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Kalaallisut: Word Order, Case Marking and Agreement, and Incorporation

Thomas De Meola
Language Typology Spring 2018

Kalaallisut, or known as Greenlandic, is an Eskimo-Aleutian language spoken most

prominently in Greenland as the official language, and also in Denmark as a minority language.

The group of speakers consists of about 56,200 individuals, most those being of ethnic

Greenlandic origin. The move to declare Kalaallisut as the official language of Greenland was

one made by the government in order to preserve the language from dying out and protect it from

being overrun by the Danish language. In this paper, I will highlight some of the features

dealing with the language’s word order, outlining the case marking and agreement system, and

further delving into its polysynthetic traits including verb and object incorporation.

Word Order

Greenlandic Inuit uses SOV word order, with a fair amount of free word order made possible

by the extensive case marking system, however, most (if not all) of the examples that I have

included in this analysis are in SOV order.

(1) Arnaq tikippoq

Woman-ABS come-IND-[-tr]-3SG
The woman came.
(Sadock 304)
(2) Arnap meeraq takuvaa
Woman-ERG child-ABS see-IND-[+tr]-3SG.3SG
The woman saw the child.
(Sadock 304)

Examples (1) and (2) demonstrate the word order in an intransitive and transitive

construction. Below are tree diagrams that outline these two constructions.
The following examples outline how adjuncts to phrases follow the modified phrase, instead

of before, thus respecting the rules in X-bar theory:

 XP(YP) X’

 X’(ZP) X

There is one exception to these rules when dealing with possessive structures, where the

possessor would come before the modified phrase instead of afterwards. Example (4)

demonstrates a construction of this type.

(3) qimmi-t nutaa-t

dog-PL new-PL
new dogs
(Bittner 62)
(4) Juuna-p qimmi-i
Juuna-ERG dog-3SG.PL
Juuna’s dogs
(Bittner 62)

Another point that is important to note has to do with the agreement on the possessed items

in these types of constructions. In example (4), there is an agreement particle attached to the

possessed item in order to agree with the person as well as the number of the possessor. In
sentences with common noun possessors, the modifier of the phrase also agrees with the case of

the possessor. This is outlined in example (5).

(5) Meegqap qimmiata takuvaanga.

Child-ERG dog-3SG-ERG see-IND-3SG.1SG
The child’s dog saw me.
(Sadock 304)
Greenlandic is a language that has no overt articles on noun phrases, and all of the

information is conveyed using different sentence constructions. There are the two basic

transitive and intransitive structures, but also passive and antipassive constructions. The latter

two sentence constructions are interesting in the way that they function. The passive

construction attaches the ablative case to underlying subject, the absolutive case to the object,

and a passive morpheme is attached to the verb stem. Though, the antipassive is a bit more

obscure in its meaning and interpretation by Greenlanders. As Sadock points out in his entry, in

the antipassive, the construction functions much like transitive phrases, and seem to convey the

object of the phrase as indefinite (306). An antipassive morpheme is also attached to the stem of

the verb, and the subject receives absolutive case and the objects receives instrumental case.

Number (6) is an example of a passive construction, whereas (7) is the antipassive.

(6) Angutimit arnaq takuneqarpoq.

Man-ABL woman-ABS see-PASS-IND-3SG
The woman was seen by a man.
(Sadock 305)
(7) Angut arnamik unataavoq.
The man beat a woman.
(Sadock 306)
There is debate on whether or not the antipassive construction in Greenlandic actually

occurs in the analysis of Greenlandic as a nominalizing affix, however Kappel Schmidt points
out and outlines how the analysis of a nominal affix is not advantageous due to the fact that the

antipassive verb can itself become nominalized, along the fact that it takes verbal inflection, it

can be negated, and it can be modified with adverbial affixes (388).

Case and Agreement

Greenlandic Inuit shows Ergative case marking. This is highlighted by the fact that the

absolutive case marks the subject of an intransitive sentence, and also the object of a transitive

sentence. The ergative case is fixed to the subject of a transitive sentence. As seen in example

(4), the ergative case marker is also used as the marker for the possessor instead of a case such as

genitive. Bittner and Sadock disagree on whether or not the subject of a transitive phrase should

be marked as ergative or relative, however from my understanding and own research on

Greenlandic, it seems the two are both used interchangeably to express the same concept. Due to

the ergativity shown of this language, I will use the ERG case marker to express this.

(8) Arnaq tikippoq

Woman-ABS come-IND-3SG
The woman came.
(Sadock 304)
(9) Kaalip nonoq toquppaa
Kaali-ERG bear-ABS kill-IND-3SG
Kaali killed the polar bear.
(Kappel Schmidt 390)
There are several other cases that are used in Greenlandic, some with interesting and

nonstandard uses. The instrumental case has the most variable use of all of the case markers in

this language, as it can be used to symbolize different ideas.

(10) Angummik angisuumik tikippoq
Man-INS big-NOM-INS come-IND-3SG
He came with a big man.
(Sadock 304)
(11) Kaalip arnaq aalisakkanik tunivaa
Kaali-ERG woman-ABS fish-PL.INS give-IND-3SG.3SG
Kaali gave the woman some fish.
(Bittner 74)
(12) Angut arnamik unataavoq
The man beat a woman.
(Sadock 306)
(13) Neqimik nervunga
Meat-INS eat-IND-1SG
I ate meat.
(Sadock 305)

In example (10) the instrumental case is attaching to the object noun and its modifier in

order to express that there is an event where someone comes, but that individual is coming with

someone – a big man. Number (11) uses this case in a way such that it attaches to the object

which is being given to someone else. In (12) and (13), the object of these two constructions are

understood as indefinite, which is consistent with much of the material I have seen. Therefore,

the instrumental case can also mark indefiniteness in a phrase.

The allative case also has a unique use in that it can be used to illustrate reflexivity by

marking the reflexive object as seen in (14).

(14) Imminut takuvoq

Self-ALL see-IND-3SG
He saw himself.
(Sadock 305)

The ablative case is used in passive constructions marking the underlying subject of the

sentence, while the underlying object receives absolutive case and agreement on the verb. This
would be a good place to note that, according to Sadock, when “the patient is in the

absolutive…only its person and number features are recorded on the verb. Thus, the agent is

understood as indefinite, and the patient as definite,” (305). Definiteness is a strange concept in

Greenlandic, in that it can be expressed in different ways. The antipassive particle, and the

presence/absence of agreement attached to the verb can both determine definiteness of a noun.

The other cases such as locative, equative, and prosecutive function much like expected.

Locative signifies spatial location; equative describes comparisons (i.e. he works as a nurse,

etc.), and prosecutive designates movement through something and a sense of belonging to a

modified noun (i.e. Peter and his family).


Incorporation can be tricky in Greenlandic, due to the fact that nouns cannot, most of the

time, incorporate into verbs. The verbs with potential to have an object incorporated mainly

consist of states of being and some verbs of possession. Verb incorporation is much more

common than objects incorporation in Greenlandic. Also, it is important to note that when

incorporation is possible, it must be performed since the sentence would be unintelligible if

incorporation did not occur. Example (15a) and (16a) show well-formed constructions with verb

incorporation, whereas (15b) and (16b) are impossible.

(15a) Aanip miiqqat qasu-nirar-p-a-i

Aani-ERG children-PL be.tired-say-IND-3SG.3PL
Aani said that the children were tired.
(Bittner 61)
(15b) *Aanip miiqqat qasu-p-i nirar-p-a.
Aani-ERG children-PL be.tired-IND-3PL say-IND-3SG
(16a) Suulup unnu-tsir-p-a-a
Suulu-ERG get.dark-wait.for-IND-3SG.3SG
Suulu waited for it to get dark.
(Bittner 61)
(16b) *Suulup unnu-p-a tsir-p-a
Suulu-ERG get.dark-IND-3SG wait.for-IND-3SG

Below are two trees outlining the D-Structure of (15a) and (16a) with arrows showing the

movement needed to attain a well-formed S-Structure.

In the structure for (15a), the be.tired verb moves up to the say verb’s position, and then

finally, both verbs move into T to create the final form of the verb. We can posit that children

could also move into the next verb position due to the Head Movement Constraint, but this

language does not allow this kind of object incorporation. However in the structure for (16a), we

can see the object it incorporate into the get.dark verb. This pronoun is unpronounced in the

actual spoken language due to the agreement morpheme at the end of the verb and the language’s

tendency to pro-drop. This language does not require the use of explicit pronouns in its spoken

language because one can always discover the subject and object of a sentence by looking at the

agreement morphemes.

Another interesting case where object incorporation depends on the type of verb used is

outlined in (17) and (18).

(17) Juunap qamutit ataatsit pigai
Juuna-ERG sled-PL one-PL own-IND-3SG.3PL
Juuna owns one sled.
(Bittner 67)
(18) Juuna _ ataatsinik qamutiqarpuq
Juuna ti one-PL.INS sledi-have-IND-3SG
Juuna has one sled.
(Bittner 67)

Here, the noun sled can only incorporate into the verb have, whereas with the verb own,

sled must be left unincorporated. If one incorporated sled to create the verb sled.own the

sentence would be incorrect. The same notion applies inversely to leaving sled unincorporated

from have – the sentence would be unacceptable. Below is the structure which illustrates

movement in (17).


I have shown in this paper that Greenlandic is an SOV polysynthetic language that

expresses case using an ergative system. This language has similarities to other native languages

to North America, such as Mohawk, in that the verb incorporation seems to function comparably.

What is most interesting and would require further analysis is determining the reason behind the

motivation for object incorporation into some verbs, but not all verbs. There is some sort of
pattern that I have noticed with certain verbs – mainly with those that are compounded with an

adjective for example as in be.tired. It seems verbs of this type does not allow a common or

proper noun to incorporate, however pronouns seem much freer to incorporate when applicable.

In examples (15a), children as a common noun cannot incorporate into be.tired however the

unpronounced objects it in (16b) incorporates into get.dark. Greenlandic Inuit is a rich language

full of interesting and peculiar techniques for creating sentences, yet nothing is too surprising

because, as the great professor and linguist Dr. Mark Baker once said, “The more languages

differ, the more they are the same.”


Bittner, Maria. Case, Scope, and Binding. Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1994.

Kappel Schmidt, Bodil. “West Greenlandic Antipassive.” Nordlyd, vol. 31, no. 2, 2004,


Sadock, Jerrold M. “Noun Incorporation in Greenlandic: A Case of Syntactic Word Formation.”

Language, vol. 56, no. 2, 1980, pp. 300–319., doi:10.1353/lan.1980.0036.