Family Name Game
Jan. 25, 2001
Iceland, phone books are arranged alphabetically by the first name.
That's because family names are rare; most people use the tradition
of patronyms, instead -- that's when you take your father's first
name, and if you're in Iceland, you add the word son or daughter
to the end. And your patronym stays with you, even after marriage.
In the final installment in our Iceland series, The World's Rebecca
Roberts, who would be known as Rebecca Stevensdottir in Iceland,
has more on the nation's unusual language.
(sound of reading in
That's the director
of the Sigurdar Nordal Institute for Icelandic culture, Ulfar Bragason,
reading the opening lines of Njal's saga. It's the best known of
the 40 sagas, mythologized histories of Iceland's settlers, written
by anonymous storytellers in the thirteenth century. And though
the sagas are a proud part of Iceland's cultural heritage, the epic
violence and dramatic blood feuds of Njal's saga bear little resemblance
to the clean modern Scandinavian society of today's Iceland. Ulfar
Bragason says this contradiction often confuses visitors.
When people are interested in Icelandic culture abroad, they have
been reading the sagas, and they still look at us as a very medieval
society. And then they come here and they have problems, they
have sort of an idea of Iceland as a backward society. We do not
like this idea, and we want people to look at us as a modern society,
although with a very old cultural background.
The events that have
made Iceland the innovative high-tech Mecca it is today have all
happened in the last century, really since Iceland gained independence
from Denmark after World War One. Before that, Iceland hadn't progressed
much beyond small fishing villages. One vestige of that old society
is Iceland's virtually untouched language. When Iceland's first
settlers left Norway in the ninth century, all of Scandinavia spoke
one language, with regional dialects. Modern Icelandic is very close
to that original Scandinavian tongue -- whereas Norwegian, Finnish,
Swedish and Danish have all changed substantially. Part of the reason
is that Iceland is an island. But Ari Pall Kristinsson, director
of the Icelandic Language Institute, says that's not the whole explanation.
No, what can be added as another factor of preserving the language
is there was widespread literacy and widespread literature heritage
and cultural heritage that had to do with the use of language.
Literacy is virtually
100 percent here, and Iceland has one of the highest rates of book
publishing per capita in the world. And though most Icelanders are
fluent in English, they're very protective of Icelandic. Even English-language
cultural imports, get an Icelandic translation. English is what
they speak with strangers, and Icelandic is reserved for insiders,
it's almost like an exclusive club. Icelandic is daunting to learn.
The nouns decline; there are four cases of everything, and three
genders. Even a simple word like "hester", which means horse, gets
complicated in a hurry.
So you have hester, hest, hesti, hests. That's only singular.
Then you have the definite article, hesterin, or hesternim, or
hestiens, and then you have the plural, also in four cases, and
plus the definite article. And so on and so forth.
To keep Icelandic current,
new vocabulary must be invented, as new discoveries and concepts
spring up. Kristinsson says sometimes Icelanders adopt international
words, like Internet, but they prefer to coin their own. In fact,
coining new words is something of a national pastime.
The guy on the gas station is equally active as the professor
in psychology is. When people think of a new word for something,
they write an article in the newspaper, or just start using something,
and then it spreads.
There's a popular website
called "strik," which disseminates Icelandic culture, both modern
and ancient. It's helping to preserve Icelandic both domestically
and for ex-patriots overseas. The digital age has created a whole
new crop of terms to coin. Ulfar Bragason says Icelanders must be
vigilant to make sure too many English words don't sneak in.
What is most important maybe now is to follow what is going on
with the Internet and in the computer world. Because if Icelanders
are not there competitive, then, or made programs in Icelandic,
then it might be that people start to use more and more English.
And that might have an impact on language, especially on the younger
One way to make sure
the Icelandic vocabulary wins out is to add a sense of poetry -
something sorely lacking in most high-tech terminology. One common
Icelandic word for instance, is tulva -- a combination of the word
for number, and the word for seer, or fortuneteller. It's a romantic
view of a machine we English-speakers call by a very prosaic name:
the computer. For the World, I'm Rebecca Roberts, Reykjavik, Iceland.
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