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Words of Interest: Long Live Icelandic

Words of Interest: Long Live Icelandic

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Published May 16, 2017

Icelandic has been global news as of late, because, like the Icelandic goat, it’s at risk of becoming extinct. The estimated number of Icelandic speakers in the world is only 400,000, and it remains one of the most poorly supported languages on electronic devices. Linguistic experts fear that at this rate, Icelandic will follow the footsteps of Latin and the dinosaurs.

This is alarming news. When a language is lost, so, too, goes culture and history. As a foreigner who decided to start learning Icelandic because it seemed like a good idea once upon a time, I wanted to take this moment to reflect on what made me so enamored with the language in the first place.

When are you a learning a new language, you naturally pay attention to the makeup of words. If there is a long and complex word you don’t recognize, you scan it for smaller, simpler words that are familiar. This is particularly fun with Icelandic, because the language is full of compound words. Some are very literal, and not all very imaginative:

Eyja (island) + Fjalla (mountain) + Jökull (glacier) = the volcano Eyjafjallajökull

Others are rather poetic:

Hugur (mind) + Mynd (image) = Hugmynd (idea)

Which makes perfect sense because an idea is a picture you have in your head. And then there’s the word for fascinated, hugfanginn, which literally means captive of the mind.

But wait, it gets even better when you add a third word:

Hugmynd (idea) + Flug (flight) = Hugmyndaflug (imagination)

Because what is imagination if not the ideas, or mind pictures, flying around your head?

Icelandic is full of little gems like this. The word for blood transfusion literally means a gift of blood (blöðgjöf). Jellyfish is sea glitter (marglytta). A customer is a business friend  (viðskiptavinur). The list goes on. It was this creative playfulness and poetry of the language that drew me to Icelandic in the first place. And would be heartbreaking for language as beautiful as this to be lost.

Every Single Word in Icelandic is a pictographic exploration of the Icelandic language. I find an interesting compound word, then deconstruct and illustrate it as icons. The goal is to express how Icelandic can be deadpan literal and unexpectedly poetic at the same time.


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