[lg policy] Icelandic Has The Best Words For Technology

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at gmail.com
Fri May 8 15:06:08 UTC 2015


Icelandic Has The Best Words For Technology
 Sarah Zhang <http://www.gizmodo.com.au/author/sarah-zhang/> Yesterday 1:45
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When the University of Iceland got its first computer in 1964
<http://www.visindavefur.is/svar.php?id=1013>, Icelandic did not have a
word for “computer”. So the guardians of the language invented one: *tölva
–* a fusion of *tala* (number) and *völva* (prophetess) that adds up to the
wonderfully poetic “prophetess of numbers”.

Iceland is an isolated island of just 300,000 people, and it has practiced
a strident form of linguistic purism. Rather than let loan words from
foreign languages casually creep into Icelandic, linguists at the Árni
Magnússon Institute for Icelandic Studies invent ones anew. There are other
languages preoccupied with this kind of purism — French is another example
— but Icelanders take its connection to their ancient history most
seriously.

Iceland’s official language policy came after the country won its
independence from Denmark in 1918. Unlike most other languages, written
Icelandic has changed very little over the past 800 years. Modern
Icelanders can read ancient texts without much trouble. (By comparison,
Beowulf was written in Old English about 1000 years ago, and is entirely
incomprehensible to modern readers.) With nationalism on the rise in the
early 20th century, language became a way for Iceland to assert its
newfound independence and connect Icelanders to their history. *T**ölva*,
for example, was coined by Sigurður Nordal
<http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sigur%C3%B0ur_Nordal>, a noted scholar on
ancient Icelandic sagas.

Here are a few more examples chronicled in an Associated Press article
<http://articles.latimes.com/1987-05-31/news/mn-9256_1_icelandic-words> in
1987, when Iceland was debating the word for AIDS. (They eventually settled
on *alnaemi*, which roughly translates to “total vulnerability.”)

Telephone is “simi,” from an ancient word for thread. A jet plane is a
“thota,” from the verb “thjota,” to zoom. Even “video,” which has become
international coinage, did not last long here, quickly yielding to the
locally evolved “myndband,” or picture band.

But inevitably, some loanwords have crept into Icelandic, too: *banani* for
“banana” or *kaffi* for “coffee.” In some cases, linguists aim for the best
of both words: *ratsjá* comes from the Old Icelandic “to find” and it also
sounds remarkably similar to what it means in English, “radar.”

Inventing new words sounds like a lofty proposition, but when it comes down
to it, a lot of the day to day work for linguists at the Árni Magnússon
Institute is pretty prosaic. Obscure, technical words have to get pushed
through a bureaucratic pipeline, and not all of them have poetic
meanings. Thorsteinn
Thorsteinsson
<https://mail.google.com/mail/u/0/?pli=1#search/icelandic/14cba96e586a5853>,
a traffic engineer who works as a technical consultant for linguists at the
Institute, sent me a page of translations of transit terms. Many are just
compounds, like *göngustígur* (footpath), *göngubrú* (footbridge),
*brúargólf* (the deck of a bridge).

“It’s not just for the good of language,” he told me. “Nowadays we do it
because it is good for business.” For example, this list of traffic words
was important to make sure road standards were, well, standardised across
all of the European Union.

And that’s the irony hidden behind the work of coining all these new
Icelandic words. The new words are necessary to keep Icelandic up to date,
so that it can stay connected to the rest of the world through commerce.
But the more connected it is with the rest of the word, the harder it is to
keep the language pure.

“Times are changing,” says Thorstein, “There is not the same urgency for
the young people.”

And the internet is largely responsible for this. Back in the 20th century
— you know, before we spent our whole lives online — centralised radio and
newspapers could easily set the standards for spoken Icelandic. The
internet has fractured our attention, and Icelanders spend a lot more time
reading in English. A 2011 paper
<http://www.zuckermann.org/pdf/icelandicPSM.pdf> on Icelandic
word-formation by two linguists had this to say:

Language purists are now much less vocal than they used to be, and there
has been surprisingly little discussion amongst language planners of the
use of English as the language of the Internet. It is true that there are a
high number of bloggers who write in Icelandic, but it is difficult for any
small nation language policy to confront the issue of the language of the
Internet. Many of the websites that Icelanders look at are inevitably in
English. The interest in keeping the language ‘pure’ seems to have subsided
slightly in the face of increasing globalisation.

Such is the internet’s flattening effect, which few might have predicted
back when Iceland got its first *tölva* back in 1964.

http://www.gizmodo.com.au/2015/05/icelandic-has-the-best-words-for-technology/


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