However, a new language has started spreading rapidly. “Recently we have been seeing a big influx of English,” Grenoble said. Recent immigrants and temporary workers typically use English. Also, young people are learning English through movies, video games, social media and YouTube.
“My research aims to understand what is happening in this dynamic situation both linguistically and sociolinguistically,” Grenoble said. “Who speaks which language when and with whom? How are Greenlanders learning English and what effect does this have on their knowledge and use of Kalaallisut, their mother or ancestral tongue?”
To answer these questions, Grenoble and project postdoc Jessica Kantarovich spent much of the summer in Nuuk, Greenland observing how people use Kalaallisut. They were particularly interested in reports that the language was getting shorter.
“Kalaallisut is a polysynthetic language; suffixes take on the job that words do in languages like English,” Grenoble said. “For example: the word qujanaq is ‘thank you’. If you add the suffix -rsuaq, which means ‘big’, you get qujanarsuaq, ‘big thanks’ or ‘thank you very much.’ And if you are really, really grateful, you can add it again: qujanarsuarsuaq, and again, qujanarsuarsuarsuaq, and so on.”
To figure out if and how words were getting shorter, Grenoble and Kantarovich conducted, transcribed, and analyzed interviews in Kalaallisut. They were also interested in the language’s everyday use.
“We usually spend some time doing participant-observation work, going to public places and observing who is using what language in the stores, in the restaurants, in casual and brief interactions,” Grenoble said.
The scholars are particularly interested in what Grenoble calls shifting speakers—typically young people still in their homeland who stop learning their parents’ minority language and shift to the majority one.