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Who's the Boss?

22nd August 2019

Plenty of people have asked if Denmark is being insulted in this week’s dispute with the United States, but very few people seem to be asking if Greenland is.

The diplomatic row that followed Donald Trump’s proposal to buy Greenland from Denmark this week threw up a lot of contradictory claims, but Greenland has always been a land of contradictions.

It was named by 10th century Vikings who hoped settlers would be attracted to a place that sounded lush and fertile, but Greenland was and is largely covered by ice caps. Although it has a national football team it hasn’t been granted membership of FIFA because it has no way of cultivating grass pitches. It’s the world’s largest island, but with a population of under 60,000 it’s also the world’s least densely populated territory. Its economy is driven by the simplicity of fishing, but high-tech oil drilling is making more and more of an impact. It’s a dependent territory of Denmark, but in the 21st century it’s showing an independent streak. On the streets of Nuuk, the capital, Greenlandic flags are everywhere. The people waving them won’t have appreciated being tossed around between potential masters like a child’s toy this week.

One of the clearest ways to assert your independence is through language, and Greenlandic is spoken by 90% of those who live there. The language is alive and evolving. When native speakers embrace new technology they create words to describe it through a combination of their own familiar vocabulary and borrowed fragments from Danish and English. It gives Greenlandic a richness and complexity, and it shows a population taking pride in their heritage while remaining open to wider modern influences. A population that shouldn't be forgotten. Plenty of people have asked if Denmark is being insulted in this week’s dispute, but very few people seem to be asking if Greenland is.

It’s easy to understand the economic appeal of Greenland. It’s rich in natural resources, not only oil and gas but also precious stones; rubies and sapphires are mined on the south west coast. And it’s easy to understand an American President wanting to make a land-grab. The 1803 Louisiana Purchase saw the United States almost double in size with the acquisition of huge tracts of land from France. President Thomas Jefferson paid just $18 per square mile, and he ended up with his face on Mount Rushmore. But when we speak of buying and selling not only land but its people, their language, their culture and their pride, perhaps we should start by acknowledging their importance.