Icelandic – unchangeable?

Posted on 11. Jun, 2015 by in Icelandic culture, Icelandic history

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Viking Arms and Armor by Helgi Haldórsson at Flickr.com.

At some point or another anyone interested in Icelandic will come across the popular idea that Icelandic is being kept unchanged, or at least that it has changed very little with time. Occasionally you’ll even hear people claim that Icelandic is so close to Old Norse that Icelanders can still understand it.

Alas, all of the above is untrue, as romantic as it would be to believe otherwise. Icelandic is a language just like any other and trying to keep it “clean” of foreign influence will never completely work. Languages are alive, they develop according to the needs of their speakers and evolve when it best suits the speakers,  so is language preservation therefore even important?

Let’s look at an example of Old Norse:

Hverir vökðu mér
varman dreyra?
segið mér ok segið mér,
sárt var ek leikinn ;
ætlask virðar,
ok veit Tumi,
gleðr mik ok gleðr mik,
Gizur veiða.

Who rose my
warm blood?
Tell me and tell me
I was played with evilly
We aspire
And so knows Tumi
It gladdens me and it gladdens me
To hunt Gissur.

A poem by an unknown author from the age of Sturlungs. Two men are named in it, Tumi, a powerful chieftain of the Asbirnings family and Gissur Þorvaldsson. Of the two Gissur had the unhappy task of bringing Iceland under Norwegian crown, much against the wishes of many Icelandic nobles. Looking quickly at the poem a few things stand out – such as the words ek and mik (ég and mig in contemporary Icelandic) and the lack of -ur endings. The meanings of the words have also changed: “sárt var ek leikinn” would now be said, perhaps, “mér var misþyrmt” (= I was abused).

You can listen to this song here performed by Voces Thules.

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Björk bead finalized by possan at Flickr.com.

Icelandic itself has changed a great deal as well. This can be seen in f.ex old texts that at their origin used words or grammar that either sounds odd now or is no longer correct.

Augað mitt og augað þitt,
ó þá fögru steina…

(My eye and your eye, those beautiful gems…)

So begins the most famous love poem of Iceland by Vatnsenda Rósa, Rósa of Vatnsendi. Yet when you hear Björk’s version of the same song here the lyrics seem to have changed a bit:

Augun mín og augun þín,
ó þá fögru steina…

(My eyes and your eyes, those beautiful gems…)

It just feels more natural to Icelanders of today to speak of both eyes at the same time. 😀

What would happen with no language preservation attempts? We can look at warning examples not far away, just a bit over the sea to the west… I’m talking about you, West-Icelanders (= Canadians with Icelandic roots). Here’s one stanza of Winnipeg Icelander, a hilarious poem by Guttormur Guttormsson that pokes fun at what happened to Icelandic once it left its homeland:

…Að repeata aftur eg reyndi’ ekki at all,
En ran like a dog heim til Watkins.
En þar var þá Nickie með hot alcohol.
Já, hart er að beata Nick Ottins.
Hann startaði singing, sá söngur var queer
Og soundaði funny, I tell you.
Eg tendaði meira hans brandy og beer,-
You bet, Nick er liberal fellow

I’ve bolded the English influence. As you can see it takes over almost half of the language – although this poem being a joke the effect might be slightly exaggerated – and that whole sentences of English get wedged in, English words are used even if there’s already an Icelandic equivalent (such as beer / bjór) and English verbs get used in an Icelandic fashion. The effect is such that this poem is, alas, untranslatable and can only be understood if you speak both languages.

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I find that if you stay long enough… by Ron Mader at Flickr.com.

So to answer my own question, yes, language preservation is important especially when it comes to small languages that have a creative habit of stealing everything they can. Protecting Icelandic language is actually not as much about shielding it from other languages as it is about keeping Icelandic itself in check and seeing it doesn’t run rampant along the coasts again, looting everything in its way. Occasionally this fails, which is why Icelanders f.ex. eat pizza instead of flatbaka (= flat bake, the real Icelandic word for pizza), but at least we can make it behave for the most of the time.

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And now for something amusing for you all but especially the West-Icelanders reading this blog! I tried to read the poem out loud. I tried. I probably didn’t get it exactly the way it’s supposed to sound like because I have to admit I haven’t actually heard West-Icelanders speak the language, but it was the most fun I’ve ever had reciting a poem… do feel free to notify my pronunciation errors in the comments.

Iceland’s PM blackmailed

Posted on 04. Jun, 2015 by in Uncategorized

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Icelandic PM addressing the event by Control Arms on Flickr.com

The scandal of this week has been all about the prime minister Sigmundur Davíd Gunnlaugsson and two sisters, Malín Brand and Hlín Einarsdóttir, who attempted to blackmail him worth 8.000.000ISK (that’s about 55.000E). That on its own is interesting enough, especially for a country as small and peaceful as Iceland, but wait – it gets even more interesting with all the details added in the puzzle and I promise, you didn’t know just how small Iceland can be  before you have the full picture.

Last Friday a letter arrived to Sigmundur Davíd, informing him that if he didn’t want the sender to go public with the information they supposedly had he would bring the money to place X. However, instead of contacting the bank Sigmundur called the police, and the whole thing began to unravel as the two sisters were arrested on a lava field near Hafnafjörður where they had gone to pick up the money on the same day.

The two journalists – Malín works for Morgunblaðið while Hlín used to work as the editor for Bleikt.is – believed they had proof that the prime minister secured a bank loan for another politician of the Progressive Party, Björn Ingi Hrafnsson, which he then used to buy the newspaper DV in 2013. They viewed the value of their silence to 8 million which, to be fair, is a good sum of money. Definitely more than the mere 700.000ISK they apparently managed to blackmail out of their suspected previous victim.

Wait – what was that? Indeed, since the matter became public another possible victim has stepped into public and has now filed charges against the two. According to his story he had consensual sex with Hlín this April and was then threatened by Malín with a rape claim if he didn’t pay. Fearing that the sisters would not stop at that he wanted some proof of that they would not try to squeeze him further for money, at which, he says, Malín wrote him a receipt.

Wait – what was that? According to the hitherto unnamed man Malín wrote him a receipt for having paid, using her workplace’s paper (marked Morgunblaðið) and even signing it with her name… Should the receipt exist this case may be harder to deny than her involvement in the matter of blackmailing the prime minister, in which Malín says she’s been wrongfully accused.

“Kjarni málsins er að þarna blandast ég inn í atburðarás sem ég hvorki skipulagði né tengdist á nokkurn hátt nema fjölskylduböndum.”

“The core of the matter is that I got mixed in a scenario that I did not plan and neither am linked to in any way besides family ties.”

As for whether the accusations against the prime minister are true everything remains to be seen. It’s been speculated that the buying DV must have been quite costly, but to this day Björn Ingi has not agreed to explain where the money came from. Both Sigmundur Davíd and Björn Ingi naturally deny everything they’re being accused of, Björn Ingi adding that he’s grief-stricken over the matter and why wouldn’t he be, after all Hlín is his former girlfriend.

Wait, what was that? Hlín and Björn Ingi were in a relationship from 2011 to 2014, and Bleikt.is is a sub-website to Pressan.is that’s owned by… surprise surprise… Björn Ingi!

Small, small Iceland.

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Blackmail Neon, Austin, TX by Tadson Bussey at Flickr.com

More news about this matter

Iceland’s Prime Minister Blackmailed, Linked To Newspaper Purchase. Link.

Journalists and sisters arrested on suspicion of trying to blackmail the Icelandic prime minister. Link.

Serious allegations made against prime minister in blackmail scheme. Link.

PM and DV Publisher Dismiss Blackmailers’ Claims. Link.

Lögmaður Hlínar: Rannsókn seinna málsins á frumstígi. (Hlíns lawyer: the investigation of the latter matter has began) Link.

Engin venjuleg saga sem þær eiga þessar systur. (Not an ordinary tale, the one these two sisters have) Link.

Systirin opnar sig: „Allt í einu er mannorðið bara farið af því að maður blandaðist inn í vitleysu“ (The sister opens up: “All of a sudden my reputation is just gone for getting mixed up in the matter.”) Link.

No dogs, TV, beer or Spaniards allowed.

Posted on 28. May, 2015 by in Icelandic culture, Icelandic customs, Icelandic history

Danger zone by Bjarki Sigursveinsson at Flickr.com

Icelanders of the Westfjords area are no longer allowed to kill Basque people on sight. The law was revoked just last month and very, very quietly too – you’d almost think someone didn’t want anyone to notice anything. In any case it’s now a fact, Basque people are no longer outlawed by default!

It may sound like one of those hilarious old laws that arose from a single occasion and were ignored ever afterwards, which is true. However, the occasion behind this one was a rather gruesome and horrible one. Spánverjavíg, literally translated as “The killing of the Spaniards”, happened in 1615 when Spanish whaling ships had finally reached Iceland and made a mutually profitable agreement with the locals to be allowed to whale. The plan was to return home in September but alas, both ships sunk and the 80 men that survived split in two groups: one, about 50 men strong, sailed south while another of about 30 stayed.

The smaller group split further into two groups, one of which came across a house they took to be abandoned and took the dry fish that was stored inside. This being early autumn such provisions for oncoming winter were vital for the locals, who soon banded together, killed the Spanish sailors as they slept and sunk the bodies in the sea. The law that allowed to kill every single Basque on sight came to existence after this, and sadly the next target was the other group who were killed almost to the last man.

Museo_marítimo_Ósvör,_Bolungarvík,_Vestfirðir… by Diego Delso at Flickr.com

The matter was controversial even in the time it happened and there were voices speaking against the attackers, most notably Jón Guðmundsson lærði, Jón the learned Guðmundsson, whose opinion was that the Spanish sailors were innocent victims of a cold blooded massacre and that the way their bodies were treated was a disgrace as well. He criticized the matter openly and – for some reason – had to soon move far, far away from the Westfjords…

The law itself stayed. Most likely it was simply not needed, as the few sailors that managed to escape the slaughtering probably never wanted to see Iceland again and made sure to tell the people at home why. Still, for 400 years the law existed though it was never used afterwards, at first probably for lack of Spanish people to kill and then forgotten, little by little. So no worries if you’re from Spain and would like to visit the Westfjords, Icelanders haven’t killed your countrymen since 1615 (and now it’s illegal anyway).

Other unusual laws in Iceland

Hundur by Jóhann Gulin at Flickr.com

Dogs were banned in Reykjavík.

…and it’s still not easy to be allowed one in the urban areas. Those who wish to own a dog have to apply for a permit, and if they live in a house shared by other tenants they need the written approval of two thirds of them. All dogs have to be in a leash at all times when out of the house and the owners are responsible for cleaning up after them, failures can lead to losing your permit.

But why dogs? And why were cats always just fine? The ban came to be in 1924 and was a measure to fight echinococcosis, a severe, possibly deadly illness caused by a parasite that’s since been entirely wiped out from this country. Dogs were the main carriers of it and also the main source where it moved to humans.

Einn kaldur by Rögnvaldur Jónsson at Flickr.com

There was prohibition from 1915 to 1989

…but alcohol itself was not banned, only beer.

A complete prohibition lasted only a few years before the Spanish came and ruined it. Maybe the Spanish revenge finally hit Iceland! Threatening to stop buying Icelandic exports Spain managed to return wine back on the list of allowed beverages in 1921, which was soon followed by spirits in 1935. But still, not beer. Icelanders even came up with a beverage called bjórlíki (= beer-alike) which was non-alcoholic beer with a vodka shot. If you ever happen to be here on the 1st of March, that’s when we celebrate the legalization of beer (by drinking lots of it)!

Blank Stare by Orin Zebest at Flickr.com

No television for you

…in July.

The RÚV started to broadcast in 1966 and it was the only channel there was. They didn’t send out anything during Thursdays and for the whole month of July, it took until the year 1983 that RÚV lost its monopoly and another channel, Stöð 2, ended the dark Thursdays and Julys. While people suspect this was simply due to lack of things to broadcast the official reason was “to promote human interaction”, which apparently worked, you wouldn’t believe how much that seems to have increased the amount of childbirths for April…

Did your home country ever have crazy laws like these? Do you know the reasons behind them? If you do, please share in the comments!