Cambridge researcher will live in Arctic and document Inughuit culture and language threatened by climate change.

Stephen Pax Leonard will soon swap the lawns, libraries and high tables of Cambridge University for three months of darkness, temperatures as low as – 40°C and hunting seals for food with a spear.

But the academic researcher, who leaves Britain this weekend, has a mission: to take the last chance to document the language and traditions of an entire culture.

“I'm extremely excited but, yes, also apprehensive,” Leonard said as he made the final preparations for what is, by anyone's standards, the trip of a lifetime.

Leonard, an anthropological linguist, is to spend a year living with the Inughuit people of north-west Greenland, a tiny community whose members manage to live a similar hunting and gathering life to their ancestors. They speak a language — the dialect is called Inuktun — that has never fully been written down, and they pass down their stories and traditions orally.

“Climate change means they have around 10 or 15 years left,” said Leonard. “Then they'll have to move south and in all probability move in to modern flats.” If that happens, an entire language and culture is likely to disappear.

There is no Inughuit written literature but a very strong and “distinctive, intangible cultural heritage,” according to Leonard. “If their language dies, their heritage and identity will die with it. The aim of this project is to record and describe it and then give it back to the communities themselves in a form that future generations can use and understands.”

The Inughuits thought they were the world's only inhabitants until an expedition led by the Scottish explorer John Ross came across them in 1818.

Unlike other Inuit communities they were not significantly influenced by the arrival of Christianity in Greenland — so they retain elements of a much older, shamanic culture — and their life is not very different now to how it always has been. Many of the men spend weeks away from home hunting seals, narwhal, walruses, whales and other mammals. And while they have tents, they still build igloos when conditions get really bad.

Their language is regarded as something of a linguistic “fossil” and one of the oldest and most “pure” Inuit dialects.

Leonard was, day before yesterday, saying goodbye to family and friends. On Sunday he flies to Copenhagen — “it's the only place you can buy a Greenlandic-Danish dictionary” — and then it's off to Greenland, taking two internal flights to get to the main Inughuit settlement in Qaanaaq on the north-west coast of Greenland, north of Baffin Bay.

There, Leonard expects to hone his linguistic skills and build contacts for seven or eight months before moving to the most traditional Inughuit outpost in Siorapaluk, the most northern permanently inhabited settlement in the world, where about 70 Inughuit live. It will be here that Leonard hopes to hear the storytelling that lies at the heart of the culture.

Leonard's interest in the Inughuits began 10 years ago when he read Marie Herbert's book The Snow People, an account of life with the Inughuits, but it is only recently that he learned how imminent the threat is to their way of life and their culture.

“I just hadn't realised how endangered the community was and this whole culture could simply die, disappear. Normally languages die out because it is parents deciding they don't want their children to speak it.” Leonard, who is 36, will have to adapt to many things, not least the extreme temperatures. Although the average temperature is – 25°C, it can plummet to – 40° or soar to zero in the summer. Then there is the Arctic darkness, with the sun expected to go down on October 24 and not rise again until March 8. It is this time of year that elders talk and pass on their stories and poetry.

Nevertheless, Leonard admitted: “I don't really know how I'm going to deal with it, to be honest.” There appears to be a certain inevitability to the Inughuits being soon forced from their ancient homeland to southern Greenland, making Leonard's mission all the more pressing. Climate change is already leading to a noticeable reduction in seal numbers and the ice will soon become so thin that it will be impossible to use dog sleds.

Leonard intends to record the Inughuits and, rather than writing a grammar or dictionary, produce an “ethnography of speaking” to show how their language and culture are interconnected. The recordings will be digitised and archived and returned to the community in their own language.

“These communities, which could be just years from fragmentation, want their cultural plight to be known to the rest of the world,” he said.

Although the climate change catastrophe facing the Arctic is well documented and the Inughuits are visited frequently, Leonard hopes his visit will be more meaningful than others.

“One thing I have been told is that they are tired of journalists popping in and reporting how awful it is that the icebergs are melting and then that's it, so they are keen that someone comes and lives with them and reports back.” —© Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2010

Endangered languages

Holly Bentley

Alanguage dies every 14 days, and half those spoken today are expected to vanish by 2100. The secret language of the Kallawaya, in central South America, is over 400 years old and spoken by fewer than a hundred people. In daily life the Kallawaya use Spanish or Aymara but when discussing medicinal plants, used in their role as healers, they speak their own private language.

Aboriginal Australia holds some of the most endangered languages such as Amurdag, which was believed extinct until a few years ago when linguists came across Charlie Mangulda living in the Northern Territory.

Mednyj Aleut is spoken by a handful of people in eastern Siberia. Unlike most languages it has two parents, a combination of largely Aleut vocabulary and Russian verb endings.

Siletz Dee—ni is spoken on the Siletz reservation in Oregon. When the reservation was created in 1855 it held speakers of many languages. To communicate with each other residents adopted a pidgin version of Chinook, in the process nearly wiping out their indigenous languages.

There are five first-language speakers of Euchee, an American Indian language, all over 80. The language went into decline in the 1900s when punishments were introduced for American Indian students heard speaking their own languages at school.

Nivkh, a Siberian language spoken by fewer than 300 people, has 26 different ways of saying every number depending on what the speaker is counting. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2010

More In: Comment | Opinion