A review of Icelandic as if it were a constructed language

I like Icelandic. This is a joke. I’m using this methodology to evaluate a language as if, it were written from scratch by someone a long time ago.

Degree of Artificiality
Naturalness. This is just beyond belief.  This language suddenly appeared as a series of anonymous posts on the internet about 1998 claiming to be from an island in the middle of the Atlantic. Obviously Icelandic was written by a Iowan 13 year old who spent too much time reading about philosophical languages and Esperanto. [Update: Whoa, hold on, this archeo-conlang was been around since 1000AD or so.  Maybe it's real influences were Latin, where it borrowed the large number of adjective and verb endings. On the otherhand, if it hasn't been around for 1000 years, then it obviously was written by a 13 year old in Iowa.]
Personal Innovativeness. We don’t know exactly who wrote Icelandic or if there is any prior art from this conlanger. The source document for the language are about a thousand years old. Constant tinkering with the language has left the remaining corpus a huge mess. Orthographically things change every few years, sometimes adding more vowel shifts for verbs, sometimes changing z’s to s’s for no apparent reason.

Ambition. The scale of this constructed language is monumental. There is even a entire Wikipedia dedicated to it. Go read it now before wikipedia’s anti-conlang policies kick in and it gets shut down.
Global Innovativness. The language is not especially innovative. It only takes four letters and two diacritics more than the Latin alphabet. Change a few words, and one could easily say that this is a clumsy relex of Faeroese.
Family. This is pretty obviously a Scandinavian Germano-clone.  The proposed sound changes– preposterous.

Language with a tool with a purpose (especially beyond just talking)
Goals. As noted before, we aren’t sure who wrote this language, so we aren’t sure why. Was it an auxlang?  This one is so far different from English, Swedish and Danish, it would hardly be an auxlang. Was it a loglan?  What logical language has a word like forspjallsvísindi? Forspjallsvísindi is the study of psychology and logic– how logical is it for the study of pure reason and human insanity to be in the same subject? What logical language has a word for halfviti but not fjórðaviti? Can’t be a loglan. Maybe it is an artlang? Well, I guess for a lack of a better category, could assume it is an artlang, but this doesn’t inform us about it’s goals.  Maybe it is a cryptolang, i.e. a language for keeping things secret?

I think we could examine this language’s goals in terms of what you can do with it fairly easily. It is superlative for discussing sheep, weather and foreign currency interest rate swaps and that is what I’ll use for evaluating it’s successfulness in fulfilling goals and it’s coherence.

Coherence.  The lexicon allows you to discus both sheep and foreign currency interest rate swaps at the same time. E.g. fé is sheep and money. gripur – livestock and dýrgripur- animal-livestock, i.e. anything of value.  A typical forex exchange, “Ég vil 2 fíllar fyrryr eitt af kindar minir.”

The phonology, though, is a landmind for those trying to talk about the weather.  You wanted to know about the frétt and asked about the fret (the news vs the fart). Will you arrive by land or sea? hægur sjór … or did you say hæga sér? (possibly by sea vs shit yourself)  Similarly, your foreign exchange deals can run into confusion when trading fíll for fífl  (elephants for morons) and trading  bjór for bjór (beer for beavers)

Success. Does it achieve it’s goals? Well it does have quite a large community of speakers and someday may have more than the upper limit of the claims for Esperanto speakers.

Language as Culture
Cultural Expressiveness. Does the language express a lot about the real or hypothetical people who speak it? Yes. The language is chock-a-block full of nauticalism, sheepisms, but relatively few bankisms, a surprising cultural gap for an Island of investment bankers.  But surprisingly, they got a heck of a lot of words for things that aren’t even supposed to be in Iceland. lest– trains? þvottabjörn — raccoons? You’d expect a society with no trains and no racoons to have no words for trains or raccoons.

Cultural Neturality/Exoticness. Not at all exotic. The lakris part is clearly stolen from Danish. Many of the jokes are the same ones you hear in bars in Norway. So an man from Rekjavik and a man from Akureri get together at the pub, they pour drinks. One says, “Skal!” The other slams down his drink and angrily says “Are we going to drink or talk?” (Actually both, in the conculture appendix, it says that after getting completely full they stagger over the AA-Samtökin to talk)
Political Liberalness/Conservativenss. The political leanings of the system revolve around the kvótakerfið.  I’ve read the cultural appendix twice and gvuð hjálpu mér, I have no idea how it works.
Saphir-Worph. It’s rumored that Icelandic speakers are especially good at singing, electronica. This comes at a high cost though, it’s been rumored that counting in Icelandic leads to a subconscious bias for high risk foreign exchange denominated real estate loans.  More research will have to be done to determine the strength of these Saphir-Woprh effects. And the ability to bend time and space like faster than light travelling Navigators in the Sci-Fi novel Dune… that totally happens when you use the Icelandic subjunctive form of verbs, but it’s been done before so this reviewer says, “meh”.
Directness. This is an open question. The phrase book said “Ríða mér” glosses as “Would you please direct me to the nearest restroom?” This not only illustrates how concise and information packed the language is, but how down to earth the Icelandic culture is in dispensing with unnecessary “polite” words.

Language as Pretty Sound
Melifluousness. When Hera sings, yes. When I sing it, no.
The language is mostly posted in a practical orthography. What kind of amateurishness is this? We should track down the inventor and kick them for not using XSAMPA, because &s|\@\ND looks better than Ísland.

Modalities. Can you express it in more than one way–writing, singing, farting? Yes, yes, no, but feel free to try, over there. Several conscripts have been proposed but are little used, mainly being the Futhark. No kidding, but some fans of this language are arguing over if the space ” ” is a canonical character in the script.  I will write what I think about that entirely in blank runes: ”                  ”  The inventor seems to have not updated their homepage for 1000 years and isn’t answering their email. So we may never know.

Language as Information
Density. As already mentioned in the Directness section, Icelandic is incredibly dense, packing as many as 5 English morphemes to the word.
Clarity. You must indicate time, number and gender. Unless you are talking about librarians. Then you can just assume its a guy.  Actually, just about all the professions, you can just assume it is a guy. Except hjúkrunarkona, you are allowed to assume nurses are gals.
Noise Resistance. I’m not hardly competent to judge this. That everyone seems to understand the Icelandic fan Megas is a sure sign that the language can be understood with a hurricane going on in the background.

Language as a tool you, a time constrained hobbyist of average intellect, might want to learn
Complexities. The vocabulary is huge. They’ve kept track of all the words since the language was invented a 1000 years ago and they are all fair game. Dagsslátta means the area of land you can mow in a day, used 1000 years ago and in 1928. Probably still fair game for use today. The adjectives come in about 2 or 3000 forms each, including a form for an adjectival ending used after words representing animals that look masculine at a distance, when you are speaking on horseback, when it is snowing, when you are talking to your horse and when you are drunk enough to expect the horse to talk back. (The ending is -a, in case you are wondering)
Ease of Learning. With hard work and obsession, you too can be reading Donald Duck comics in four years or more.
Fidelity. How transparent the constructions are (e.g. compound words whose meaning is easily inferred from the parts).  This can’t be addressed in a single paragraph. There happen to be tons of great words. ljósapera = light pear = light bulb And like most languages, butterfly sounds like a butterfly: fiðrildi

Language as a Tool you might want to use
Completeness. I’m not competent enough to evaluate this. I’ll let you know when I get to the end.
Finishedness. This is really about stability. Not stable at all. The language is no more stable than the earthquake and volcano wracked land described in the conculture appendix.  Af hverju was recently changed to akkeru. There is talk about changing kronar into evra or hrúts pungur, which is sort of a fractional reserve currency system. This will make hundreds of corpus texts obsolete– the editing task to change every reference of kronar into evra (or hrúts pungur) will take months. The creator of Icelandic should really stop tinkering around and let the fans work with the language as it is now.
Documentation. The operating manual is fiercely difficult to read. I hear some fans of the language are teaching it to their children, but with a language spec that looks like this, I can’t imagine the kids being able to read the spec until at least grad school. I image they just make gargling and barking noises like the jokelang Danish until they learn how to read the specification with all it’s technical intricacies.
Corpus. One heck of a lot has been written in Icelandic by it’s fans. I recommend starting with Jon Gnarrs works and working backwards to the Sagas, all found in the conculture appendix.
Effort.  It takes me a week to assemble a sentence that the more advance fans will politely listen to, nod their heads and quietly hope that there wasn’t anything they needed to respond to in that funny sounding string of noises I just made.  Sometimes they look concerned as if they are about to dial 112 and report a pulmonic crisis. The more advanced fans seem to be able to chatter away rather rapidly with no visible signs of exertion, sweat or fainting.

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One Response to A review of Icelandic as if it were a constructed language

  1. Taimu Nozhan says:

    Hilarious ;) . I think most things would be the opposite if you had analysed Piraha (after all, who would ever say that Piraha looks naturalistic or complete enough to use?).

    The format of the review seems to work quite well for natlangs and mainstream conlangs. However, if conlangs with no community were to be reviewed, many field would have to be left blank.