Iceland: Wordsmith of State

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Tue Jun 10 13:33:56 UTC 2008

Wordsmith of State

For over 40 years the Icelandic Language Committee has stood as the
steward of the nation's language, with crackerjack Gudrún Kvaran at
its helm for the last five years. Also the director of the university
dictionary, the tabernacle of the Icelandic language, Kvaran has
proven herself judge, jury and hangman when it comes to the people's
tongue. But don't let her bookish looks fool you; Icelandic's first
lady is out for blood.

Jonas Moody: What role does the Icelandic Language Committee (ILC)
play in the country? Some call you the language police. Do you patrol
the streets?

Gudrún Kvaran: Our original purpose was not to protect the language
but to come up with neologisms [a new word, meaning or phrase]. But
recent laws have changed our role to that of advisors on matters of
the language. Our project now is to draft a language policy. People
often think they know everything about the language, but the reality
of the situation is different.

JM: Does the language need to be conserved?

GK: Certainly. It's a crucial role of the committee to prevent foreign
languages from having too much influence on Icelandic. Naturally, the
language will evolve to some degree on its own, but it's quite
dangerous if we are exposed to too much influence from, let's say,

JM: But Iceland has always been a stickler when it comes to keeping
the language pure, like wiping out a certain dialect called flámaeli
and national campaigns to correct grammar. Are Icelanders loosening
their grip?

GK: Even if most don't want to admit it, there is a tendency in people
to protect their language. People fought against flámaeli not because
it was an inferior pronunciation, but because it caused vowels to run
together, and it became hard to differentiate between words.

JM: How about laws obliging citizens, including foreigners granted
Icelandic citizenship, to take only approved Icelandic names?

GK: Recently the naming laws have opened up because so many foreigners
have settled here. Now they don't have to change their names. Thus
more and more Icelandic citizens have names that don't work within
Icelandic. This can have a detrimental effect on the entire declension

JM: But besides not having names that work in the language, how about
the larger problem of foreigners not being able to speak the language,
period? Some even say that with the influx of foreign laborers,
Icelandic is becoming the exclusive language of an upper class.

GK: If immigrant workers come to stay in Iceland, then it should fall
upon the employer to ensure the employee has decent instruction in
Icelandic. Otherwise these people will meet the same fate as the
workers in Germany, where Turkish people have become isolated from the
rest of society. On the other hand, a playschool staffed by people who
speak only broken Icelandic is doing a disservice to children who are
at a formative stage in their language acquisition. The same is true
of hospitals. People who are meant to care for patients must be able
to understand at least the basic knowledge of a patient's details.

JM: How deep an impact is English making on those places where
Icelandic society is most exposed like international business?

GK: The effects are extensive. Some companies want to adopt English as
their operational language, drafting all e-mails in English and so
forth. But if people stop speaking Icelandic then there will be no
vocabulary in Icelandic. Then we find ourselves in the situation of
having to switch over to English when speaking about business because
the Icelandic terminology simply won't exist after ten years or so.

JM: My experience with Icelandic business people is that they don't
switch into English when the Icelandic vocabulary gets spotty, but
rather they use sletta, which is a foreign word Icelandicized ad hoc.
For example "e-mail" becomes í-meil.

GK: If sletta becomes too common in parlance then it can pose a threat
to the language. Look at Denmark, which ushered in all kinds of
foreign words willy-nilly. The Danes woke up two or three years ago to
the reality that their language was in shambles, a veritable pidgin
English. Regrettably sletta has become commonplace in Iceland
especially on blogs or in conversation because people can't be
bothered with the Icelandic. But sletta has always been considered a
blemish on one's language. No self-respecting academic would write an
article using sletta.

JM: I understand the ILC battles the blaze of sletta with a constant
stream of neologisms, over a thousand each year. But do the words
always stick?

GK: Many of the constructed words don't make it. But then all of a
sudden a journalist might come up with his own neologism, and then
it's on everyone's lips. I've scrutinized the words that make it and
the words that don't and often you can't see a difference. They're
formed in the same way, but it's the moment that determines their

JM: Any favorites?

GK: The word "jet" used to be a mouthful thrýstiloftsflugvél
[compressed-air-flying-machine], but then a journalist came up with
the word thota [from the verb "to dash off"] and the other word hasn't
been heard since.

JM: Any words you are surprised to see flop?

GK: The original neologism for "money laundering" was fjárböd
[literally "money wash"], but it turned out that fjárböd was already
in use as a medicinal rinse for mangy sheep. [The Icelandic word for
"money" and "sheep" is the same – go figure.] So that one was doomed
from the beginning.

JM: J.R.R. Tolkien, the writer and linguist, once said that his
favorite combination of words was cellar door. Do you have a morsel of
Icelandic that strikes you as especially lovely?

GK: Klógulur [literally "with yellow talons"]. It's from a poem by
Jónas Hallgrímsson where he's describing an eagle. One word says so
much, how the bird is descending on his prey, his talons are yellow…
but soon enough they'll be red.

JM: Is this a metaphor for you with talons outstretched when you catch
people using sletta?

GK: Indeed, but they certainly won't be yellow for long!

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