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'Kul,' 'beibi' and 'plis' new words in informal Icelandic

University of Gothenburg

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IMAGE: This is Håkan Jansson, University of Gothenburg. view more

Credit: Photo: Monica Havström

Icelandic has, in contrast to other Nordic languages, a vocabulary that is well preserved in relation to the Old Norse roots, and the Icelanders have worked hard to keep it that way. But a number of loanwords are now appearing, especially in social media, which in turn could constitute a threat to the continuity of the Icelandic language. This is the conclusion of a doctoral thesis in Nordic languages from the University of Gothenburg.

The Icelandic vocabulary has changed relatively little in modern times, and the resistance to adopting foreign words remains strong. This purist tradition of preferring native words to foreign ones is thought to partly be connected to Iceland's long process of liberation from Denmark, which was noticeable in the Icelandic language from the second half of the 19th century to some decades after the final independence in 1944.

Håkan Jansson, who wrote the thesis, has discovered patterns of change in the modern Icelandic vocabulary. For example, new loanwords have started to appear, especially online, something that has been very unusual in the past. Jansson looked for language examples on the internet and found that many words that have never existed in written language were appearing with increasing frequency.

'Words like kúl, kósí, beibí, plís, gig and pleis (Eng. cool, cozy, baby, please, gig and place) made me react, since they violate the purist attitude to the Icelandic vocabulary,' says Jansson.

He became curious and began surveying both the use of loanwords that do not harmonise with the dominant patterns in standard Icelandic, and how colloquial words and word forms are used in writing. To this end, he searched large text corpora from Icelandic newspapers, blogs and online chats. He also explored how the language was used in Icelandic radio at different times, more exactly in 1990, 2000 and 2010.

'The material turned out to contain words that deviate from the tradition in standard Icelandic in mainly three ways. There were colloquial words such as abbó (jealous), words containing parts that weren't Icelandic, like brillisti (brainbox) and direct loanwords, like frík (freak),' says Jansson.

The study presents interesting statistics that could explain this phenomenon.

'The increased use of loanwords coincided with the Icelanders' increased international travelling, and also with the marked increase in the number of Icelandic university students in the 1990s.' Jansson concludes that loanwords and spellings that go against standard Icelandic practice can primarily be found in spontaneous contexts online.

'These words are used in chats and blogs where individuals' language use can have a direct impact, since there are no proofreaders there to stop them. They can also be found in nationwide broadcast media, which is another place that's largely out of reach for editors, at least when it comes to live broadcasts.'

In the long term, the pressure for change, attributed for example to electronic media, may affect the continuity of the Icelandic language.

'A clear threat to the language is that the new loanwords can lead to uncertainty about how certain words should be conjugated, which can lead to problems in the conjugation system,' says Jansson.

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More information: Håkan Jansson, tel. +46 (0)705-88 15 88, email: hakan.jansson@svenska.gu.se

Title of the doctoral thesis: Purism on the wane? Studies in contemporary Icelandic vocabulary usage (written in Swedish with an English summary)

The thesis was defended in March
External reviewer: Professor Camilla Wide, Åbo Akademi University, Finland
The thesis can be ordered from the author via email: hakan.jansson@svenska.gu.se
The thesis is also available online at http://gupea.ub.gu.se/handle/2077/37846

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