Saturday 13 August 2016

Greenland Place Names Explained

Having blogged samples of my books on English place names and also examined the etymologies of the nations of the world and their respective capitals I thought it time I cast my net a little wider. As English place names share some links to other tongues it would be interesting to see if any of the elements contributing to our place names could be found elsewhere. Continuing an alphabetical tour of the world and a look at the names of Greenland's settlements. Note there are only 74 in the entire country, of which less than half can boast a population of over two hundred.

Nuuk is from the local Kalaallisut word for 'cape', so-called because of its position on the end of the Nuup Kangerlua fjord.

Sisimiut is a delicious place name with a literal translation form the Kalaallisut tongue of 'the people of the fox burrows'.

Ilulissat is another Kalaallisut word, an apt one for this means 'icebergs'.

Aasiaat in Greenlandic means 'spiders', a literal translation ofter said to be because of its abundance of arachnids. This seems highly unlikely as even the modern heated town such creatures are rare.

Paamiut is a Kalaallisut word meaning 'those who reside by the mouth', this a reference to the estuary known as Kuannersooq meaning 'inlet'.

Narsaq is another name of Kalaallisut origin, this translating as 'plain' and a reference to the Tunulliarfik Fjord where it is situated.

Nanortalik comes from Greenlandic and translates as 'place of polar bears'.

Uummannaq is town on Uumannaq Island, itself named from Uummannaq mountain, a Greenlandic name meaning 'heart-shaped'. The mountain, with a cleft between its two summits, could be seen as heart-shaped if viewed from a particular part of the island.

Upernavik is a Kalaallisut word meaning 'springtime place', clearly named for being accessible in warmer months.

Kangerlussuaq is another from the Kalaallisut language, here meaning simply 'big fjord'.

Ittoqqortoomiit, which used to be known as Scoresbysund after the Arctic explorer and whaler William Scoresby, comes from the Eastern Greenlandic dialect and describes the 'big house dwellers'.

Kullorsuaq is again from Kalaallisut and means 'big thumb', a prominent pinnacle in the centre of the island known to the English as Devil's Thumb.

Kulusk continues the list of marvellous Kalaallisut names, this translating as 'chest of a black guillemot'.

Tasiusaq is again Kalaallisut and means 'bay with a small outlet'.

Qeqertarsuatsiaat is another Kalaallisut name which, like the previous example is very simplistic in its meaning of 'rather large island'.

Sermiligaaq is also Kalaallisut and means 'beautiful glacier fjord'.

Nuussuaq is a town and the name of a peninsula and appropriately means 'large tip' in the Greenlandic language.

Saqqaq is a Kalaallisut translation of the original Danish name Solsiden meaning 'sunny side'. This is a reference to its position relative to Livets Top.

Aappilattoq is from the Greenlandic language meaning 'sea anemone'.

Kapisillit is from the Greenlandic language and means 'the salmon', traditionally the local river is the only spawning ground for the fish in Greenland.

Savissivik may well qualify as most informative place name in the world, for it offers cultural, historic, archaeological and scientific information. In the Greenlandic language the name translates as 'place of knives' which some would offer as 'place of meteoric iron'. In a land where iron ore is quite impossible to find beneath the ice, the 100-tonne Cape York meteorite proved a technological boon when it exploded over this area some 10,000 years ago. Fragments from the iron-rich meteorite were easy to find and turn into knives, indeed it is widely accepted the iron found here attracted the Inuit who migrated here from the Arctic regions of Canada. All this from defining a place name which, in 2010, had a population of just 66.

Ilimanaq is a Kalaallisut name meaning 'place of expectations'.

Naajaat is from Kalaallisut and means simply 'seagulls'.

Tasiusaq is from Greenlandic and means 'a bay with a small outlet'.

Niaqornat means 'head-shaped' and comes from the Kalaallisut tongue.

Ammassivik is the Kalaallisut word for 'plain'.

Oqaatsut also comes from the Kalaallisut language where it translates as 'cormorants'.

Note the spellings of the places are English as the piece is written in English.


  1. I have also read where Augpilagtoq means "red" after the red mountain rising above the small village. Is that wrong?

    1. Etymologically speaking it doesn't seem right, indeed I would question how a mountain would ever appear red any more than any other would under certain sunlit conditions. Sorry can't be of any great help there.