About the Icelanders: making up words

by alda on June 22, 2015

As many of you no doubt know [especially if you have read this], the Icelanders have a language committee that makes up new Icelandic words for things or concepts that pop up. By which I mean that Icelandic doesn’t just take the word, say, “computer” and call it “kompjúter”. Instead they submit the object “computer” to the language committee so they can make up a new name for it in Icelandic. [Incidentally, this is called “linguistic purism”, which I must say sounds rather more scary than it is.]

language committeeIn the aforementioned example, the language committee decided on the word tölva which is a composite of the word völva meaning “prophetess” [from Icelandic mythology] and tala meaning “number”. So “computer” in Icelandic essentially means “prophetess of numbers”. Kind of lovely, right?

Now, only some of these newly made-up words stick – others do not. Tölva, for example, stuck. As did words like þyrla [helicopter] – literally “whirl”, þota [jet] – taken from the verb þjóta, meaning “rush”, and sjónvarp [television] – literally “vision cast”.

Others, however, do not stick. Take for instance the word flatbaka [pizza] – literally “flat bake”. Nope. Just didn’t take. Everyone still says “pizza”.

Another word that is pretty hilarious in my opinion, and which definitely did not stick, is the word loðber – “furry berry”. As a matter of fact I was amazed yesterday that this word actually existed, because the object/concept it describes is something quite familiar that I know under another name, which is a lot more commonly used. Whereas I have never heard the word loðber used.

And now: a wee quiz. What do you think the word loðber means in Icelandic? Can you imagine?

The answer will be revealed in Wednesday’s post, so stay tuned!

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