Icelandic Battles Threat of Extinction!

That’s the overheated slant taken by the headline writer for Jon Henley’s article in the Graun; the piece itself isn’t quite so apocalyptic, but it’s sobering enough (“literacy rates among Icelandic children are falling as their vocabulary shrinks”). The culprit, needless to say, is the omnipresent English. Here’s the opening:

Unlike most languages, when Icelandic needs a new word it rarely imports one. Instead, enthusiasts coin a new term rooted in the tongue’s ancient Norse past: a neologism that looks, sounds and behaves like Icelandic.

The Icelandic word for computer, for example, is tölva, a marriage of tala, which means number, and völva, prophetess. A web browser is vafri, derived from the verb to wander. Podcast is hlaðvarp, something you “charge” and “throw”.

This makes Icelandic quite special, a language whose complex grammar remains much as it was a millennium ago and whose vocabulary is unadulterated, but which is perfectly comfortable coping with concepts as 21st-century as a touchscreen.

As you see, we also get the “pristine ancient language” meme (also available in Lithuanian flavors). Dave Wilton at Wordorigins.org says:

The article repeats this false trope. Icelandic was deliberately and artifically retrogressed in the nineteenth century to make it more like the language in the Eddas and sagas. The medieval grammar was taught in schools and after a generation people were speaking in a fashion more like that of centuries before than their parents. Prior to that, Icelandic had been changing at the same pace as just about every other language.

I found that startling, as did kurwamac, who said:

Is this really true? Everything I can find about Icelandic would seem to suggest that the archaisers confined themselves to vocabulary, and that the grammar had in fact remained largely unchanged.

I’m curious too. Anybody know? (Thanks for the link, Eric!)

Comments

  1. Trond Engen says:

    I’m always wrong about Icelandic, but somebody has to start this. My impression is somewhere inbetween. Rural Icelandic was archaic in grammar, though maybe not quite as archaic as it would later become. Educated Icelandic was danified in a way similar to Educated Norwegian of Faroese: More or less written Danish in a compromise between local phonology, reading pronunciation, and fashionable innovations from Danish. But living in a country where everybody were friends and family, most educated speakers would be bilingual and code-switching. What the restoration did was change the sociolinguistic landscape so that the educated class switched preferences and the former L variety became H. Or something similar but different. I’m sure there were markers of class and education even in the new landscape.

  2. I can’t imagine the Icelandic case system getting simplified, and then restored through prescriptivism.
    The phonology is fairly conservative with respect to Old Norse: the language innovated preaspirated stops, diphthongs, and dialectally *hw > kv, but that’s not much compared to Faeroese or any variety of mainland Scandinavian, right?

  3. An Icelandic New Testament was published in 1540 and to my woefully untrained eye looks pretty well salted with non-Danish features. Reformation Bibles are hard to beat when it comes to firming up national languages. You can tell which way I’m going with this, but I stand ready to be corrected.

  4. “Icelandic was deliberately and artifically retrogressed in the nineteenth century to make it more like the language in the Eddas and sagas.”

    If that were the case modern Icelanders would have a very hard time understanding texts from, say, the 18th, 17th and 16th centuries. Well, they do have some difficulty but that’s because of the spelling and to some extent vocabulary. The 19th century brought great spelling reform and standardisation.

    The Faroese were unlucky in that the Danish imposed their language on them (and on Greenlanders) via the educational system, children learned to read and write in Danish. This never happened in Iceland.

    As for danification. Reykjavík was essentially the only town in Iceland till the very end of the 19th century. There was a Danish merchant class in Reykjavík and of course that’s where most of the public officials resided as well, men who had been educated at the University of Copenhagen.

    So there was definitely a Danish speaking upper class in Reykjavík in the 19th century — people would have heard Danish spoken all over town — but I don’t think the Icelandic language was much affected.

    Norway is basically a stone’s throw from Denmark. Iceland was really isolated so Danish influences were certainly not overwhelming. It took two weeks to sail from Denmark to Iceland — if you were lucky and didn’t get blown off course and end up in Scotland — and the journey was only undertaken in the summertime.

  5. Trond Engen says:

    Yes, I didn’t mean to suggest that the Icelandic situation overall was similar to Norway’s.

    I’m pretty sure I’ve read about grammatical changes that were on their way in broad Icelandic but got halted by common literacy. Something about the case system, I think. But there’s a long way from halting a change to “artificially retrogressed”.

  6. David Eddyshaw says:

    I can’t imagine the Icelandic case system getting simplified, and then restored through prescriptivism.

    Though it does seem implausible in the case of Icelandic, the thing is possible in principle. Lingala has the customary Bantu noun-class prefix thing in noun morphology (e.g. moto “person”, bato “people”) but in a wholly praiseworthy move has abandoned all the agreement system that usually goes with it.
    However, early twentieth-century missionaries felt this was Just Not Good Enough (having bought into the idea that Flexion is Civilised) and concocted a corrected “truly Bantu” version. While almost every existing actual user ingored them, they apparently succeeded to the extent that there are native speakers of their invention in NW Congo (according to Michael Meeuwis’ book in the LINCOM series.)

  7. The phonology is fairly conservative with respect to Old Norse: the language innovated preaspirated stops, diphthongs, and dialectally *hw > kv, but that’s not much compared to Faeroese or any variety of mainland Scandinavian, right?

    In particular, the changes in Icelandic are smooth: that is, they have not induced any sort of restructuring. Á has gone from [aː] to [au], but has not merged with older au, which has moved out of its way to [œy]. The only exceptions are the mergers of i/y, í/ý, ei/ey.

  8. dainichi says:

    @JC
    And just in case the implications aren’t obvious (I had to think about it a bit), the isormorphism of the phonology was probably an important factor in the conservation of the inflectional system. At least some of the loss of inflection in continental Scandinavian must have been caused by different inflections becoming homophonous, with weak vowels merging and such.

  9. Indeed. Similar things have happened in English, including the change of [ou] to [əu] in RP and related varieties, and the millennium-long shift of original trilled or tapped [r] in onset position to its various realizations today.

    In addition, the German genitive and perhaps even the accusative wouldn’t exist today if it weren’t for the stabilizing influence of the written language.

  10. minus273 says:

    David: Some Google sleuthing points towards the city of Makanza, whose Bangala people continue to speak the original pre-creolization Lingala, which must be very similar to the artificially re-bantuized lingala classique. The post warns that speaking lingala classique may sound prétentieux and will not be understood by usual Kinshasa people.

  11. David Marjanović says:

    In addition, the German genitive and perhaps even the accusative wouldn’t exist today if it weren’t for the stabilizing influence of the written language.

    Various mergers of dative and accusative have taken place all over the, uh, place, but different ones. The best-known stereotypical feature of the (moribund) Berlin dialect is complete replacement of the acc. sg. by the dat. sg.; I don’t even know what happened in the plural. Bavarian-Austrian has completely replaced the dat. pl. by the acc./nom. pl., except in the 3rd-person pronoun, where this never seems to happen and the opposite sometimes happens (possibly because /ˈɛɐ̯nɐ/ is less easy to confuse with other stuff than /s/ is); in the singular, assimilation to adjacent labial* consonants often destroys the distinction between the endings |m| (dat.) and |n| (acc.) by rendering both as /m/, and this sometimes leads to the expected confusion – but that never seems to extend to the 1sg and 2sg pronouns, which don’t have either of these endings to start with.

    The genitive, however, would probably be restricted to a few valleys around south-central Switzerland today if it weren’t for writing.

    * Including /f(ː)/ and the rare cases of /v/. Both auf dem (“on the”, place, with dat.) and auf den (“on(to) the”, direction, with acc.) come out as /ˈaʊfm̩/… incidentally, it’s a real [m]; somehow we don’t do labiodental [ɱ] at all.

  12. David Marjanović says:

    Meanwhile, the AfD (Alternative to Germany) is scared that the German language is being under attack from English on one side and The Immigrants on the other, and wants to protect it by having it mentioned in the constitution. The mockery set in promptly. One member of parliament with a classical education wondered how much longer the AfD was going to abuse the house’s patience, one (himself Bavarian) asked “what about extreme dialects like for instance Oberpfälzerisch”, one didn’t bother with the finer distinctions of High German and gave a speech in Low German, of which there’s a video in this news article.

  13. gave a speech in Low German, of which there’s a video

    Thanks, that was fun, and I enjoyed his point about Americans who speak excellent Low German but not a word of High.

  14. Was that really proper Low Saxon, or more of a Low Saxon accent of Standard German, more extreme than northern Standard German already is?

  15. Was that intended humorously? It got a few laughs and applause. But the speaker never cracked a smile(?)

  16. My guess would be that the audience was laughing not at the speaker, nor at what he said, but at the obvious disgruntlement of the AfDites listening to him.

  17. David Marjanović says:

    Was that really proper Low Saxon

    Oh yes. There are a few Standard words in it, the kinds of words that my dialect lacks, too; but some of the rest I don’t even understand. It’s barely easier than Dutch.

    The sound inventory is northern Standard German + [ei] – but that works the other way around: it’s originally Low.

    Was that intended humorously?

    It was intended as a brutal reductio ad absurdum, and the audience was like “ooh, burn”.

  18. That was nice. Good to see that there are still people under 60 who speak Platt. 🙂
    If you want more of that, Saathoff gave an
    interview
    to the weekly “Die Zeit” – questions in Standard German, answers in (East Frisian) Platt.

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