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Of all the original American languages, perhaps none has been so minutely scrutinised, both lexicographically and grammatically, as that of the Greenlanders. The Labrador dialect also belongs to the better known amongst them. But as regards the dialect spoken by the western Eskimo on the shores of Behring Strait, our only source of information is a few lists of words given by travellers of different nations, partly modified by translation. Such exist in Russian, English, and German. There are also a few very scanty grammatical remarks given by a single author. These lists are inevitably exceedingly imperfect copies of the original words. They have been procured by questioning natives, which has been partly done by gestures and {see picture facing page 12} p. 13 through interpreters of little intelligence; and then the structure is so widely different from that of European languages, that a single word in most cases has no corresponding word in these, but requires several for its complete expression. The sounds, too, may make a different impression on different hearers—may be imperfectly expressed in Russian, English, and German writing, and this also may not be free from errors of transcription. All this may cause any amount of misunderstanding. Let us first take up the question of a variety of dialects, where closer examination will perhaps show the contrary. These authors alluded to mention about eight different Eskimo dialects round Behring Strait. Some examples will explain how the supposed differences between the words here and in Greenland may have originated. For instance, wife is called nulijak and ahanak; man, uika and nuhelpach; baby, mukisskok; shoulders, tuichka and tuik; hand, tatlichka and aiged; dying, tukko and tukoeuchtuk; cold, ninhlichtu and paznachtuk; heat, matschachtuk and uknachtuk; fire, eknek and knk (!), Let us now take what we find in the Greenlandish dictionary and grammar: nuliaĸ, wife (of a man); arnaĸ, woman; uviga, my husband; nukagpiaĸ, unmarried man; mikissoĸ, small; tuvíka, my shoulders; tuvik, shoulders; tatdlíka, my arms; agssait, fingers or hand; toĸo, death; toĸussoĸ, dead; nigdlertoĸ, cool; panertoĸ, dry; masagtoĸ, wet; ûnartoĸ, hot; ingneĸ, fire. The apparent differences between these two lists seem evidently to have arisen from mere misunderstanding, without any real variation between the languages. On comparing, in the same manner, the rest of the lists of words from Behring Strait, two-thirds or three-fourths of the words are found to be more or less Greenlandish. Moreover, taking into consideration the manner in which travellers have been enabled to communicate with one tribe of Eskimo, by interpreters taken from another, and that the difference between the Greenland p. 14 and the Labrador is smaller than, for instance, between Swedish and Danish, one is induced to assume an affinity of language among all the real Eskimo sufficient to allow mutual intercourse everywhere. On the other hand, it cannot be denied that the language of the Eskimo to the west of the Mackenzie is considerably different from that of the eastern tribes.

Taking it for granted that Greenlandish may be held to represent the Eskimo tongue in general, we shall endeavour to give an idea of its remarkable construction. Its most striking general peculiarity is the length of its words; and this, in fact, expresses its chief dissimilarity from all languages, except the American. What in other tongues may demand a whole sentence, and even additional dependent sentences, in Greenlandish may sometimes be expressed by a single verb. Consequently, Greenlandish grammar has both to construct words and to fix them in the sentence. This construction is effected by the help of additional elements or imperfect words, having no meaning by themselves, but expressive as additions to the main word, with which they can be combined in varieties of number and order, every combination altering or modifying the sense of the radical or adding a certain complexity of notions to it. Composition is completed by flexion, and particularly by conjugation, which not only, as in several other dialects, can make the verb include a pronoun as subject, but also as object, and in this way can form a sentence by itself, whereby these additional elements may render the sentence compound, or even include other sentences. The following abstract of Samuel Kleinschmidt's Greenlandish grammar will give a sufficient idea of this process:—

Writing and pronunciation.—The language is written with the same letters as the German, only omitting some, and with the addition of the following:—

ĸ, differing from k by its being formed in the remotest p. 15 part of the mouth, and sounding as something between gh, rk, and rkr.

r’, sounding like a very guttural German ch. [The letter r is sometimes, but not necessarily, marked with an apostrophe, or headed by a comma, to make it sound like a very guttural German ch. {from the errata}]

ss, like the French j.

ng and rng, nasal sounds.

The pronunciation of the vowels is often modified by the next consonants. The letter a is often heard as in the English word at. The accents ´ ^ ~, which show whether the syllable is to be pronounced sharp, long, or long combined with sharp, are of the greatest importance as to the sense of a word. Otherwise, the letters have mostly the same power as in German and the Scandinavian tongues.

Greenlandish likes simplicity in its syllables, preferring those composed of one vowel and one consonant. More than one consonant in a syllable is not allowed, if any harshness should arise. No word can end with other consonants than ĸ, k, p, and t, nor begin with others than these, and m, n, and s. All the combinations of consonants possible in the structure of words are limited to thirty.

Parts of speech.—The words are composed of the stem and the enclitic for flexion. The stem can be changed, even abbreviated to the root, which is the part always remaining.

The stems are divided into (1) primitive, as igdlo, house; (2) added, as ssuaĸ, great or large; lik, having or endowed with. The latter can hever be used alone, but must be appended to the former singly, or followed by more, as igdlorssuaĸ, a large house; igdlorssualik, one who has a large house. These added stems, which perhaps originally were words, are numerous as well as completely movable, and can be embodied in the word as required by the meaning. Affixes of this kind are of course not wanting in our better-known European languages, but are by no means so numerous or serviceable as in Greenlandish. On the other hand, the formation p. 16 of compound words by simply joining other real words, is completely unknown in Greenlandish.

With regard to their endings, both kinds of stems are divided into (1) nominal, having of themselves the meaning of nouns; (2) verbal, which, with their proper endings, are only used exceptionally in phrases, or with the sense of interjections, but for the verbal purpose require a particular addition, which is the part altered through the conjugation—for instance, ajoĸ and pisuk are incomplete words, giving the notions of illness and going, but with the verbal ending they give ajorpoĸ, he is bad; pisugpoĸ, he goes. By help of the same ending also, nouns can be converted into verbs, but only a few of them, and then they comprise some peculiar additional signification, such as that of acquiring or getting, as âtâĸ, a seal; âtârpoĸ, he caught a seal.

In the way here described, the stems give rise to nouns and verbs; and in reality these are nearly the only elements of speech in this tongue, which otherwise has only some particles or inflexible words, and even these seem to have had the same source, whereas all the other parts of speech are more or less directly to be looked for in the nouns and verbs, the pronouns especially in the latter.

The grammatical forms.—Flexion is obtained by help of some additional endings, combined with more or less modification of the word. It comprises the number—viz., singular, dual, and plural; and as to the verbs, also persons, as igdlo, a house; igdluk, two houses; igdlut, several houses; takuvoĸ, he sees; takuvugut, we see. Next, the flexions express something relating to another thing, either as a property or as an object; and in these cases they have obtained the name of suffixes, as igdlua, his house; igdluvut, our houses; takuvâ, he sees it; takuvavut, we see them. Moreover, the nouns, besides their simple form, in which they are used as objects, and which on this account is called objective, also p. 17 have a subjective form given to them, either in case of their being possessors (corresponding to genitive) or subjects in a transitive sentence, as teriangniaĸ, the fox; teriangniap, the fox's; teriangniaĸ takuvâ, he sees the fox; teriangniap takuvâ, the fox sees him. In nouns flexion also takes the place of prepositions, by help of cases answering to the questions where, in what way, whereto, in what manner,—as nuna, land; nuname, on the land; nunavtinut, to our land. Lastly, in verbs the flexion comprises seven moods—viz., indicative, interrogative, optative, conjunctive, subjunctive, infinitive, and participle.

While end-flexion thus expresses the relations in a remarkable manner, on the other hand it has no form for sex and tense. The context must show whether the verb has the sense of present or past, and otherwise time is expressed more distinctly by help of additional stems containing the notions of begins to, has finished, is going to, joined to the original verb.

As regards nouns particularly, they all in their objective form end in a vowel, or in ĸ, k, and t, the subjective taking p, the dual k, and the plural t. There are two kinds of suffixes expressing the relation to the subject itself, or to another; and besides this, every suffix has its peculiar form for number, subjective, objective, and the local cases. But in order to add the above flexional letters, the nouns themselves, in certain cases, must be somewhat modified; and the rules for this transformation are nearly the only complicated part of Greenlandish grammar. Yet the natives would seem sometimes not to consider this transformation absolutely necessary in correct speaking, saying igdlo, house; igdlut, houses; but tupeĸ, tent; tovĸit, or also tupit, tents. Excepting these transformations, the numerous forms may be represented by help of a scheme which can be written on a quarto page.

The verbs are divided, according to the mark of the p. 18 third person indicative, into five classes, with endings as follow: poĸ, rpoĸ, gpoĸ, voĸ, and aoĸ, but each still to be conjugated according to the same scheme, which comprises all the numerous combinations of these forms—viz., numbers, persons, suffixes, and moods—and still, on account of its regularity, can be written on one folio page. Negation is expressed by the additional stem ngilaĸ, which is conjugated in a somewhat peculiar manner.

In consequence of what has just been explained, personal pronouns generally are of no use. Still, some words of pronominal signification exist, used when the person must be expressed more distinctly; but even those words seem to have been formed by help of suffixes, such as uvanga, I, which perhaps originally signified, my being here. However, of demonstrative roots twelve are found corresponding to the notions here (ma), north, south, there, above, &c. Without any addition or flexion, they only occur as interjections, but otherwise always as nouns, answering to the questions—where, whence, which way, and whereto. Of these roots, pronouns for the third person are formed by adding na, with the sense of, this here (mána), he there in the north, &c.

The real numerals only run from 1 to 5, like the fingers on one hand, then the fingers on the other are enumerated, and afterwards, if necessary, the toes on the feet. For this reason 20 is called "the man finished." The rest are expressed by some partitive word showing the number counted, as atauseĸ, 1; mardluk, 2; pingasut, 3; sisamat, 4; tatdlimat, 5; but arfineĸ pingasut, 8 (or 3 upon the other hand); 24 is called 4 upon the second man, and 80, finishing 4 men.

Construction of words.—We have already mentioned the signification of the stems. These are derived from roots, and it must be supposed that either several stems have a common root, or that several roots have been p. 19 related to each other, as, for example, ĸôĸ, urine; and kûk, a river. But the grammar does not explain the origin of the stems, whose formation is considered as accomplished and fixed; and here we shall only try to give an idea of their further application in constructing words. With the exception only of the verbal ending, necessary for the formation of real verbs, words are always composed or formed by help of the additional stems, also called affixes. These are divided into (1) the transforming class, by which verbs can be converted into nouns, or nouns into verbs; (2) the formative class, by which the word remains unchanged in this respect.


A selection of the most remarkable additional stems or affixes.


1. Transforming.

toĸ or ssoĸ, being or doing so, consequently a sort of nominal participle, as ajorpoĸ, he is bad; ajortok, a bad one; autdlarpoĸ, he goes away; autdlartoĸ, he who is departed.

taĸ, ssaĸ or gaĸ, representing a kind of passive participle, as tûniúpâ, he gives it; túniússaĸ, what is given, a present.

fik, the time or place, when or where the action has passed.

ut or t, the means or reason for the action, as agdlagpoĸ, he writes; agdlaut, a thing to write with, pen, ink, and also the object described.

2. Formative.

a. Adjective-like or neutral, which alter the stem-word in no essential way.

gssaĸ, destined for or future, as pôĸ, a bag; pûgssaĸ, a cloth or skin for making a bag.

ssuaĸ, large or very, as igdlorssuaĸ, a large house; ajortorssuaĸ, very bad.

nguaĸ, small or little.

tsiaĸ or atsiaĸ, tolerable or somewhat.

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b. Substantive-like, which make the stem-word totally subordinate.

lik, provided with.

mio, inhabitant of.

ussaĸ, like or similar, as sioraĸ, sand; sioraussaĸ, something like sand, among other meanings used for raw sugar.


1. Transforming.

or , has for, uses as, regards as—erneĸ, son; ernerâ, he has him for a son.

ĸarpoĸ, has or there is, as savik, a knife; saveĸarpoĸ, he has a knife, or there is a knife.

liorpoĸ, makes, builds.

liarpoĸ, travels or goes to.

uvoĸ, is; savik, a knife; saviuvoĸ, it is a knife.

sivoĸ, gains or acquires.

2. Formative.

a. Neutral, with a meaning partly as auxiliary verbs, partly as adverbs.

savoĸ, will or shall; saveĸásavoĸ, he shall have or will get a knife.

niarpoĸ, endeavours to.

dluarpoĸ, well, sufficiently; ingerdlavoĸ, it moves; ingerdlavdluarpoĸ, it goes quick.

ngârpoĸ, highly; angivoĸ, it is large; angingârpoĸ, is very large.

tarpoĸ, repeatedly or using to.

b. Intransitive.

juipoĸ, never.

gajugpoĸ, is bending to, likes to.

narpoĸ, is to make one; masagpoĸ, is wet; masangnarpoĸ, is to grow wet from.

c. Transitive.

tipâ, causes him to; autdlarpoĸ, goes away; autdlartípá, he sends him away.

rĸuvâ, commands or wishes that he.

serpâ, waits till he; tikipoĸ, he comes; tikitserpâ, is waiting till he comes.

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It is by combining a series of these added stems to the principal stem, that such an extraordinary complexity of ideas can be conveyed in a single word. Only the more intelligent, however, are perfectly skilled in this operation, and the number of affixes attached to one primitive stem seldom amounts to ten. The order in which they are linked to one another depends on the meaning, besides certain particular rules for each of them; but they are always put after the primitive stem, and the flexion always ends the word. The total number of affixes is about two hundred. As a sample, we shall try here to compose a word of some of the stems given above—


This word consists of a primitive stem, seven affixes, and lastly the flexion for the third person conjunctive with the suffix for him. It signifies—as he commanded (or wished) him to go to the place, where the tolerably large house shall be built.


This word is constructed of one primitive and six additional stems, with the flexion for the first person indicative, and the suffix for him or it, and signifies—I ordered him to use it as a means for buying (endeavouring to get) house-materials (a future house).

Syntax.—In consequence of what has been explained above, much of what in other dialects belongs to syntax, in Greenland is represented by composing words and by flexion. There is a very sharp distinction between the verbs as transitive, intransitive, or having both qualities at once. The exclusively transitive verbs always require a suffix; where this is wanting they grow reflective—for instance, toĸúpâ, he killed him; but toĸúpoĸ, he killed, always supposes himself.

Among the seven moods of the verb, the infinitive and the participle do not exactly correspond to what are p. 22 so called in other languages. The infinitive is very often used like the participle in a run of sentences, to express what in other tongues is obtained by help of while, then, as, during, &c, The participle exhibits the peculiarity of only in some degree corresponding to a noun, on which account it has been called a verbal participle. It can become the object, but not the subject of a sentence. On the other hand, even in this mood the verb includes at once its own subject and its object, for which reason the participle is used for subordinate sentences, as takugâ, he who sees him; takugingma, thou who seest me; takugivkit, I who see thee; nalugavkit (of naluvâ, he does not know it), takugingma, as I did not know thee, thee who saw me—viz., as I did not know that thou sawest me; naluvarma takugivkit, thou didst not know that I saw thee.

Lastly, it must be remembered that in agreement with what has already been explained, if even a sentence has its subject and object expressed by particular nouns, its verb nevertheless must indicate both by aid of the suffix in its ending, as inûp igdlo takuvâ, the man (s)—the house—he saw it,—viz., the man saw the house.