Nancy Campbell is a writer and printmaker. Her publications include ‘After Light’, ‘The Night Hunter’ and ‘How to say I love you in Greenlandic: An Arctic Alphabet’. In 2012 she will be working with Siglufjörður, a small fishing community in northern Iceland, to record the changing marine environment. http://www.nancycampbell.co.uk
Reading the Cards
There is a card game which differs from pelmanism in that every card is different and from solitaire in that there can never be a conclusion to it. As a child I was given a shabby nineteenth-century deck; down the generations the packaging had been lost and the cards were held together with a rubber band of comparable antiquity. Lacking its original case and any rulebook, to this day I have been unable to discover its name, or whether I played it as the maker intended.
The fifty cards, slim and furred with age, depicted not hearts, clubs, spades and diamonds but whimsical landscapes. One showed a magnificent medieval fortress; another, boats on a lake bordered by palm trees; and still others, sublime mountain ranges. Yet whatever the scenery, there was always a road on the horizon, along which a tiny carriage was driving.
These views were not self-contained vignettes. I could join each card to any other, because, however unpredictable the inclines and settlements at the centre, the road reached the edges at the same point on every one. Aligning these extravagant geographies, I made a cardboard continent. The passengers in the little carriage can scarcely have felt a jolt as they crossed from Alpine pass to desert dune; however far they travelled, they never had to fear dropping over a precipice or reaching a closed border, for there was always a card in my hand, ready to lay down to prevent their vehicle rolling into annihilation. And, sure enough, there the carriage was, pictured on the next card.
Not all explorers are so fortunate.
Later I learnt to play with language: juxtaposing letters; shuffling words within sentences; diverting the reader’s passage. No sequence of chromolithographed cards could represent the world as vividly as these alphabetical arrangements. Yet last winter, travelling in Greenland, I found myself surrounded by scenes that none of the cards had prepared me for, and which even my language was barely equipped to describe.
The Arctic landscape is forged from water. Glaciers advance, churning a path through basalt cliffs, and thunder into the ocean. The fast ice creeps across the bay, extending the shoreline by a mile and more, only to vanish on a stormy night. In calmer weather icebergs drift with the tide, forming protean mountain ranges on the horizon; as their peaks crumble, they turn to restore their balance as slowly as dreaming sleepers do.
The inhabitants of this mutable landscape speak Kalaallisut, or Greenlandic. Their daunting words express concepts that other languages tiptoe around with a phrase but, when spoken, the suffixes are uttered so softly that an untrained ear cannot hear them. Verbs accrue morphemes, while nouns tend to disappear. It was once customary to name people after objects, but since a taboo forbade reference to the dead, the favoured objects were repeatedly renamed. The power of such words is not diminished by their absence from the vocabulary.
Longing to make sense of these silences, I borrowed an early Greenlandic–English dictionary from Upernavik Museum. I found the bowdlerised English definitions almost as puzzling as the original Kalaallisut; several corrections in a contemporary italic hand suggested that the dictionary was fallible. On seeing akiatsianga – officially defined as ‘take hold (of it) together with me’ – amended to ‘carry me, please’ I wondered what circumstances had led an amateur lexicographer to discover such an error.
The early history of Kalaallisut is unwritten; records begin with the arrival of Danish missionaries in Greenland during the eighteenth century. The Danes set down Kalaallisut in the Latin alphabet while asserting sovereignty over the land and establishing Danish as the language of administration. In contrast with other Eskimo-Aleut languages, Kalaallisut does not use the Inuktitut syllabary. The orthography of the language was still being debated when my dictionary was printed in Copenhagen at the start of the twentieth century. Today the alphabet contains eighteen letters, although only twelve are used at the beginning of words. A few cards create a winning hand for those with the courage to play them.
Greenland achieved a degree of political autonomy with the establishment of Self Rule in 2009, and once again Kalaallisut became the official language of the nation known, in its own words, as Kalaallit Nunaat. But government recognition does not guarantee survival. In the same year, the United Nations culture agency designated Kalaallisut ‘vulnerable’ and predicted that Avanersuaq and Tunumiit oraasiat, the North and East Greenlandic dialects, would disappear within a century. (Qavak, a South Greenlandic dialect, is already extinct.) While many Greenlanders adopt the languages of international culture and commerce, climate scientists have noticed that Kalaallisut catalogues the Arctic ecosystem with empirical precision. Can the environment survive without the language? Can the language survive without the environment?