When the University of Iceland got its first computer in 1964, Icelandic did not have a word for “computer”, So the guardians of the language invented one: tölva—a fusion of tala (number) and völva (prophetess) that adds up to the wonderfully poetic “prophetess of numbers”.
Iceland is an isolated island of just 300,000 people, and it has practiced a strident form of linguistic purism. Rather than letting words from foreign languages casually creep into Icelandic, linguists at the Árni Magnússon Institute for Icelandic Studies invent ones anew. There are other languages preoccupied with this kind of purism — French is another example — but Icelanders take its connection to their ancient history most seriously.
Iceland’s official language policy came after the country won its independence from Denmark in 1918. Unlike most other languages, written Icelandic has changed very little over the past 800 years. Modern Icelanders can read ancient texts without much trouble. (By comparison, Beowulf was written in Old English about 1,000 years ago, and is entirely incomprehensible to modern readers.) With nationalism on the rise in the early 20th century, language became a way for Iceland to assert its newfound independence and connect Icelanders to their history. Tölva, for example, was coined by Sigurður Nordal, a noted scholar on ancient Icelandic sagas.
Here are a few more examples chronicled in an Associated Press article in 1987, when Iceland was debating the word for AIDS. (They eventually settled on alnaemi, which roughly translates to “total vulnerability.”)
Telephone is “simi,” from an ancient word for thread. A jet plane is a “thota,” from the verb “thjota,” to zoom. Even “video,” which has become international coinage, did not last long here, quickly yielding to the locally evolved “myndband,” or picture band.
But inevitably, some loanwords have crept into Icelandic, too: banani for “banana” or kaffi for “coffee.” In some cases, linguists aim for the best of both words: ratsjá comes from the Old Icelandic “to find” and it also sounds remarkably similar to what it means in English, “radar”.
Inventing new words sounds like a lofty proposition, but when it comes down to it, a lot of the day to day work for linguists at the Árni Magnússon Institute is pretty prosaic. Obscure, technical words have to get pushed through a bureaucratic pipeline, and not all of them have poetic meanings. Thorsteinn Thorsteinsson, a traffic engineer who works as a technical consultant for linguists at the Institute, sent me a page of translations of transit terms. Many are just compounds, like göngustígur (footpath), göngubrú (footbridge), brúargólf (the deck of a bridge).
“It’s not just for the good of language,” he told me. “Nowadays we do it because it is good for business.” For example, this list of traffic words was important to make sure road standards were, well, standardised across all of the European Union.
And that’s the irony hidden behind the work of coining all these new Icelandic words. The new words are necessary to keep Icelandic up to date, so that it can stay connected to the rest of the world through commerce. But the more connected it is with the rest of the word, the harder it is to keep the language pure.
“Times are changing,” says Thorstein, “There is not the same urgency for the young people.”
And the internet is largely responsible for this. Back in the 20th century — you know, before we spent our whole lives online — centralised radio and newspapers could easily set the standards for spoken Icelandic. The internet has fractured our attention, and Icelanders spend a lot more time reading in English. A 2011 paper on Icelandic word-formation by two linguists had this to say:
Language purists are now much less vocal than they used to be, and there has been surprisingly little discussion amongst language planners of the use of English as the language of the Internet. It is true that there are a high number of bloggers who write in Icelandic, but it is difficult for any small nation language policy to confront the issue of the language of the Internet. Many of the websites that Icelanders look at are inevitably in English. The interest in keeping the language ‘pure’ seems to have subsided slightly in the face of increasing globalisation.
Such is the internet’s flattening effect, which few might have predicted back when Iceland got its first tölva back in 1964.
Top image: Bjork making out with a robot in her All Is Full of Love video