H.L. Mencken > The American Language > Appendix > 2. Non-English Dialects in America > 9. Icelandic
H.L. Mencken (1880–1956).  The American Language.  1921.
9. Icelandic
The only study that I have been able to find of the changes undergone by Icelandic in America is a brief but informative note on the inflection of loan-nouns by Vilhjÿ;lmer Stefÿ;nsson, 33 the well-known arctic explorer, who was born of Icelandic parents in Canada. There are relatively few Icelanders in the United States and most of them are concentrated in a few North Dakota and Minnesota counties. There are many more in Manitoba. Their language, philologically, is one of the most ancient of Europe, for the remote situation and poor communications of Iceland have served to preserve many early Teutonic characters that have long since vanished from the related languages. It is, of course, highly inflected, and the most interesting thing about its relations with American English in the United States is the sturdy way in which it fastens inflections upon loan-words from the latter. “No word,” says Mr. Stefÿ;nsson, “can be used in Icelandic without being assigned a gender-form distinguished by the post-positive article.” This law produces some curious effects when English nouns are taken in. The very American baseball, buggy, candy, cyclone and corn-starch are all neuter, but beer, boss, cowboy, cowcatcher, nickel and populist are masculine, and tie (railroad), prohibition and siding are feminine. In the case of many words usage varies. Thus caucus has no fixed gender; different speakers make it masculine, feminine or neuter. Crackers and automobile are other such words. Banjo may be either feminine or neuter, bicycle may be either masculine or neuter, and broncho may be either masculine or feminine. The gender of such loan-words tends to be logical, but it is not always so. Farmer is always masculine and so is engineer, and nurse is always feminine, but dressmaker is given the masculine post-positive article, becoming dressmakerinn. However, when the pronoun is substituted, hún, which is feminine, is commonly used. Words ending in -l or -ll are usually considered neuter, e. g., baseball, corral, hotel, hall. “A striking example,” says Mr. Stefÿ;nsson, “is the term constable. The natural gender is evidently masculine and the Icelandic equivalent, lögreglumathur, is masculine; yet constable is usually employed as a neuter, though occasionally as a masculine.” Words in -er fall under the influence of the Icelandic masculine nouns in -ari, denoting agency, and so usually become masculine, e. g., director, ginger, mower, parlor, peddler, reaper, separator. Republican and socialist are masculine, but democrat is neuter. Why cashbook, chique, contract, election and grape should be feminine it is hard to understand. Of the 467 loan-nouns listed by Mr. Stefÿ;nsson, 176 are neuters and 137 are masculines. There are but 44 clear feminines, though 80 others are sometimes feminine.   1
  On the syntax of American-Icelandic I can find nothing. The literature of the dialect is not extensive, and it has produced very few writers of any ability. Nearly all the Icelandic periodicals of the New World are published in Canada, chiefly at Winnipeg. 34 They are conducted, in the main, by natives of Iceland, and hence endeavor to preserve the purity of the language. But the Icelander born in America prefers to speak English, and even when he essays Icelandic he fills it with English words and phrases.   2
Note 33.  English Loan-Nouns Used in the Icelandic Colony of North Dakota, Dialect Notes, vol. ii, pp. 354 ff. [back]
Note 34.  Icelandic-American Periodicals, by Halldór Hermannsson, Pub. Soc. for the Advancement of Scandinavian Study, vol. iii, no. 2; Urbana, III., July, 1916. [back]


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