Category Archives: Old Norse & Icelandic

Old Icelandic textbook still available

(This is the sort of post that I write more so that people doing web searches can come across it than for frequent readers who may not find this too interesting.)

The textbook Old Icelandic (Oxford University Press, 1982) by Sigfrid Valfells and James E. Cathey is one of the most friendly introductions to a classical language ever written, but unfortunately it quickly passed out of print. Now, used copies go for about US$200. However, after e-mailing Prof Cathey, I’ve learned that would-be students of Old Icelandic can still have their own copy:

You can order a copy of Old Icelandic from the Textbook Annex at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. I have made some small corrections from the original and have had it reproduced as a course packet for about $25. For more information contact Stephanie Olsen (slolsen AT

It is a real outrage that OUP let this go out of print. How else is one supposed to learn Icelandic, as the other major primers were also published by OUP and are now out of print? For the last few days I’ve felt pretty bitter at academic publishers. Besides this example, OUP had Vanishing Voices by Nettle & and Roumaine printed on low-quality paper with an impression that looks like photocopying, and Routledge is charging nearly US$300 for Mauer’s classroom textbook The Sanskrit Language: An Introductory Grammar and Reader.

Icelandic and TeX

I came across an old article from a 1989 issue of TUGboat called ‘Lexicography with TeX’ that describes how the Institute of Lexicography of the University of Iceland typeset its etymological dictionary with TeX. The results are very handsome, and considering that the trials and tribulations they had to go largely disappeared in successive versions of LaTeX, one wonders why this platform isn’t used for dictionaries more often.

Meanwhile, the Germanic Lexicon Project has made Henry Sweet’s An Icelandic Primer (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1895) freely available. Besides offering scans in TIFF format, HTML, and MS Word, someone typeset the book anew (PDF) using LaTeX. The result is a little rough around the edges, since everything was left in the default formatting, but beautifully typesetting books when digitizing them is another thing that really should be done more often.

Swedish and Icelandic

Despite the fact that I speak one member natively, the Germanic language family has generally seemed fairly opaque to me. Of the Indo-European languages, high school studies in Latin pulled me to Romance, and residency in Ukraine towards Slavonic. However, one of the neat things about studying at University of Helsinki is that a Swedish course is always available, as Swedish is an official language of Finland. Joseph Voyles’ Early Germanic Grammar (Academic Press, 1992) has also given me a few basic sound laws to memorize to get from Proto-Indo-European to something near the modern languages.

I recently took a look at Snæbjörn Jónsson’s A Primer of Modern Icelandic (Oxford University Press, 1927). It’s a fairly poor textbook, with its grammar instruction being a mere series of tables meant for memorization without any texts to apply each bit one learns along the way. Still, it’s got some exercises at the end, and I was struck by how much I could understand from the first Icelandic text given for translation, though I have hardly any prior experience of the language:

Þu ert ríkur. Hann er fátækur. Ert þu sjúkur? Hversvegna ertu (= ert þu) svo reiður [cf. English ‘wrath’]? Jeg er glaður. Hún er ung. Við erum þreyttir og syfjaðir. Eruð þið svöng? Nei, við erum bara þyrst. Er hún löt eða iðin? Eruð þjer fjelaus? Það er föstudagur í dag. Í gær var fimtudagur. Á morgun er laugardagur. Það er of dimt hjerna. Hann er gamall. Það er ekki satt.

Here’s what the Swedish would be, trying to use cognates whenever possible:

Du är rik. Han är fattig. Är du sjuk? Varför är du så arg? Jag är glad. Hon är ung. Vi är trötta och sömniga. Är ni hungriga? Nej, vi är bara törstiga. Är hon lat eller arbetsam? Är ni panka? Det är fredag idag. Igår var det torsag. Imorgen är det lördag. Det är mörkt här också. Han är gammal. Det är inte sant.

(The one mysterious item in the Icelandic text is fjelaus ‘penniless’. I’m really stumped as to the etymology of this, and can only venture that it’s somehow related to fjelag ‘company, society’, which is cognate with English ‘fellow’.)

So Swedish and Icelandic seem to complement each other well. Since I first realized that they were so similar from this passage, I checked out Sigrid Valfells and James E. Cathey’s Old Icelandic: An Introductory Course (Oxford University Press, 1981) from the library, and now I’m productively moving along in both Swedish and Icelandic. Many items learnt in one language are usable with only slight modification in the other. It’s nice to see I’m finally getting somewhere with this branch of Indo-European.