When we hear about change in the Arctic, it’s more often related to climate than culture. But globalized culture and business is causing rapid changes in the region. Since the 1800s, 21 indigenous Arctic languages have become extinct, and more are being added to the list year by year.
UNESCO’s Atlas of World Languages in Danger charts languages at different levels of concern: vulnerable, endangered, and then extinct. West Greenlandic (Kalaallisut), the official national language of Greenland, is one of those vulnerable languages, with 50,000 speakers. North Greenlandic (Avanersuaq, 1,000 speakers) and East Greenlandic (Tunumiit oraasiat, 3,000 speakers) are definitely endangered. Other Greenlandic dialects, such as Qavak, have already slipped out of use.
The importance of these languages is recognized by people across the Arctic region and the wider world.
Once, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) relied on information from peer-reviewed scientific studies, and has largely excluded traditional knowledge (TK) as a source of information for its reports. But now there’s a growing recognition from scientists that traditional knowledge can provide insights – and indeed that it’s particularly useful in “remote” locations where there are no other means of observation. This knowledge, passed on down the generations, is enshrined in the language. As an environmentalist reading about these issues, I began to wonder how future scientists will study the Arctic ecosystem without access to specialist Arctic vocabularies. As a poet, I wondered what happens to an individual’s experience of words when their language begins to disappear.
My own experience in the Arctic was enriched by learning Kalaallisut, and many of my projects (books such as How to Say I Love You in Greenlandic: An Arctic Alphabet) pay tribute to what the language has taught me.
A game of words
I decided to develop a way of spreading the word about endangered languages that took the issue outside the book into performance. Many Arctic nations have an oral rather than written tradition and the transmission of oral literature from one generation to the next lies at the heart of cultural practice. Performances of creative works of verbal art are increasingly endangered. It seemed an anomaly to address such issues on the printed page.
Hence The Polar Tombola – a game of chance, like the Italian Christmas raffle from which it draws it name. At events around the UK, from London’s Southbank Centre to the Polar Museum in Cambridge, from Liverpool’s World Museum to the BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art in Gateshead, I invited passers-by to pick a card from a vast snowball containing word-cards letterpress-printed with West Greenlandic terms. I had chosen words that related to the environment, such as “kagdleq” (thunder), “karnalak” (reindeer which is shedding its hairs), and “ikiarôrpoq” (the sun or moon shines through the clouds).
To learn the meaning of the word on their card, the player has to consult a Greenlandic-English dictionary from 1926. Browsing a printed dictionary is a relatively rare experience these days, and most players seem to enjoy it, so I encourage them to take their time, stopping to consider any words that intrigue them before reaching their goal. In the process, they acquire at least one word of Greenlandic, and an appreciation of the wider culture too.
Then comes the twist: each player is encouraged to leave a word behind. “If you had to lose a word from your own language,” I ask, “what would it be?” The question brings home a sense of empathy for language loss, one word at a time.
It’s a big commitment to vow never to use a word again and some people decide not to play along. One issue has come up again and again in conversations with players: censorship. “I’m not giving away a word,” some people say. “I don’t have enough as it is.” Others are only too glad to give up words that have negative connotations – whether these are commonly understood (in the case of “war” and “hate”) or distinctly personal (“compass”). Both reactions make it clear that the surrender of a word is a potent act. There is no going back: each renunciation is a binding contract, as the player’s signature on the card attests. One player, the artist Steve Perfect, receives the Greenlandic word “kaggsuk” (bits of ice drifting in the sea) and decides to give up “ice cube”. He later tells me he’s been introducing bartenders around London to Greenlandic.
While such an interpretation might suggest a light-hearted approach to the linguistic challenges facing the polar regions, I was glad to see such enthusiastic public engagement. Since many people don’t even know where Greenland is before they play The Polar Tombola, it was necessarily a crash course in culture and language. I found that players were captivated by their brief interaction with the Greenlandic dictionary, astonished by the detailed and perceptive vocabulary for environmental conditions, and eager to learn more.
Back to books
At the end of the final performance at the Arnolfini in Bristol I carefully gathered up all the cards on which words had been written: Danish, Dutch, Farsi, Icelandic, Korean and Spanish words, as well as many English ones. There were political epithets, meaningless verbal ticks and Latin scientific names. A selection of these words have been published as an anthology The Polar Tombola: A Book of Banished Words, alongside new texts on language loss commissioned from contemporary writers including Vahni Capildeo, Will Eaves and Richard Price.
In A Book of Banished Words some writers use the commission to explore issues of linguistic politics closer to home: writer and musician Phil Owen chooses to ditch the word “dissever”, once used in an 1847 English report used to suppress the Welsh language in schools. Others take the commission into scientific territory: Nasim Marie Jafry eradicates the word “Coxsackie”, but not before exploring how this Algonquin term meaning “the hoot of an owl” mutated over time, becoming the name of a small US town, and then of a life-changing virus.
Language is important not only to the Arctic, but to all of us.
The Polar Tombola is funded by Arts Council England through Grants for the Arts.
Find out more:
You can find out more about Nancy’s previous book, How to Say I Love You in Greenlandic: An Arctic Alphabet, at the website of Miel, which was established in 2011 “to promote and publish difficult, innovative, intelligent, and deeply felt writing and visual art.”
This recent article at Alaska Dispatch News is a report by Laureli Ivanoff from Unalakleet, on “Inupiaq, the language I can write and speak, but don’t understand.”
UNESCO’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger is an online edition, where you can browse through the languages, using combinations of search criteria and/or zooming in on the map.
The World Oral Literature Project documents and makes accessible endangered oral literatures before they disappear without record.