Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Icelandic - then and now (same thing)

Here in Icelandic we speak Icelandic. It is a Germanic language belonging to the same branch as the other Nordic languages: Faroese, Norwegian, Swedish and Danish. If you know one you will be able to read a newspaper article in another as long as there is a photo or two to set you off in the right direction.

Icelandic used to be Norse – now Old Norse, i.e. the language spoken by the settlers here who came from Norway. Due to the insular circumstances the language stagnated – not in a bad way – so Icelandic has changed little since. We can still read manuscripts dating back to 1100. Some of the letters other languages have trimmed off the end of their alphabet are still with us and most of us have at least one such do-do bird letter in our name.

Icelandic is a heavily inflected language with four cases and Icelandic nouns have one of three grammatical genders—masculine, feminine or neutral. Before I continue, since I do not expect all readers to be grammar enthusiasts, inflictions used to be a part of the English language and some examples still remain. As an example take the pronoun: “I”. Here I am, this is from me, this is mine and this is my book. If you replace the pronoun with any old noun you will see that there is no such changing of the word (Here is the dog, this is from the dog, this is the dog’s and this is the dog’s book). So in Icelandic we do this to all nouns, not only pronouns and we also inflict names. Some words and names change quite drastically depending on the infliction which makes it hard to learn the language – as an example the name Örn – it becomes Erni and Arnar when inflicted. Thankfully when you grow up here you never have to think about this - you just know the inflictions.

The development of Icelandic in the last century or so has taken a very different course than the larger Nordic languages. In Sweden, Norway and Denmark word for new technology or concepts tend to be taken from English. Here we make up new words that fit the language and the infliction system. Therefore you will not hear the odd English word when you hear Icelandic spoken. This puritan movement actually began in the 18th century, when i.a. Icelandic writers and the educated decided to rid the language of foreign words and create a new vocabulary to make up for the words they threw out. The new words were either recycled old words that had fallen by the wayside or new ones that fit the language system.  

As an example of a made up word is “tölva”. It is a hybrid combining the words “tala” and “völva” which mean: “number” and “oracle”. I suppose many of you have already guessed what English word we were shooting for but if not it was: computer. Another example: “sjónvarp” – sjón” means “sight” and “varp” means “catapult/throw”. Sjónvarp means television.

There have been attempts that flounder and flop. Flatbaka (“flatur” means flat and “baka” means pie) never managed to sink its teeth in. We all say pizza. The reason pizza stuck better is not only because it is shorter but because the word had the capacity to melt into the language, i.e. it fits the female grammatical gender and can be inflicted.

Another very, very bad example of a word flop is the original attempt to find an Icelandic name for AIDS. The word that was at first selected was “eyðni”. Nothing wrong with the word except it is a derivative of a word that means to annihilate or delete. Doctors were not happy to tell patients that they had tested positive for “annihilation”.

So they changed it although its ghost can still be noted in conversation now and again. The new word is “alnæmi” which means “sensitive to everything”. Sure beats having deletion disease.  

Yrsa - Wednesday  


  1. Thank you for inflicting that upon us, Yrsa. I feel so much better now knowing that I can order a flatbaka on my tölva without leaving my sjónvarp. :)

    Good thing I don't have dentures.

  2. Whew. I had to keep checking the date to make sure it wasn't the First of April. I used to think English was bizarre, now I know: EVERY language is bizarre (some more than others, I suspect...)

  3. And then there's Japanese. It has past tense negative adjectives. Wrap your mind around that one a while ... [laughs]--Mario R.

  4. In Cinese, there aren't even tenses of the the verb. No inflictions. In China, it's all about inflections. The sound MA can mean "mother" or "horse" depending on how one sings it. I studied Chinese only briefly but one of my classmates was tone deaf. One day he put the instructor into paroxysms of laughter by trying to practice ordering a beer--a word made up of the sounds Pea and Joe. (tasty and wine). Mr. Tonedeaf used the wrong tone and ordered fart wine.

  5. And I was going to learn Icelandic! What is interesting to me is how languages evolve. When I tried to use the Russian word for "to eat" that I had learned as a child from my pre-revolutionary parents, I was told by my Soviet instructor that my word was a "bourgeois word" and that the "right word" was something else. Who decides what is middle class or not? Anyway, an interesting look at what happened after 1917. Thank you for all your columns, I look forward to them and buying the books and learning, learning, learning.