[lg policy] Its new official language is Kalaallisut

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at GMAIL.COM
Mon Jun 22 21:00:37 UTC 2009

June 22, 2009
Fondly, Greenland Loosens Danish Rule

NUUK, Greenland — The thing about being from Greenland, said Susan
Gudmundsdottir Johnsen, is that many outsiders seem to have no clue
where it actually is. “They say, ‘Oh, my God, Greenland?’ It’s like
they’ve never heard of it,” said Ms. Johnsen, 36, who was born in
Iceland but has lived on this huge, largely frozen northern island for
25 years. “I have to explain: ‘Here you have a map. Here’s Europe. The
big white thing is Greenland.’ ” But Greenland, with 58,000 people and
only two traffic lights, both of them here in the capital, is now
securing its place in the world. On Sunday, amid solemn ceremony and
giddy celebration, it ushered in a new era of self-governance that
sets the stage for eventual independence from Denmark, its ruler since

The move, which allows Greenland to gradually take responsibility over
areas like criminal justice and oil exploration, follows a referendum
last year in which 76 percent of voters said they wanted self-rule.
Many of the changes are deeply symbolic. Kalaallisut, a traditional
Inuit dialect, is now the country’s official language, and
Greenlanders are now recognized under international law as a separate
people from Danes. Thrillingly, the Greenlandic government now gets to
call itself by its Inuit name, Naalakkersuisut — the first time in
history, officials said, that the word has been used in a Danish
government document.

“It’s a new relationship based on equality,” said Greenland’s new,
charismatic prime minister, Kuupik Kleist, speaking of the balance of
power between Greenland and Denmark. He compared the situation to a
marriage in which the wife was bossing around her henpecked husband.
“From today,” he said, “the man in the house has as much say as the

But this is a delicate time, full of hope and trepidation in equal
measure. Few Greenlanders graduate from college. The country is rife
with social problems like alcoholism, unemployment and domestic
violence. Infrastructure improvements are punishingly expensive and
desperately needed in a place where, for instance, people travel by
boat or plane because there are no roads connecting towns. Meanwhile,
global warming is rapidly melting the mighty icecap that covers some
80 percent of Greenland’s 840,000 square miles. Although that is
destroying traditional hunting livelihoods, it also brings new
opportunities for exploring and exploiting what could be vast reserves
of oil and minerals deep beneath Greenland’s surface and in the waters
around it.

Under the new self-government agreement, Greenland will get half of
any proceeds from oil or minerals. The other half will go to Denmark,
to be deducted from the grant of 3.4 billion kroner, or $637 million,
that it gives Greenland each year. The hope is that eventually the
subsidy can cease altogether and Greenland will be ready for

The prospect of Greenland’s benefiting from what may be a lucrative
oil and mineral business raises an obvious question: What’s in it for

“It’s not a question about money,” the Danish prime minister, Lars
Lokke Rasmussen, said in an interview here. “This is a question of
respecting Greenlandic people and giving them the right to decide
their own destiny.”

The right to self-determination, particularly for indigenous people
like Greenland’s Inuit, more commonly known as Eskimos, was a
recurring theme this weekend. Two exotically dressed visitors from
Norway’s Sami Parliament, which represents the country’s reindeer
herders, appeared at a trade exposition here on Saturday, marveling at
how far the Greenlanders had come.

“They’re many steps farther along than we are,” said Marianne Balto,
Parliament’s vice president. “It gives hope to the Sami people.”

Iceland’s president, Olafur Ragnar Grimsson, was there, looking at it
from the other side, recalling how his country ended hundreds of years
of Danish rule with independence in 1944.

Bent Liisberg, a lawyer from Norway, which was owned for hundreds of
years by Denmark and then by Sweden, had much the same perspective. On
Sunday, he was carrying a backpack from which protruded a little
Greenlandic flag, its red-and-white design representing the sea, sky
and sun. “This is a great day for small nations,” he said.

Nuuk is a curious city, where old, brightly colored wooden houses
built by the original Danish settlers coexist with rows of
down-on-their-heels apartment buildings that are almost Soviet in
their soullessness. Its harbor is impossibly quaint and its views
breathtakingly beautiful; its center is indifferently maintained and
virtually paralyzed by traffic at 8 o’clock every morning, when the
workday begins.

It has 15,000 residents, and many seemed to be out and about at 7:30
a.m., when the procession down to the harbor for the self-government
celebrations began. It snowed the day before — giving a strange
feeling at a time of year when there is virtually no darkness — but on
Sunday the sun blazed across the water.

Representatives from 17 countries and territories, including the
United States and the Faroe Islands (also owned by Denmark), were
there. Queen Margrethe II of Denmark, wearing a traditional Inuit
costume with shorts made of seal fur and a short, beaded shawl,
solemnly handed over the official self-government document to the
chairman of Greenland’s Parliament.

For Greenlanders, who can feel like second-class citizens in Denmark,
the new arrangement bolsters a national pride they almost didn’t know
they had.

“It is nothing that we will feel on a day-to-day basis, but the
symbolic value of this gives people so much more confidence,” said
Peter Lovstrom, 28, who works at the national art museum in Nuuk.

He said it was impossible to feel rancor toward Denmark, given all of
the intermarriage and connections between the countries.

“We all get along. We have to get along,” Mr. Lovstrom said. “But I
feel a bit more Greenlandic now.”

Correction: A previous version of this article contained an incorrect
amount in Danish kroner for the grant given by Denmark to Greenland
each year. It is 3.4 billion kroner, not million.


 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com


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