and in all probability move in to modern flats.” If that happens, an entire language and culture is likely to disappear.[…]
The Inughuits thought they were the world’s only inhabitants until an expedition led by the Scottish explorer John Ross came across them in 1818.
Unlike other Inuit communities they were not significantly influenced by the arrival of Christianity in Greenland – so they retain elements of a much older, shamanic culture […] Their language is regarded as something of a linguistic “fossil” and one of the oldest and most “pure” Inuit dialects.[…]
Leonard intends to record the Inughuits and, rather than writing a grammar or dictionary, produce an “ethnography of speaking” to show how their language and culture are interconnected. The recordings will be digitised and archived and returned to the community in their own language.

I’m not sure why creating an “ethnography of speaking” would keep you from writing a grammar or dictionary, which it seems to me could be useful to the community as well, but I wish him well in his frigid journey (“Although the average temperature is −25C, it can plummet to −40 or soar to zero in the summer”). Thanks, Doc Rock and Paul!


  1. Shouldn’t an antiprescriptivist applaud the idea of not writing a grammar or dictionary, but just documenting the language and how it relates to the culture? These folks have gotten along forever without a grammar, so how would it be useful to them? Wouldn’t it just serve stop any ways in which the language might otherwise continue to evolve (especially as their culture undergoes a major shift when the ice melts)? IOW, if it has never been written down, maybe the idea is that the best way to preserve it is not to write it down now, but to document it through the recorded “ethnography of speaking.”
    “Ethnography of speaking” seems to derive from the work of Dell Hymes — his Wikipedia article has a basic outline of what it means: A quote: “Hymes developed a valuable model to assist the identification and labeling of components of linguistic interaction that was driven by his view that, in order to speak a language correctly, one needs not only to learn its vocabulary and grammar, but also the context in which words are used.”

  2. Kári Tulinius says

    Martin: Shouldn’t an antiprescriptivist applaud the idea of not writing a grammar or dictionary, but just documenting the language and how it relates to the culture?
    A grammar and a dictionary describe a language. Telling the Inughuits to leave out “impure” words would be a prescriptivist statement. If you think I’m describing a ridiculous strawman I can tell you that sometimes foreigners tell native speakers of my language, Icelandic, to do that.

  3. John Emerson says

    I can tell you that sometimes foreigners tell native speakers of my language, Icelandic, to do that.
    It turned out that the biggest hyper-purist was/is a Belgian and seems to be a bit of a Dadaist.

  4. Kari & John, I think maybe we’re on the same wavelength. My point is that once a dictionary and grammar are written, describing the language as it is right now, the tendency would be to consider that to be a codification of the language and to call any subsequent evolution impure. We’ve certainly see that in English — Shakespeare, without benefit of grammars and dictionaries, could innovate with impunity, but ever since the advent of language documentation the arguments over perceived misuses has raged. In theory that can happen also with a recorded, unwritten “ethnography of speaking,” but that approach seems more likely to treat the language as a living thing than something dissected and immutably preserved.

  5. John Emerson says

    This got me googling again.
    Jef Broekmans is a vigorous proponent of Icelandic purism.
    He has engaged in Wiki Wars.

  6. aqilluqqaaq says

    How much closer is Inuktun to Qikiqtaaluk uannangani than to Kalaallisut? I mean if I moved from Iglulik to Nûgssuaq, how much difficulty would I have understanding?

  7. John Emerson says

    Wiki article. “High Icelandic” is treated as a constructed language like Klingon.

  8. “Climate change means they have around 10 or 15 years left,” said Leonard.
    Why is that? If I’m not mistaken it was warmer up there 1000 years ago when their ancestors moved into the area.
    The moral of my story is that British people can’t brush their f*cking teeth without mentioning climate change.

  9. @aqilluqqaaq: Excellent question (by which I really mean that I sort of know the answer): Inuktun is a “Greenlandic” dialect only by dint of geography; it’s much closer to the Inuktitut dialects of northern Baffin Island than to Kalaallisut. As for mutual intelligibility, I can only guess, but I think it would be much easier than between Inuktitut and Kalaallisut, because it doesn’t have the Greenlandic consonant changes.

  10. John Emerson says

    Alex, it’s because of their specific way of life where they are now, regardless of anything that may or may not have been true 1000 years ago. This has nothing to do with “British people”.
    Out of respect for the owner of this site, I’ll leave it at that. It’s the custom here to avoid abusive statements and political ranting, both of which I’m as good at as you are.

  11. aqilluqqaaq says

    @ Aput: ᖁᔭᓐᓇᒦᒃ ᖃᐅᔨᒪᑎᒃᑲᕕᙵ.

  12. Nah, Alex, the moral of my story is that British people can get research grants by playing the climate change card.

  13. John Emerson says

    The moral of the story is that climate change is real even though there are a lot of noisy, shameful, ignorant deniers.
    I would be happy to have this whole debate deleted, including my contributions.

  14. Yeah, can we please not get into a debate about climate change? If everybody can just let go of the subject, I’ll leave the thread as is, but if people keep it up, I’ll follow JE’s suggestion and delete Alex’s pointlessly aggressive comment and everything responding to it.

  15. @aqilluqqaaq: ᐃᓛᓕ/illillu!
    n.b.: My knowledge of arctic languages is fairly minimal, and is due entirely to my father, who speaks Kalaallisut (not natively). Also, I spent a month in Greenland when I was a kid.

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