The Polar North: Ways of Speaking, Ways of Belonging


Leonard, SP

Published by: Francis Boutle Publishers, London, 2014
ISBN 978 1903427 94 1

Stephen Leonard set off on a journey to document the language and spoken traditions of a small group of Inuit living in a remote corner of north-west Greenland. This group call themselves the Inugguit (the ‘big people’) and they speak an exceedingly complex language understood by few outsiders. The Inugguit number 700 and live in the northern most permanently inhabited place in the world, occupying four different settlements scattered across an area the size of Germany. Leonard lived with the Inugguit for 12 months, learning their language and living their way of life, not leaving the region at any point. As a teenager, Leonard had read about the Inugguit through the accounts of the explorer, Sir Wally Herbert who lived in the region in the early 1970s and who had been a motivation for his journey.

Travelling with hunters out on the Arctic sea ice, he followed in Herbert’s footsteps and discovered another world entirely, a way of life more or less unchanged for a thousand years. Living such a simple life in a pre-industrial society at the top of the world, Leonard came to understand the Inugguit’s privileged take on the busy, overpopulated world that lies beneath them. Back in the settlements, traditional life was juxtaposed with a modern, consumerist lifestyle that has now made it to every corner of the planet. Some of the Inugguit may live in tiny, wind-beaten wooden cabins with no running water, but Amazon delivers. 

This is a story of a year spent with a group of people whose ancient way of life is now in sharp transition in many other respects too. The Inugguit are the last people in the world to travel on the sea-ice exclusively by dog-sledge. Affected directly by climate change, their quiet corner of the planet is melting. Their white, Arctic universe is about to become the epicenter of a geo-political battle over the remaining finite resources left on Earth, a place where polar bear fur clad Arctic hunters and their dog teams meet precious metal prospectors with satellite based spectroscopes and hundreds of millions of dollars to spend.

Stephen Pax Leonard is currently a Fellow of Exeter College, Oxford. Having trained as a linguist at Oxford, he held subsequently a Research Fellowship at Trinity Hall, Cambridge. He has lived and travelled widely in the Scandinavian Arctic region. He is the author of two other books, Language, Society and Identity in early Iceland and Arctic Journal.

Keywords: Indigenous Arctic communities, Inugguit, Greenland
Categories: Arctic, Social Science