(Poem #1349) The Icelandic Language
In this language, no industrial revolution; no pasteurized milk; no oxygen, no telephone; only sheep, fish, horses, water falling. The middle class can hardly speak it. In this language, no flush toilet; you stumble through dark and rain with a handful of rags. The door groans; the old smell comes up from under the earth to meet you. But this language believes in ghosts; chairs rock by themselves under the lamp; horses neigh inside an empty gully, nothing at the bottom but moonlight and black rocks. The woman with marble hands whispers this language to you in your sleep; faces come to the window and sing rhymes; old ladies wind long hair, hum, tat, fold jam inside pancakes. In this language, you can't chit-chat holding a highball in your hand, can't even be polite. Once the sentence starts its course, all your grief and failure come clear at last. Old inflections move from case to case, gender to gender, softening consonants, darkening vowels, till they sound like the sea moving icebergs back and forth in its mouth.
Icelanders are very protective of their culture: of their literature and language in particular. It used to be (and possibly still is) the law in Iceland that babies have to be given traditional Icelandic names; immigrants, likewise, are required to change their names to Icelandic ones . New concepts and imports are not described using modified forms of foreign words (the way Japanese, for instance, has 'terebi' for television and 'hochikisu' for stapler ). No wonder, then, that speaking (or reading) Icelandic can seem like stepping back in time. This is what Bill Holm is talking about in today's poem, and a marvellous job he does of it, too. I especially like the last stanza, wherein the progression of what is and isn't possible in the Icelandic language comes to a magnificent and stirring climax. thomas.  an exception - the only one - was made for Vladimir Ashkenazy.  from the name of Connecticut manufacturer E. H. Hotchkiss, who invented the modern stapler. [Links and stuff] Here's a nice oveview of the Icelandic language: http://www.nat.is/travelguideeng/icelandic_language.htm Pico Iyer's "Falling Off The Map" captures the beauty and mystery of Iceland very, ermm, evocatively. Also strongly recommended is his "Video Night in Kathmandu" (not about Iceland). The Icelandic sagas are masterpieces of world literature. Penguin recently published a compulsively readable edition of the entire corpus (edited by Ornolfur Thorsson, with a preface by Jane Smiley). Various translations of the Elder Edda and the Prose Edda are also available. Bill Holm has written a travel book, "Eccentric Islands", in which he describes his journeys to and through five islands. Iceland is one of them. Mr Holm, though born in Minnesota, is of Icelandic ancestry; the name "Holm" actually means 'island' in Icelandic. I haven't read the book itself, but online reviews seem mostly positive. Incidentally, "The Icelandic Language" forms an interesting companion piece to my previous post to the list, David Huddle's "Ooly Pop a Cow". The former depicts the majesty and power (and yes, occasional impracticality) of a language that has refused to be swept along in the current of modernity; the latter captures the joy and energy (and yes, occasional shallow vulgarity) of a language that's constantly changing, mutating, evolving. A lovely contrast, and a though-provoking one.