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Posts Tagged ‘pride’

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Photo: British Museum
One of the walrus-ivory pieces among the British Museum’s 12th century Lewis Chessmen is a castle that records the metaphorbíta í skjaldarrendur” (“biting its shield-end,” or fighting on in the face of great odds), a phrase still common in today’s Iceland.

Iceland is such an interesting country. I have enjoyed reading about how everyone gives books at Christmas and how volunteers embrace danger to rescue reckless tourists. Now the Economist explains that although almost no one else speaks it, Icelanders love their language.

“It is hardly surprising that Icelanders have names for the many different fish that abound in their surrounding waters — the various types of cod, herring and so on which they have been catching for centuries.

“It is rather more surprising that they have not just one word for the coelacanth, but three. …

“But Icelanders are keen namers of things — and would never dream of simply adopting a transliterated version of someone else’s word. So they call the coelacanth skúfur, which means ‘tassel.’ Or skúfuggi: tassel-fin. Or sometimes forniskúfur: ‘ancient tassel.’ [You can hear the spoken pronunciation at the Economist.]

“Icelanders are fiercely proud of their tongue and stay actively involved in its maintenance. On Icelandic Language Day they celebrate those among the population of 340,000 who have done the most for it. They love the links it gives them to their past.

“Ordinary Icelanders revel in their ability to use phrases from the sagas — written around eight centuries ago — in daily life. The commentator who says that a football team is bíta í skjaldarrendur (‘biting its shield-end’) as it fights on in the face of great odds, is behaving quite normally in borrowing an image from ancient tales of Viking derring-do. ….

“The result is something close to unique — a language that is at the same time modern (it can happily express concepts such as podcasting), pure (it borrows very few words from any other tongue) and ancient (it is far closer to the ancestral Norse tongue than its increasingly distant cousins, Danish and Norwegian). Its complex grammar has barely changed in almost a thousand years and has a distinct old-worldliness. But if, like the forniskúfur, Icelandic is a living fossil, it is a lovely and lively one. …

“From early on [Icelanders] were particularly keen on using it to write things down; much of what is known about Viking culture comes from Icelandic texts. In the 13th century Snorri Sturluson produced the Prose Edda, one of the earliest and most important accounts of the antics of Thor, Frigg, Loki and their kith and kin. …

“Some words do look similar to English ones: bók, epli and brauð are ‘book,’ ‘apple’ and ‘bread.’ …

“Some of these similarities, though, can mislead. An English-speaker who knows that dóm is cognate to the English word ‘doom’ may find the Reykjavik building marked dómsmálaráðuneytid rather menacing. But it is just the ministry of justice: ‘doom’ in English was once mere judgment; only later did it take on first the meaning of condemnation, then ruin.

“It is not clear in quite what way J.R.R. Tolkien meant the word when he named the climactic locale in The Lord of the Rings Mount Doom. But as a philologist interested in Norse and other ancient tongues, and keen on the archaic, he certainly knew his Icelandic.

“The name of the wizard Gandalf is taken from the Eddas. The Tolkiens’ Icelandic nanny, Adda, not only took care of the children; part of her role was to help him practice Icelandic. Mrs Tolkien was not pleased by the attention.”

Wow, that’s interesting because, as we learned in this recent post, Tolkien was orphaned at the age of 12. His early years with that nanny must have made a big impression on him.

Find other curious facts about the Icelandic language at the Economist, here, and listen to more of the pronunciations.

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Maybe this is the way cities are meant to operate — with residents taking charge to make sure the work gets done.

In April, Frances D’Emilio wrote at the Associated Press that the people of Rome, fed up with their dysfunctional government, had started filling potholes and tackling other maintenance chores themselves.

“Armed with shovels and sacks of cold asphalt, Rome’s residents fill potholes. Defying rats, they yank weeds and bag trash along the Tiber’s banks and in urban parks. Tired of waiting years for the city to replace distressed trees, neighbors dig into their own pockets to pay for new ones for their block.

“Romans are starting to take back their city, which for years was neglected and even plundered by City Hall officials and cronies so conniving that some of them are on trial as alleged mobsters.

“In doing the work, Romans are experimenting with what for many Italians is a novel and alien concept: a sense of civic duty.

“One recent windy Sunday morning, Manuela Di Santo slathered paint over graffiti defacing a wall on Via Ludovico di Monreale, a residential block in Rome’s middle-class Monteverde neighborhood. …

” ‘Either I help the city, or we’re all brought to our knees,” said Di Santo.

“Splotches of paint stained a blue bib identifying her as a volunteer for Retake Roma, a pioneer in an expanding array of citizen-created organizations in the past few years aimed at encouraging Romans to take the initiative in cleaning and repairing their city. …

“Calls and text messages pour into Cristiano Davoli’s cellphone from citizens alerting him to ominously widening potholes on their block or routes to work. On weekends, Davoli and four helpers – an off-duty doorman, a graphic artist, a government worker and a retiree – who call themselves ‘Tappami’ (Fill Me Up) load their car trunks with donated bags of cold asphalt and fan out.

” ‘Sometimes it’s the municipal traffic police who call me,’ said Davoli, a shopkeeper.” Imagine that!

Read more here.

Photo: Alessandra Tarantino
Retake Roma volunteers do the jobs that a dysfunctional government has failed to do.

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