Icelanders, as a rule, are very proud of their language.
And why not? It’s fascinating. Icelandic is a North Germanic language, but compared to the others, it has remained relatively unchanged for hundreds of years. This is largely because of Iceland’s geographic isolation; while other Germanic languages such as Swedish, Dutch and English generally underwent a process of grammatical simplification over the centuries – some of those tricky case endings melting away, for example – this did not happen to such an extent in Icelandic. As a result, modern Icelandic is close enough to Old Norse that modern Icelanders can generally understand literary classics such as the Eddas and the Sagas, some of which were written as far back as a thousand years ago.
The language, then, is a source of some national pride to Icelanders, but the modern world poses a problem.
background to the problem
The population of Iceland stands at around 360,000, about 85% of whom are native Icelandic speakers. That’s it. There are a few Icelandic speakers in North America – notably in Manitoba, Canada, where around 30,000 people of Icelandic heritage live, descendants of immigrants from Iceland during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. (Icelanders call these Canadian cousins Vestur-Íslendingar – West Icelanders.) But all told, there are not very many native speakers of Icelandic, really.
Also, Icelandic is pretty tricky to learn. There’s a rather complex case system and – what is worse – there are also lots of exceptions you simply have to learn as you go. When I was put on furlough from my previous job last year, I decided that I would homeschool my son in the mornings and learn Icelandic in the afternoons. Getting to grips with the case system was a mind-bending way to pass those post-lunch hours. Here’s an example. There’s a rule for forming ordinal numbers (the numbers that denote order, like first, third, tenth and so on), but it completely breaks down if you want to say second, in which case, you need to use this table:
Source: Colloquial Icelandic, Daisy L. Neijmann, pub. Routledge
That’s fifteen different words in Icelandic where one will do in English, and you have to pick the right one every time. An Icelander friend of mine tells me that it is actually quite painful to hear foreigners trying to speak Icelandic, and Icelanders will generally switch to English as quickly as possible not just to be polite and helpful but also to avoid having to put up with the ear torture of hearing us mangle their beautiful language.
Mastering the language via the traditional route of going to the country where it’s spoken and integrating socially with the native speakers is therefore unlikely to work well with Icelandic. Unless, that is, you’re thick-skinned enough to be content tormenting your new neighbours for several years while you get up to speed. Not a great way to make friends, though, I would have thought.
The problem is this: how do Icelanders maintain the linguistic integrity of their language in a world dominated by English, when there are so few native speakers and it’s almost impossible to master as a second language?
The truth is, it’s getting more and more difficult, particularly as younger generations take up English ever more enthusiastically as an online lingua franca. Nevertheless, there are some strategies that have served Icelandic well in the past and continue to be tried. One of the major ones is that it’s standard practice in Iceland to invent new Icelandic words for things rather than to take in loanwords from other languages. For example, the Icelandic word for computer is tölva, an invented portmanteau deriving from the words tala (number) and völva (prophetess, witch). So a computer is a number-witch. Neat!
the need for LGBTQ+ neologisms
A number of years ago, it became clear that the English words for various sexual and/or gender identities simply wouldn’t do. There was a feeling amongst many in the LGBTQ+ community that having to use the existing English or Danish words contributed to a sense of marginalisation. New Icelandic words would have to be invented if native Icelandic speakers were to be able to comfortably integrate their sexual and gender identities with their linguistic one. Usually, this process of inventing Icelandic neologisms is done through some kind of voluntary committee working in partnership with language experts, and this case was no different.
Hýryrði 2015 was a competition held, funnily enough, in 2015, to seek out suggestions from the public for new Icelandic words in four categories: gender expression, gender identity, sexual orientation, and gender-neutral kinship words. The name of the competition itself was a playful one; hýryrði translates literally as gay words but also echoes the Icelandic word nýyrði (neologisms). It was organised by Iceland’s LGBTQ+ organisation Samtökin ’78, some of whose representatives judged the entries submitted alongside Icelandic language specialists and an academic from the field of gender studies.
and the winners are…
Here are some of the words that won the day, along with some notes explaining how they were derived.
|English term||Icelandic winning word(s)||explanation|
|androgynous||dulkynja||‘kynja’ = gender; ‘dul’ = concealment, mystery; sense of ‘mystery gender’ or ‘mysterious gender’|
|androgynous||vífguma||combination of poetic/archaic words for woman (víf) and man (guma)|
|asexual||ókynhneigður||‘Kynhneigður’ refers to sexual orientation and ‘ó-‘ is a negative prefix equivalent to ‘a-‘ in English. It has slightly negative connotations, which is why an alternative was offered.|
|asexual||eikynhneigður||‘Ei-’ means ‘not’ and is more neutral than ‘ó-‘. It is also pronounced like the prefix ‘a-‘ in English, and so is a phonetic match.|
|non-binary||frjálsgerva||‘Free’ or ‘liberated’ gender. This is not as popular as a word which was already in use, ‘kynsegin’, which is equivalent to ‘genderqueer’ in English as a play on the words for gender (kyn) and queer (hinsegin).|
|partner||kærast||Adaptation of existing words ‘kærasti’ (boyfriend) and ‘kærasta’ (girlfriend). Can be declined with neuter inflections.|
|child (indicating familial relationship rather than age)||bur||An ancient Icelandic word for ‘son’ which, though grammatically masculine, can easily be declined with neuter inflections.|
A note on that last one: bur was probably one of the most successful winners to come out of the competition, in that it has actually been adopted into official Icelandic naming law. In Iceland, there are very strict rules about what you can call yourself, and most people have a patronymic last name instead of a family surname. That is, their last name will consist of their father’s name and -sson (son) or -dóttir (daughter). Now, the suffix -bur is legally permitted as well for people who are registered as gender-neutral.
If you’re interested in reading more about this, I recommend you take a look at the superb paper Hýryrði 2015: Creating LGBTQ+ Icelandic identities by Bryony Bates, who is currently studying for a Masters in English Language and Linguistics at the University of Glasgow. I would also like to take this opportunity to thank Bryony for their kind permission to use this highly informative and very readable paper as the basis of this blog post.