Course of
Linguistics and Literature

Professor IRIE Koji (Linguistics)

[Theme] My Encounter with the Language of Iceland

I specialize in the study of the Icelandic language. Icelandic is part of the same family of Germanic languages as English and German. It is spoken by approximately 300,000 people on the solitary island of Iceland located at the edge of the Arctic Circle in the North Atlantic. It is the language of the descendants of the Vikings who crossed the ocean from somewhere in Norway toward the end of the 9th century. Let me tell you a little about how I came to settle upon this language.

When I first started college, I was majoring in the study of German. However, I was also interested in other languages and while learning about classical languages of the West such as Greek and Latin or Medieval German in later years, I became highly intrigued with the ancient languages of Europe. One of the general characteristics of the history of the European languages is that while keeping with the transition from ancient times to the Middle Ages and eventually the modern era, declension has tended toward simplification, and that generally means the older the language, the more complex its declension. You could think of it as a change in the type of language. About the time when I was dimly beginning to grasp this image, I chanced upon an Icelandic grammar book at the library. When I saw the convoluted declension of Icelandic, I was stunned by the idea that this was in fact what an ancient or medieval language looked like. My interest was only further piqued once I found out that the language was alive and is still spoken to this day. I found out that the university's audiovisual room also had teaching materials written in English that included cassette tapes. As I listened to the low quality of vocalizations of the texts containing terms such as "gramophone", I felt a rush at the prospect that this could be the sound of Icelandic.

At that time, not much information about Iceland was found in Japan. I remember being stunned upon seeing Iceland placed in the same category as the Antarctic and not Northern Europe in the pamphlet of a travel agency offering various unusual tours. However, my wishes were granted when, as a graduate student, I found myself blessed with the opportunity to study abroad in Iceland. Times have changed rapidly, however, and now we can obtain various local information through the Internet namely newspapers or broadcasting in real-time.

My research on the grammar of Icelandic as it is spoken at present has focused primarily upon two themes: reflexive verbs and possessive expression. Reflexive verbs are those verbs that are used in combination with the pronoun "oneself." Possessive expressions in Icelandic are quite complicated. For example, the "my" portion of phrases such as "my hand,""my eye," or "my book," each take on different expressive means. As I stated previously, Icelandic still very much has the appearance of an ancient language, but even it has undergone some changes. A large quantity of texts from the 12th and 13th centuries written mainly in prose remains in Iceland, and in recent years, I have incorporated comparisons with the grammar that appears in these medieval texts into the scope of my research.

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