Linguistic Purism and the Word of the Day

tölva (n)


This is not a compound, yet it is a combination of two words meshed into one, or a “portmanteau word.” A portmanteau word is the combination of two words blended together that groups definition and sound, such as the English “spork,” a combination of spoon and fork, or “smog,” a combination of smoke and fog. This Icelandic word proves to be one of the only portmanteau words in the language, and is a mesh of the word “tala” meaning digit or number, and “völva,” meaning a prophetess/sybill. So a computer is essentially a number prophetess. How exquisite!

With regards to that, one must question why compounds and portmanteau words are created instead of simple new words for objects such as the computer. Why can’t Icelanders just adapt a new word like kómputér and put a little cherry on top? Well, Icelanders do adapt some words in this way, like the word “bíll” meaning car, that was actually adapted from the Danish “bil” which came from the original “automobile.” But finding these loanwords can be a rare sight, especially compared to the amount of compounds seen.

Well, to answer this main question, we have to look towards early Icelandic/Norse works like the First Grammatical Treatise. This was a 12th century work that was written to dictate and document the initial phonemes that were to create the Old Norse/Old Icelandic language. Also written around this time were the Icelandic Sagas, which are considered the first written documents of the history of Iceland, from it’s first settlers to the generations that followed it. It adapted the phonology of Old Norse, and expressed great victories and defeats of the Vikings at that time. I won’t expound too much upon these right now, but just know that they are quite the phenomenon and some of the most important historical texts we know to date. Icelanders take great pride in these sagas, and there is a massive sense of national identity that they all hold within them. You can’t exactly talk about Iceland without stumbling upon the sagas, because they do play such a critical role in the development of Iceland throughout the years.

The first page of Hrafnkels saga From the 17th century

The first page of Hrafnkels saga From the 17th century

That being said, it’s no surprise that Icelanders can read the sagas with minimal effort to this day. They’ve done such a fine job at preserving the language that it has remained closely untouched all of this time. There is a reason that Old Norse is also called Old Icelandic, as it remains the staple in modern Icelandic. An interesting thing to think about is that fact that Icelanders can read Old Norse, but Norwegians can’t, even though it primarily surfaced out of Norway. Up until the 14th century Norway and Iceland shared a primarily similar language, until Norway began developing new patterns and styles of syntax and phonology that now make up Modern Norwegian. So up until that 14th century, both countries could have read the Sagas. Icelanders today are the kings when it comes to deciphering the Sagas though, and with a little effort they can understand them very well. The main reason they couldn’t bear to add new words to their vocabulary is because new additions would stray away from those native roots and blur the language from its original form.

But what the Sagas don’t account for is new objects such as the computer, the television, electricity, and the telephone. So what does Icelandic do for these words while still retaining the language? Well, they create compounds. Instead of trying to adapt some strange form like télevisón which doesn’t fit smoothly with the language, they’ve created “sjónvarp,” a combination of “sjón” meaning “vision” and “varp” meaning “caster/projection.” Vision caster! And instead of élektricíti, you have “rafmagn,” or “raf,” and “magn,” power. Amber power! So now all you need is a little amber power to turn on your vision caster and you’re good to go!

Manuscript_GylfiSo as you can see, most of the established compounds come from roots of the original language, or even roots from surrounding languages like Danish, Greek, or sometimes even English! Before the 1960s, there was no plan to preserve the language this way. That is, until the “Icelandic Language Committee” was created. This eventually grew into what is called the “Icelandic Language Institute,” which sought out to preserve every possible aspect of the language by creating those compound words and adapting a few loan words. Today, as of 2006, the Institute has been merged into the Arni Magnusson Institute for Icelandic Studies.

Hopefully this condensed version of the language history was of help for those curious as to why there are so many endless, creative compounds in the language that pertain to modern words. Of course this is a summary of the language’s history and by no means seeks to explain every aspect of how the language came to be, but it’s a start. As this blog develops, I’ll make sure to dedicate a few posts to fully explaining the etymology of this beautiful language.

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