A Polysynthetic Land

Greenland is a place of many dialects. Kalaallisu is spoken in the west; Tunumiisut in the East; and Inukun in the north. All three are very different – so different that a Greenlander from Nuuk, the country’s capital, would find it difficult to understand someone from Thule, in the north.

Regardless of dialect, as a recent visitor, I found the language impenetrable. The Greenlandic language is polysynthetic, meaning that words are created by adding multiple affixes. This results in long words that overflow with syllables – for example, “Paasisinnaannginnakkummi” (“I don’t understand”).

If you have ever wondered if you can sprain your tongue, try speaking Greenlandic.

Despite the danger of injury for foreigners attempting even basic phrases, the polysynthetic nature of the language allows for nuance and subtlety absent in other languages. In this respect it is a reflection of the country itself, a place where nothing is quite what you anticipate. This thought initially occurred to me when I was looking out the window of the hostel where we were staying on our first evening in the small community of Tasiilaq. At almost midnight, the sky was still bright, presenting a lustrous panorama from the hillside above the bay. Reverberating from the water below was the sound of a child’s joyous yelling as she was pulled behind a boat waterskiing – on thirty-degree water.

Nothing is as you expect in Greenland.


Along with two of my children, a friend, and a group of others adventurers, we kayaked and camped for two weeks exploring the seemingly pristine fjords and small colorful communities of the world’s largest island. Approaching from the water we discovered picturesque towns with buildings painted red, green, blue, and grey reflecting the country’s history of Danish influence. In most, drying fish hung from the rafters of porches like Chinese lanterns; occasionally, a polar bear skin would be stretched over a clothesline curing in the sun. But cultural influences of the west abounded as candy wrappers, plastic bags, and omnipresent empty Tuborg beer cans littered the landscape around these towns. (But what do you do with trash when you don’t have refuse pickup or even a dump?)

Again, I found that nothing is what you think in Greenland.

The evidence of climate change was striking. We would paddle for miles down fjords framed by towering ridges filled with countless glaciers. But most had receded 40 – 50% of the distance from their terminal moraines. Looking at the glaciers on our ten-year old topographical map, it was apparent that much of this decline has occurred very recently. For us, it was disheartening to see the rapid degradation of this spectacular wilderness. Yet, when I shared this sentiment with Axelie, an English speaking local, he had a different reaction. “The melting ice cap is good for us. I’m going to strike it rich in gold mining. As the ice recedes, I’ve found some good places to stake my claims.”

Yet another example of how Greenland defies expectations.


Over the course of our visit, we saw only a handful of ringed seals. Where were all the sea mammals? On previous kayaking trips in Alaska and the Canadian Arctic, seals, walruses and whales were a daily sight. In Greenland, the waters were silent. Axelie provided an answer: “The animals and people used to live in balance, but now we have speedboats, snowmobiles and long range rifles.” We witnessed this first-hand when two large boats retrieved us and our gear at the end of the trip. As our Greenlandic drivers drove through the fjords threading between ice floes, one of them spotted a whale spout and we came to a stop to watch. As we did, I noticed both drivers locking in the GPS coordinates and sending frantic messages. It wasn’t a leap to imagine a stream of hunters descending on the area after we were gone.

Nothing was as I expected in Greenland.

From escarpments above the fjords, the water provided an impression of quiet and solitude. Perfect stillness except endless miles of icebergs sailing slowly past pushed by the mild ocean breeze. Rarely have I experienced such silence. Viewed from a kayak, however, everything was different. For days we wove through icebergs of every shape and size imaginable – castellated points reaching hundreds of feet in the air; giant arches; an ice blue Pantheon; an aircraft carrier; an enormous toadstool. But the view was far from silent. Instead, we were bombarded with a cacophony of sounds: icebergs splintering and shattering with a booming sound like a firing cannon; water cupping under ice shelves; the sound of ice melts dripping into the water. All of this against the constant backdrop of small floating bits of glacial ice cracking and fizzing as it released air that had been trapped from a time when dinosaurs roamed the earth.


If’ you’re interested in reading more about Greenland, here are a few books I highly recommend:
– Arctic Adventures/The Arctic Year by Peter Freuchen;
– This Cold Heaven by Gretel Ehrlich
– An African in Greenland by Te’te’-Michel Kpomassie.

Here are some more photographs of Greenland  that you may enjoy. (And, if you do, help my son to get off the “Daddy Dole” and earn money for college by going to the products page and purchasing something.)

Qujanarsuaq (Thank you)


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2 responses to “A Polysynthetic Land

  1. Aileen


    Thank you for taking is on another fabulous guide-led adventure!

    Keep the journal entries coming.


  2. U. Dick

    Mike a great story felt like I was right there with you.
    Big hug,
    U. Dick

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