Saturday, April 17, 2010


I laughed when I saw: Eyjafjallajökull.

That's the name of the volcano which erupted differently in Iceland in the last few days and is preventing air travel over a broad swath of Europe. I said “differently” because somehow the volcano went from leaking lava to spewing silica dust into the earth's upper atmosphere. Heat, minerals, water, and pressurized gas can be amazing!

At times, the cloud has laid high over Ireland preventing air travel to the island or even through its airspace.

I, of course, have been following developments because our mission trip to Belfast is a little more than two weeks away. Figures it is another island in the North Atlantic which is the source of the trouble.

I remember laughing when I looked at the spelling in much of the Irish language. Now the joke is on me as my tongue is feeling awkward looking at this jumble of letters from Iceland.

The media uses the name “of the volcano in Iceland” once in awhile, but has to use all kinds of creative references to avoid using Eyjafjallajökull and thereby losing impatient readers.

The Icelandic media and people have three choices:

1.Just keep using the volcano's proper name and letting all but the New York Times refer to “that volcano in Iceland” which doesn't make those not fluent in Icelandic feel positively about the place or the country.
2.Go for broke. Release a rock video with that spare thumping Scandinavian beat which repeats the name a billion times. The world loves authentic words and the elite love dropping the city name “Reykjavík” into a conversation (yes, it is a major city in Iceland), so perhaps this word could become the next cute word of the new century.
3.Come up with a nick name. Perhaps a shortening to “Eyjah” (pronounced A-djyuh? Careful or it'll sound like that female Irish singer with the single word moniker – Enya. Did you know her full name is Eithne Ní Bhraonáin?). Or shorten the other end of the name and get “Jökull” (pronounced Yoh-kul? This, by coincidence in America, is a somewhat derogatory term for a local and simple person who comes from a rural area. This one seems to present a difficult spin.)

Which do you prefer?

I wonder if Icelandic language has all those interesting letter combinations for any of the same reasons as Irish?

Irish has one letter which is actually a modifier, sort of like punctuation or a visual cue. It's the letter “h” which changes the letter before it. For instance, after a “c”, the combination “ch” gets extra breath across the top of the tongue, like in the German “Achtung” or in the Yiddish “Chutzpah”. The Irish grammarians call this change cause by "h" to be lenition or aspiration.

Irish words contain vowels which are largely unpronounced but modify the consonants they surround. Certain vowel combinations produce unique vowel sounds not represented by singule vowels.

All this comes from the fact that the letters from English speakers are being applied to a language which was spoken for a long time before it was written and English letters are being adapted in a semi-systematic way.

I expect something similar was done to Icelandic.

I think of the people from Iceland as from the same stock as those which were labeled “Vikings”. Ireland was invaded by the Vikings near the end of the first millenia. The Irish took to building cylindrical stone towers with the door up high, through which they could pull their wooden ladder or pole so rendering entry very challenging for the Vikings. Eventually, amicable trade broke out, followed by intermarriage and that same Viking heritage changed Ireland.

In the Irish language, the words from the Vikings are labeled as coming from “Old Norse”. For instance, “brog” means shoe in Irish and in Old Norse the same word was “brók”. Or here's one that is similar in all three languages: “margadh” in Irish and “markadr” in Old Norse both mean “market” in English.

So the active volcano (bolcán beo in Irish, pronounced “bul-kawn bo”) in Iceland, affectionately known as “Eyjafjallajökull” reminds us all of the relatedness of the peoples known as Vikings, Old Norse, Scandinavian, Icelandic, English, and Irish. Hopefully, the volcano becomes a bolcán suanach (dormant volcano) in two weeks or the winds shift, allowing us to get into Dublin.

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