While Americans love to invent words to describe new things, Icelanders repurpose ancient words

Subtitle
12 min readMay 14, 2024
Hulda Hákonardóttir and Guðrún Hannele Henttinen, members of Iceland’s knitting language committee, help come up with new Icelandic words. (Photo: Patrick Cox)

This is a transcript of a Subtitle podcast episode.

Patrick Cox: There’s an Icelandic comedian called Ari Eldjárn. You may have seen his Netflix special, it’s called Pardon My Icelandic.

Ari Eldjárn: Icelandic is the closest to Old Norse, not because we didn’t maintain it. No, we just didn’t evolve as much — for 600 years!

Patrick Cox: An unevolved language. It’s a thing that people say about Icelandic. And when I heard that, I knew had to go Iceland.

Patrick Cox: From Quiet Juice and the Linguistic Society of America, this is Subtitle: stories about languages and the people who speak them. I’m Patrick Cox.

Of course, once I talked to Icelanders, I realized that that “unevolved language” thing — it was a joke. But like the best jokes, it had a kernel of truth to it. But apart from that why should non-Icelandic speakers care about Icelandic? Not many people speak it, fewer than 4-hundred thousand people. But it’s not like it’s going extinct next year, it doesn’t have that drama. So what’s the story?

Not to be too superficial here. But this is one cool language. If I were Icelandic, I might sound a bit like this guy, he’s a journalist too.

Sound of an a reporter speaking in Icelandic.

Patrick Cox: Come on, how can you resist that? And that’s just the beginning of the cool factor of course. It’s the native tongue of Björk, and the Vikings. And it has — I don’t know if you’ve seen Icelandic script — well, it’s the Latin script with a bunch of additional letters, some that look Scandinavian — an o with a couple of diacritcal dots on it for example — and some with accents. And then there are two gorgeous-looking letters. One is called Eth. It looks like d but the vertical bit has been bent down so it’s semi-circular — and there’s a diagonal line crossing it. It looks like a weapon from the Dark Ages. And the other one is from the Dark Ages. It’s a runic letter called Thorn. It looks a cross between a p and b.

Photo: Patrick Cox

While we’re on the Icelandic alphabet, I just want to let you know that there is no Z — or Zed, depending on where you come from. I looked up the word for zoo. It begins with a d. That’s all I’ll say.

So in today’s podcast, I want to try to convey — with the help of several people I met in Iceland — I want to convey what it is that’s so special about Icelandic: How it really is an old language in the modern world. How it’s old because many of the people who speak it buy into the idea that it remains old, even as it adds new words for — you know, new technologies like MRI — magnetic resonance imaging and podcast. The Vikings had a lot of things but they didn’t have podcasts.

If there is an area of public life where new words are required — be it health- related or automotive or household appliances — whatever it is, Icelanders have been coming up with words in Icelandic. They have committees for this. Dozens of committees.

I met two women who sit on a committee you might not think of as cutting edge when it comes to new technologies but there are a whole number of new words to come up with in this araea. These women work with wool.

Hulda Hákonardóttir: It’s warm and it keeps you alive. It has kept us alive for centuries.

Guðrún Hannele Henttinen: Yes.

Patrick Cox: It doesn‘t take long in any conversation with an Icelander for them to bring up history, to bring up the fact of the first human settlers here — people from what‘s today is called Norway. And those settlers, just like today‘s Icelanders, they needed woolen clothes. Adn Icelanders, they’ve needed wool ever since. Well, until quite recently. In the 1980s and 90s, all of a sudden wool came under threat, with the rise of man-made fleece. After that, the popularity of wool — it seemed to go into a tailspin. Until 2008, the economic meltdown, which was bad in the US but was terrible in Iceland. Savings were wiped out. A lot of Icelanders, they went into a form of hibernation.

Hulda Hákonardóttir: Because of the financial collapse here in Iceland, everybody started to knit, and a lot of women started to also write books about knitting.

Guðrún Hannele Henttinen: And it was like a knitting boom, it was.

Patrick Cox: OK, I’ve avoided using these women’s names so far because I’m goign to mangle their names. But here goes. Hulda Hákonardóttir, she does marketing for Icelandic wool products, she spoke first. And the other person speaking there, she spoke second was Guðrún Hannele Henttinen. She owns a knitwear store. There’s a log tradition of knitting in Iceland. But it was only after the crash that yound Icelanders turned to it. And they turned for ideas to a new place: YouTube of course — and in English, it being the lingua franca of instructional videos. And these videos. they’re chockful of new designs, new patterns , new techniques, and new words. English words. While there are some new books and knitting patterns in Icelandic, the authors of these books and patterns, they haven’t been able agree on a standardized lexicon.

Guðrún Hannele Henttinen: They’re using different words for the same thing, and they’re confusing people I think.

Hulda Hákonardóttir: And they‘re even making up some words because they think that is the best word for it but at the same time we have a very good old word for the same thing.

Patrick Cox: “We have a very good old word for the same thing.” That in a nutshell is how Icelanders view their language. When in doubt, go back in time. There’s a probably a perfectly good old word that’s maybe fallen out of use. Combine with another word, make sure it follows Icelandic grammar rules. And then, try to talk the public into using it. Here’s an example from knitting. The word ‘ribbing’ That’s how you knit the edges on sweaters.

Guðrún Hannele Henttinen: We had a lot of words for this, and some confusion about what to call it. So we found an old word, and we thought maybe that would be good to use that again.

Patrick Cox: That word derives from an old Icelandic term meaning braid. Iceland’s knitting words committee has been dreaming up new words for several months now.

Guðrún Hannele Henttinen: I thought it would be so difficult, that it would take us weeks to find one good word. But when we started talking about it and we sat here, like a brainstorm.

Hulda Hákonardóttir: Yeah a few good words emerged, we had a choose one good one, the best one. So it was surprising to me how easy it was.

Patrick Cox: A big part of the reason that it is so easy maybe something to do with the relationship Icelanders have with the past. It‘s a close, tight relationship, bound up in words.

A man reads from Egil’s Saga

Patrick Cox: The Icelandic Sagas and why even today, they sound contemporary. That’s coming up.

Patrick Cox: If you’re curious about the world around you and how people connect, there’s another podcast I think you’ll love. It’s called Out There. It’s an award-winning show that explores big questions through intimate stories outdoors. These kinds of stories: How could a snowboarding accident help you build self-confidence? What prompts people to be overly generous? And how might Harriet Tubman change your perspective on who belongs outdoors?

The current season of Out There is all about silence. They have stories that take us around the globe, exploring how we find stillness amid the noise of life, whether it’s through photographing the stars, hiking the Grand Canyon, or visiting a national park in Korea. Find Out There wherever you’re listening to this or at outtherepodcast.com.

Patrick Cox: OK back to the sagas

A man reads from Egil’s Saga

Patrick Cox: Every Icelander knows the sagas, the stories of the Viking settlement of Iceland, of violent struggles with the old world, of love. Well, not much love. The sagas began as oral histories that were later written down in a form of Icelandic that‘s remarkably close to the language as spoken today.

Kjartan Ragnarsson: It has changed so little that we can read the Sagas like our newspapers.

Kjartan Ragnarsson, actor and and director of The Settlement Center, Borgarnes, Iceland (Photo: Patrick Cox)

Patrick Cox: Reading the Sagas as if they were today‘s news — it‘s difficult to comprehend for us English speakers. But that‘s what Kjartan Ragnarsson told me. He‘s an actor who runs a museum called The Settlement Center an hour‘s drive north of Reykjavik. Icelandic pronounciation has changed over the years, but the words and the grammar haven‘t all that much. By way of comparison, here’s our best guess at what English was like at roughly about that time:

Excerpt from the Canterbury Tales.

Patrick Cox:This is part of the prologue to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. And in its way, it speaks to us. But doesn’t speak to us in the way the Sagas speak to Icelanders.

Kjartan Ragnarsson: I’m sure that the old literature has so much to do with how strongly we are linked to the language as our identity, I’m very, very sure. It’s like music for us.

Patrick Cox: Most Icelanders, they feel the same way. It’s what makes them Icelandic, this language of epic struggle and survival. One Icelander after tells me the same thing. This unchanging language is a huge part of what makes them Icelandic. One writer tells me, “We feel very close to characters in the old literature — so close that we even feel a family connection to them.” But is it true? Has the language really not changed? Yes and no, says linguist Kristian Arnasson.

Kristian Arnasson: If the people of Iceland create their own myth that this is the same language that we had in the old times, it’s going to be perhaps borne out.

Patrick Cox: If everyone buys into the idea that the language isn’t evolving, then it won’t evolve. Or at least, you can put the breaks on it. You can form committees to retrieve words from the past and recycle them in modern usage. So the language does evolve, but with a guiding hand. Now, in many cultures that doesn’t work. It’s been tried. Erudite scholars appointed by the government try to keep the language old school — they oppose modernizations, bastardizations. And the people ignore them, say what they want to say. In Iceland, it doesn’t work that way. The scholars are more like practitioners — knitwear store owners and the like — they are the people. Everyone buys into it.

Kristian Arnasson: The idea of a language which is a treasure, something that we have to preserve has been very strong in Iceland. And with this comes purism, trying to keep the language pure.

Patrick Cox: Ok, the word, “pure” can be creepy, no doubt about it. Flip the conversation from language to, say, ethnicity and it becomes the rhetoric of racism. But most Icelanders believe that the purity of language should be valued, that the tongue they speak has a great advantage over the likes of English, which has adopted foreign words, and maybe lost somthing along the way. Icelandic speakers, they simply refuse to lose words — or rather, the loss is temporary, thanks to the knitters and all the other committees which are unearthing all those long-forgotten expressions. I talked in most depth about this with Ari Páll Kristinsson. He’s the head of language planning department at the Arni Magnusson Institute for Icelandic Studies, which is the government’s sort of language planning agency.

Ari Páll Kristinsson: The average person in Iceland — they often call or send us emails because they have come across something or another. Or people at a party, they very often start discussing language, it’s a very popular topic of discussion is different ways of speaking. And then they need someone who they believe is more knowledgeable, and they write an email to us, put the question to us.

Patrick Cox: And here’s perhaps where Iceland’s designated language experts differ from say in France. The Icelanders don’t lay down the law. they offer advice. But that advice is purist. When asked by members of the public unsure of how to express themselves, the government language experts’ advice is that people should “stick to tradition as much as possible.”

Ari Páll Kristinsson: Sometimes people write in the daily newspaper, “I’ve been thinking a lot about how to say this into Icelandic, and I’m not happy with having to use a foreign word for this and how about…” And then they launch a translation. And then you could expect next week someone else to write, “This is a terrible idea. Mine is much better” Etc, etc.

Patrick Cox: These discussions have moved over to the likes of Facebook. And the institute receives lots of emails with lots of suggestions for new words. In fact, one came in the afternoon I was there: a suggestion for the world “wind tunnel.” Ari quite liked the suggestion. Icelandic already has a word for wind tunnel but it’s a direct translation of the English wind tunnel. The new suggestion was more playful than that, potentially more authentically Icelandic. I asked Ari if there was a word in Icelandic for, welI had to: podcast.

Ari Páll Kristinsson: That’s hlaðvarp. The Varp is the same as in útvarp which means radio. And sjónvarp which means television. Varp comes from the verb to throw something, varpa. So, hlað is the same word as hlaða which means a barn, a barn on a farm. You have your barn where you keep your crop, you fill your barn with it for the winter. So hlaða is something that’s filled with something, you stock something there for consumption at a later point in time. So hlaðvarp is a space on a computer where you store media material, and you can always fetch it and use it when you like. You don’t need to have it stream directly.

Patrick Cox: And is it used or people use the word, “podcast”?

Ari Páll Kristinsson: It would be a good example to do some research into shall we call it a battle between the two? We have the Icelandic word and we have the English word. In about five years from now, we could tell whether hlaðvarp is the winner, or if podcast is still alive. It’s a bit of a game or a competition in a way.

Patrick Cox: Of course by the time the outcome is determine, the whole idea of podcast may have disappeared, become like cassette tapes or something. That’s what makes it so difficult for anyone who works in the setting of technological terms. You just know if they are going to be around.

Ari Páll Kristinsson: This is what makes the computer vocabulary special. We have a totally different setup in the field of the human body for instance, if we talk about medical dictionaries. Most scientific fields are more constant. But sometimes we have up to 18 different suggestions for new words. When the disease AIDS was discussed in the 1980s, all around the world people were trying to hide the disease, but in Iceland, people were much more occupied in finding a word for it. We had 18 different suggestions for words for AIDS. Now what’s survived in the language is two, two different words for AIDS in Icelandic.

Patrick Cox: Now, if you’re wondering, how this language that looks backwards to move forwards, how it’s coping with the onslaught of English and other languages, well, we have an episode on that coming up very soon in, like, two or three episodes’ time. And there are some dire predictions for the future of the language.

Jón Gnarr: I think Icelandic is not going to last. I think we probably in this century we will adopt English as our language.

Patrick Cox: Does a globalized, connected world have a place for the language of the Sagas? Listen out for that episode coming in the next few weeks.

Patrick Cox: Thanks to Allison Shao who writes the Subtitle newsletter and manages our social media accounts. Thanks also to The World public radio program, and to the Hub & Spoke audio collective, of which Subtitle is a member. Thanks for listening. We’ll be back in a couple of weeks.

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Subtitle

A podcast about languages and the people who speak them. Co-hosted by @patricox and @kbpillay. Twitter: @lingopod