Greenlandic is a polysynthetic language that allows the creation of long words by stringing together roots and suffixes. Its morphosyntactic alignment is ergative, meaning that it treats (i.e. case-marks) the argument ("subject") of an intransitive verb like the object of a transitive verb, but distinctly from the agent ("subject") of a transitive verb.
Nouns are inflected for one of the eight cases and for possession. Verbs are inflected for one of the eight moods and for the number and person of its subject and object. Both nouns and verbs have complex derivational morphology. Basic word order in transitive clauses is subject–object–verb. Subordination of clauses is done by the use of special subordinate moods. A so-called fourth-person category enables switch-reference between main clauses and subordinate clauses with different subjects. Greenlandic is notable for its lack of a system of grammatical tense, as temporal relations are normally expressed through context, through the use of temporal particles such as "yesterday" or "now" or sometimes through the use of derivational suffixes or the combination of affixes with aspectual meanings with the semantic aktionsart of different verbs. However, some linguists have suggested that Greenlandic does mark future tense obligatorily. Another question is whether the language has noun incorporation, or whether the processes that create complex predicates that include nominal roots are derivational in nature.
When adopting new concepts or technologies, Greenlandic usually constructs new words made from Greenlandic roots, but modern Greenlandic has also taken many loans from Danish and English. The language has been written in the Latin script since Danish colonization began in the 1700s. The first orthography was developed by Samuel Kleinschmidt in 1851, but within a hundred years already differed substantially from the spoken language because of a number of sound changes. An extensive orthographic reform undertaken in 1973 that made the script easier to learn resulted in a boost in Greenlandic literacy, which is now among the highest in the world.
The first descriptions of Greenlandic date from the 1600s, and with the arrival of Danish missionaries in the early 1700s, and the beginning of Danish colonialism in Greenland, the compilation of dictionaries and description of grammar began. The missionary Paul Egede wrote the first Greenlandic dictionary in 1750, and the first grammar in 1760.
From the Danish colonization in the 1700s to the beginning of Greenlandic home rule in 1979, Greenlandic experienced increasing pressure from the Danish language. In the 1950s, Denmark's linguistic policies were directed at strengthening Danish. Of primary significance was that post-primary education and official functions were conducted in Danish.
From 1851 to 1973, Greenlandic was written in a complicated orthography devised by the missionary linguist Samuel Kleinschmidt. In 1973, a new orthography was introduced, intended to bring the written language closer to the spoken standard, which had changed considerably since Kleinschmidt's time. The reform was effective and in the years following it, Greenlandic literacy received a boost.