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A debate on language and identity


Language is something we all learn. It helps to create our identity and gives us a sense of belonging. But language is also something that can bring minds to a boil and give rise to emotionally charged debates – especially in Greenland. But why is that? What does language mean to us as human beings, and how is it with the language debate in Greenland?

In 2020 Camilla Kleemann-Andersen won a thesis competition that awarded the best thesis about Greenland, the Faroe Islands or the Danish Commonwealth. The competition was published by universities in Denmark, Greenland and the Faroe Islands. Camilla won with the thesis Plastic Flowers and Tongue-less Greenlanders – Feeling in the Language Debate in 2009-2019, which is about the Greenlandic language debate from the introduction of the Self-Government in 2009 and ten years onwards.

And we thought – who better to ask and explore some of these questions with than Camilla Kleemann-Andersen?

The root of the discussion 

The official language in Greenland is Greenlandic and after that comes the Danish language and English. One could assume that it is as simple as that, but actually, there is much more to it. 

Because Greenland and Denmark have a long history in common – a history that is based on colonialism. Resulting in an asymmetrical power-relationship between the two languages. 

Even though Greenlandic is the official language, it is not the most commonly spoken language when it comes to official meetings and documents. 

Everything has to be translated so that it is accessible in both Greenlandic and Danish. 

This can often result in Greenlandic being under-prioritized, and therefore a lot of Greenlandic speakers feel left out and misrepresented, which is one of the reasons why some people don’t appreciate the Danish language in Greenland.

Camilla Kleemann-Andersen

Camilla explains that in Greenland, Danish can be viewed from three different points of views: 

“On one hand, it’s the language colonists spoke. On the other hand it’s also a language of education. Last but not least, it’s the mother tongue for a group of people in Greenland,” she says and continues: 

“So these are three very different ways of viewing the Danish language. And I think it’s important to separate them”, Camilla explains. 

A question of identity

But separating these ways of viewing the spoken language is not that easy. According to Camilla, it’s a question of personal recognition of identity for both the people who speak Greenlandic and the ones that only speak Danish. 

“The Greenlandic language takes up so much of the identity debate”, Camilla says. 

“It’s an older discussion about what it means to be a Greenlander. Today it is about whether you can speak Greenlandic, whereas in the past it has been a question of whether you could row kayak for example”, she explains. 

Camilla recognises the problem in her own experiences: 

“I was always interested in language, but I think part of the interest comes from my teenage years, trying to understand my own identity”, she says. “It’s about getting to be who you are and be respected for it.”

So it is a deeper problem than just a question of which language to speak. The language debate becomes a question of identity for every individual as well as a societal issue.

Camilla explains: 

“It becomes a question of whether everyone should speak Danish, Greenlandic and English or whether Danish should be phased out and replaced with English instead.

On the one hand, it is a question of getting away from having to speak the colonialist language but also a desire to be able to reach out further internationally”, she says.

So what can be done about this issue? 

According to Camilla, there is an advantage in strengthening the Greenlandic language.

“The Greenlandic language is very strong when you look at it in relation to other indigenous peoples’ languages, but I think that there is a need for a boost in Greenlandic teaching at all educational institutions. Professional pride is needed, and  there is also a problem with the fact that sometimes professional terminologies have to be invented.”

But Camilla continues to stay positive about the future of the Greenlandic language, she explains: 

“There is a shortage of Greenlandic-speaking employees, but it comes naturally as more educated Greenlanders arrive. I believe that there will be a natural, positive development.”