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Reviewed by:
  • North American Icelandic: The Life of a Language
  • Christopher Hale
Birna Arinbjörnsdóttir . North American Icelandic: The Life of a Language. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2006. 165 pp. Bibliography. Index. $34.95 sc.

As she states in her Introduction (4), Birna Arnbjörndóttir's book is based on her doctoral thesis which was submitted to the University of Texas in 1990. Its object was to describe North American Icelandic, based on language samples she gathered in the 1980's, primarily in the areas of New Iceland, Manitoba and Mountain, North Dakota, and to show how it differs from the varieties of Icelandic spoken in Iceland. The book also offers a fairly detailed study of Flámæli, the apparent merger of (I) and (E) and (Y) and (ö) in North American Icelandic, which was the original focus of her dissertation. Flámæli was officially stigmatized in Iceland after most of the immigrants had left, and it was eventually eradicated there, but in North America its development was allowed to proceed unchecked. Thus observing the phenomenon in the latter locality, according to Dr. Arinbjörnsdóttir, might give us an insight into what might have happened in Iceland had no constraints been put on it there.

The introduction states the goals of the book. Chapter 1 looks at the historical background of the Icelanders in North America and reasons why the Icelandic language was retained for so long in the new country. Chapter 2 deals with the life cycle of North American Icelandic —the forces that have preserved the language and those that will lead to its attrition. After mentioning her sources, Dr. Arnbjörnsdóttir embarks on a discussion of the North American Icelandic lexicon in chapter 3. Chapter 4 deals with how the data for the book was gathered and how it was analyzed. A brief description of North American Icelandic grammar follows in chapter 5; it is noted that North American Icelandic, unlike many other immigrant languages, has seen little attrition in its morphology.

The last two chapters deal with Flámæli itself and its occurrence in North American Icelandic. In chapter 6, Arinbjörnsdóttir looks first at the linguistic variables, such as vowel quantity and the preceding and following segment, that might influence the occurrence of Flámæli. She then shows that Flámæli occurred in several areas in Iceland from which the immigrants came and that these immigrants were usually from families with a low social status. In North America Flámæli did [End Page 207] not have the same social constraints as in Iceland, so it was open to more rapid change. The chapter concludes with a discussion of the nature of Flámæli and to what extent it is a true vowel merger.

In chapter 7, variants of the four vowels that are affected by Flámæli are examined, and three new non-linguistic factors are added to the linguistic group of variables: locality of informant, sex of informant, and age of informant. A number of tables are given that show to what degree the variables affect Flámæli, and these are discussed in the text. Before her conclusion, in which she sums up her findings, Arinbjörnsdóttir gives some of the reasons for the effects of the social constraints on the development of Flámæli.

There are a couple of factual errors in the text. An attempt at Icelandic settlement in Michigan is mentioned (27) without a reference, but the only such settlement remotely having to do with Michigan is the one on Washington Island in Lake Michigan. The Reverend Páll Þorláksson is said to be a Unitarian minister; however, he was a Lutheran one (30). It is also stated (31) that Gimli is located by the mouth of the Icelandic River, which is not the case; it is Riverton which is situated there. Mention is made (40) of the debate between Lutheran Liberals and Unitarian Conservatives in the two Icelandic language newspapers published in Winnipeg. Unitarians are usually considered to be far more liberal than Lutherans.

There are also a number of typographical and grammatical...


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