Saturday, April 17, 2010

Hey, ya fergot La Yogurt

It's all in a name. Smoke, ash and lava spewing forth from the "vowel-and-liquid-consonant-lubricated slopes" of Eyjafjallajökull, the volcano's 16-letter, six-and-a-half-syllable eruption that is shaking our modern boundaryless world by the balls. Reeking havoc on international flights. Delaying shipments of fresh flowers, techno gadgets and human organs. Not since Pompeii has there been more of a threat to civilization.

[Arnar Thorsson/Associated Press]

Global interruption. Movement halted dead in its tracks. Schedules emphatically delayed. Nonnegotiable. Irrevocable. No ability to engage in a dance of options and alternatives with a rogue nation. Mother Nature's very own atomic bomb spilling silica from a red-hot pimple. Oozing fire and sediment into the atmosphere. Iran and Al-Qaida silently taking claim.

Charlie and I were perplexed when we visited the magical, progressive Reykjavík in late November 2004 on our way to Scotland and a university tour. Land of the noontime moon. Sunrise at 1:30 in the afternoon. Dusk a few hours later. The Northern Lights shot psychedelic across the dark winter sky. Humored by the fact that Icelanders don’t have last names! They go by their first name followed by the name of their father. Gutrid Hansdóttir. Katrín Jakobsdóttir. And my always-in-the-swing-of-things fatherless son, Charles Alicesson, scarfed down his midday Yule smörgåsbord with gusto.

The Icelanders giggle at our confusion and momentary lapse in being know it alls. Mocking us gently. Perhaps it is their not-so-subtle attempt to fissure their financial obligations. An email is circulating cyberspace: “Put 30 billion euros in unmarked bills in a bag by the gate of the Icelandic embassy in London, and we’ll turn off the volcano.”

“Eyja” is the Icelandic word for island. “Fjalla” means mountain. “Jokull” is glacier. Simple really if we Americans knew the etymology of those Norse words.

We are stymied. English speakers don't even know where to start. How to break the name apart. Which syllables are for emphasis. Which silent. Do the consonants sound like the letter represented. Or another altogether. How do the double Ls come out sounding like a T? Jibberish. Jabberwocky. But hey, we cannot read, much less pronounce, Sanskrit, Hebrew, Mandarin, Greek, Russian or Latvian either. Icelandish. Outlandish, really.

With the NFL draft just a week away, maybe we better get cracking on teaching folks to pronounce “Ndamukong”.

I raise my icy glass of Aquavit. Cheers!

[Special thanks to New York Times for the pronunciation and translation. Note: Blog title is how the glacier is pronounced!]


  1. Cheers! How cool! I didn't know Icelanders didn't have last names.

  2. Absolutely amazing, isn't it? The volcano, the language, the world!


  3. *toasts* I love this little view of Iceland. So funny to think (yes, I know I'm reading in) that we need them to worship us, but we are barely a blip on the radar.

    I happen to love it when nature one-ups the uppities...