The Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellowships, supported by the Readings Foundation, help writers to find time and space to work on their writing, by providing a desk for two months and a $1000 stipend. This week, we’ll be publishing a series of extracts from the work created by our last intake of Hot Desk Fellows during their time here.
During her Fellowship, Bernadette Hince worked on The Grand Polar Dictionary. Her project is an attempt to document the culture and practices of Arctic life, past and present, through its language –some of which is now fading or extinct. Today, we take a glimpse at her work in progress.
First there are the words for animals — beluga, arvik, ukjuk. White bear, whitefish, Eskimo dog. Animals mean meat and blubber. Blubber means oil, light, warmth. Skin, gut, fur, sinew and bone mean sewing thread, needles, clothing, shelter, dryness, windows, tools, containers, boats, hunting equipment. In the Arctic, animals are life itself.
There are words for plants — reindeer moss, salmonberry, Labrador tea, tiny creeping stems of arctic willow. Their twigs burn. The fruits are edible. The leaves make tea, or can be preserved in blubber until winter time, when they are served as greens for the table.
Language words. Greenlandic, Inuktitut, Skolt Saami, Evenki, Yup'ik, Chukchi, Tlingit. I once believed that all people of the circumpolar Arctic shared a language and could understand each other. Now, I am not sure.
People words. Klondiker, Eskimo, Inuit, oiler, explorer, kayaker, angakok, shaman, kabluna, cheechako. Sourdoughs are Alaskan old-timers, kablunas are Europeans who do not belong. Everywhere in the world we have words for people who belong, and people who do not.
Words for fire in the sky — northern lights, auroral zone, curtains, streamers, magnetic midnight. When I was ten, someone in the family took the Southern Aurora to Sydney. We drove our station wagon full of children to Spencer Street station. The night train had silver carriages with roomettes, twinettes, and a dining car. I could not believe how sophisticated it was.
‘What’s an aurora?’, I asked. Until that moment, I did not know how badly I needed to see one.
Above all, words for the crystalline heart of the Arctic — ice words. Shuga, frazil, grease, candle ice, pancake ice, sea ice, sina. Breaking-out, freezing up. Pingo, thermafrost, frost smoke.
Men who sailed in Greenland’s cold waters also went south towards an uncertain Antarctica, taking the ice and snow words of the Arctic with them — weightless stowaways across the equator, boat words, asylum-seeker words rafting up on Antarctic ice, looking for different animals to cling to, different ice to belong with. Climate change refugee words. Arctic sea ice is melting so fast it could disappear in 30 years.
Language is the archive of history, said Emerson, who knew (as dictionary makers do) that a single word can hold a whole history of human exploration and our treatment of the natural world. Take ‘penguin’ —in fact we can take it as far as a word can go, from one polar region to the other. The first penguins were the northern hemisphere’s now-extinct great auks, Pinguinis impennis, large black and white flightless birds. They looked so similar to the birds we now call penguins that when Arctic sailors and explorers saw the southern hemisphere birds, they used a name they already knew for creatures who were like the birds they already knew. The word is so firmly naturalised now in the southern hemisphere that it seems native.
I am surrounded by these words when I work on my dictionary of Arctic English. It is so absorbing that when I sit down to do it, cares fall away. I write in a dry, unpopular inland city in southeastern Australia, far from the globe’s northern polar regions. But words can take me there.
Find out more about Bernadette Hince’s Grand Polar Dictionary in a previous Dailies piece, in which she revealed some of the process and method of working on the project.
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