Needed: a better word for banana

The birthday of the poet Jónas Hallgrímsson, the 16th of November, marks the Day of the Icelandic Language. 

There are supposedly more people  speakers of Klingon than Icelandic, but somehow I doubt that there are a great many native Klingon speakers around, while around a third of a million Icelanders speak their strange throwback to the saga age as their mother tongue.

It’s very much a minority language – and with the arrival of cable TV and the internet, Icelandic has probably changed more in the last two decades than it changed in the previous two centuries.

Norse settlers brought their language with them when they arrived in the ninth century, supposedly as refugees from the political upheaval in Norway where the king was making life tough for them. They also brought with them slaves and concubines from as far afield as the Baltic, Ireland and southern Europe, while more than likely also making slaves of the (possibly Hebridean or Irish) settlers who were there before them and of whom only the most fleeting glimpses remain.

Iceland’s new masters were in touch with the outside world, sailing to Norway and elsewhere to trade and raid as the mood took them, and even making pilgrimages to Rome once new arrivals with crosses managed to clear out the old gods the settlers had brought with them. 

So while Icelanders are something of a mixed bunch in terms of genes and DNA, the long isolation that began after the Sturlunga era ensured that the language remained unchanged for centuries during the dark years as the kings of first Norway and then Denmark owned this barren island that they didn’t lose much sleep over.

Danish was spoken as the official language and ‘better’ people would speak Danish and even ‘Danishised’ patronymics into surnames. When I first arrived in Iceland at the end of the 70s, older people didn’t generally speak English. This was the generation that had grown up under independence, but still learned Danish as a second language and travelled to Denmark to study or for serious medical treatment. As Danish was seen as the language of the former colonial power, albeit a relatively benign one, there was always an element of friction. Danish wasn’t popular. Textbooks, manuals and catalogues were in Danish, so people spoke Danish out of necessity but didn’t have to like it. 

Occasionally I’d try out some new piece of vocabulary and find myself with a finger being wagged sorrowfully at me.

Usss. Don’t say that. That’s Danish slang,’ would be the reprimand.

Not a huge amount of Danish made it into Icelandic. Admittedly, some did – words such as bremsur and kúpling for brakes and clutch.

But then English happened and everything changed. While Icelandic didn’t absorb that much Danish, there was a sudden influx of loan words from English that is still gathering pace. The end of the 1980s coincided with a generation that had given up listening during Danish lessons at school, preferred to travel to the US to study and had English-language cable TV after years of the single channel of Icelandic state television.

I’ve heard it suggested that the teaching profession is largely responsible for the flood of English loan words, with teachers coming home after their years of study overseas and instead of relying on clunky neologisms, simply threw in English or American terms and found that this set them apart from the stay-at-homes who hadn’t been to foreign universities.

Whether or not that’s the case, I couldn’t say, but Iceland’s media needs to shoulder some responsibility for keeping the trend alive and well. Some radio presenters and podcasters speak a language that would not have been understood a generation ago and which still leaves some of us shaking our heads in bewilderment as the percentage of English casually slung into conversation that sometimes leaves you wondering which language they are actually speaking.

On the other hand, heavy-handed efforts are being made to preserve Icelandic, with all of the problems that face a mediaeval language hauled into the 20th century. There are official committees that decide if names fit the rules and have the power to say yes or no if you want to give a child a new or unusual name, as well as others that decide with a mixed level of success on new words.

The short, sweet, easy words tend to make it through into mainstream use. A computer is tölva, a telephone is sími, but a banana is a…  banani, even though there’s a carefully considered neologism that fits the bill.

The net result is that everyday spoken Icelandic and the necessarily precise language of law and government are diverging at a surprisingly rapid rate.

Facebook and the internet in general have thrown up a wealth of incongruous terms and while a changing language is the sign of a living language, you have to wonder just how long it will be before Icelandic is consigned to the dustbin of dying languages kept alive in intensive care under the awful spectre of shiny modern business English and office jargon taking over the world.

How Jónas Hallgrímsson, who spent much of his life in Denmark and who campaigned for resistance to Danish rule until his accidental death at a ridiculously young age, would react to the wholesale adulteration of the language he wrote in is difficult to say.

Mind you, Jónas was no mean coiner of neologisms himself, having translated scientific texts into Icelandic and having no choice but to invent new terms in the process. But I’ll bet he would have come up with a smarter word than bjúgaldin for banana.

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