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Resumé af Stephanie Maškovás speciale

Specialetitel: Postcolonial and Environmental Semantics: A postcolonial case study of environmental words in the Nuuk-Danish universe of meaning | Roskilde Universitet

1.0 Introduction

The Danish colonization marks the beginning of a new era in Greenland's linguistic history. As soon as speakers of different languages migrate from one place to another and start communicating with new groups, languages change. In a colonial context, the linguistic contact will change the linguistic behavior within a short time and reflect political and social power structures (Perez & Sippola, 2021:15). Since the Danish colonization of Greenland, there has been extensive language contact between Greenlandic (Kalaallisut) and Danish. Birgitte Jacobsen (2003) was the first to identify and examine the variety of Danish she terms ‘Nuuk-Danish’ (Jacobsen, 2003:153). In her article Colonial Danish, Jacobsen describes Nuuk-Danish as a new oral norm spoken by both monolingual and multilingual young speakers in Nuuk. She rounds the article off with the remark that Nuuk-Danish potentially signals an important link in the Greenlandic decolonization process: “One may speculate whether Nuuk-Danish is a “young urban variety” that signals that the speakers belong to a generation that has overcome the neither–nor identity crisis of earlier generations and entered a both–and identity” (Jacobsen, 2003:163). Jacobsen primarily focuses on phonetic and prosodic aspects of Nuuk-Danish that differ from Danish spoken in Denmark. She also mentions some lexical differences and explains that words such as brættet (‘the board’, ‘the local hunters’ market’) and kaffemik (‘coffee party’) are widely known in Greenland as examples of words that arose as a result of language contact between Greenlandic and Danish (Jacobsen, 2003:159-160). But Jacobsen does not go into depth with the semantics, and Nuuk-Danish has remained highly undocumented since her early studies 19 years ago. This promising line of research was not taken up until recently. In his forthcoming book on postcolonial semantics, Carsten Levisen offers a semantic explication of the Greenlandic-Danish word flyfrisk (literally ‘airplane-fresh’) using the Natural Semantic Metalanguage (NSM) framework (Levisen, 2022). Similarly, in my MA thesis, I follow up on Birgitte Jacobsen's early studies in 2003. My thesis on linguistic worldviews embedded in Nuuk-Danish environmental concepts is therefore an important contribution to the documentation of the Nuuk-Danish universe of meaning.

I have chosen environmental words as the semantic domain. In doing so, I lean on Helen Bromhead's research, which treats the meaning of environmental words in postcolonial contexts (Bromhead, 2011a, 2011b, 2017, 2018, 2021). Nuuk-Danish as a postcolonial variety in a colonized environment makes words related to the physical environment particularly interesting. The physical environments in Greenland and Denmark are very different, and this also applies to the worldviews that have been associated with them throughout time. The extralinguistic circumstances and the language contact between Danish  and Greenlandic generated a distinctive Greenlandic-Danish framework. This framework has resulted in a Nuuk-Danish environment-related lexicon, which is why a semantic analysis of Nuuk-Danish environmental words sheds light on the Greenlandic-Danish framework of understanding. In this way, my study is a contribution to postcolonial linguistics, environmental semantics, and contact linguistics. 

An examination of the Nuuk-Danish universe of meaning calls for a socio-historical perspective. Postcolonial places are, in addition to language contact, characterized by asymmetric power relations, which is why cultural-linguistic analysis of language should be viewed with a socio-historically informed approach (Perez & Sippola 2021:18). Against this background, I unfold the socio-cultural framework for the study in the thesis by outlining the linguistic historical background and the linguistic landscape in Nuuk today. Within the socio-cultural framework, I focus on the Nuuk-Danish meaning universe with a semantic analysis of selected environmental words. With insight into the Nuuk-Danish meaning universe, I finally return to the socio-cultural framework in a discussion of the linguistic landscape in Nuuk today. The above leads me to the following research questions:

1.1 Research questions

What emic understanding of the environment has the language contact between Greenlandic and Danish anchored in the Nuuk-Danish universe of meaning? What role and status does Nuuk-Danish have in the postcolonial linguistic landscape in Nuuk today?

2.0 Theory and methodology

My postcolonial semantic framework in the study is inspired by insights from postcolonial language studies (Perez & Sippola, 2021; Levisen & Sippola, 2020; Levisen, 2019a) and is based on the cultural-linguistic approach Natural Semantic Metalanguage (Wierzbicka & Goddard, 2014), fieldwork and semantic consultations. In what follows, I will explain why and how I use NSM in the analysis of the Nuuk-Danish universe of meaning, and then elaborate on my methodological framework.

2.1 The Natural Semantic Metalanguage

The Natural Semantic Metalanguage (NSM) is a culture-neutral metalanguage consisting of simple, irreducible word meanings and associated grammar. The simple word meanings are assumed to be lexicalized in all the world's languages, which is why they can be used to articulate complex and culture-specific word meanings in a concrete, understandable and translatable way. In other words, the NSM approach offers a method to explore universes of meaning which are not beset by problems of circularity, ethnocentrism, or excessive abstractness (Wierzbicka & Goddard, 2014:10). The Natural Semantic Metalanguage thus consists of a small, well-specified vocabulary and set of grammatical rules, with which the meanings of complex words can be decomposed into an understandable and translatable definition of a word. Such a reductive paraphrase is called a semantic explication within the NSM approach (Wierzbicka & Goddard, 2014:17, 28). NSM has particularly great potential in a postcolonial context - such as Nuuk - by making it possible to represent word meanings in a neutral metalanguage that can be translated across languages without loss or displacement of meaning. Another quality of the NSM approach that makes it suitable in this context is that it aims to represent common conceptions of the world rather than technical or scientific versions. The Nuuk-Danish environmental words I am investigating are well described within the natural sciences. Instead, my contribution is to uncover what people understand by the words when they use them in an everyday context. The starting point is that language originates from an anthropocentric perspective, and therefore semantic analysis of, for example, environmental words can reveal how speakers think about, experience, relate to, and sense their physical surroundings. In other words, the Nuuk-Danish words are testimony to how people interpret and conceptualize the physical environment, and with NSM analyses and semantic explications, this knowledge can be exposed.

2.2 Methodological framework

A semantic explication is based on an in-depth analysis of a word's meaning. As already mentioned, the existing linguistic documentation of Nuuk-Danish consists solely of Jacobsen's pilot study. There is, for example, no Nuuk-Danish text corpus that can provide insights into the emic meanings of the selected environmental words. An important first step in the study has therefore been to carry out fieldwork and semantic consultations in Nuuk. 

2.2.1 Fieldwork 

To ensure validity in the study of the Nuuk-Danish language community, I have carried out fieldwork in Nuuk. Fieldwork is key to an understanding of the processes that shape linguistic and extralinguistic realities at a local level (Perez & Sippola, 2021:18). In the exploration of a postcolonial field, it is particularly important to be aware of avoiding reproducing an asymmetric power relationship. In that context, I have been aware of my role as a Danish master's student and endeavored to counteract a potential unequal power relationship by approaching the field as the one who learns. In other words, I have  emphasized “... [the] community members’ status as experts” (Schilling, 2013:15) both in informal conversations and during semantic consultations. In addition, I have honestly and openly told about myself and my purpose for the fieldwork, which Schilling describes as a key to ethically sound fieldwork (Schilling, 2013:178).

2.2.2 Semantic consultations

In a postcolonial context, collaboration with speakers is particularly important because of the complex power relations (Perez & Sippola, 2021:17). Against this background, I have chosen to hold semantic consultations, as the method in combination with NSM explications makes it possible to carry out practical semantic analysis in collaboration with speakers (Levisen, 2017:104). During my fieldwork in Nuuk, I held semantic consultations individually with six consultants. The consultants are all residents of Nuuk and speak both Greenlandic and (Nuuk-)Danish but identify primarily as Danish speakers. Semantic consultations differ from interviews in that speakers are not asked about their attitudes and views on a topic, but instead asked to reflect on the meanings of selected words, their use, and any narratives, feelings, and practices associated with the words. As Levisen describes it: “... a consultancy session is, in a nutshell, about bringing to light the local knowledges hidden in words and meanings (Levisen, 2017:105).

3.0 Analysis of environmental words in the Nuuk-Danish meaning universe 

The semantic analysis is divided into three main sections. The Nuuk-Danish seasonal environmental words midnatssol (‘midnight sun’) and vintermørke (‘winter darkness’) are examined in the first section. In the second section, I focus on landscape words and propose semantic explications of the specific places isen (‘the (inland) ice’) (including the concrete environmental word is ‘ice’) and havet (‘the sea’), as well as the generic landscape word fjeld (‘fell’, ‘mountain’, ‘hill’). In the last section, I examine words for non-human environment-bound being concepts, and the word fjeldgænger (‘a dangerous human-like creature living in the fell’) is the focal point. In my thesis, I analyzed the words individually and proposed semantic explications of them. Here, I will summarize insights about the word categories without going into depth with the individual words due to scope limitations.

3.1 Nuuk-Danish seasonal environmental words 

The seasonal words midnatssol and vintermørke are associated with Greenland and conceptualized as something that happens in a limited period in a specific place - without humans as the triggering factor. In addition, the words have in common that they are used to designate the atypical in the surrounding environment, and for both words, it is the absence or appearance of the sun that is experienced as unusual. The Nuuk-Danish seasonal environmental words are also based on midnatssol and vintermørke as a conceptual pair with mutual opposites. Besides the obvious difference that midnatssol is associated with summer, while vintermørke is associated with winter, there are also condensed very different feelings  and experiences in the words. Where midnatssol can evoke very positive feelings, a high energy level, and be community-realizing, vintermørke can give rise to a feeling of lacking one's usual energy and being in a depressed mood. 

3.2 Landscape words

For the selected landscape words in the Nuuk-Danish meaning universe, it is common that size is a characterizing element - they are all experienced as large places. In addition, the conceptualizations of the words share that the places are associated with animals and hunting. In the word meaning of isen and fjeld, it is also condensed that these are places (often) located in Greenland, which is why havet differs from the other Nuuk-Danish landscape words by not containing a corresponding component. The explications of havet and fjeld also illustrate that the words contain spatially related, opposite understandings, as the word havet implies an idea of ‘the bottom', whereas fjeld includes ‘the top'. Here, isen is somewhere in between, but the meaning of the word does not include a component that the place is "on the ground", which is probably because it is not a feature that distinguishes it from other places. As we also saw with the seasonal nature words, it generally seems that the environment is conceptualized based on a notion of a normal. In other words, it is rooted in the words how the various places, elements, and phenomena in the environment contrast with the ordinary.

3.3 Non-human environment-bound being concepts

The word fjeldgænger is used to refer to a dangerous human-like creature with supernatural abilities. As the name suggests, the fjeldgænger lives in the fjelde, but the creature is not alone in having its origin in a landscape word and being bound to a place. The same link between an environmental word and a non-human being appears in words such as Månemanden (‘the Moonman’) and Havets Moder (‘the Mother of the Sea’). My analysis of fjeldgænger serves as an example of how words in the category are conceptualized. Like the seasonal words midnatssol and vintermørke and the landscape words isen and fjeld, the word fjeldgænger is associated with Greenland. The non-human environment-bound being is perceived as a middle ground between animal and human, the human and the supernatural and the belief in the figure has been maintained over time.

4.0 Summary Discussion

In the following, I will first discuss questions raised by the analysis of environmental words in the Nuuk-Danish meaning universe. Next, I will turn to the socio-cultural framework and discuss where Nuuk-Danish stands in the postcolonial landscape of the Arctic capital today.

4.1 Anthropocentric anchoring

The Nuuk-Danish landscape words isen, havet, and fjeld all incorporate an anthropocentric perspective by being characterized as places that make up a large part of the earth's surface seen from the perspective of a person in one place. But the landscape words are also  experienced differently, as fjelde are not just large places in the landscape, but also perceived as visually prominent by being elevated. In addition, the Nuuk-Danish landscape words are defined as places where people do not live. In contrast, isen, havet, and fjeld are places people can see and be. The word fjeld, for example, is conceptualized as a place where people can go hiking, and it is rooted in the meaning of the word that the place is relatively accessible for people. In other words, Nuuk-Danish speakers classify and perceive the elevated place based on their sense of sight and bodily experiences. Besides being conceptualized in everyday language as places people can see and visit, there are also language-specific anthropocentric components in the words, which are culturally motivated by how the areas are used. All three Nuuk-Danish landscape words are conceptualized as places people can go fishing, and isen and havet are places people can transport themselves. In addition to consisting of salt water that tastes bad and is not good for humans, havet is also perceived as a place where accidents and, in the worst case, human deaths can occur. Overall, a person's range of vision, physical ability, experiences, risk of danger, interests, and uses are defining for the meanings of the words in the study. The environmental words in the Nuuk-Danish universe of meaning are thus largely rooted in an anthropocentric perspective. 

4.2 Nuuk-Danish in today's linguistic landscape

Besides marking Greenlandic solidarity, Jacobsen describes that Nuuk-Danish functions as an 'in-group marker' and is used among like-minded young people in Nuuk (Jacobsen, 2003:162). 19 years after Jacobsen's article was published, this still seems to be the case, and several semantic consultants also express that they have experienced a shift, where Nuuk-Danish has become more accepted. All the semantic consultants switch codes between Danish and Greenlandic with their friends of the same age as code-switching is unproblematic when everyone in a group speaks the languages involved. But Nuuk is a place where many Danes come to work or study for a limited period, and for those speakers, it is more the exception than the rule that they speak Greenlandic. Therefore, by being an 'in-group marker', it seems that Nuuk-Danish can also be used to distance oneself from those who are not part of the group, in particular Danes. In other words, it seems that the use of Nuuk-Danish can be a way of positioning oneself as non-Danish by reflecting a command of the Greenlandic language - albeit limited. Therefore, the function of Nuuk-Danish does not only seem to be a marker of Greenlandic solidarity, but also Greenlandic identity. Jacobsen rounds off her article by asking whether Nuuk-Danish is a new urban variety that signals a generation that has overcome the either-or identity crisis of previous generations and instead adopted a both-and identity (Jacobsen, 2003:163). There are indications that Nuuk-Danish has a unifying decolonization potential in Nuuk by offering a linguistic both-and position that is based on the colonial language but marks Greenlandicness. Conversely, several semantic consultants describe an identity crisis among Danish-speaking Greenlanders in particular. Following her question, Jacobsen adds: “If this is the case, then Danish has been promoted  from a colonial language to an equal language in a bilingual society” (Jacobsen, 2003:163). To this, I can answer more clearly that it does not seem to be the case. Greenlandic is considered the language that Danish-speaking Greenlanders should strive to learn, and Nuuk-Danish a station on the way to the final goal.

5.0 The project's contribution to the Commonwealth

My thesis is a contribution to the linguistic documentation of Nuuk-Danish for the benefit of both Nuuk-Danish speakers and cross-cultural understanding. When Nuuk-Danish speakers are not recognized as a language community, as is the case today, they risk being perceived as lacking language skills, because Denmark-Danish as the colonial language is the norm. In my project, Nuuk-Danish is recognized as a distinctive language community that, in line with other language communities, deserves linguistic treatment on its own terms. Further, my semantic analysis makes the culture-specific worldviews embedded in Nuuk-Danish environmental concepts comprehensible and translatable across languages. Thereby, the study contributes new insights into the richness of the Nuuk-Danish universe of meaning for the benefit of cross-cultural understanding. This can be crucial knowledge in the climate-critical situation we are in. Climate change is - as is well known - a global, man-made problem. But the natural environment, which changes with climate change, is experienced locally and interpreted locally. Therefore, climate adaptation initiatives that work in Denmark, for example, will not necessarily be directly transferable to Greenland. The knowledge of how local speakers relate to and conceptualize their local natural environment is thus key to ensuring a transition that lasts and takes cultural differences into account. In other words, my study can act as a cultural insight that can be used in securing long-lasting and culturally sensitive climate adaptation initiatives in the Commonwealth.

6.0 Conclusion

In my thesis, I have followed up on Birgitte Jacobsen's (2003) innovative pilot study of Nuuk-Danish. More concretely, based on fieldwork and semantic consultations in Nuuk, I have treated the meaning of selected environmental words with the Natural Semantic Metalanguage. I have proposed explications of the seasonal words midnatssol and vintermørke, the landscape words havet, isen, and fjeld, and the non-human environment-bound being concept fjeldgænger. Like other environmental concepts, the Nuuk-Danish words are rooted in an anthropocentric perspective. Lastly, I return to Jacobsen’s final remark on Nuuk-Danish, where she speculates, if Nuuk-Danish signals a generation that has overcome a neither-nor identity crisis. My initial observations indicate that Nuuk-Danish is considered a linguistic both-and-position based on the colonial language but marking Greenlandic identity.

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Senest opdateret 16. november 2022