I just saw the new movie Godland on the Criterion Channel; it’s gotten rave reviews and doubtless deserves them, long and grim as it is (it reminded me of an Icelandic saga, though nowhere near as concise). But I’m bringing it here for its linguistic interest — I can’t think of a movie other than Godard’s Contempt (see this 2003 post) that features language difference so prominently. It’s about a Danish priest who goes to Iceland to build a church; he doesn’t speak Icelandic, so he’s dependent on the help of a translator and on the locals’ varying understanding of Danish. The subtitles distinguish the languages (Danish in Roman type, Icelandic in italics), and there is an amusing scene in which he tries futilely to learn a few Icelandic words. (There is also some acerbic commentary by an Icelander on the Awful Danish Language.) All the credits are in both languages, as is the title… but there’s a catch: the Icelandic Volaða land is not synonymous with the Danish Vanskabte land, and neither means anything like “Godland.” Danish vanskabt apparently means ‘malformed; having a birth defect’ (van- ‘mis-, mal-‘ +‎ skabt ‘formed, created’), while Icelandic volaður ‘miserable’ is the past participle of vola ‘to cry, weep’ (from Old Norse vāla, vǣla, probably cognate with English wail). I find it unacceptable that when the Danish and Icelandic titles are shown on the screen, they are both translated as “Godland”; why not give the English-speaking viewer a clue as to what they actually mean? The differences are discussed in this Reykavík Grapevine piece by Iryna Zubenko:

“The name ‘Volaða Land’ comes from a poem by Icelandic priest Matthías Jochumsson who studied for the priesthood in Copenhagen,” Hlynur explains. “He moved up north after he came from Denmark. He experienced a harsh winter in Akureyri when the whole fjord froze. During the next summer, it wasn’t warm enough, so the fjord stayed frozen. He wrote this hateful diatribe about Iceland — a very aggressive poem called ‘Volaða Land,’ which means violent, wretched, disfigured island.”

According to Hlynur, the poem was published without the priest’s knowledge. Matthías faced public backlash and had to write another poem about the beauty of Iceland to restore his reputation.

“That poem was a big inspiration for the film,” Hlynur admits. “The Danish translation of ‘Volaða Land’ is ‘Vanskabte Land.’ It’s a very strange translation but a very beautiful one. It’s very expressive, almost more brutal than the original.” He continues: “The English title, ‘Godland,’ is very different from the original title. I always felt like if you put ‘Volaða Land,’ ‘Vanskabte Land,’ and ‘Godland’ together, they give you a good picture of the film.”

You can read the Jochumsson poem here; it begins:

Volaða land,
horsælu hérvistar slóðir,
húsgangsins trúfasta móðir,
volaða land!


  1. Trond Engen says

    Icelandic title Volaða land “miserable land”,
    Danish title Vanskabte land “deformed (or crippled) land”

    Interesting translation. The Icelandic title looks very much like a pun on lovaða “promised”. The Danish doesn’t ring any churchbells with me and probably just reflects the experience of the protagonist (but I haven’t seen the film). However, you could probably translate both the Icelandic and the Danish titles as Compromised Land. I want to suggest that that actually was the working title, or a suggested international title, which the international distributor chose to override.

  2. Trond Engen says

    I made that comment in another thread just based on the movie titles and the Wikipedia article, and I had no idea of the poem that gives cultural and historical context. I still think it’s a pun on ‘promised’, so my suggestion for “Compromised Land” still stands. But I do think “Wretched Land” sounds better.

  3. Trond Engen says


    This may be a good time to remind the audience that I’m always wrong about Icelandic.

    Edit: Wrong or not, I do love Matthias’s poem. The other poem he had to write would probably be Ó, guð vors lands, which was to become Iceland’s national anthem.

  4. Aren’t we all!

  5. Dmitry Pruss says

    BTW it just blew up

  6. Yes, and there’s a part of the movie where they talk about Icelandic volcanoes erupting and producing an intolerable stench like the world’s shit (or was it the heaven’s shit? I no longer remember).

  7. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    It seems that Da van- is from PG *wanaz = ’empty, deficient’, cf L vanus. Vanskabt is most accurately expressed as ‘badly created’, implying ‘not fit for purpose’ (which is a harsh thing to say about a child or a puppy with a birth defect, but that’s the sort of use the word mainly has, or rather had). Talking about an inhospitable country as vanskabt is a straightforward metaphor and would not look out of place in a poem written today.

    How Icelandic gets from ‘cried-over land’ (which would probably be begrædte land in Danish) to something like that sense I don’t know, but if they say it does, I believe them. I agree that Godland should not be presented as the English translation of either. (Danish begrædelig means ‘regrettable’ and would also work to express the poets resentment of the place he found himself in, though not as vehement).

  8. Christopher Culver says

    Another Nordic film that might interest readers here is Kautokeino-opprøret (2008), which depicts not only the mid-nineteenth-century Kautokeino Rebellion but also the multilingualism of northern Norway at that time; the Saami and Norwegian characters speak their respective languages. Laestadius, the legendary Swedish missionary to the Saami, briefly appears in the film, too, but I can’t remember if the sermon he delivers is in Swedish or was norwegianified. I’m surprised that this film never got a mention on LH.

  9. Trond Engen says

    I never got around to see Kautokeinoopprøret, to my shame, but I can tell that Mikael Nyqvist, who plays Læstadius in the film, was one of Sweden’s most renowned cinematic actors.

    There were several reasons for the rebellion. From the general to the specific:

    Kautokeino was founded from Sweden and was Swedish until 1751. In 1852, Sweden and Norway had been in a personal union for 38 years, and Finland had been a Russian great principality in the same period. The Sami reindeer economy had prospered and grown for a long time, but the seasonal movements crossed national borders. In 1851 Russian Finland closed the border with Sweden-Norway, and the economy took a blow. Add to that that the population of Norwegian and Finnish (Kvæn) farmers grew slowly but steadily, encroaching on the feeding areas and making movement of herds more cumbersome.

    The mid-19th century was an era of easy access to liquor everywhere — the Norwegian government essentially supported it as a locally produced alternative to imported beers and wines — but the results had become impossible to ignore. Government policy now favored establishment of local breweries, while religious lay movements with teachings of modesty and temperance grew strong both inside and outside of the established church. Læstadius was a parish priest in Karesuando, a chiefly Sami parish at the border between Sweden and Finland. From there he developed and teached a strict form of Lutheranism that resonated across northern Scandinavia, and which managed to curb alcoholism surprisingly fast.

    The Læstadian movement, its teachings, and maybe especially its uncompromising social expression, were not uncontroversial, and open conflict broke out between different wings in the congregations. Some places the solution was to hold two Sunday services, one for the traditionalists and one for the uncompromising Læstadians. In 1851 Sami Læstadians interfered violently with a confirmation service in Skjærvøy, and several Sami from Kautokeino were arrested. The rebellion of 1852 started as an attempt by relatives to have them freed from prison.

  10. Trond Engen says

    A new multilingual but mainly Sami language film is Ellos eatnu – La elva leve (“Let the river run”). It’s set in the nineteen-seventies during the protests against the construction of a hydroelectric power plant in the Alta River. I haven’t seen that one either.

  11. Trond Engen says

    Back to the topic, I think the Danish title may be meant to recall the third stanza of the poem, Vandræða land.

  12. How Icelandic gets from ‘cried-over land’ (which would probably be begrædte land in Danish) to something like that sense I don’t know, but if they say it does, I believe them.

    I don’t think that’s what’s going on; the director says “The Danish translation of ‘Volaða Land’ is ‘Vanskabte Land’,” but I think he means “equivalent” rather than “translation.” In other words, that was chosen as a similarly resonant title rather than being a literal translation.

  13. @CC, @TE, which varieties of Sami are they in the movies you mention?

  14. @Y: Since I haven’t seen the films I’ll be cautious and say that there could be more than one variety, but North Sami is at least the most prominent.

  15. David Marjanović says

    Drepandi land is Australia, right…? Or is Australia more “recklessly killing” than “murdering”?

  16. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    Vandræða land: Recall, yes, but is it even the same prefix? I can’t find an etymology for the word, and neither -dræða or remind me of anything in Danish or Swedish.

    ObLing: volaði seems to be a plurale tantum, and volaða is the genetive. So it’s not an adjective, unlike any of the suggested equivalents in Danish. More like ‘land of lamentations’. Sounds like something that could be in the bible.

  17. Thanks, I was wondering about how the Icelandic worked.

  18. Christopher Culver says

    Trond, your remarks sound very familiar, so even if Hat never made a post on Kautokeino-opprøret, I suspect you and I have discussed it here in the comments somewhere through the years.

    Since you are here as a linguistically informed Norwegian commentator, I thought I’d ask you about a bit of trivia that might amuse Hat and others, too: I read that when Norwegian orthography was reformed to use the letter Å instead of AA, some Norwegians protested it with the slogan “We don’t want any Swedish balls!”. What exactly was the original Norwegian form of this slogan?

  19. even if Hat never made a post on Kautokeino-opprøret, I suspect you and I have discussed it here in the comments somewhere through the years.

    The only previous mention of Kautokeino is here, and it has nothing to do with any opprør.

  20. @Lars: I wrote ‘recalled’ deliberately, because the words are neither synonymous nor parallel. If Wiktionary is correct, ON. vandræð- was borrowed into ME as wandreth “difficulty” (possibly > Eng. quandary). The ON worded is parsed vándr “difficult, painful” + ræða. The latter part isn’t glossed, but something like “ready, prone”.

    @CC: I’ve never heard the slogan, and Google is of no help, but I can confirm that opposition to everything Swedish was a significant sociolinguistic force in 19th century Norway. The Dano-Norwegians on the Riksmaal side obviously preferred <aa> to preserve the unity with Danish, while the medieval romanticists on the Landsmaal side wanted <á> like in in Icelandic and normalized ON. The dynamics changed with independence in 1905, and we accepted <å> as part of a set of coordinated spelling reforms in all three countries, signifying a new era of Scandinavian brotherhood of equals. The old anti-Swedish sentiments resurfaced in Denmark when many Danish municipalities changed their official name form from <å> to <aa> in the late 1990’s/early 2000’s.

  21. @CC, Hat: I too thought I had discussed the film before. I should probably get around to watch it. (I have seen chunks of it once or twice, but never the whole film.)

  22. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    I did find a mention of vandræða but with an accent on æ, leading me to ræða glossed as ‘of a sow: receptive, in heat’. But that is just a specialized use of ‘ready’, I guess. So it’s something like ‘ready to turn’, and indeed a different morpheme. vándr is the origin of Danish ond which now means ‘evil’ (< ‘turned’), and I wouldn’t be surprised to find something like ondred in a mediaeval poem. But I don’t think it exists, and the Icelandic form has no such resonance to a modern Dane.

    TIL that Danish ond was a less loaded word far up into the 19th, more like ‘difficult’. And jeg har ondt ved … = ‘I have a hard time …’ still feels almost usable.

  23. David Marjanović says
  24. Trond Engen says

    Why didn’t Google give me that? Not because I limited the search to site .no, because that turns up a Facebook page. It’s because I searched for “svenske baller” (balls incl. cojones) rather than “svenske boller” (buns).

  25. Aren’t boller also meatballs?

  26. Trond Engen says

    Yes. But kjøttboller mostly refer to small meatballs used in soups/stews like (trønder)sodd. For serving with potatoes and gravy we make larger kjøttkaker. And by making, I mean making. It’s one of those dishes that haven’t been successfully replaced by industrial products and that we pride ourselves in actually mixing and cooking in our own kitchen. Mors kjøttkaker “Mum’s meatballs” is a metaphor or metonym for the comfort of home.

    There’s also fiskeboller, which hardly anyone make at home anymore — or have for the last two generations. They come factory-made in cans or plastic packages, and everybody agree that they’re tasteless but can be made edible with potatoes, carrots and hvit sauce (~bechamel sauce). There are a few specialist shops or high-end supermarkets that may make their own from fresh minced fish, but I’d be surprised if there’s more than a dozen places or so nationally.

  27. Here too there are two kinds of them.

    “tasteless but can be made edible” – there is a theory that there is tasty meat – and there is tasteless meat. Tasteless meat can aquire the taste of what whatever you want. The theory though is applied to chicken.

  28. But kjøttboller mostly refer to small meatballs

    Surely the meatball over Å is small enough!

  29. Trond Engen says

    Yeah, but I think we’ve established that that’s a Danish bolle. I don’t know the average meat content of those. An unspecified Norwegian bolle is a bun (pastry), and I think Danish is the same.

    Many years ago, I think perhaps 2009, we spent a summer week in Jutland, doing the obligatory (for Norwegian families) round of beaches and Legoland and Løveparken. All the placenames ending in -balle made us come up with this refrain:

    Å, for ei snelle!

    We never managed to get the verses together, but obviously the song is about a beautiful girl named Isabel who first made her village famous for the delicious buns she made from boil-beetles, and then made a name for herself for openly disobeying the bulle issued against them.

    We couldn’t remember where we had the tune from. It wasn’t until we were on the ferry back home that the penny dropped for my wife and she recognized the Macarena.

  30. @drasvi: The muscle tissue of chicken breasts are not, on their own, particularly flavorful as meats go. When is perhaps more interesting is that boiled chicken—thanks to the particular character of its fat—produces one of the best, most flavorful broths there is. The only other broth than can seemingly compete with it for popularity is beef broth. The general dryness of (unbrined, white meat) chicken is common to a lot of foul, although it’s by no means universal, but the particularly good broth seems to be very particular to chickens. Neither turkeys, which are less fatty, nor ducks, which are more, make broths that are in any way comparable.

  31. The muscle tissue of chicken breasts are not …

    No use crying fowl (or even foul; see Brett’s text). This treatment of the verb has grown so common that no one may be entitled to say it’s ungrammatical. We learn that even in classical Latin the nearest noun often settles the verb’s number, overriding accord with the true subject. So much for Latin as a model of logicality and order, which formalisations of other languages might aim to emulate.

    And soon no one will be justified in deprecating “between ten to twenty times”, right? Usage rules, not rules.

  32. @Noetica: Well, in this case it was just an editing error. I kept changing the head of the noun phrase around and forgot to correct the verb form along with it. On the other hand, the very fact that I didn’t notice the error has a lot to do with the phenomenon you have described.

  33. Trond Engen says

    I got hung up in my macarenic pun. I meant to say something about Danish placenames in -balle being inherently and adolescently funny to Norwegians. Baller m.pl. is “testicles”, and balle f.sg, is “scrotum”*. Harry Potter’s friend Neville Longbottom is called Nilus Langballe in Norwegian, with a real (but rare) surname hailing from a Danish village.

    * Or is it, really? Broad Eastern en ball – ballen – baller – balla. The strong masculine definite plural balla is homonymous to a weak feminine definite singular, leading to a bacformed ei balle – balla – baller – ballene. I’m not sure this is the case for all speakers.

  34. He wrote this hateful diatribe…” – when exactly “diatribe” came to imply criticism?

    WP discusses the sense “rant” and mentions Greek philosophers, one has an impression that in Greek it (a) existed as a name of a genre (b) as a name of a genre it meant “rant”.

    Wiktionary conversely gives “1. a learned discussion, a discourse 2. a school” for the Latin word, and “1. a way of spending time (1.1 pastime, hobby, amusement, 1.2 occupation, employment, study, 1.3 waste of time, delay)” for the Ancient Greek one (and “treatise, discourse” for modern Greek).

    Same in other dictionaries, though Liddell and Scott have sense I.2.c. “short ethical treatise or lecture”:

    I. pastime, amusement
    2. serious occupation, study, etc.
     b. discourse
     c. short ethical treatise or lecture
     d. school of philosophy…. also, a place of teaching, school
    way of life, passing of time
    4. place of resort, haunt
    II in bad sense, waste of time, loss of time, delay, with or without χρόνου
    III Rhet., occasion for dwelling on a subject,
    IV continuance, permanence
    V sens. obsc., = συνουσία,

  35. Trond Engen says

    Ouch. Forgetting what I meant to say; typos and lacking italics. It’s baking season again.

    I also meant to say that Da, bolle v. means “shag”, but that hasn’t made the word unsuitable as a name for family-friendly pastry.

  36. PlasticPaddy says

    TLFI has the citation:

    1. Un de ces disciples [d’Épictète], Arrien, nous a conservé sous le nom de Diatribes (ou Entretiens) un grand nombre de propos du maître : (…) conformément au genre de la diatribe déjà pratiqué par les cyniques, exhortations véhémentes adressées au disciple pour qu’il se détourne de la vie aliénée dans la passion et se convertisse à la sagesse. P. Aubenque dsEncyclopaedia Universalis,Paris, t. 6, 1968, s.v. Épictète.

    So I suppose the diatribes of “ranters” made a greater impression than those of the “contemplators”.

  37. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    The matter of the bolle is hard to elucidate; there are several sources of these related words.

    Da/Nw bolle, Sw bulle = ‘small baked good’ is presumably from MLG bolle meaning fine flour, possibly influenced by L pollis = ‘pollen’. Nw kjöttboller, Sw köttbullar, Da kødboller obviously belong here, but the full size ones are called frikadeller in Danish, or kjöttkaker as Trond said. Kødboller/kjöttboller are small ones that you form with a teaspoon and use in a clear soup. (And don’t take IKEA meat balls as representative of the size, they are about one third the size of a frikadelle. But normal for Sweden).

    Likewise the fish mince versions: Full size fiskeboller/fiskefrikadeller/fiskkakor, fiskeboller for soup. It is not hard to find fresh made fish mince in Copenhagen, or even factory packaged versions, and we never serve factory made fiskefrikadeller for dinner, those are more a lunch item (classed with cold cuts and the like). Best served with boiled potatoes and creamed spinach. I never encountered the soup size ones in Sweden, so I don’t know if they even have a word for them.

    Next word is the global ball word. The ones for games are Da/Nw/Sw bold/ball/boll, the ones for procreating are bolle/ball/ball. In Danish it mostly occurs in the plural, to the extent that I’m not 100% sure what the singular is. (But there aren’t really any cromulent alternatives).

    Lastly the Danish verb bolle = ‘fuck’, reshaped from bole < MLG bolen = G buhlen. It seems to have been used of bulls as well, in fact a bull could be called a bole on the farms. Hmm. But DWDS doesn’t connect them. Anyway, in Swedish bolla means to play ball, or even play around with a concept. Much hilarity ensues.

    (I may be wrong about Nw, I got the info from Trond’s comments but I may have misunderstood something).

  38. David Marjanović says

    L pollis = ‘pollen’.

    pollen, pollinis n.
    pollis, pollinis m./f.

    Both “fine dust, fine flour; pollis looks backformed to me.

    G buhlen

    In Standard German that’s an archaic word for competing for a fair maiden’s hand. Nebenbuhler “rival” survived a bit longer in literary registers.

    or even play around with a concept


  39. Trond Engen says

    @Lars: You got it, but I left out some finer details. Ball “testicle” is rarely (if at all) used in the singular. Balle “scrotum” is hardly used in the indefinite.

    For Norwegians the hilarious Swedish word is pula. In Norwegian it can only mean “fuck”, but in Swedish it means something like “work slowly with your hands”. Pula i trädgården “work in the garden”.

    The hilarious Danish word is kuk. In Norwegian it means “cock (penis)” and nothing else. In Danish it means “undefined problem causing stop or strange behaviour in a system”. You can apologize to customers for being late by saying you got it in your computer or your engine.

  40. January First-of-May says

    We never managed to get the verses together, but obviously the song is about a beautiful girl named Isabel who first made her village famous for the delicious buns she made from boil-beetles, and then made a name for herself for openly disobeying the bulle issued against them.

    A little sad it didn’t work out; it would have beaten Pullum’s quintuple.

    (As it happens, there is at least one non-Pullum example of [a different sequence of] those five words out there on the internet; I was looking forward to featuring it in my Language Log Twelve Years Later project. I should probably try a Language Log Twenty Years Later and check if I can get farther than I did in my first two tries…)

  41. Trond Engen says

    It’s Byllebilleballebollebullebøllebelle. Sorry for the confusion.

    I don’t know the formal requirements for beating Pullum’s five. I can say that the word works as a compound, and the storyline makes sense. It’s also a good refrain. We just didn’t get the verses together.

  42. Nonrhotic Betty Botter uses six different vowels, but not more than five consecutively in the standard version. One could perhaps extend it to seven or more with other b-t-r words.

  43. Nebenbuhler “rival” survived a bit longer in literary registers.
    Still survives. As an example, here it is used to describe the content of an episode of a German soap opera from 2009. Literary, yes; obsolete, no.

  44. Disused.

  45. Trond Engen says

    I knew the verb bole “copulate; produce offspring” from, eh, 18th century judicial protocols or something like that (typically moral condemnation and a fine to someone who boelede with a forbidden relative like his brother’s widow). I took it as a euphemism from bol “housing, space for living, den”. It never struck me that it might be the same as modern Danish bolle — and maybe even related to Eng. bull.

    Modern Norw. bole means “take steroids, especially for bodybuilding”.

  46. Disused.
    Not that, either.

  47. Right. “Not often used” is not at all the same thing as “disused.”

  48. Actually it was a joke, I was referring to OED’s use of the label (cf. Brett: “To me, disused seems to imply that a word is still part of someone’s vocabulary, but there is effectively no occasion to use it.“).

  49. @drasvi: I thought the reference was clever.

  50. Actually it was a joke, I was referring to OED’s use of the label (cf. Brett: “To me, disused seems to imply that a word is still part of someone’s vocabulary, but there is effectively no occasion to use it.“).
    I got the reference to that discussion, but even those conditions don’t apply. It’s not a word I’d expect Kevin or Mehmet from the hood to apply to their rivals for a girl’s (or boy’s) attention, but as it can be used in plot descriptions even for low-brow genres like soaps, there is sufficient occasion to use it.

  51. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    Danish kuk is originally an onomatopoietikon for the sound of the cuckoo. Older Danish also has the connection between cuckoos and cuckolding, but somehow it (han har kuk) transitioned to meaning ‘not all there’ of people. And thence to machinery. There may also be an application to cuckoo clocks which do not show the hours but will still voice the hours, though that sounds pretty much ‘just so’.

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