We have a winner. The most beautiful word in the Icelandic language has been chosen.
The contest, which was organized by the University of Iceland and RÚV, the Icelandic National Broadcasting Service, asked people to nominate their favorite word and explain the reason for their choice. Each participant could only choose one word.
The response was amazing, demonstrating yet again Icelanders’ love for their language. 8,500 people took part. This amounts to roughly three percent of the nation.
A special jury divided the thirty finalist words into three categories: submissions by children, teens and adults. In the second round, the public could vote for one word in each category.
Among the finalists were the words ‘spékoppar’ (dimples), ‘einstök’ (unique), ‘hugfanginn’ (enthralled), as well as simpler words like ‘mamma’ (mom), ‘ugla’ (owl) and ‘jæja’ (oh well).
But the winner, with 4,258 votes, was the word ‘ljósmóðir' (you can listen to the pronunciation of Icelandic words here). I must confess that I’m particularly happy about the winning word. It is the word that I nominated. A word that has been used since the year 1584. “What does the word mean?” you might ask.
Well, ‘ljósmóðir’ is the combination of the words ‘ljós’ (light) and ‘móðir’ (mother), arguably two of the most beautiful concepts in existence. And when they come together, something special happens; the sum is even larger than the parts. But who is this ‘mother of light’?
Ljósmóðir is the Icelandic term for midwife. The person that has the priceless job of bringing babies into the world — into the light from the darkness of the womb.
What could be more beautiful than that?
But it’s not just the beauty of the two concepts that make the word so appealing. It is a prime example of ingenuity when it comes to creating new terms.
While most Germanic languages share similar terms for things, Icelanders coin a brand new one. Instead of ‘telephone’, Icelanders say ‘sími.’ Instead of ‘computer,’ Icelanders say ‘tölva.’ Instead of ‘helicopter,’ Icelanders say ‘þyrla.’
As far as I know, this association of light with a birth is a unique Icelandic phenomenon. In English there is ‘midwife’ and in Danish they say ‘jordemor’ (earth mother; an ancient term for the person who lifted the newborn off the mud floor and handed it to the father).
Interestingly, books of etymology reveal that Lucina is the name of the Roman goddess of childbirth who safeguarded women in labor. Lucina is derived from lux, meaning light.
Of course, some commentators disagreed with this choice, opting for more masculine words such as ‘harðjaxl’ (tough guy) and ‘berserkur’ (fierce warrior). Their opinion is just as valid as that of the thousands who voted for ‘ljósmóðir.’
After all, the contest wasn’t really about choosing a word that was fairest of them all.
It was simply the starting point of a lively discussion about this 1,000-year-old language spoken by little more than 300,000 people. It even sparked another contest, in which the goal was to find the ugliest word in the language. Tomorrow, that word will be revealed.
Incidentally, tomorrow is the day of the Icelandic Language.
The day was first celebrated in 1996. This particular date was chosen as it is the birthday of our beloved 19th century poet Jónas Hallgrímsson.
Tomorrow’s schedule is packed with activities. Among the highlights is an exhibition of the Sagas, Iceland’s ancient scripts. Most of them had been rescued in the 18th century by a scholar named Árni Magnússon. In fact, this week has been dedicated to the fact that he was born 350 years ago.
If it hadn’t been for him, these priceless scripts probably would have perished, ending up as covers for other books, house isolation, shoe material or clothing patterns, as so many of them regrettably did.
I truly hope that the Center of Icelandic Studies, which is intended to display the scripts and uphold the Icelandic language, will get built. Currently it is a mere gaping hole in the ground speaking volumes about the priorities of the current government, which has put the project on hold indefinitely.
I wonder what kind of nation we would be if we hadn’t had the Sagas to pride ourselves in; to inspire us and encourage us to write as much as we do, and to be so passionate about our language and our literary tradition.
We must therefore protest loudly when politicians in government threaten to cut funding for culturally related organizations.
And we should follow the lead of the European Union, which recently increased its budget for cultural activities under the initiative Creative Europe. Because after all, language, literature, art, theater music — all kinds of expression really — is what makes a nation. It’s as simple as that.
Ásta Andrésdóttir — firstname.lastname@example.org