I have place-name obsession. Sorry, I’m just gonna come right out with it. When traveling, this leaves me perpetually murmuring to myself, silently mouthing the names, trying to figure out what they mean. In Iceland, it’s a little like a mildly pleasant obsessive compulsive disorder, because all the place names are compound nouns, and armed with a little knowledge of the language – river, hill, side of mountain— I believe I can decode the map.
I am constantly curious, sitting in the back seat of the car, reading aloud every signpost we pass, looking up what I don’t know. “Hvalfjördur, whale’s fjord, they must have done some whale hunting there once. Thingeyrakirkja, the althing’s church.” Often my fellow travelers in the car will remark, “Ooh, you’re getting really good at Icelandic.” They are humoring me. Because in the next sentence they bring up Betty, always Betty, who once traveled with us. “Betty is really good; she just gets the language, of course, she studied Old Norse in college.” I can‘t compete with Betty. I suffer from typical American foreign language disability.
Meaning is one challenge; pronunciation is another. One must beware of treacherous blended consonants. When I say a place name like “Hvammstangi” to an Icelander, they look quizzically at me. I have to explain, “It’s in Iceland. It’s a town around here.” Oh, ho, ho, and they repeat it back to me. The “Hvamm” is said in a way my tongue won’t curl with a ‘pwhoo’ and a ‘vrrrm,” and a lilt and a whisper that confirms the futility of my learning to speak the language.
But back home, I throw out Icelandic place names with a completely unjustified linguistic flourish. When the volcano spewed and stopped air traffic for weeks, the big joke was that nobody could say it. But I could.
And boy, would I bring it up in conversation, slip it in casually at a party while daintily picking at canapés. “I heard his whole family was stuck in Italy for three weeks because of Eyjafjallajökull.“ I wouldn’t even pause. I’d let it flow out of my mouth with the “j” getting a “ya” sound, the double “el” sounding something like “fiet-la” and the “jokull” pronounced like “yo-cut.” Inevitably, someone would be impressed. “Wow, I can’t believe you can say that. Say that again.” Well, if I must. Oh those were my glory days of Icelandic place names, May and June of 2010.
Place names tell us history, some of it hidden. I had a professor of medieval literature in college who started the class with a short primer on place names. Most of the time, he said, people who invaded a territory didn’t bother changing the name of place. He acted out a possible scenario of an early Anglo or Saxon or Gaul or Hun rampaging through a village– the attacker holding a knife to the native’s neck: “Wait, before I kill you, what’s the name of this place?” The poor sot tells him, he says, “thanks, got it,” and slit.
Most of human history is one of migration: people came before people who came before people who came before. Not so in Iceland. It was an uninhabited island, which means the Vikings who settled there didn’t take their place names from the people they usurped. It’s got to be one of the few nations without settler guilt.
Often Icelandic place names are related to the sagas. On the peninsula of Snaefellsnes (snow/mountain/spur) there is a pass called Berserkjahruan (berserker/ lava field). Berserkers were the crazy warriors sent in to battle before everyone else in order to scare the crap out of your everyday, presumably sane, warriors. The word berserk derives from Old Norse and means either bare/shirt or bear/shirt. (My mind wanders, what would have been scarier?) So they either fought in bear skins or fought bare-chested. I recently attended an entire lecture on this one word because scholars debate it fiercely and side with the bear camp or bare camp. What’s an academic to do?!
But add to berserk the suffix “hruan,” which means lava field, and you have a story from the Eyrbyggija saga written in the 13th century of an event that took place in the 10th century about two Swedish berserkers who wanted to marry an Icelandic maiden. The father said no to the request because beserkers were considered ugly and undesirable as mates. In the sagas they were often comic foil, big dumb lugs who were often outwitted. But when pressed, the father relented by offering a challenge: If the berserkers cleared a bridle path through his rough lava field, one of them could marry his daughter. The berserkers cleared the field, but were soon killed in an act of treachery—something to do with an ambush while relaxing in a hot spring and slipping on wet bull hides. I kid you not.
Close to where we stay is Hunafloi, which translates as bear/bay because polar bears from Greenland occasionally drift on ice floes and reach land there. On a personal level, I find this useful information.
Naming anything is often a wedding of the visual (place, person, object) and the verbal (word), the signified and signifier. But place names can unlock a key to history and the people who made that history. And because Iceland is so new, in many ways, every town, farmstead, lake, hill, bay, spit of land, crest of hill, and steamy underside of a mountain, is a Genesis story, a story of origin.