Many writers keep a copy of the Oxford English Dictionary close at hand, but why stop at one language when bilingual dictionaries offer twice the riches?
A few winters ago I was working as writer in residence at Upernavik Museum, where an old dictionary inspired my work. Upernavik – the name means ‘springtime place’ – is a rocky island on the west coast of Greenland. The museum claims to be the most northern in the world. But in 24-hour polar darkness and sub-zero temperatures, with icebergs floating past, my surroundings were anything but spring-like.
Greenlandic is daunting. Its long, vowel-rich words echo the massive scale of the landscape. Just one word can express concepts that English tiptoes around with a phrase. Consulting the old Greenlandic–English dictionary I had found in the museum, I discovered that on waking up in the morning I could say ‘nuannarpunga’ rather than ‘I am full of a delirious joy in being alive!’ In more frustrating moments, my museum colleagues said ‘illisiverupunga’ instead of ‘I have put something away in a safe place and I am unable to find it again.’
Out of a fog of misunderstandings and misspellings, new writing began to crystallize.
I played games of chance with the dictionary. I stuck a pin in its pages, and let a poem begin where it landed. The book was always generous, offering suggestive words in proximity to each other, or unexpected definitions that shed light on arctic life. I was intrigued to find words that could be applied to both humans and the landscape, as in the verb ‘iimivoq’ which means ‘to call out for joy’ and also ‘water is drawn from the shore by the ebb of the sea’.
The dictionary taught me to understand the landscape as well as the language. I soon found the many words for snow and ice for which Greenlandic is famous. This wide vocabulary for the environment is essential for understanding arctic ecology, say the scientists who study climate change. But Greenlandic was added to UNESCO’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger in 2009. The language and the landscape are connected even in their disappearance.
During my stay in Upernavik, the old dictionary inspired poems and facilitated translations. When I left, I created an alphabet book, How To Say ‘I Love You’ In Greenlandic, as a tribute to the vanishing language and the faithful dictionary in which it was preserved.
A for Akunnagaa (How To Say ‘I Love You’ In Greenlandic)
How To Say ‘I Love You’ In Greenlandic: An Arctic Alphabet is published by MIEL editions [http://miel.ohbara.com]. The original work will be exhibited in Beyond Words: Artists and Translation at Art Wharepuke [www.art-in-newzealand.co.nz], New Zealand from 1 February to 16 March 2014. www.nancycampbell.co.uk
Images © Nancy Campbell