Counting in Greenlandic - 1 to 20

Now the numbers in Greenlandic may seem a bit mysterious. In common with the other Inuit, Greenlanders historically used to count in a base-20 (vigesimal) system. In more recent times, native numbers higher than 12 have been replaced by Danish numbers, but I was inspired by a query from @learngreenlandic to set out the explanations for how the numbers came to be.

As you can perhaps guess from the picture, the base-20 system is based on counting fingers and toes! And to a certain extent this is reflected in the meaning of the numbers. Based on a few sources*, I’ve set out some explanations below:

1 ataaseq - from Proto-Eskimo (PE) ata- be attached or persisting + (possibly) -useq  manner of doing something,  giving something like “that which persists/remains [… if you take away the rest?]”

2 marluk - from PE malʀuɣ (note metathesis of the original middle consonants in Greenlandic) which is believed to be related to PE maliɣ- follow. Note the ending -k is a remnant in Greenlandic of the dual number, which existed until a few hundred years ago Greenlandic, and which still exists in some other Inuit dialects, and Yupik and Aleut. So the meaning is perhaps “[the pair] following”.

3 pingasut the derivation is unclear here. Fortescue (1994) suggests that it might be related to the demonstrative pronoun PE piŋ- up-slope. With the final -t the meaning is clearly plural. Perhaps it can be interpreted as “the ones going up [to the middle of the hand]” i.e. the first three fingers = 3.

4 sisamat – derives from PE citamat and like the numbers above is represented across Inuit and Yupik dialects, but the meaning is unclear here. This one refers to (the fingers up to) the index finger, and so Fortescue (1994) suggests a possible connection with PE citǝ(ɣ)- be hard. For the -ma- component see tallimat below although this is not mentioned in any of the sources. So on this basis it might be “those being up to the hard one”

5 tallimat  - this one is more transparently related to PE taɬiʀ arm (Greenlandic taleq), with the addition of PE -li- make and -ma- possibly from PE -(u)maʀ- continually, with a plural -t. So perhaps the meaning is “those making up the arm”, i.e. all five fingers.

6 arfinillit Fortescue (1984) suggests this is related to PE aʀvaɣ edge of hand (Greenlandic arfak/arfaq), with the addition of -li- make, -nǝʀ- the act of doing [verb] (Greenlandic -neq) and -lǝɣ one provided with, with the addition of -t plural as with the above. So perhaps meaning “those which are provided [when one has reached] the edge of the [second] hand [after counting the first hand]”, i.e. five from the first hand and the first one on the edge of the second.  On the other hand, Dorais (2010) suggests a link with PE aʀviʀ- cross over, presumably with the idea of crossing over from one hand to the other. I’ll let you be the judge.

7 arfineq-marluk this is one that might seem a bit confusing for the learner, because it appears to be “six + two” but means seven! However arfineq is not the same as arfinillit and on the basis of the above it could mean “[having reached] the edge [plus] a pair of followers”

8 arfineq-pingasut – same logic as above “[having reached] the edge [plus] the (three) fingers [up to the middle finger]”

9 qulingiluat (and also qulaaluat (northen Kalaallisut) and arfineq-sisamat southern Kalaallisut). Fortescue (1994) suggests the first two forms are from the formidable PE qulǝŋŋuʀutǝŋit- formed from PE qulǝ(t) ten (see below) + ŋŋurbecome + utǝ + do with/for + ŋit- lack, so roughly meaning“lacking in becoming ten”. Bjørnum (2003) however suggests that qulingiluat (and qulaaluat) are derived more simply from quli(t) + iluat based on iluat their inside i.e. “those inside ten”.

10 qulit this one is transparently based on the PE root qulǝ-  the upper part, in other words “[all of] the ones in the upper part [of the body]”, i.e. all ten fingers.

11 aqqanillit – Fortescue suggests this is from aqqar- descend which appears to be derived from PE atʀaʀ- go down which is itself derived from PE at(ǝ)- down. So by analogy with arfinillit above, we would have “those which are provided when one has descended”, i.e. the first toe together with ten fingers already counted. There is also an alternative form isikkaneq (northern Kalaallisut) which according to Bjørnum (2003) is derived from isigaqfoot and -ni on which geminates to isikkani on the foot with (presumably) an epenthetic -q to close the word; Fortescue (1984) also lists isikkanillit as another form. The following numbers can also be formed with isikkaneq- as the first part instead of aqqaneq-.

12 aqqaneq-marluk – by analogy with arfineq-marluk, this would mean something like “descent [plus] a pair of followers”

13 aqqaneq-pingasut – same logic. As noted above, for numbers 13 and above Danish forms are used, so these forms are essentially of historical interest.

14 aqqaneq-sisamat – same logic

15 aqqaneq-tallimat – same logic

16 arfersanillit – this is clearly a related form to arfinillit/arfineq above. It is not entirely clear how the underlying arfersaneq is built up in comparison to arfineq (and this is not explained in any sources I have seen), but I guess that it probably denotes another edge being reached, i.e. “[those provided when having reached] the edge of the [second] foot [after having counted the first foot (and all the fingers)]” by analogy with the forms for 6 and above.

17 arfersaneq-marluk - same logic as above

18 arfersaneq-pingasut – same logic

19 arfersaneq-sisamat – same logic

20 inuk naallugu from inuk person which is the object of naallugu [while] completing it (contemporative form, singular third person object of naavaa he/she completes it).  So meaning “completing the person”. Which is a nice way to end the lesson!

I hope you enjoyed the tour of the fingers and toes! There’s a little divergence between the sources, so I’ve chosen the explanations that seemed to make most sense to me. Also in Dorais (2010) there are also a few interesting examples from different Inuit dialects which show that the approaches to counting above 10 diverge quite a bit, suggesting that the Inuit and Yupik dialect only share proto-forms from 1 to 10, and other forms developed separately to some degree after that. 

Happy to take questions or corrections as ever!


Fortescue, Jacobson & Kaplan (1994), Comparative Eskimo Dictionary with Aleut Cognates

Bjørnum (2003), Grønlandsk Grammatik

Fortescue (1984), West Greenlandic

Dorais (2010), The Language of the Inuit

Nunavut 'throat boxer' Nelson Tagoona to perform at Nuit Blanche Winnipeg

A 23-year-old “throat boxer” from Nunavut will perform in Winnipeg on Saturday night for Nuit Blanche.

Urban Shaman Gallery has brought in Baker Lake’s Nelson Tagoona as part of their exhibit Floe Edge: Contemporary Art and Collaborations from Nunavut.

Tagoona pioneered what he calls “throat boxing," a mix of traditional and modern sounds.

"The full term for what I do is called traditional Inuit throat singing, and the style that I do is originally a style that only the female do,” he said. “If contemporized is a word, that’s definitely a word to put to it.”

Tagoona added beat boxing to throat singing, and more recently, he started looping the beats to create a fuller sound.

He started performing in his teens in Nunavut, and has since performed at major events such as the Pan Am Games.

“I was always very passionate about music — very, very passionate. I knew I was going to do something music, but I had no idea it was going to be like this,” he said. “[My parents] were worried it wouldn’t feed me as I got older.… I never thought what I do would take me this far.”

Tagoona said part of his work is keeping young people aware of their traditions and culture. This summer, he mentored youth in Nunatvut.

Saturday’s performance will be his first with an art gallery.

“I’ve never done an event like this,” he said.

Tagoona performs at 10 p.m. at 85 Princess St.

Greenlandic text lesson 1

This lesson is a guest post by Tulunnguaq.

In this lesson we are going to take a look at a piece of Greenlandic text, taken from Chapter 2 of Bussimi Naapinneq (A Meeting on the Bus) by Mâliâraq Vebæk. Don’t worry that the previous lessons haven’t covered all the grammar yet for this. The purpose is just to show a typical piece of prose and how to break down the words to arrive at a translation. The Oqaatsit app (available in the Apple and Google Play Store) is a good resource if you don’t have a hard copy dictionary. If you don’t know Danish then you may need a Danish/English dictionary alongside it.

Kiisami oqarpoq: “Qassinik meeraqarpisi?”

Nuannaajallappunga qarni ammarmagu akillugulu: “Marluk. Niviarsiaraq nukappiararlu.”

Aamma aperaaq uiga qallunaajunersoq. Angerpara.

Nalornivunga aperissanerlugu nammineq meeraqarnersoq imaluunniit aappaqarnersoq. Taamaattoq akunnattuukujullunga aperaara: “Illimmi meeraqanngilatit?”

Nakalluni akivoq: “Suu, meeraqarpunga, meeraqaraluarp…” oqaatsini naapiarnagit qissaserpoq assamminillu kiinni matullugu.


kiisa, kiisami finally
oqar-  – say
-voq/poq – he/she (does verb) (indicative mood)
qassit – how many?
-nik – instrumental case ending (plural), “more specifically”, with, by
meeraq – child
-qar – have
-pisi – you (do verb) (plural/polite)? (interrogative mood)

nuannaar- – be happy
-jalla*- - become
-vunga/punga – I (verb) (indicative mood)
qaneq – mouth (qarni – her (own) mouth)
ammar- – open
-magu – when/because he/she (verbs) him/her/it (causative mood)
aki- – answer
-(l)lugu – while (someone) (verbs) him/her/it (contemporative mood)
-lu – and
marluk – two
niviarsiaq – girl
-araq – little (diminutive)
nukappiaq – boy

aamma – also, and
aperi- – ask (NB aperi- + -voq=aperivoq but –raaq is an alternative form of –rivoq. Similarly  the ending -rivara in this dialogue gets shortened to –raara in aperaara)
ui – husband
-ga/-ra – my (absolutive case)
qallunaaq – a Danish person
-u- / -ju- – be
-ner- – whether
-soq – that he/she (verbs) (participial mood)
anger-  – say  yes, confirm
-vara/-para – I (verb) him/her (indicative mood)

nalorni- - be unsure about
-ssa- - future tense marker, will/shall
nammineq – (one)self
imaluunniit – or
aappaq – partner/spouse
taammaattoq – so, therefore
akunnattoor- – hesitate
-kuju*-  – a bit
-(l)lunga – I (verb) (contemporative mood)
illit – you
-:mi – emphatic marker – “and what about…” (: denotes this is a “strong” ending that does not elide a previous –t or –k but merges with it, illit+:mi = illimmi)
-nngi(la)- negative marker, not (when –nngi- appears to negate a verb, -la- replaces the normal –vu/vo- verb marker in the indicative/interrogative mood)
-tit – you (do verb) (plural/polite)? (interrogative mood)
naka*- - nod (* here signifies a “strong” verb ending, creating a double consonant. naka*- + -voq/poq = nakappoq – he nods)
-(l)luni – while he/she (does verb) (contemporative mood)
suu – yes (aap also means yes)
-raluar- however, but…
oqaaseq – word (plural: oqaatsit – words. oqaatsini = her (own) words, reflexive/4th person ending)
naa- – finish
-rpiar- - exact
-nagit – while he/she (does not verb) them (contemporative mood)
qissaser- begin to cry (note qia- - cry / qiavoq – he cries)
assak – hand (-mi- one’s own; –nik – instrumental case, here: with)
kiinaq – face (kiinni – her (own) face)
matu- – cover, shut


A line by line translation could be as follows:

Kiisami oqarpoq: “Qassinik meeraqarpisi?”

She finally says: “How many children do you have?”

Nuannaajallappunga qarni ammarmagu akillugulu: “Marluk. Niviarsiaraq nukappiararlu.”

I’m glad that she has opened her mouth and I answer: “Two. A girl and a boy.”

Aamma aperaaq uiga qallunaajunersoq. Angerpara.

She also asks whether my husband is Danish. I say yes.

Nalornivunga aperissanerlugu nammineq meeraqarnersoq imaluunniit aappaqarnersoq. Taamaattoq akunnattuukujullunga aperaara: “Illimmi meeraqanngilatit?”

I’m unsure if I should ask her whether she has children or a partner herself. So hesitating somewhat I ask her: “What about you, don’t you have any children?”

Nakalluni akivoq: “Suu, meeraqarpunga, meeraqaraluarp…” oqaatsini naapiarnagit qissaserpoq assamminillu kiinni matullugu.

Nodding, she answers: “Yes, I have a child, I have a child but…” Not quite finishing her words, she bursts into tears, covering her face with her hands.

I hope you enjoyed the extract from this story! There are a LOT of grammar points that could be taken up from this, but I will leave this for another time, but some interesting points to note are:

Greenlandic has a number of different verbal “moods”. This passage uses 5 of them (indicative, interrogative, contemporative, (past) causative, participial), and there are others ((future) conditional, imperative, optative).

Verb endings can indicate the subject alone (intransitive) or both subject and object in a fused form (transitive). Whilst there are some patterns that can be learnt, there are a large number of different forms across the different verbal moods. Some of these have been picked up here in the vocabulary.

Greenlandic uses a different form of the third person (often called the “4th person”) where a person interacts with their “own” object, or does two things simultaneously using the comtemporative mood. So kiinni means her (own) face, whereas kiinaa would mean her (someone else’s) face. This type of form was used a few times in this passage.

I would be very happy to take any questions on this.



GET TO KNOW ME MEME - 5/5 favorite directors ; Tim Burton

❝ I’ve always loved the idea of fairy tales, but somehow I never managed to completely connect with them. What interests me is taking those classic images and themes and trying to contemporize them a bit. I believe folk tales and fairy tales have some sort of psychological foundation that makes that possible. ❞

Yellow Dancers (In the Wings), 1874/76. Edgar Degas (French, 1834-1917). Oil on canvas. Art Institute of Chicago.

Degas, from about 1870, was to devote almost half his output as an artist to dancers, observing countless performances and rehearsals at the Paris Opéra. Here he placed the viewer in the wings, as if among the elite Opéra subscribers who roamed and socialized backstage. Dance subjects allowed Degas to contemporize his lifelong interest in showing the human body in complex movement, shifting the scene from ancient history to modern Paris.

Greenlandic Text Lesson 4 (and Name The Book challenge)

So far: Text lesson #1, Text Lesson #2 and Text Lesson #3

Here’s a short piece of text for Lesson 4 which comes from a well-known novel translated into Greenlandic. I’m not going to name it or translate it for now, but I think it’s very guessable, so please put your thoughts as to the book title (or any translation thoughts) in the comments.

Pisarnini qaangerlugu 18-inik issippoq. Nittaappoq, uangalu maanna oqaaseriunnaarsimasattut aput taaneqartarpoq qanik, angisuut aliggutut ittut oqimaassuseqanngingajattut nakkaallutik sequtsikkatut qaleriissaattut nuna qaqortumik issimik qallerlugu.



pisarneq – (being) normal with 4th person possessive –ni (its own…).Pi- is often used as a “dummy” word root without much meaning, a similar role to the word “it” in English sentences like “it’s raining”. After that we have -sar-(/-tar) which signifies habitual action and –neq a verbal noun. So together it literally means something like “the condition in which it habitually is”, i.e. normality

qaanger-exceed, go past with 3rd person object contemporative mood, singular object –lugu (while (verbing) it)

18-inik – here pronounced atteninik reflecting the Danish word for eighteen, in the instrumental case (by, with, “more specifically”)

issippoqit is cold. With 18-inik, it expresses the idea of 18 [degrees] of cold i.e. -18C.

nittaappoqit is snowing

uanga‎ - here combined with –lu and. Uanga commonly means I, and with an intransitive verb would be in the absolutive case (e.g. uanga kalaaliuvunga I am a Greenlander), but note that uanga also has the same form in the relative case, as it is here, governing (possessing) the word oqaaseriunnaarsimasattut which follows. It acts as the agent of the passive nominal ending –saq, described below, giving a meaning of [by me] or [my].


oqaaseq - word. Derived from this is oqaasii (their words) with 3rd person plural possessive –i (note: alternative form of –at), which is used to denote a language, for example kalaallit oqaasii (literally: of.the.Greenlanders  their.words). Here oqaaseq is combined with –ri(vaa)/-raa (to have as one’s…), -iunnaar- (no more), -sima- (perfective affix, to have done…), -saq/-gaq (passive nominaliser – a thing which is (verbed)), and –tut (/-sut)  (equative case, like, as, in the manner of.  When –tut/-sut used with nationalities it usually describes speaking in their language, e.g. kalaallisut[oqaluttarpoq] meaning literally [he speaks] like a Greenlander or more naturally [he speaks] Greenlandic). Note that here the equative case ending has a double -t- which signifies a truncated first person singular possessor -v- + -tut giving -ttut which complements uanga.

So together uanga oqaaseriunnaarsimasattut  means literally in the language which is no longer had [as a language] by me, or more naturally in the language which is no longer mine

aputsnow. Usually means “snow on the ground” as opposed to “snow in the air” but in this case it has a more generic meaning, as is clear from the remainder of the sentence.

taaneqartarpoqis called from taavaa he/she names it and –neqar- passive suffix and –tar- habitual suffix

qanik falling snow, snow in the air, snowflake. Based on this also note qannerpoq – it is snowing which is another (regional) term used alongside nittaapoq

Clearly having an article about an Eskimo-Aleut/Inuit language with multiple words for snow begs some questions! For a definitive discussion about how many words there are for snow in these languages, I highly recommend Geoffrey Pullum’s The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax. The title of the book gives you a bit of a clue to the answer…

angisooqlarge, plural angisuut

aligoqcrystal. The plural form is a slightly irregular aliggut with a doubled (geminate) consonant. For words like this, the plural form is used as the base for oblique cases such as –mi, -mik, and in this case –tut. Hence aliggutut like a crystal or like crystals

ippoqis. Here in nominal mood, absolutive plural form, ittut. Together with aliggutut it gives an adjectival form being like crystals which is in apposition to the preceding and following plural descriptive terms. It’s not completely clear to me, but I suspect these plural terms are referring to an implied qaniit snowflakes (plural of qanik above) as the subject of the final part of the sentence. Note also that the stand-alone verb ippoq is only used is a few settings, as with –tut here. It also occurs in the phrase qanorippit? How are you? (originally qanoq ippit?)

oqimaa*- to be heavy; with –ssuseq “the condition of being” (makes verbal nouns), -qar-have, -nngi*-  not -ngaja*- almost –toq (plural –tut) nominal mood, absolutive. Hence oqimaassuseqanngingajattut which almost does not have weight or almost weightless

nakkaa*- fall together –(l)lutik contemporative mood, intransitive plural form: [while they are] falling

sequtserpaa – to pulverise it, turn to powder with passive -gaq (plural form- kkat) giving pulverized , here with equative case ending –tut giving sequtsikkatut like powder[ed things]

qaleriipput they lie on top of one another. From this qaleriissat or qaleriiaat – things which [are to] lie on top of one another, i.e. a stack. Here the full word is qaleriissaattut again with equative –tut as stacks, in stacks. I don’t quite follow the full breakdown of this word which appears to be qaleriissa+at+tut. Since qaleriissat stack is already a plural form in Greenlandic (like scissors or pants in English), the central –at- could be the third person possessive “their” to give a sense of plurality i.e. falling together in their stacks, but I’m not entirely sure.

[Update: Double checking with “word splitting” software Qimawin by Henrik Aagesen, which analyses and breaks down Greenlandic words to their constituent parts, this is the correct breakdown of the word. Screen grab of this handy tool below:]

nunaland, ground (absolutive, singular form). As in Kalaallit Nunaat the land of the Greenlanders or Greenland. Similarly found in cognate word Nunavut our land (in Inuktitut). Here it means ground and is the object of qallerlugu.

qaqortoqwhite. Here with instrumental case –mik

issi – chill, coldness, frost. Here with instrumental case –mik

Hence qaqortumik issimik with a white frost

qallerpaa – he/she covers it, here in the contemporative, transitive form with singular object –lugu ([while] [he/she/they is/are] covering it)


[Update 2 - translation now added]

It is freezing, an extraordinary -18C, and it’s snowing, and in the language that is no longer mine, the snow is ‘qanik’ – big, almost weightless crystals falling in stacks and covering the ground with a layer of pulverized white frost.

As ever, if there are any questions please ask. Any corrections by native speakers are also very welcome.


“I’ve always loved the idea of fairy tales, but somehow I never managed to completely connect with them. What interests me is taking those classic images and themes and trying to contemporize them a bit. I believe folk tales and fairy tales have some sort of psychological foundation that makes that possible.”

Tim Burton (pictured on the set of Corpse Bride)


That is the best shark dancer I’ve ever seen

(At ConTemporal, featuring The Extraordinary Contraptions)