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Hymns to the language

What is the role of a poet in a community whose traditions are oral? As Nancy Campbell found out, it is to interpret their story to the rest of the world

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ukiigatta last winter.
ukioq the winter; the whole year.
   ukiukkut in winter; during the year.
   ukiuuppaa the winter came upon her before she
   reached home, or finished building her house.
ukiorippoq she has a good winter; it is a good winter.
ukiorpoq the winter has come.
ukiortaaq the new year.

- Nancy Campbell

It is January 2010, and Nancy Campbell has arrived in Upernavik, Greenland, for a two-month stay as the town museum’s writer-in-residence. A surprise, unpleasant at the time, awaits her.

Ms Campbell, a poet, has sought out an opportunity to experience first-hand how warming temperatures are slowly grinding away at communities in the North.

“We’d all heard the reports climate change, and how people were responding to it. Going to Upernavik was a way for me to meet people who were already living on the edge and might not be able to respond,” she says.

Climate change, she recalls, was there, in the form of sea ice that formed later in the year and melted earlier. So too was social change, in the form of things like video-game consoles and out-migration to areas where jobs are more prevalent. What was not there, she quickly found out, was a poetic tradition that she could contribute to.

Five years later, and now back in the UK, Ms Campbell has turned the experience into the foundation for a collection of poems. On the one hand, Disko Bay tells a familiar story of survival in an unforgiving environment during a period of climatic and social upheaval. Both stalk the people of Upernavik. But the poems also make us consider which is the greater threat.

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In the end, Ms Campbell seems to conclude that they may be intertwined. Greenland, as she learned, is a culture with a spoken tradition and, for that reason, the language often includes complicated ways to express slight differences in people’s situation or the natural environment. In a language where ‘snow’ isn’t just snow, and which has enough forms of the word ‘winter’ to compose an entire poem (see right), changes in the environment and society, she worries, may lead to the language coming unwound.

“Greenlandic is specifically honed to express the subtleties of the Arctic environment, the concepts it presents are precise, practical, and deliciously unexpected,” she wrote in 2012 in a blog post for the Huffington Post, a news outlet.

Spending January and February in the Far North was always going to be a struggle. That was to be expected, just as much as preparing for the darkness and the cold was going to be impossible. Learning that Greenlandic had had little need for poets, on the hand, caught her more off guard.

“Initially, it was hard to respond to the environment and to the people I met. Eventually, I got accustomed to the cold and the darkness, and I began to get more involved in the community. As a writer, though, I had gone there expecting that I would be useful to the community as poet. Without a written tradition I could contribute to, I had to find another way to make myself useful to the people of the town.”

She settled on language. Or, rather, it was settled on for her by a museum employee, who thought that she should be meeting people, rather than reading books, and started teaching her some words and grammar.

For many reasons – the complexity of Greenlandic, the short amount of time, an admitted difficultly learning languages – progress, Ms Campbell says, was limited. Not being able to speak a language does not exclude one from being an advocate or admirer, however. In the case of Greenlandic, she argues, both are sorely needed: Kalaalisut, the dominant Greenlandic dialect, is classified by the UN as vulnerable. Two other dialects are even more at-risk.

Being exposed to Greenlandic’s precision has also made her aware of the gaps in her own language. What English speaker, for example, has never been stumped for a concise way to say “I am full of a delirious joy in being alive”? In Greenlandic, the term is ‘nuannaarpunga’. It is a word that especially a poet should love.

Disko Bay. By Nancy Campbell. Enitharmon Press

For another perspective on life in Upernavik, please see “Same town, different tune”.

Photo: Visit Greenland