[lg policy] The future of the Icelandic language may lie in its past

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at gmail.com
Tue Jun 2 15:16:40 UTC 2015


The future of the Icelandic language may lie in its past

The World in Words <http://www.pri.org/programs/world-words>

June 01, 2015 · 6:00 PM EDT
 By Patrick Cox <http://www.pri.org/people/patrick-cox> (follow)
<http://www.pri.org/flag/flag/subscribe_person/97?destination=node/80480&token=90f1d66ec4db94a429bfc4385ce86ed7&has_js=1>



      wool top.jpg
<http://cdn-113a.kxcdn.com/sites/default/files/story/images/wool%20top.jpg>

Hulda Hákonardóttir and Guðrún Hannele Henttinen help come up with new
Icelandic words as part of Iceland's knitting language committee.
  Credit:

Patrick Cox

If there’s an area of public life where new words are needed, Icelanders
have a committee for it.

Listen to the Story.

It may be new medical conditions, or new automotive technology. Words are
needed, fast. Otherwise people will get into the habit of using the
(usually) English word.

I met two women who sit on a committee you might not think of as cutting
edge when it comes to new technology: knitting. But as it turns out,
knitting is full of new designs and methods, only a handful of which can be
described in Icelandic.

Things hit a crisis after the 2008 economic meltdown, which was
particularly severe in Iceland. Icelanders went into a form of hibernation
involving wool.

“It was like a knitting boom.*”*  says Hulda Hákonardóttir, who does
marketing for Icelandic wool products. “A lot of women started to write
books about knitting.*”*

So far so good. But when the books came out, they were full of English
words popularized by YouTube instructional videos.

In Icelandic-language books and knitting patterns, the authors haven‘t been
able to agree on a standardized lexicon.

“They‘re even making up some words because they think that is the best word
for it, says Hákonardóttir, who also sits on the country‘s knitting
language committee. She says Icelandic writers don‘t understand that "we
have a very good old word for the same thing.”

* The Icelandic language, like its landscape, can be punishing. Credit:
Patrick Cox *
*Official Language Policy*

*We have a very good old word for the same thing.* In a nutshell, that’s
how Icelanders view their mother tongue. More than that, it’s the official
language policy in Iceland. When in doubt, go back in time.

There’s probably a perfectly good old word that’s maybe fallen out of use.
Combine it with another word, make sure it follows Icelandic grammar rules.

And then, try to talk the public into using it.

Here’s an example from knitting: The word "ribbing" — which is often used
as edging on sweaters.

"We had a lot of words for this, and some confusion about what to call it,
*" *says knitware store owner Guðrún Hannele Henttinen, who’s also on the
knitting language committee. “So we found an old word, *stuðlar,* and we
thought maybe that would be good to use that again.*”*

The word, *s**tuðlar, *meant the same thing in old Icelandic but no one was
using it anymore.

Another set of knitting techniques: *casting on*.

“In English, you have *longtail cast on, knitting cast on, cable cast on*,”
says Hákonardóttir. “For *cable cast on* for example, we had to find a new
word that really describes the method and we came out with *fléttufit*.”

That word derives from another old Icelandic term meaning “braid.”

* A scene from one of the Icelandic Sagas as depicted in an exhibit at the
Settlement Center in Borganes, Iceland Credit: Patrick Cox *
*The Icelandic Sagas*

This dredging up of archaic words makes total sense to Icelanders. They
have a close, tight relationship with the past, that’s bound up in words.

Every Icelander knows the Sagas, the stories of the Viking settlement of
Iceland, of violent struggles with the old world, and of love. (Just a
little love.) The Sagas began as oral histories that were later written
down in a form of Icelandic that‘s remarkably close to the language as
spoken today.

“It has changed so little that we can read the Sagas like our newspapers,”
says Kjartan Ragnarsson, who runs a museum called The Settlement Center

Kjartan Ragnarsson, who runs the Settlement Center, says Icelandic "is like
music to us."
  Credit:

Patrick Cox
 Pronounciation has evolved since the 13th and 14th centuries when the
Sagas were trancribed, but the words and the grammar haven‘t changed all
that much, certainly much less than the other Scandinavian languages, or
Englsih.

“I’m sure that the old literature has so much to do with how strongly we
are linked to the language as our identity,” says Ragnarsson. “It’s like
music for us."

Most Icelanders feel the same way: It’s what makes them Icelandic, this
language of epic struggle and survival. One writer tells me she so feels so
close to characters in the Sagas they are like family.

*Language Evolution*

But is it true? Has the language really not changed? Yes and no.

“If the people of Iceland create their own myth that this is the same
language that we had in the old times, it’s going to be perhaps borne out,”
University of Iceland linguist Kristján Árnason*.*

If everyone buys into the idea that the language isn’t evolving, then it
won’t evolve. Or at least, you can put the brakes on it.

You can form committees to retrieve words from the past and recycle them in
modern usage. So the language does evolve — but with a guiding hand.

That’s been tried elsewhere, usually with a heavier hand.
Government-appointed scholars insisting on keeping their language old
school — no modernizations, no bastardizations. But, of course, the people
often ignore them, they speak how they want to speak.

In Iceland, the *scholars* are more like *practitioners,* knitware store
owners and the like — they are the people. And nearly everyone buys into it.

“The idea of a language which is a treasure, something that we have to
preserve has been very strong in Iceland,” says Árnason*.* “And with this
comes purism, trying to keep the language pure.”

Ok, so the word ‘pure’ can be creepy. Flip the conversation from language
to, say, ethnicity — and it can become the rhetoric of racism.

But most Icelanders believe that purity of language should be valued. The
tongue they speak, they believe, has advantages over the likes of English,
which has adopted foreign words, and maybe lost something along the way.

This policy of linguistic purity amounts to a refusal to lose words — or
rather, the loss is temporary, thanks to the knitters, and all those other
committees that are unearthing all those long-forgotten expressions.

“I thought it would be so difficult, that it would take us weeks to find
one good word,” says knitware store owner Henttinen. “But when we started
talking about it, good words emerged. So it was surprising to me how easy
it was.”

Not so easy really — but that’s how Icelanders use their language to
maintain of an intimate connection with the past.

http://www.pri.org/stories/2015-06-01/future-icelandic-language-may-lie-its-past


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