Thursday, February 10, 2005

Let's Put The ð Back In English

“… In those days, the language in England was the same as that spoken in Norway and Denmark… ” ~ The saga of Gunnlaug Serpent-Tongue, circa 1000 A.D.*

A curious and charming (?) aspect of any trip to Iceland is their alphabet, which contains several accent or umlaut marks, dipthongs (Æ) and two unique letters, the ð - the ‘eth’ and the þ - the ‘thorn’. After William the Conqueror defeated the English in 1066, the official language of England became French, and that, along with other mixing, gave us the glorious mess which is the English language today. Lost in the shuffle, and retained only in Iceland and The Faroes, are the two aforementioned letters. Most tourists on a stopover in Reykjavík are completely befuddled when attempting to pronounce anything written with these characters. The residents are generally very patient and usually will graciously answer in English, overcoming that cultural divide.

Thinking about it… wouldn't it be nice to have a letter for the soft th sound (as in 'weather' - Icelandic veður) and the harder th (as in ‘Thor’ Icelandic þor) in English, if only for the sake of children learning to write and spell? Of course, this is only a very tiny part of the great Icelandic language (it has some interesting consonant combination pronunciations) and unfortunately there is very little available in the way of interlinear translations for the English reader (A History Of Icelandic Literature by Stefán Einarsson has some examples of Skaldic poetry presented in this fashion.) Recently, Icelandic pop music has expanded the reach of this beautiful tongue, you can (and you should!) pick up a copy of Gling-glo (usually filed under Björk) at almost any well-stocked CD outlet. With a lyric sheet and the CD you can at least get a taste for the sound of spoken Íslensk.

*translated by Katrina C. Atwood, Leifur Eriksson Publishing, LTD, Iceland, 1997

By Professor Batty


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