From Iceland — Reading The Eddas (With Google Translate)

Reading The Eddas (With Google Translate)

Published August 6, 2010

Living abroad I regularly get asked about this miraculous language I speak—Icelandic—and if it’s true that we make new words for everything under the sun and can read the 13th century Eddas as easily as if we were drinking ice-cold mead in the midnight sun. Icelandic is supposed to be pure and untouched. The language that stood still, century after century, like a bee in amber, so that Icelanders could drink their skulls off with Breezers in Ibiza and brag to the world.
All of this would be sufficiently intolerable if it were true—but as a collective national deception which fosters a rampantly conservative attitude towards language it’s causing infernal mayhem on a daily basis. Not only does every new generation feel less and less comfortable manoeuvring within this immovable 19th century construction we call 13th century Icelandic, but it actually generates a sort of slow, stale death where (mostly younger) people give up on adapting words to their (younger) language and pick up foreign words and sentences (primarily from English) untouched and unrecontextualized—i.e., they give up on their mother tongue.
Let me just state this clearly for the record, and let no one tell you otherwise: Icelanders can NOT read 13th century Icelandic any better than they can speak Swedish or German (i.e. a few can, most can’t). The only people who can properly read the Eddas are those who have either learned to read Old Norse or have access to the texts in modern translation—that is to say (almost) everyone who speaks any other language than Icelandic (since the myth of us understanding them relies on us pretending to be able to, modernizing the texts would be tantamount to treason).  
The fact is that Icelandic changed very much through the centuries and varied immensely between parts of the country (making it even harder for a modern man to read 17th century Hallgrímur Pétursson in the original than 13th century Snorri Sturluson) but all of Icelandic’s peculiarities—it’s dialects and accents, as well as common Latin and Danish phrases—were killed off and the language homogenized and rewound by 19th century nationalist poets and scholars who teamed up with a Danish (!) linguist with a fetish for a 12th century Icelandic grammatical treatise. And as for neologisms; yes, we have “sími” (telephone), “sjónvarp” (TV) and “tölva” (computer)—but internet in Icelandic is just  “internet”, the hood (of a car) is “húdd”, and video is “vídeó”. Every other word is Nordic by origin, and yet conservationists forbid Scandinavianisms like “ske” (happen) but not “bíll” (car) or “jörð” (ground). These people are perhaps shallow enough to think that their rules make sense—and arrogant enough to convince others.
Neologisms are fine—they are creative and fun, and we should have shitloads of them. But you can’t boss around a language like this. If Icelandic is to survive (let alone thrive) as a language it has to have an enjoyable presence, it has to be an enjoyable experience for the people talking and hearing it. The moment a language becomes an obligation it ceases to induce anyone with passion—except, of course, for the irritable pedagogue who feels he or she can constantly “teach” others how they should speak their own mother tongue. Icelandic, just as any language, is (mostly) comprised of foreign words, and our grammar—like our sayings, idioms and proverbs—makes variably much sense. The new silly bits aren’t any worse than the old, traditional silly bits. Language is, when observed up close, a very illogical thing–despite all of its inherent logic and morbid obduracy (do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself …)
In short. A people’s language ruled by the fist of the eternally incensed and bitterly arrogant will become less and less wieldy with time until it no longer does the trick, until it is no longer capable of carrying the thoughts of the people, whereupon the people will move up and out, pick up and leave—adios, goodbye, nice to know ya.

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