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How To Say 'I Love You' In Greenlandic

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"Ilissiverupunga," muttered Beathe Berthelsen, the curator of Upernavik Museum. I'd only recently learnt that the word meant "Damn! I've put it away in a safe place and now I can't find it."

Mornings at the most northern museum in the world: an endless round of coffee and conversation as local hunters and fishermen drop in to discuss ice conditions. On my first day as Writer in Residence on this rocky island off the north-west coast of Greenland, I'd come to the museum looking for poetry books.

"Illilli!" Beathe called an hour later, "There you are!" She emerged from a cupboard hidden behind a stack of narwhal tusks, and presented me with a hymnbook bound in flocked wallpaper.

This was the only poetry I was to enjoy during my winter in Upernavik.

The Inuit have a tradition of oral literature. For centuries, poems were memorised and sung, rather than recorded on paper. In a nomadic culture, paddling between hunting grounds, why weigh your kayak down with books?

Even today, Greenlanders seem to set little store on written records. I was eager to write about the diminishing ice that cut Upernavik off from the rest of the world - after all, I'd travelled miles from home in treacherous conditions to do so - but Beathe made it clear that she thought socialising was more important than scribbling.

She determined to teach me Greenlandic so I could converse with the islanders, and began with the word she claimed I would need most. "I love you", she said. "Asavakkit. This is the most important!" she added, and smiled.

After this simple beginning, my lessons became more complicated. Greenlandic is a daunting language, in which single words express concepts that other languages tiptoe around with whole phrases. I discovered that on waking up in the morning I could shout "Nuannarpoq" rather than "I am full of a delirious joy in being alive".

I began to parse the strange new Arctic landscapes word by word. I learnt how to say "the sea rises and falls slowly at the foot of the iceberg" (iimisaarpoq) and "the air is clear, so sounds can be heard from afar" (imingnarpoq).

Hungry for more vocabulary, I found a nineteeth-century dictionary among the journals of marine biology in the museum. Its bowdlerised English definitions were almost as puzzling as the original Greenlandic. The margins were filled with corrections in a copperplate hand that implied that the original compiler had been just as fallible as me.

I looked up from my study of incomprehensibly long Greenlandic words and watched icebergs drifting on the horizon. The peaks and tables looked like arcane writing, a sonograph of the subtle phonemes I was learning. Could topography provide a typography in a culture so resistant to letters?

Greenlandic has become infamous for its many words for snow. Yet snow is just the beginning - it has a wide vocabulary for most environmental conditions and is now acknowledged to be of fundamental importance in understanding Arctic ecology. Each word, like a time capsule, contains precise inherited knowledge that can help climate scientists to chart the nuances of the ice.

But the Greenlandic language is as vulnerable as the environment it describes. Since 2009, UNESCO's World Atlas of Languages in Danger has designated West Greenlandic 'vulnerable' and predicted that Avanersuaq and Tunumiit oraasiat, the North and East Greenlandic dialects, will disappear within a century. (Qavak, a South Greenlandic dialect, is already extinct.) What hope has the landscape, if the language that describes it disappears?

I had hoped to find poems in the Arctic. I did not expect to return with a whole new language. Greenlandic had become the key to representing the Arctic for me, and I felt I owed it an acknowledgement. I selected the twelve most evocative words that Beathe had taught me, and compiled my own abecedarium. This one is firmly anchored on paper, rather than sung, in the hope that a fragment of this poetic language will be preserved in a safe place, where other people can find it.

Exhibition details:

Nancy Campbell How To Say 'I Love You' In Greenlandic: An Arctic Alphabet opened at Bookartbookshop on 17 November and will run until 29 November. An artist's edition is available, details at www.nancycampbell.co.uk