Equinox thought: Icelandic clue to language simplicity
M. Michael Brady
The autumnal equinox this September 23 calls forth thoughts comparing English and Norwegian, the languages with which this newspaper is most concerned. While many English words have Greek and Latin roots, the equivalent Norwegian words often have Old Norse roots. That difference may be of concern only for linguistic historians, but its end result is noticeable in everyday communications.
A clue to why that is so is evident in Icelandic, the Scandinavian language closest to Old Norse. The story of it was convincingly provided in a Scandinavian TV documentary on Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, after her sensational reelection unopposed in 1984 to the second term of her record four-term Presidency of Iceland (1980-1996). Before she entered politics, Vigdís* was a recognized linguist and a university professor of French language and literature. What she said about language was clear, concise, and authoritative.
She pointed out that the Icelandic language was worth preserving, not least because it’s easily understood by most people. She used the word “barometer” as an example. The word is in Danish, Norwegian, Swedish, and English. But its meaning is not clear, unless you are familiar with the instrument or with the French word baromètre from which it is borrowed. In contrast, the Icelandic word loftvog (literally “air scale”) is clear for children and other learners upon first hearing the word.
Taking Vigdís’s observation a step further, there are many examples in which Norwegian (as well as Danish and Swedish) are more readily understood than English. At this writing, the names of the “Earth’s Seasons,” as they are known in astronomical lingo, come to mind. “Equinox,” from the Latin aequus (equal) and nox (night) and “Solstice,” from the Latin sol (sun) and sistere (to stand still), must be learned, as their meanings are not obvious to speakers of English or the other Germanic Languages.
The equivalent Norwegian words, jevndøgn (literally “equal day,” when day and night are equally long) and solverv (literally “sun turn,” the change from increasingly longer days to increasingly shorter ones) are easily understood by people who know the basic words of their languages.
Moreover, the Norwegian words have an aura of being at home in the language, firmly anchored in an older version of it. In contrast, “equinox” and “solstice” sound like intrusions into English. Indeed they are. “Equinox” first appeared in the 16th century, in a translation of Jesuit Canisius’ Catechism. “Solstice” entered English earlier, in 1250, in “The Story of Genesis and Exodus,” an English song of the time. The two words in English might differ from those of today had the history of religion in Europe been unlike that which has so affected the evolution of European languages.
* Vigdís Finnbogadóttir’s last name is not a family name. It’s a patronymic, after her father Finnbogi Rútur Þorvaldsson. So it does not reflect historic family lineage. Patronymics and sometimes matronymics once were the common forms of last names in all the Nordic countries, but today only Iceland has retained that custom. So upon second mention, the proper reference is the Icelandic one, Vigdis, and not the last name, as otherwise is the rule in English texts.
This article originally appeared in the Sept. 18, 2015, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.