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The Family Name Game
by Rebecca Roberts
Jan. 25, 2001

Iceland sculpture

In 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 Icelandic)
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.

Bragason: 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.

Kristinsson: 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.

Kristinsson: 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.

Kristinsson: 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.

Bragason: 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 generation.

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.

Other stories:

Tech Trendsetters | DNA | Lava Wonderland | Running on Hydrogen | Name Game

copyright Exploratorium 2001