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Icelandic orthography (de-lurking)

From:Oskar Gudlaugsson <hr_oskar@...>
Date:Sunday, November 5, 2000, 5:50
Hi all!

I've been away from the list a little while...

Anyway, being the only Icelander here (presumably), I ought to have
something to say in this topic;

On Thu, 2 Nov 2000 15:22:23 +0100, BP Jonsson <bpj@...> wrote:

>>>Spoken languages are trouble in that regard, yes. I've heard >>>Icelandic cited as an example of this, as it hasn't changed >>>gramatically very much over the last 1000 years or so, and >>>Icelandic schoolchildren can study the Sagas and such in the >>>original language without explanation of words and such (as we >>>have when studying Shakespeare), but if an Icelandic scientist >>>were to invent a time machine and go back to that time, they >>>wouldn't understand a word of the language.
I suspect we'd understand it by the same margin as we're currently able to understand spoken Faroese - i.e., it's a very similar difference; basically the same phonemes and words only with different values of the phonemes, and a marginal difference in lexis. This probably doesn't mean anything to anybody here, as few would really know how an Icelandic-speaker perceives Faroese. Basically, an Icelander hearing Faroese for the first time will catch about one word per sentence but yet have the uncanny feeling that he should be understanding more; as if it were his own language, only spoken extremely unclearly. It's kind of disturbing. Anyway, after some further contact with Faroese, the Icelander should be able to start understanding most words that he's lexically familiar with (though I can't confirm this, as I haven't yet reached this stage with Faroese, having had very little contact with it). There are, however, plenty of "false friend" cognates between the two languages, most of which make for excellent jokes.
>>What the Icelanders read when they think they read the Sagas >>has been respelled in modern orthography. The differences are >>small, but they're there. And the modern orthography has some >>quite strange conventions to keep the differences to the old >>language _visually_ small.
Overall I feel that Icelandic students are presented by too much respelled or conveniently legible material and two little of the opposite. Actually, one need not show them raw 13th century for that. I find 17th or 18th century Icelandic texts at least equally hard to read, if not more so (because the spelling is more Latin-like, and that the language is so Danish-influenced). Of course, reading from an original 13th century manuscript is pretty much impossible, given a) an impossible-to-read Gothic writing, b) that every other word is abbreviated or encrypted in some way, to save valuable calf-skin line space, and c) the lack of standardization. Also, not a single page of non-Icelandic text is ever presented in school, even though Old Icelandic is always equated with Old Norse (which would mean that we should be able to read old texts from Scandinavia, but yet do not do so). And, in cases of doubt, teachers and school books often favor texts to have originated in Iceland rather than somewhere else. Lamenting the school system as always... <off-topic> I recently read a brief summary of Icelandic history in a tourist guide, which said, more or less, that the blood-thirsty uncultured Vikings, never having made any scholarly efforts, *mysteriously* dropped their swords and started writing nice texts upon settling Iceland! "Vikings" have sadly tended to be one of the more misunderstood and culturally underestimated civilizations in history. Worse still, the exciting period in which they played their part (meaning ca. 8th - 13th centuries) is too often overlooked in traditional history teaching. Don't really know why, I mean, "the centuries where culture and science flourished in the Arab world; where the Byzantian Empire was at its peak, preserving and advancing the old Graeco-Roman culture; where a Frankish king united Western Europe; and where pirates/traders/poets from the North poured out of their homeland to every direction, dominating the North Sea, keeping Western Europe in awe, settling the west as far as N-America, and trading/adventuring in Russia and the Middle East." Compare that to what followed: "the centuries when plagues devastated Europe, fanaticism abounded, popes bickered, and when the church and aristocracy hustled the people (so to speak)." My least favorite time in history, for sure.
>It was/is Oskar who wants ð abolished. I just keep pointing out that these >letters are essentially in complementary distribution postvocalically, or >would be if compound boundaries were marked.
Hmm. I'm only fairly literate in linguistics jargon, so I think you've got me there, BP :) Could you make examples or clarify the sentence above?
>On the contrary the great changes in vowel pronunciation (essentially >diphthongization of old long vowels) are thought to have taken place after >the 13th century but before the 17th. Due to the conservative orthography >we have no idea exactly when what happened, only that people around 1600 >were complaining about the "vulgar" pronunciation of é as je; apparently it >underwent the shift from [e] to [je] at about that time. The old short was >[E] then as now. OTOH [je] was established enough in the second half of >the 16th century to be reflected in the spellings of the Bible, so maybe >the complainers were just antiquarians influenced by the spelling of older >manuscripts which had fe instead of fie.
If this change came so late, how come every Scandinavian language featured the same change, more or less? Wouldn't have had to be an earlier change, or a very early tendency, a "bound-to-become" change, sometime back in the time of Old Norse? Or is it just a coincidence that all the languages had the same change? Óskar