Researcher documenting the dying Eskimo language

August 13, 2010 | by | 2 Comments

A British researcher is to spend a year living in the frozen wastes of Greenland documenting a dying Eskimo language – which is disappearing due to climate change.

Dr Stephen Pax Leonard will become the first person to fully record the threatened dialect and culture of the Inughuit community, who are the northernmost people on earth.

Many Inughuit still practise a hunter-gatherer lifestyle which is under threat as climate change causes ice to thin in their native Thule region of Greenland.

There are under 1,000 speakers of their Inuktun dialect, which is used to communicate history, spirituality and other forms of practical knowledge.

But this will become lost as the community is forced to move 1,500 miles further south in the next 10 to 15 years due to political pressure and global warming.

The Inughuit people will have to adopt a very different life from that of their ancient homeland, including speaking wider known language Inuit – leaving their own dialect lost forever.

Little is known about Inuktun, which is seen by experts as a linguistic ”fossil” that is one of the most ancient and ”pure” Inuit dialects.

Dr Leonard, from the University of Cambridge, is to spend a year living with the community in north-west Greenland, where he hopes to preserve Inuktun and Inughuit culture.

He said: ”In other languages that die, usually it is just that the dialect becomes lost and is not passed down through the generations but that is not happening here.

”Instead, Inuktun is likely to die because of political pressure and climate change forcing the community to move to areas which speak other languages.

”If Inuktun is lost, the true identity and heritage of the Inughuit people will die with it, which would be a real tragedy.

”These communities, which could be just years away from fragmentation, want their cultural plight to be known to the rest of the world.

”In the past, journalists and anthropologists have conducted brief research into the community, but this has often been incorrectly recorded and translated into another language.

”Instead, I want create a lasting record of the culture in Inuktun, so it can be returned to the communities in their own unique dialect and be preserved.”

Anthropological linguist Dr Leonard, who will leave Britain for the remote Thule region on Sunday, will live the life of the Inughuit hunter.

He will face the dangers of hunting expeditions and the effects of three and a half months of solid darkness in the winter, where temperature can reach -40 Celsius.

His project will begin in Qaanaaq, the main Inughuit settlement which lies on Greenland’s western coast, where he will learn Inuktun.

The second phase of his work will begin in remote Siorapaluk, the northernmost permanently inhabited settlement in the world, where the population is just 70.

He will learn the rare Inuktun language alongside the elders, documenting the stories and narratives so he can record the unique and endangered culture.

Dr Leonard will not write down grammar or a dictionary for Inuktun, instead producing an Ethnography of Speaking, which will show how the ancient language and culture are connected.

The stories, narratives and myths which are so crucial to the culture will be recorded and brought back to Cambridge, and digitalised by experts at the Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.

Archives will then be produced for the which will be returned to the Inughuit in their own language, so there will be a permanent copy of stories, narratives and myths.

The Inughuit people are one of the last hunter-gatherer communities left in Greenland, and have one of the most remote settlements and unique cultures of people in the Arctic.

Many of the men spend weeks away from the small buildings hunting for seals, whales, narwhal, walruses and other sea mammals, building igloos to protect themselves from the wild.

Qaanaaq, which has no formal healthcare, receives just one delivery of fruit and vegetables by ship each year and the Inughuit live mainly on a diet of sea mammals.

The culture has not been influenced by the arrival of Christianity in Greenland in the 18th century and keeps aspects of an ancient shamanic culture.

Climate change means the Inughuit are now being forced to change their way of life as melting ice makes hunting sea mammals more dangerous and difficult.

Greenland’s government cannot afford to supply them with imports to compensate for the difficulties in hunting and therefore there is pressure for the communities to move south.

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Comments (2)

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  1. Kent says:

    So interest in winter….. I hope "Climate change means the Inughuit are now being forced to change their way of life as melting ice makes hunting sea mammals more dangerous and difficult."

  2. Kent says:

    So interest in winter….. I hope "Climate change means the Inughuit are now being forced to change their way of life as melting ice makes hunting sea mammals more dangerous and difficult."

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