The sight of Icelandic can scare people sometimes. A word like Eyjafjallajökull might seem like a Viking war scream, something you’d hear coming at you across a wide-open rolling plain with mountains and glaciers behind, a rugged, untamed land – some of the youngest land on the planet (with more being spewed fresh from the mantle on regular intervals), but with an old language, one that has changed little in a millennium. Iceland: a land of incessant striking scenery (“stunning but nondescript,” as my wife put it after several hours – see our travelogue), a harsh land where for centuries people spent many long hours in small cold cabins, an island country where, thanks to a small population and an annual democratic gathering, there is no significant dialectal variation in the language. A land of very few trees, and not big ones either (what do you do if you get lost in an Icelandic forest? – stand up), where many of the population believe in the existence of huldufólk: hidden folk, for instance trolls, after whom a whole peninsula is named.
How do trolls hide in a place without forests? Iceland is a place where you can see for miles and miles and miles but whatever you’re looking for you probably won’t see until you’re practically on top of it. Its famous waterfalls, for instance – they don’t fall down to you from above you; rather, they fall from a river that has carved into the plain you’re on, down into a gorge even father below. And major sites of interest – historical sites and geological sites – are marked with little signs and small, mostly empty parking lots next to their two-lane roads. You’re just driving along, and suddenly, whoa!
The language likewise is plain and yet spectacular. Names for things are generally straightforward – they translate to things like Smoky Bay (that’s the capital), Island Fjord, North River, Lake Glacier (the biggest glacier in Europe – and the word for “lake” is the same as the word for “water”), and Midge Lake. But Icelandic has retained three letters that English lost long ago (edh, thorn, and ash: ð, þ, æ) and has retained an involved system of inflections too, and it has developed a tendency to devoice things (for instance word-final l and r) and often to pre-aspirate double voiceless stops (not only do you devoice the consonant, you cut the voice off even before you get to the consonant). If you see nn or mm, you’re looking at a voiceless nasal – and with the nn there’s a sort of [t] at the beginning too. These are sounds you really can’t even hear unless you’re at close quarters in a quiet place. And ll? A voiceless lateral affricate – the same as we see rendered with lh for Tibetan names (e.g., Lhasa) and tlh in Klingon. If you say “hotlips” making sure you actually touch the tongue on the t (rather than making a glottal stop of it) you’ll sort of get it. To all this relative exoticism add the tendency to make compounds and you get some striking words.
For instance, take “island”, “mountain”, and “glacier”: ey (said “eh” – y is just like English y), fjall (said “fyatlh” – one syllable, ending with that ll voiceless lateral affricate, not like the end of Seattle, which keeps the voicing), and jökull (the ö is like German ö and the u is similar but a little lower and farther back, like in French coeur). Since Icelandic puts modifying nouns in the genitive case, you add genitive suffixes to the first two nouns. Then you glue all three together, and whoa! Eyjafjallajökull, “ehya-fyatlha–yökuhtlh”! It’s like you’re driving along a wide-open space and suddenly a Viking horde comes at you from a hidden ravine, and they’re all screaming and whispering at you. Or you’re standing on a glacier and suddenly a volcano erupts from under it. The word looks sort of like a fall, a flight, a horde itself, or the onrush of smoke and ash, perhaps. But all those ascenders and dots and descenders are really your hair standing on end at the very sight of it.
And at the very prospect of saying it, if you’re like a lot of people. And, well, there’s the thing: just as out of nowhere there is all this ash filling the air that is keeping people from flying, likewise out of nowhere is this word, the name for the glacier on the mountain and for the volcano under it that’s burping up the ash. The ll sounds begin to sound maybe like burps of steam and pumice, in fact. And good luck finding another European language that can even deal with this word phonologically. Icelandic has retained and added sounds not found in even the other Scandinavian languages. English certainly just has to do its best with what it can. This word can’t become an English word, after all, unless and until it’s adopted English phonotactics. And it remains to be seen how people will agree on pronouncing it, if they in fact ever will.
People are surely wishing for something nice and simple like Krakatoa right about now. Even Popocatépetl is looking good… though it (in the original) ends with exactly the same sound as does Eyjafjallajökull: not with a bang but a crackling hiss.