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  • North American Icelandic: The Life of a Language
  • Gunnar Ólafur Hansson
Birna Arnbjörnsdóttir . North American Icelandic: The Life of a Language. University of Manitoba Press. 166. $34.95

This monograph is an in-depth study of the Icelandic language as spoken by descendants of (largely late nineteenth century) immigrants in Canada and the United States. The study is based on extensive original fieldwork carried out by the author in Icelandic-Canadian communities in Manitoba and North Dakota in 1986. Earlier published and unpublished sources on North American Icelandic are cited as well, and the book is thus a good entry point for those who wish to become better acquainted with the (admittedly limited) existing literature on the topic. North American Icelandic is by all accounts a moribund dialect, with very few speakers remaining. The author's study would likely be impossible to replicate today, making this book an even more valuable and timely contribution.

Among immigrant 'heritage' languages in North America, Icelandic has a slightly unusual sociolinguistic history, in that it has managed to survive beyond the two to three generation time span typical of most immigrant languages. After giving a brief but thorough account of the history of the Icelandic emigration and settlement communities, the author provides an enlightening discussion of the socio-historical factors that most likely contributed to this retention, and relates it to current research on bilingualism, biculturalism, language attrition, and related topics.

Linguistic aspects of the North American Icelandic dialect are covered in the study. One chapter is devoted to vocabulary, focusing on English loan words and their adaptation and integration into the inflectional morphology and sound system of Icelandic. Another chapter covers 'grammar' in a broad sense, surveying characteristic aspects of the morphology, syntax, and phonetics/phonology. The primary focus of the study, which occupies the last two chapters and figures prominently elsewhere in the book as well, is one aspect of the North American [End Page 174] Icelandic sound system: a merger of certain pairs of vowels (typically kept distinct in modern Icelandic as spoken in Iceland), which is traditionally referred to by the derogatory term flámæli or 'skewed speech.' Flámæli existed as a regional trait in Iceland already in the nineteenth century, at the time of the emigration. In Iceland itself, the subsequent sociolinguistic history of flámæli is remarkable in that this rather innocuous pronunciation feature was heavily stigmatized and became the target of a powerful official campaign that essentially resulted in its complete eradication. Being unaffected by this campaign, flámæli in North American Icelandic developed and became entrenched as a feature typical of that dialect as such. These unusual circumstances make the author's excellent sociolinguistic study of the flámæli phenomenon an interesting contribution to the long-standing sociolinguistic tradition of studying mergers and shifts in vowel systems.

The book is intended to be accessible to a broad readership, and efforts have been made to tone down the technical jargon and simplify the presentation and discussion relative to the original dissertation. To what extent the result is successful in this respect is debatable. Since so much attention is devoted to aspects of the sound system, it is odd that no key is provided to the (slightly idiosyncratic) transcription system used in the book. Moreover, the transcriptions themselves frequently contain typographic errors or are used confusingly; for example, italicized examples in the main text are at times given in some mixture of orthography and phonemic transcription, sometimes in pure orthography. The result is likely to cause difficulty for readers with little experience with Icelandic spelling and/or linguistic concepts. Occasionally (though infrequently), there are unfortunate errors in the application of linguistic terms, e.g., when the insertion of [t] in the middle of rl and rn consonant clusters is mis-described as being a matter of 'devoicing' one or both consonants, or when the replacement of bjuggu with bjóu as the ( past tense of búa 'live' is cited as a case of a strong verb shifting to weak-verb inflection (rather than of levelling within the past-tense paradigm of a strong verb; cf...


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