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Oileánsléibhteoighearshruth (an Ghaeilge ar “Eyjafjallajökull,” mar dhea) Posted by on Apr 19, 2010 in Uncategorized

Or, how to say Eyjafjallajökull in Irish, as it were (sort of). 

In addition to the more pressing issues raised by the cloud of luaith bholcánach, including two of my students being stranded in Belfast for a week, I was immediately curious about what exactly the Icelandic name of this volcano means. 

My curiosity was further piqued by listening to some ABC broadcasters working on the pronunciation, coached by an Icelandic guest, Erla Skuladottir, a filmmaker and interpreter (  Skuladottir is a 2002 graduate of New York University’s Graduate Film Program at Tisch School of the Arts, and, conveniently for ABC, is living in New York.

A more humorous approach can be found at (Eyjafjallajökull – You’re Doing It All Wrong!)

Well, getting back to the Irish, we could probably parse this phrase in several different ways, but at least we can see that the volcano’s name, if literally translated as one long compound, is even longer in Irish than the original Icelandic!

So let’s break it down into its component parts, first Icelandic to English, then into Irish.  At the end, maybe I’ll decide to switch the word order and use a traditional structure but for starters, it’s intriguing to check out the word agglutinatively. 

And please, readers, do rest assured that figuring out this Icelandic was a bit of a mad scramble, once the news started breaking.  I’m always potentially interested in place names and their meanings, but this wouldn’t have been on the tip of my tongue a week ago!

The Icelandic word is much more pronounceable if you divide it into its component parts:

eyja, island, related to English “eyot” or “ait” (little island, generally in a river), as in Chiswick Eyot or Isleworth Ait, both in the Thames; also the source of the name  Ireland’s Eye (island) off the coast of Dublin.  You might recall this from “Surtsey,” the new island off the coast of Iceland formed in the 1960s after an underwater volcanic eruption. 

fjalla, of mountains, related to the English word “fell” (rocky mountain), mostly used in northern England and Scotland, as in Above Beck Fells (Lake District), and occasionally farther afield (Snaefell, Isle of Man, and Middlesex Fells, Massachusetts)

jökull, glacier, related to English “icicle”

Now let’s translate this into Irish:

island: there are two main words, oileán and inis.  “Inis”  is used primarily for Irish islands (with Inis Fada in New York and Inis Iocht, the Isle of Wight, as the exceptions that make the rule).   “Inis” can be interpreted as an “isle,” smaller than an “island” in general but it doesn’t seem that there’s a rigorous distinction.  NY’s Inis Fada, for example, isn’t particularly small!  At any rate, “oileán” seems the better choice for islands in the Icelandic context. 

of mountains: sléibhte [SHLAYV-tcheh], plural of “sliabh” (mountain), which you may also recognize in its anglicized form as in “Slieve.”  Sléibhte doesn’t change form for the tuiseal ginideach.

glacier: oighearshruth [OY-er-HRUH, silent g, s, t], lit. “ice-flow”

Now for the structure of the phrase.  Apparently this volcano is covered by a glacier and its base is ringed by smaller mountains, so we could construe the name as “glacier of the island of the mountains.  That would, I believe, be more traditional in Irish than a lengthy three-element compound word.  The Irish would be “Oighearshruth Oileán na Sléibhte.”  Only problem is – it doesn’t look quite as unpronounceable! 

At any rate, this is all rather speculative.  Although the individual Irish vocabulary words are presented quite straightforwardly, the net result is probably more of a curiosity than anything else.  So far, no one else seems to have made the attempt – at least Google shows no results and doesn’t even make any suggestions for what it thinks I might be looking for.

Hmmm, it just occurred to me that another approach would be to render the sounds of Eyjafjallajökull as they would be spelled in Irish.  Why bother?  Well, le haghaidh an chraic, of course, but there’s a bit of a time-honored tradition in this vein also, with Myles na gCopaleen’s “dibheairseans” and “aidbhintiurs” as just one pair of examples.  But I think I should either quit while I’m ahead (if one can call this rámhaille “being ahead”) or save that for a rainy day project. 

Hmmm agus hmmm eile, just can’t resist.  How about Aghaidheafiadlagheocadal?  If you just keep in mind that, as in standard Irish practice, the gh’s and the dh are a near-silent “y” sound, you actually have a pretty nifty Irish-medium pronunciation guide for Icelandic.  Not that the world was crying out for one!  However, I can sort of imagine an Irish version of the ABC news clip URL’d above.  A bilingual Icelandic and Irish speaker coaching a TG4 crew for “an Nuacht” as Gaeilge

And yes, the Icelandic has a “t” sound as part of their double l’s in this word, but somehow I think the Irish “d” would work better for this project.  Feedback welcome, especially from anyone out there a bhfuil Íoslainnis agus Gaeilge aige nó aici (note that indirect relative clause there, by the way, we will return shortly to those!).  An chéad bhlag eile, b’fhéidir!

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  1. amber:

    Oh, come on! You can’t just give us poor struggling language students an example of such an amazing new word without letting us hear it! *laughs*

  2. Seán:

    “eyja, island, related to English “eyot” or “ait” (little island, generally in a river), as in Chiswick Eyot or Isleworth Ait, both in the Thames; also the source of the name Ireland’s Eye (island) off the coast of Dublin. ”

    Don’t forget the Irish í as in Í Cholmchille and Í Bhreasail (Hy Brasil)

  3. Axel:

    Ní hea. Ginideach iolra atá in “eyja” .i. “na n-oileán” (“ey” an t-ainmneach uatha) mar atá san fhoirm “fjalla” .i. “na sléibhte” (“fjall” an t-ainmneach uatha).

    “Oighearshruth sléibhte na n-oiléan” an Ghaeilge ar “Eyjafjallajökull” mar sin.

  4. Mise Áine:

    Faigheann d’iarracht mo vótasa!

  5. róislín:

    A Áine,
    Go raibh maith agat. Tá súil agam nár chuir an bolcán isteach ort ná ar duine ar bith de do mhuintir a bhí ag taisteal.

    Nach iontach an t-ainm é!

  6. róislín:

    A Sheáin, a chara,

    Go raibh maith agat as seoladh na n-ainmneacha eile. Tá an ceart agat — is samplaí maithe iad den fhocal.

    Le gach dea-ghuí – Róislín

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