Greenland. It’s a massive island with a relatively teeny-tiny population that saw a sizable boost of recognition on the world stage recently. Greenland made headlines at the end of this summer when President Trump expressed wishes to buy it from Denmark for the United States (Greenland, once a Danish colony, is now a part of the Danish Kingdom and has its own Parliament). When the prime minister of Denmark and Greenlanders reminded the U.S. president that the country is not, in fact, for sale, the plan was stopped in its tracks, but not without bringing significant media attention to the island. If in the flurry of news you found yourself realizing that you don’t actually know all that much about the languages spoken in Greenland or the people who speak them, then you’re not alone.
We’ve got you covered. Put on your scarves and mittens, because we’re heading north for a linguistic tour of the world’s largest island. Keep reading to find out what languages are spoken in Greenland.
The Languages Spoken In Greenland And The People Who Live There
Believe it or not, the native tongue of most of Greenland’s population is a language called Greenlandic, which was made the country’s official language in 2009. If you’ve never heard of it, that might be because there aren’t that many speakers in the world. There are about 57,000 people who live in Greenland, clustered mainly in Nuuk, the capital and largest city. The rest live in the other dozen or so towns along the southern and western coast where it’s habitable (that is, not covered by an expansive ice sheet). About 50,000 Greenlanders speak Greenlandic natively.
Known to its speakers as Kalaallisut, Greenlandic is a member of the Eskimo-Aleut language family, which means it’s closer to the Inuit languages found in Alaska and Canada than it is to neighboring Icelandic or Danish, which are both Germanic languages. It’s a polysynthetic language, which means that it can begin with a root that has affixes and suffixes piled onto it to convey entire sentences in just one long word. (Some scholars claim the longest word is more than 200 letters long.)
Greenlandic is divided into a few main varieties: West Greenlandic (the standard and most popular dialect that’s considered the country’s official language with about 44,000 speakers), East Greenlandic, South Greenlandic and North Greenlandic, also known as Polar Eskimo or the Thule dialect, which has only about 800 living speakers.
Roughly 6,000 of those Greenlanders who don’t speak Greenlandic natively are fluent in Danish. For the most part, children are raised learning three languages: English, Danish and West Greenlandic. They also learn foreign languages like French and German.
Greenlandic is mostly limited to the confines of that huge Arctic island, but it’s worth noting that there are a couple thousand speakers who live in Denmark, too, as the two countries remain close diplomatically.