Published October 8, 2018
One of the first things that stands out about the Icelandic alphabet is the humble “ð”, or “eth”As cool as this letter is, there is no Icelandic word that begins with this letter. Why is that? We asked our favourite linguist, Eiríkur Rögnvaldsson, to shed light on this mystery:
“The letter ð usually stands for a voiced alveolar or dental fricative – a similar sound to th in English this. The symbol for this sound in the International Phonetic Alphabet is actually [ð]. The reason why Icelandic words do not begin with [ð] can be traced back to Proto-Indo-European 4000-6000 years ago. Proto-Indo-European didn’t have [ð]. The Proto-Indo-European sound system has developed in different directions in different Indo-European language families, such as the Germanic languages, the Romance languages, etc. This development was not haphazard but obeyed in most cases strict phonological rules – sound laws. None of the sound changes that have occurred on the long road from Proto-Indo-European to Modern Icelandic have resulted in words with [ð] in initial position.
“Actually, Proto-Indo-European didn’t have any voiced fricatives at all, and [ð] is not the only voiced fricative that never occurs word-initially in Icelandic. The same goes for the voiced velar fricative [ɣ]. However, we don’t notice this because unlike [ð], [ɣ] doesn’t have a special letter to denote it. Its representative in writing is the letter g which also serves a number of other purposes. Between vowels, and before voiced fricatives and r, g stands for a voiced velar fricative, in words like saga, sagði, and sigra. In initial position, however, g never stands for a fricative but for a voiceless velar stop [k], in words like gata, or a voiceless palatal stop [c], in words like gera. The two other voiced fricatives in Icelandic, v [v] and j [j], on the other hand, occur word initially, in words like vera and jörð. Their origin is different from the origin of [ð] and [ɣ] which developed from stops; instead, [v] and [j] developed out of Proto-Indo-European semivowels.”
So, as with so many other things in life, the blame for this lies squarely on the shoulders of the Proto-Indo-Europeans. That’s one mystery solved!