“Eyjafjallajökull” — It’s English (Almost)

Grover Furr (April 2010)

We are all aware that a volcano in Iceland has erupted, sending a huge plume and cloud of smoke and ash high so extensive, and so high into the atmosphere, that it has shut down airline flights to and from Europe and within Europe itself.

That volcano is named “Eyjafjallajökull”. Pronounce it like this: EY-ya-fyat-lah-YOH-kuht, with a guttural “k” or “g” deep in your larynx and a “swallowing” of the “t” so it comes out like a very guttural “l.” This page, at Slate magazine, has a little sound file of an Icelander saying the word: http://www.slate.com/id/2250998/

“Eyjafjallajökull” may look strange. But it is made up of words that have closely related words in English. In fact it is “almost English” – hence the title of this article.

“Eyja” is the Icelandic word for “island.” The original word for “island” in English was “ie” or “ea”. Like this: “iland”, “yland”, or “ealand.”

Where did the “s” in today’s word “island” come from? From French, where the word is now “île”, with a circumflex accent over the “i”. In French that circumflex accent usually means that an “s” used to be there too.

Sure enough, in medieval French the word was often spelled “isle”. So people who forgot that “ei” or “y” used to mean “island” thought that “island” must come from the French “isle” + “land”, or “isle-land, → “island.”

In the English language “-land” got added to “ie” or “ea” to expand the word to two syllables.

Why? Probably because words of one syllable that sound like “ie” or “ea” sounded a lot like other common words. Like the word for “eye” – “ye”, in Chaucer’s day – or the word for “egg”, “ei”. In modern German an egg is still “das Ei”.

(In Chaucer’s day, 1340-1400, the plural of “ye” was “yen”, “eyes”. The plural of “ei” was “eiren”, “eggs.” But the word “egg” was also in use.

William Caxton, one of the first English printers, wanted to sell his books throughout England, and complained:

“Loo what sholde a man in thyse dayes now wryte egges or eyren?”

In Icelandic, the syllable itself was expanded to two syllables with a “-ja” (pronounced “-ya”) at the end.

OK, now we see that “eyja” is virtually the same as the “i” in “island” and means the same thing: “island.”

“Fjalla” is Icelandic for “mountain”. A cognate English word with the same meaning, “mountain, hill”, is “fell.”

This word is still common in Northern England. Hikers in Britain know the series of books titled “A Pictorial Guide to the Lakeland Fells”. It’s also on Wikipedia.

There is a “Fell Mountain” near Carbondale, PA. Literally, the name means “mountain mountain.” This is like the British Avon river (Shakespeare’s birthplace is “Stratford-upon-Avon”). “Avon” is a Celtic word meaning “river”, so Shakepeare’s town is, literally, on “River river.”

So we can think of “Fjalla” as the word “fell” pronounced with an accent – an Icelandic accent. Or, that “fell” is “fjalla” pronounced with an English or American accent.

How about “Jökull”? This is the Icelandic word for “glacier.”

This word too is “almost English.” In fact it is more English than the English word “glacier”, which comes from French. “Glace” is French for “ice”.

As children in Montréal we used to ask for “crème à glace”. Our teachers and adults generally scolded us that the “proper” word was “crème glacée.” Whatever – it was still “ice cream.”

“Jökull” is the “-icle” in “icicle”, which was once “ice” + “ikel”. In much of England “icicles” were simply called “icles” or “ikels” until about a century ago. So our modern word “icicle” means, literally, “ice ice.” Like the River Avon (“river river”) and Fell Mountain (“mountain mountain”).

So “Eyja-fjalla-jökull” is “I” (as in “island”) + “fell” (= “mountain”) + “icle” (= “thing of ice”) — “Island mountain glacier.” But now you can see that you don’t need a translation. You just need to make a few adjustments in sound and spelling.

After all, you already know English!