Wednesday, June 19, 2013

ðe Þing About Iceland

You might think that a country of fewer than a half million souls, completely exposed to the cross-winds of the global economy, would be in danger of losing its language to the encroachments of the English-speaking world that encircles it.   And, in fact, proficiency in English is so universal in Iceland that we stopping asking if people spoke it before launching into a conversation – it began to seem more annoying to ask than presumptuous to assume.

And yet fear not for Icelandic.   The local tongue seems well attached to local brains, thanks to their saga-filled isolation.    Everyone else’s brain is another matter.  Even fellow Scandinavians professed to be mystified by a language they implanted on the island a thousand years ago and then forgot how to speak themselves.   Icelandic turns out to be not your grandfather’s Nordic language.   More like your great-great-great-great-great- great-great-great-great- great- great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great- great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather’s.   Or something like that.  You get the picture.
For us, trying to decipher Icelandic was a little like reading Beowulf in the original Old English (a language which it apparently resembles).  And there is surprisingly little in the way of parallel translations in some places where you would expect them.   For example, if you’re trying to catch a flight, it’s helpful to know that you’re looking for the flugvöllur, because while the road signs may include a tiny silhouette of a jet, they don’t say “airport”. 

So good for the Icelanders.   Let the tourists get lost and stay another day – it’s a wonderful country.   If you drive around enough reading signs aloud for your own amusement, you might even be tempted to sort out the nuances of the Icelandic alphabet.   In addition to the usual gang of umlauts and accents, there are several special characters, including no-brainers like “æ” but also some true challenges like “Þ” and “ð”.   The latter two are different ways of making the “th” sound.  This shouldn’t be hard for English speakers, who famously make far greater use of that diphthong than most inhabitants of Planet Earth.  But in our own minds – excluding linguists -- we are hardly (if at all) aware of the difference between the “th” sound in “breath” (Þ) vs. the “th” sound in “breathe” (ð).  
But if you want to talk about Þingvellir, the hallowed Icelandic ground where the AllÞingi, the ancient Icelandic parliament first met in 930 A.D., you obviously need to try.  


Þingvellir National Park is about 45 minutes northeast of Reykjavik (by car).   By boat and Icelandic pony, it must have taken a lot longer, which makes it even more impressive that the entire adult male population of the island used to gather there to listen to an annual recitation of the laws, cast a few votes, drink whatever would ferment, and occasionally drown a few recalcitrant citizens in the river.

On arrival in the park, we were greeted by a vast plateau of rock cairns overlooking Þingvallavatn Lake.   Hopefully these were of recent vintage, rather than archeological relics, because Miles and Leo knocked a few down while trying to improve them.
Still, they were not easily discouraged.
And they eventually got their act together.
Þingvellir also happens to lie along the Mid-Atlantic Rift, which according to the guidebooks and DVDs in the gift shops is "tearing Iceland apart" at a rate of 1.5 cm a year.
The Rift is unmistakably visible and very impressive.  However, it does not seem to threaten Iceland's geographic unity in any meaningful sense.   It seems to be creating more Iceland. 
The early Icelanders had good reason to choose this dramatic spot for their assemblies, all  Þings considered.


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