For 1,000 Years, Last Word on Language in Iceland Has Been That Foreign Is Out

Associated Press

Prof. Baldur Jonsson holds up two typed pages of proposed Icelandic words for AIDS. As one of the keepers of the national language, it’s his job to decide which word should become official.

The debate, which has been going on for two years, reflects the reverence with which Icelanders treat their language. Not for them an imported English-based acronym. Only the genuine, home-grown article will do.

Icelandic is one of the rarest of linguistic phenomena--a language that has defied the evolutionary odds to remain almost unaltered over 1,000 years. As Icelanders are fond of remarking, it is as though Anglo-Saxons were still speaking the English of Shakespeare.

To this nation of 240,000, the language brought by the Vikings embodies independence and cultural identity. Like the rugged, lava-strewn landscape itself, it is austerely beautiful, hostile to foreign implantations and steeped in its own ancient heritage.


Language on Passport

So determined are Icelanders to keep it that way that Icelandic passports carry not just name and date of birth but also the person’s native language, even though citizens whose first language is not Icelandic are rare.

Foreign words seldom take root in Iceland, unlike in its cousin countries of Scandinavia. Even the Danes, who occupied Iceland for 538 years, left few linguistic traces.

“People feel uncomfortable with words that don’t sound Icelandic,” said Jonsson, who heads the Icelandic Language Committee at the University of Iceland. “They always prefer a word of their own.”


The thirst for their own words produces fascinating linguistic oddities. “Skjar,” a sheep’s placenta, once used by farmers as window panes, has become the word for television screen. “Tolva,” Icelandic for computer, fuses “tolur,” or number, with “volva,” an ancient prophetess.

No ‘Videos’

Telephone is “simi,” from an ancient word for thread. A jet plane is a “thota,” from the verb “thjota,” to zoom.

Even “video,” which has become international coinage, did not last long here, quickly yielding to the locally evolved “myndband,” or picture band.


Jonsson’s list of words for the disease AIDS--acquired immune deficiency syndrome--has been culled from dozens of suggestions from around the country. It has been narrowed to about 15 possibilities, two of which are on the short list: “alnaemi,” which connotes “total vulnerability,” and “eythni,” which connotes “total destruction.”

A recent opinion poll found that “eythni” was preferred by 60% of the public. “Officially I am neutral, but personally I think ‘eythni’ would be best,” Jonsson said.

Public Involvement

Once the committee makes its decision, the chosen word will be transmitted to the state-controlled and private media, schools and Iceland University’s computerized dictionary, which already lists a staggering 600,000 words--100,000 more than in the largest Oxford English Dictionary.


The fact that people in all walks of life sent in proposals for an AIDS word demonstrated the depth of public involvement in language.

Iceland is a virtually classless society, with none of the variations of accent common in some other countries. Totally literate, the populace is schooled from childhood in the Sagas, the written 12th- and 13th-Century legends of Viking derring-do that are the source of many modern Icelandic words.

In fact, having a language so similar to the ancient Norse of the Sagas gives Icelanders a constant link into their past and helps explain their passionate devotion to its preservation.

Radio Debates


The state radio has regular programs that allow listeners to debate correct usage and, where necessary, to invent Icelandic words to stave off foreign intruders.