Friday, May 22, 2015

‘Kúl’, ‘Beibí’, ‘Plís’ And Their Threat To Icelandic Language

Compared to most languages in the developed world, Icelandic is quite conservative. Formal German is almost useless in actual German society due to slang and informal terms, for example, while English has few rules but so many exceptions and colloquial phrases it can be difficult for tourists to understand eating in a restaurant.

Icelandic, by contrast, has a vocabulary well preserved in Old Norse roots and Icelanders want to keep it that way.  The purist tradition of preferring native words to foreign ones is thought to 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.

Resistance remains strong but Twitter takes no prisoners and young people don't have the same attachment to the past, and so a number of "loanwords" are making their way into the lexicon. 

In his PhD thesis, Håkan Jansson of the University of Gothenburg has discovered patterns of change in the modern Icelandic vocabulary showing new loanwords have started to appear, especially online. 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 harmonize 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 onlinechats. 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.

What caused it? International travel and young people going to college more in the 1990s. There is little way to hold it back, since the informal usage and loanwords are primarily in chats and blogs. "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."

Science 2.0. 2015. “‘Kúl’, ‘Beibí’, ‘Plís’ And Their Threat To Icelandic Language”. Science 2.0. Posted: March 30, 2015. Available online:

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