Lies the HLC told you: All languages change.

We usually kind of hammer into you readers that languages change, and in my last post I described situations in the history of English when the contact with other languages was so intense that it drastically changed the language. Language contact is one factor which triggers language change, but change can also come from within the language itself, through e.g. innovation by speakers or speech communities (remember Rebekah’s post a while ago about some of the mechanisms in sound change?).

However, despite all of this, some languages tend to be particularly reluctant to change. To give you an example, here is an extract from the Færeyinga saga1, written around the year 1200 in the western dialect of Old Norse, Old West Norse, which was used in Iceland and Norway:

Nv litlu sidar kemr Sigurdr j budina til brodur sins ok mællti. tak þu nu silfrit nu er samit kaupit. Hann suarar. ek fek þer silfrit skommu. Nei segir Sigurdr ek hefui ekki a þui tekit. Nu þræta þeir vm þetta. eftir þat segia þeir konungi til. konungr skilr nu ok adrir menn at þeir eru stolnir fenu. Nu leggr konungr farbann sua at æingi skip skulu sigla burt sua buit. þetta þotti morgum manni vanhagr mikill sem var at sitia vm þat fram er markadrinn stod.

Now, here is the modern Icelandic translation of the same extract:

Nú litlu síðar kemur Sigurður í búðina til bróður síns og mælti:
“Tak þú nú silfrið; nú er samið kaupið.”
Hann svarar: “Eg fékk þér silfrið skömmu.”
“Nei,” segir Sigurður; “eg hefi ekki á því tekið.”
Nú þræta þeir um þetta. Eftir það segja þeir konungi til. Konungur skilur nú, og aðrir menn, að þeir eru stolnir fénu. Nú leggur konungur farbann, svo að engi skip skulu sigla burt svo búið. Þetta þótti mörgum manni vanhagur mikill, sem var, að sitja um það fram, er markaðurinn stóð.

So this is quite similar; there are some differences in spelling (and punctuation), some of which give evidence of phonological change, such as the addition of <-u-> in e.g. konungr > konungur. The vocabulary, however, is pretty much identical.

To contrast this, let’s give the modern translation in Norwegian, which, like Icelandic, is another descendant of Old West Norse:

Lidt efter kom Sigurd ind i boden til sin bror og sagde: «Kom nu med pengene, for nu er handelen sluttet.» Men Haarek svared: «Jeg gav dig jo sølvet for en liden stund siden.» «Nei,» sagde Sigurd, «jeg har ikke tat imod det.» De trætted nu en stund om dette; derpaa gik de til kongen og fortalte ham om sagen. Han og de andre folk skjønte nu, at pengene var stjaalet fra dem. Kongen lagde da farbann paa skibene, saa at intet af dem fik lov til at seile bort, før denne sag var klaret. Dette tyktes mange stor skade, som venteligt var, at skulle ligge der, efterat markedet var slut.

While we can still see the family relation, this translation is quite different from the Old West Norse. This tells us that relatively little has happened to Icelandic since the year 1200. In fact, when it comes to the grammar, Icelandic is usually considered the most “conservative” of the Germanic languages, as it retains a system of case and gender on nouns, and a system of inflection on verbs, that has changed very little from the time of the early Germanic dialects.

Furthermore, remember how I said that the basic vocabulary is the most reluctant to change, and this is why the borrowing of basic vocabulary from Old Norse and French into English is evidence of some particularly intense contact? It is estimated that English has retained 67.8% of its basic vocabulary, meaning that 67.8% of basic vocabulary is inherited: from Germanic to Old English to its present day form (often with some phonological and morphological change). As a contrast, Icelandic has retained 97.3% of its basic vocabulary2. Quite the difference!

Why is this?

The Nordic countries – all but Finland has a North Germanic language as their national language. (Copyright: Alphathon, 2015. Wikimedia Commons.)

One reason is that Icelandic has been relatively isolated geographically, so it has not been as exposed to intense language contact as the other Germanic languages, which (save from Faroese and Afrikaans) are spoken on the mainland of the European continent and therefore have been exposed to plenty of input from their neighbouring languages, as well as having been more vulnerable to conquest and migration.

When it comes to the reluctance to borrow foreign vocabulary, this is partly due to an active effort to preserve Icelandic as a means to preserve the native Icelandic culture. This has led to, rather than adopting new vocabulary, Old Norse terms often being revived when a word is needed for a new concept or item. Alternatively, compounds of existing vocabulary are used: The Icelandic word for ambulance is ‘sjúkrabíll’, which literally translates to ‘sickness-car’ (whereas the other modern North Germanic languages uses forms of ‘ambulans(e)’).

Furthermore, in the process of borrowing words, we usually talk about adoption vs. adaptation. In the first process, a word is borrowed, adopted, with its foreign phonology and morphology; in Swedish, for example, new English loan words tend to use the English plural -s rather than the native Swedish -ar/or plural. In the process of adaptation, however, we borrow a word but adapt it to our own phonology and morphology (we’ve seen plenty of examples of this in our weekly etymologies on the HLC facebook page). According to April McMahon3, not only does Icelandic tend to revive Old Norse words for new purposes, but any new loan that does make it into Icelandic tends to be adapted rather than adopted.

So, just as we can make conscious efforts to introduce new concepts in a language, as in the case of the Swedish gender-neutral pronoun, we can also (to some extent, at least) make conscious efforts to not change a language, if enough people are on board with this. However, it’s not like Icelandic hasn’t changed at all – I wouldn’t recommend going to Iceland relying solely on your Old Norse proficiency in communications with the locals. So, in the end, we didn’t exactly lie when we said all languages change, but the degree to which they change is not always as dramatic as in the history of English.

Tune in next week for more early Germanic dialects with Sabina!


1This extract and translations are taken from – a kind of data bank of Nordic texts.

2These numbers are taken from Lyle Campbell’s Historical Linguistics, p. 456.

3 In her book Understanding Language Change, p. 205.

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