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Reviewed by:
  • Sigurtunga: Vesturíslensk mál og menning ed. by Birna Arnbjörnsdóttir, Höskuldur Þráinsson, and Úlfar Bragason
  • Kirsten Wolf
Sigurtunga: Vesturíslensk mál og menning. Ed. Birna Arnbjörnsdóttir, Höskuldur Þráinsson, and Úlfar Bragason. Reykjavík: Háskólaútgáfan, 2018. Pp. 417.

This hefty volume is a collection of eighteen chapters dealing with the language, literature, history, and culture of the Icelanders who emigrated to North America and their descendants.

The book is prefaced by greetings from Guðni Th. Jóhanesson, president of Iceland, and an introduction by the three editors, Birna Arnbjörnsdóttir, Höskuldur Þráinsson, and Úlfar Bragason. In the introduction, it is explained that the book has its origin in a research project entitled "Mál, málbreytingar og menningarleg sjálfsmynd" (Language, Language Change, and Cultural Self-Image), which was funded by the Icelandic Center for Research (RANNÍS). In connection with this project, a graduate course was taught on the topic at the University of Iceland in the Fall of 2015, which concluded with an open symposium in December that same year. Lectures given in the course and papers presented at the symposium form the basis of the chapters in this volume.

The book is divided into two parts. The first, "Menning og saga" (Culture and History), is concerned with the history of the Western Icelanders and their descendants, their self-image, culture, and literature. The second part, "Mál" (Language), deals with the language of North Americans of Icelandic descent. [End Page 139]

The first part opens with an article by Úlfar Bragason, who gives a brief but very useful overview of the research that has been done on the history, culture, and literature of the Western Icelanders and also trends within the research conducted. Obviously, the survey is not intended to be exhaustive, but this reviewer feels that Stefán Einarsson's History of Icelandic Prose Writers 1800–1940 and Richard Beck's History of Icelandic Poets 1800–1940 (published in the Islandica series by Cornell University Press in 1948 and 1950, respectively) ought to have been mentioned, since both scholars devoted several pages to discussions of Western Icelandic writers and poets during a time when there was only modest interest in the literature of Icelandic immigrants in North America. Moreover, this reviewer takes exception to Úlfar's comment that "þó að íslenskudeild hafi verið við Manitobaháskóla frá 1951 hefur það ekki orðið til að efla rannsóknir á vesturflutningunum, landnámi Íslendinganna, afdrifum þeirra, máli og menningu, að því marki sem búast hefði mátt við" (p. 25) [although there has been an Icelandic Department at the University of Manitoba since 1951, it has not resulted in research on the Western emigration, the settlement of the Icelanders, their achievements, language, and culture to the extent that one might expect]. It must be emphasized that the community outreach and teaching responsibilities of the department chair were (and maybe still are) immense, but certainly in the 1990s and in the first years of the third millennium, several articles and books emanating from the University of Manitoba's Department of Icelandic Language and Literature appeared on the history, culture, and literature of the Western Icelanders. The department also worked to get scholars in Iceland and elsewhere interested in Western Icelandic studies by inviting them to the university as guest speakers or visiting scholars/authors funded by the department's Páll Guðmundsson lecture series. Finally, efforts were made to support the university's Icelandic Collection, then headed by Sigrid Johnson (1950–2018), in order to make it the library for research on the history, culture, literature, and language of the Western Icelanders.

Úlfar's introductory chapter is followed by Ólafur Arnar Sveinsson's "Íslendingar og Ameríka: Hvað er að vera Vestur-Íslendingur?" (Icelanders and America: What Does It Mean to Be a Western Icelander?). It thoughtfully deliberates the history of the concept of "Western Icelander," and the author convincingly demonstrates that the notion is more a cultural and political stance than a historical idea. In "Var okkar fólk eitthvað spes? Nokkur sérkenni Íslendinga...


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